The Way to Peace in Times of Violence
By Rev. Vernon E. Light
During the last 25 years I have journeyed into the heart of Africa in an attempt to better understand its history and current challenges, and above all its many peoples. This pilgrimage has been most revealing and enriching. I really now feel part of this continent. I would not want to live where only Europeans constitute the population. I have wished again and again that colonialism and apartheid had not occurred. Such a situation would have made the destructive freedom struggles unnecessary. The negative legacies of these three movements have landed us with humanly-speaking insurmountable problems and challenges. The new South Africa has not been a panacea for them. However, with official apartheid nearly twenty years into the past, thankfully the African identity is no longer something of which to be ashamed. Self-dignity and positive self-worth have started blossoming among the previously disadvantaged, maligned and suppressed.
The high moral ground of the struggle for freedom has surprisingly been transformed into behaviours that have disappointed and even shocked the likes of Mandela. Corruption, nepotism, factionalism, crime, incompetence, entitlement, poverty, AIDS, destructive strikes and other negative social forces dot our human landscape. Billions of rands of government money (our taxes!) are annually siphoned out of projects necessary for much-needed infrastructure maintenance and further development and essential services like policing, education and hospitals. The enormous sums of money stolen also mean less for vital intervention programmes to create more jobs. Add to this major unemployment and the dreams of a truly new South Africa are beginning to fade.
The outcome of this complex, uncertain and depressing situation is a lack of inner and community peace. Stories in our media, especially those of criminal violence, though informative, are disturbing causing anger and fear that undermine our peace. Many have responded by leaving the country. Many cannot for various reasons see this as a possibility, especially with the value of the rand being so low. As Christians, what can and should we do in this situation? How can we improve the uncertain and unsettled state of our country and our hearts? What response does God want of us to events in our society and lives that so easily eat away at our peace and precipitate fear?
Firstly, the church is called to spread and reveal the knowledge of God. Both in the O.T. and N.T. God’s people are called to be witnesses of God’s character to the nations, i.e. people in all nations and countries, including South Africa. God rightly wants to be known throughout the earth so that he can be praised, which is the most fitting and fulfilling activity for humankind. Yes, the greatest experience that any person can have is to know and glorify God – the God who created this marvellous earth in a mind-bogglingly huge and spectacular universe with infinitely complex creatures; a God who saves and imparts his peace in anticipation of a glorious future where his peace will reign throughout a new righteous earth. But it is only as we Christians reveal such a God, no matter how difficult and uncertain our context, that we fulfil our calling. We are to relate to the new South Africa then as the witnesses to the reality, greatness and salvation of our mighty God. No matter how disturbing our circumstances might be, we are to hear the words of God ringing in our ears: ‘and you will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8 which echoes Isa 43:10, 12; Acts 22:14-15; Ps 96:1-3; Isa 12:4-5).
If we focus on making God known through our lives, careers and ministry, we will be caught up in the most fulfilling adventure where danger and uncertainties cannot easily distract us. Unbelievers need to observe us enjoying God’s peace in a troubled world because he has paid an infinite price for our salvation from our sin, restored us to himself, promised never to leave us, and guaranteed our eternal salvation. It is only through God’s people accurately revealing the character of God in their lives that the nations can be drawn to him and come to know and worship the true and living God, their creator.
Only through the conversion of sinners and their glorification of God can God be truly honoured, which he both merits and which brings our greatest joy, peace and satisfaction. Only by becoming acquainted with our creator and sovereign Lord of the universe are our lives able to achieve full meaning. We were made by God and for God. The greatest need, therefore, of unbelievers in South Africa, including the criminals, is to know their God. There can be no more exhilarating experience than being confronted with the revelation and proof of the glorious attributes of our amazing God.
Nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of our making God known to all we meet directly and indirectly in our country. This is our purpose for our living. This should be our number one priority. So our call to be witnesses of our great God should so dominate our hearts and minds that it should override all fear of destructive crime and cruel, heartless criminals. Our priority in life is to shine in a sinful world. We are thus not to be crippled with fear in the face of the criminality sweeping our country, but rather caught up with the splendour and wonder of our triune God and being his witnesses. Fear cannot exist long in such an environment.
Secondly, the current distressing situation of so much violence in our land should be approached from an eternal perspective. Christians have a salvation that is far more wonderful than just protection from present physical danger. We have an incredible hope that promises a future sinless and suffering-free world where everything will be made new. Then life will attain heights of joy, fulfilment, fellowship, service and praise that we cannot fully describe or even conceive because of the glory of the new world. All the adjectives and metaphors available cannot express the full extent of this spectacular future that awaits every child of God. The apostle Paul faced potential fears due to the dangers of his ministry in the first century. But his passion for making God known to sinners on their way to hell and his certain eternal hope made him fearless. No criminal lurking around every corner on his journeys, no storms at sea, and no vicious and hateful persecutors of the church could fill his heart with paralysing fear. Paul did not fear suffering or death. This was because he had the great hope of the life to come, the incredible hope of the resurrection of the body and a life of unspeakable happiness throughout eternity. This eternal destiny filled his mind, motivated his ministry, quelled his fears, and turned him into a brave ambassador of the kingdom of God. He was so caught up in the thrill and glory of making God known – his power, wrath and love, his eternal salvation – that fear could not find a permanent foothold in his life.
Thirdly, in our current scenario of crime in our country we need to be reminded that God is the judge of all the earth. Every criminal will face the righteous judgement of God, if not fully in this life then certainly in the one to come. Our God does not overlook the wave of crime and corruption flowing through our nation. He is not indifferent to this scourge. The Bible everywhere records that God will judge every person. One day every person that has ever lived will stand before the great and awesome God who is Lord and judge of all the world. Justice will be carried out. This, however, is God’s prerogative, not ours, because he is the only perfect judge. We can rest assured that every criminal act is noted by God and every criminal will face God’s appropriate response of judgement. This reality should help keep us being consumed with anger and fear when we face the horrors of criminal activities every day in our media and often in our neighbourhoods and sometimes in our families and even in our individual lives. God sees such acts. The guilty will not escape his wrath.
The justice of God, however, is a reminder that we deserved his punishment for our sins, but that it was miraculously borne for us at the cross. A miracle of justice, love and grace came our way. In God’s eyes we were no better ultimately than the worst criminals (committing one sin makes one guilty of breaking the whole law). But for the grace of God in providing many Christians with a loving family and solid preparation for a moral, competent adulthood, many of us would have been capable of the worst crimes. These manifestations of God’s grace should enable Christians to see criminals in a new light. They are just like we were before being reconciled to, and transformed by, God: under and deserving God’s wrath. God’s justice can be experienced by them either in eternal judgement, which we also rightfully merited, or they can be presented with, and called to partake of, the same miracle of justice we experienced through faith in Christ. As those justified by faith, we can surely have no more appropriate reaction to criminals than wishing them to benefit from the wonder of God’s justice at Calvary. And this is why the world has not been brought to an end. Time has been extended to criminals and other unbelievers so that they, like the murderer Saul who became the apostle Paul and us, might experience God’s justice in the death of Christ and be saved and become true worshippers of God, the ultimate desire of God and goal of salvation. If as Christians we believe God is more glorified by the conversion and worship of criminals than their being thrown into hell, then our approach to criminals will not be marked by fear and anger and wish for God’s wrath to be poured out on them. Rather it should be shaped by the grace we have received and a longing and working for their salvation.
In this article I have presented three approaches to the problem of crime and violence in our beloved country and the fear and anger it tends to engender in our hearts. The first approach was that our Christian calling in both crime-free and crime-riddled contexts is to make God known. Nothing in all the world can compare with the importance of this activity, as disseminating the knowledge of God brings more joy and glory to him and more delight to ourselves than any other action. God created humans that he might be known by them in all his glory. God would have been less than God if he had not created beings capable of knowing and adoring him in all his infinite attributes. For human beings there can be no greater encounter than being confronted with the marvellous perfections of such a great God and responding in bursting praise and love for, and service of, him. This fact and the one that God desires and deserves to be made known and magnified through the worship of human beings, should determine our approach to criminals.
The second approach was that the eternal perspective of our salvation should affect how we view crime and violence in our country. Whatever results from being a victim of crime, it will be more than made up for in the new heavens and new earth; and any suffering in this life will seem as nothing then.
The third approach was that violent crime needs to take into account the sure justice of God. Other than through the government, God is the one we must trust when it comes to judgement and punishment of sinners. Revenge is God’s prerogative as he is the only truly righteous qualified judge. However, we need to remember how God’s justice was also satisfied in the sacrifice of Jesus. This unbelievable news has changed the Christian’s criminal record in God’s records. We should want every criminal to experience this miracle of justice, just as we have. Our salvation through grace and faith alone should be the motivator to want to share the gospel with every criminal and every potential criminal. We too were breakers of God’s holy, righteous law. God’s mercy to us should cause us to see hope for the very worst of criminals stalking our land at this present time. This was certainly the Apostle Paul’s approach.
Yes, South Africa is experiencing horrific violence. We don’t feel safe and are distraught when we hear of violent rape and murder of small girls and women and other episodes of barbarous attacks. But Christians are to look at this reality with different eyes to those of non-believers. We are to fearlessly make God known, including to criminals and potential criminals, whether in or out of prison. Clearly we are not to fear them. Further, we have an eternal hope – life beyond the grave which will more than make up for any injustices we as believers might have suffered in this life. Finally, God is the righteous judge of all the earth, and his justice is certain, even if apparently delayed for reasons unknown to us. There is the prison of hell for every unrepentant criminal. But we should want every criminal to experience the miracle of justice just as we have. Time has been extended precisely so that more sinners, including South Africa’s hardened criminals, may embrace forgiveness, justification, reconciliation and transformation.
These three approaches will help us fight the fear of violence and counter with the peace-imparting glorious gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. They will help us to experience God’s peace that is beyond our understanding and to be proponents and manifestations of his peace. When Christians and Christian families suffer the devastating consequences of violent crime, in addition to the above approaches, there is the church and the Holy Spirit to bring God’s comfort and healing. All these are powerful anti-dotes to fear and are means to renewed peace whenever it is disturbed in our sick fallen world. This is captured in the words of Jesus the prince of peace, so relevant for our times and the most appropriate end to this article: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27). This article can also be applied in situations where Christians are victims of crime.