A Biblical perspective on the South African riots this week.
By Rosie Moore.
Last weekend 33 trucks were destroyed in the Mooi River area, one of them a carrier with a full load of cars. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost as factories and businesses; machinery and equipment; farmlands and gas works; oil refineries and distribution centres; wholesalers and Spaza shops; shopping malls and ATM’s; even Hospital suppliers, a Blood Bank and an NGO that feeds the poor, were looted and reduced to ashes. This list can never capture the human suffering in its wake. We have now seen enough looters stuffing expensive electronic goods and fridges into waiting vehicles to know that our country has reached a turning point. The army who were called on to help enforce the lockdowns, are now being called to quell the riots and targeted attacks on major infrastructure. There is a shortage of fuel, basic necessities and medicines, and the violence has had a devastating impact on the medical community already stretched to the limits with Covid-19.
Where to from here?
I’m sure that each of us is asking the same question, “Where to from here?” By now, we are still counting the losses throughout South Africa, most especially in KZN.
The scale and cost of a few days of looting is unknown, but we do know that economic recovery can take many years. Property developers, businesses and investors are not going to return with confidence. Even if the violence and looting of the past few days runs its course, supply chains have been severed, which will lead to human suffering and an economic crisis for which there is no easy re-set button.
To add fuel to the fire, the uprising of the past week comes on top of an economic crisis caused by long Covid-19 lockdowns; corruption on a massive scale; closures of thousands of businesses; high unemployment and the Eskom crisis. Even if shopping malls and factories can claim insurance payouts, will it really make business sense for them to rebuild?
And now evidence is emerging that individuals set about instigating the so-called protests, riots and looting to achieve their political ends. Some were targeted attacks, while others were opportunistic criminality. But whatever the circumstances and causes, in our post 1994 history, never before have we seen such large scale lawlessness across the country. If we are truthful people, we must call it what it is: unrestrained evil.
And once again, it’s the poor who will suffer most when they can no longer buy their basic groceries from their local shop. Their chance of employment and a hopeful future is even more of a pipe dream, as many jobs will be lost forever. We have seen this devastation play out in our nearest neighbour, Zimbabwe. Ask any Zimbabwean immigrant to describe the effects of their nation’s economic free fall since the land grabs and looting of 2002-2005. These were orchestrated by Zanu-PF in a desperate bid to cling to power. Zimbabweans now need to cross borders to get basic foods and find jobs, where their homeland was once the bread basket of Africa.
But as Christians, our national crisis should not lead us into despair. The Bible reminds us of some timeless truths to help us process what is happening in our country and to respond realistically. Here are just two of these truths:
1. No one is righteous, not even one.
While it’s true that looters seem to act with impunity and instigators of violence shamelessly use people for their own selfish ends, Paul reminds us at the beginning of Romans that without the righteousness of Christ, who died on our behalf, there is no one righteous, not even one…
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin (Rom 3:10-20).
What is true of everyone without Christ— Jew and Gentile; religious and unreligious; black, white and brown; employed and jobless; business owners and looters; instigators and peacemakers; criminals and authorities; male and female–is that we are all condemned by our sin. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). That is not to say that everyone is equally sinful, but all are equally condemned, because by nature, there is no fear of God before our eyes.
The Bible doesn’t try to justify our sin. The righteous God of the universe is not indifferent or nuanced about the lawlessness we witnessed this week (Ps 11:3-7). “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes the sons of men…The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates…For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” We must not try to excuse or lessen the evil that was committed against our people this week.
Sin affects our minds, motives, will, speech, relationships and attitude towards God (Rom 3:11-18). In these verses, Paul is describing the outworking of sin in the human heart. The videos and eye witness accounts of riots we’ve seen this week have pulled back the curtain to show us the true horror of sin in 3-D, technicolour. As I watched, the thought came to mind:
This is unrestrained evil. This is the ‘secret power of lawlessness’ that Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. This is what our real enemy, Satan, is like. He lies, kills, steals and destroys. He uses people as pawns for his own destructive ends. He never builds, only breaks.
And so, from its opening pages, the Bible reminds us that evil resides in every human heart which is captive to Satan. War and violence, theft and murder, lies and plots, are just a sample of the many faces of sin. Given free reign, we will find something to fight about, leading to political factions, bloody coups, revolutions, murders and wars. We see it vividly in the cameo of Cain murdering his brother, Abel (Gen 4:1-16).
Only Jesus can free us from Satan’s captivity, because on the cross “he disarmed the rulers and authorities, putting them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (John 10:10; Col 2:15). Only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes to see that we are moral beings, accountable to a Holy God. Unless we know that we have no defense to make, no goodness to offer God, nothing but empty hands and a ‘silent mouth’ to receive Christ’s righteousness (Rom 3:19), we will remain as lost and guilty as the people who have caused the destruction this week, whose throats are open graves; whose lips hold vipers’ poison; whose feet are swift to shed blood; who do not know the way of peace; and who have no fear of God before their eyes.
Lest we become forgetful or self righteous in our anger, the Bible sets us straight: We are only set free from the life of sin that Paul describes, because of the righteousness of God–a free gift we receive when we believe in Jesus Christ as our substitute (Rom 3:21-26). The perfect God-man, the only Son of God, was punished in our place, for our sin. And only Christ’s Spirit enables us to live a life that is righteous and pleasing to God.
It’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is our only hope in South Africa.
So, in our anger and turmoil, let’s not forget God’s amazing grace and love for sinners—looters, arsonists, plotters, corrupt politicians and not least of all, ourselves (John 3:16-18). This is the perspective God provides on our anger:
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 4:26-27).
“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” (Ps 37:8-9).
2. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.
But there’s a second truth that the Lord has brought repeatedly to my mind in the past year. It is from Ephesians 6:10-20.* Everywhere I look, I seem to see this text. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…
Christians are a people at war. Our ultimate enemy is not a human being, but the ancient serpent with his crafty schemes (Eph 6:11). Satan uses people and energizes rulers of this dark world, as well as demonic forces, to accomplish his evil purposes (Eph 6:12). His plans are to deceive the nations and destroy God’s people (Rev 20:3, 7, 10; Rev 12:17), even to deface God’s image in any human being.
Right now in our uprising, we see the devil demonstrating his two major strategies: He deceives and devours. That’s why he is called the snake who deceives, and the dragon who devours (Gen 3:13; 2 Cor 11:3, Rev 12:4). Andrew Naselli describes the devil’s modus operandi: “Snakes tempt and lie; dragons attack and murder. Snakes backstab; dragons assault.”
And so, it is Satan who is ultimately behind the unrest and intrigue that is shaking our country. It has been this way ever since Genesis 3:15, but Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).
Here are three practical ways we can apply this truth to our lives as Christians:
- As Christ’s people, his Bride, we must be careful not to have our thoughts led astray from “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). Our minds can easily be led astray by paying too much attention to anger and fear, the external chaos, the inadequacies of the police, instead of keeping our eyes on Christ. Our Government’s God-given duty is to maintain law and order and restrain evil (Rom 13:4). Our corresponding duty as citizens is to respect and submit to these authorities in carrying out their role (Rom 13:1-2). So, let’s be Christ-like citizens and use every opportunity to do good in our communities during these days of distress. Let’s wear gospel shoes of peace (Eph 6:15), showing the world the contrasting beauty of the gospel and the fellowship it fosters. This week, we saw this pure devotion to Christ outside a hospital, where staff and visitors joined together to sing How great Thou art. We mirror the unity and peace of the gospel every time we get together to pray, rebuild or protect vulnerable people.
- As Christ’s people, Paul tells us to resist Satan, careful not to be outwitted by him or ignorant of his true designs (2 Cor 2:10-11). The Christian faith is not naïve or passive, but neither does it stoke conflict. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” says James (James 4:7). Peter too, reminds us to “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9). Jesus himself told his disciples to be innocent as doves, but wise as serpents (Matt 10:16). It’s been wonderful to see our nation come together to resist evil this week. Communities made up of many races have stood shoulder to shoulder defending their towns and suburbs where police have been unable to protect them. Brave individuals have spoken hard truth to counter the lies of those who stir up strife. Officers of our courts have upheld the rule of law despite intimidation from very powerful people. Farmers have supplied medicines and groceries to communities. Ordinary South Africans have shared what they have with their neighbours and the police, and volunteered to clear up mess. Pastors and civic leaders have called on people to unite and rebuild their towns. As the saying goes, evil is allowed to flourish when good people do nothing. As Christians, “Let us not grow weary in doing good” (Gal 6:9). Let us pay respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed (Rom 13:7). That is how we resist Satan in these times.
- And finally, as believers, let’s never forget that the battle belongs to the Lord, because it is Christ, not ourselves, who will finally slay the great dragon, “that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…He is full of wrath because he knows that his time is short!” (Rev 12:3; 9; 10; 12). This week it may seem as if evil has the upper hand, but victory has already been secured on the cross. God has placed each one of us in this country and in our community for such a time as this. One of these days, Christ will return to enforce justice, destroy Satan, and get his Bride (Rev 19:6-8). We are that bride! And lest we think that He is only ‘Gentle Jesus- meek and mild,’ Christ is also the great dragon slayer and the commander of angel armies! (Ps 27:1-3; Rev 19:11-21). That’s why his people can take heart and stand firm in the Lord and in his mighty power (Eph 6:10, 13, 14; Ps 27:14).
Stand firm and take heart.
“The Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thess 3:3).
This is what Paul wrote to Christians facing dark days in the first century. In our own dark days, let’s put on the armour that Christ himself has secured for us on the cross and not neglect the Sword of the Spirit, which is God’s Word. And over all this, let’s “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests…be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Eph 6:10-20).
Lord, we plead the mercy and blood of Jesus over this beloved country that we all call home. We pray that the people and leaders of South Africa would not tolerate evil, but would come together as a nation and bow before you in this strife. What was meant for evil, please use for the good of the gospel and your eternal Kingdom. Lord, use this crisis to make us conscious of our sin and bring many hearts to repentance and faith in you. Unite us as one nation and help us to resist the lies that Satan uses to divide us. Bring spiritual revival to South Africa and deliver us from evil. We look to you who has already won the victory! In Jesus’ name Amen.
Take heart! That’s the message of this song, by Matthew West.
- The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer– Short studies in Biblical theology, By Andrew David Naselli.
- *The series I wrote on spiritual warfare in July and August 2020 may help you think through the implications of each of Paul’s pieces of equipment: