The state of a nation can only be as good as the values its population adheres to. The last South African national census which had questions on religion was in 2001, and it showed that almost 80% of the population claims to be Christian. If we scrutinise the situation in South Africa, how does the population’s behaviour align with Christian values?
“Thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not lie” can be applied to the Eskom situation. For many years Eskom has been getting rid of skilled workers and has been using the public’s money to employ people who are unqualified for the job.
Just as there are a number of ways to bend the truth, there are a number of skilful arguments to explain why Eskom has been justified in doing this, based on South Africa’s history. But at the end of the day there is no way to avoid the truth. A public organisation, funded by the taxpayer, is stealing from the public unless it provides them with the best service possible, and the most important part of providing a good service involves employing people on merit — using the most competent people for the job.
This extends to the other parastatals and government departments and all the way down to municipalities, which have been short-changing the public by failing to provide services they have been paid to supply.
When people are privately employed, their organisations will usually make sure that they do their job, but a government employee needs a certain amount of moral backbone to perform his duties diligently when no one is checking up on him. Police, teachers, municipal workers and other public servants who neglect to do their duties are stealing from the public. To get away with stealing they are forced to tell lies to explain the problems away.
Public servants are not the only ones to blame. Pension funds, investment firms, banks, cellphone companies and businesses, including the private practices of lawyers and doctors, along with sales people, extort money from the public when they provide services that are too expensive.
Whether they do this under the guise of free-market competition or use other arguments, the truth remains the same — they are worshipping money and are just as guilty as a public servant who shortchanges citizens by not providing a proper service.
It is a well-known economic principle that for an economy to succeed there needs to be trust among citizens, and for trust to occur there needs to be change at an individual moral level — from the bottom up and not from the top down. Societies can’t trade, form contracts with each other, bring in foreign investment and create jobs if there is an underlying lack of honesty.
Jesus was particularly clear about breaking the First Commandment when He said that it is impossible to enter into God’s kingdom, to be joyful and fulfil the purpose for one’s life, if one idolises the security that money brings above worshipping God.
Make no mistake, people can be wealthy and at the same time fulfil their purpose. A doctor can make a lot of money by specialising in a field, working at a hospital and looking after people. Wealthy individuals and businesses can provide good services for honest prices.
The point Jesus made was that people who profess Christianity should deal fairly with others and hold on to earthly possessions lightly. Indeed, He said that they ought to err on the side of favouring others to such an extent that they should be prepared to give everything away to those in need if God prompts them to do so. Trying to extort as much money as possible from others to ensure a secure and comfortable future for oneself is not compatible with Christ’s mandate.
If a moral revival is to happen among a largely Christian population, the church should be spearheading it. At present, the church seems to lack any real power to change people’s lives, and this might be because it has fallen into the worldly trap of placing money, security and comfort above God.
I have attended different churches and noticed that basic commandments such as not lying, being envious, coveting and stealing are not mentioned. Instead, churches seem to focus on God’s love, grace and forgiveness, along with the standard message about members tithing 10% of their salaries to the church.
First, giving a tithe to the church was primarily referred to in the Old Testament. In the days of Moses, Israel was a theocracy, where priests ruled in the name of God, and the priests collected the tithe and used it to run Israel and to support the poor. This can be likened to how the modern state uses taxes.
The church today does not run the country, though, and so what do churches want all the money for? Imagine if 80% of the South African population obeyed “God’s will” and gave 10% to the church. That would be a fantastic amount of money.
Second, Jesus never asked his disciples to give any specific amount, and He was clear that there are no laws about giving to God, but rather that generosity results from a state of gratitude within one’s heart. Giving to God might involve choosing an underprivileged family to help, buying them monthly groceries and funding their daughter’s education.
It is a far stretch to assume that giving to God equates directly into giving a 10% tithe to one’s local church. Jesus said that His followers ought to use their minds to work out their own salvation on an individual level, part of which would be deciding how to help the destitute. That might mean setting aside a certain percentage to help those on one’s heart, and possibly giving a percentage to keep one’s local church running. But giving 10% to the church would surely deprive Christians of having to think about who to help, and it would take away the opportunity to act on a personal level with the poor.
Paying income tax to the government along with value-added tax, as well as tithing 10% to the church allows Christians to shift Jesus’s mandate for their lives to bureaucracies, both in the government and the church, which decide how the money is spent and what proportion of it goes towards helping the needy.
I may be wrong in my assumptions about tithing in the modern- day church, because churches do need money to operate. But then again, how much do they need, and shouldn’t they reflect humility and exemplify the conduct of the early Christian church in the Bible? From what I have seen, a good proportion of church tithes go towards smart premises and expensive buildings, along with good electrical equipment, air-conditioned rooms, cappuccino machines and loud sound systems for their bands. Making churches trendy places to be is more likely to bring in money, and it certainly makes life more comfortable and secure for the leaders, but it may also negate much of the Bible’s core message.
If the majority of a population has chosen to follow Christ, which is clearly a difficult path, then one would assume that God’s kindness would be reflected in society, and particularly in the churches. The early Christians, both rich and poor, lived out the principle of compassionate giving and generous sharing (koinonia), which involved selling their possessions and using the money to care for the poor, widows, orphans, the sick, older slaves and other vulnerable people.
In fact, the early church won over Roman citizens in such a dramatic way that the leaders made edicts to persecute Christians so that Christianity wouldn’t overtake the nation and replace the Roman gods, which it ended up doing anyway regardless of the persecution. Christians might choose to follow the example of the early church to varying degrees, but the very least they should do is consider others by trading fairly, telling the truth, working diligently to produce goods as opposed to envying others and coveting or stealing goods, and providing honest services to the public in whatever realm of work they do.
Considering others above oneself requires a fundamental change from within, and if the church itself, the moral compass of South Africans, has lost its influence by falling prey to the worldly trap of worshipping money, security and prestige above God, then how will the spiritual lives of South Africans change? And if the spiritual values of the country don’t change, then how will we trust each other, and how will the world trust us?
Geoff Embling studied political science and lives in Durban. He enjoys writing about politics, philosophy, social justice and nature conservation. He works in the political realm and wrote this piece in his own capacity