Christian public witness and human freedom denied? A response from the perspective of Reformed public theology in South Africa

by Dirkie Smit


Thank you very much for the lecture, which I find informative, inspiring and extremely relevant in our world, today. Since I agree with its thrust, and given the context of our Consultation, hosted by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology, I respond by underlining three aspects of the argument, but from the specific perspective of public theology, and particularly the Reformed faith in South Africa.

I also begin with an incident, the memory of a particular historical moment dealing with what you call the complex intersection between Christian witness and oppression. During the hey-day of apartheid Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, wrote "For my part, apartheid's most vicious, indeed its most blasphemous aspect, is not the great suffering it causes its victims, but that it can make children of God doubt that they are children of God. For that alone, it deserves to be condemned as a heresy."

With these remarkable words, he described his deep abhorrence of apartheid and its theological justification. He obviously rejected the great suffering caused to the many victims, but the fact that it made these victims think that others do not care about their suffering; that Christians do not care about their suffering; that some Christians in spite of their passion for mission and evangelization even justified their suffering using the Bible; that the Christian God therefore does not seem to care about their suffering either, so that they began to doubt the love of God for them and for others around them, became doubtful of their own dignity, their value in God's sight – for him this was perhaps apartheid's most vicious result. It made the good news of the gospel incredible. It darkened the face of the Triune God, so that it became difficult if not impossible for many people to see the gracious, compassionate face shown to us in Jesus Christ – in the words of Calvin and the Reformed tradition, of whom many were involved in this sad history.

In light of this memory, I would like to underline some of the implications of your claim that we have to consider anew the message, the motivation and the methodology of our witness.


The content of our message is indeed at stake in our Christian witness and in particular in our Christian public witness. Your paper is an extended, and for me persuasive and moving argument that our Christian witness should have a public face, that the gospel has implications for life, for human beings, for the complexities of the real world which we share, for say social structures, institutions, economic and political life together, for culture and worldview, for science, scholarship and education, for justice and common morality, in short, for society and history.

For the Reformed tradition this has been of crucial importance. According to Kuyper, Jesus Christ claims every square inch of our world, while the Presbyterian missionary Leslie Newbigin famously summarized these convictions in his claim that the confession of the Triune God is public truth, that the confession of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit involves a cluster of convictions, a worldview deeply concerned with the most fundamental human claims about truth, justice, freedom, compassion, and life together. You offer your own inspiring argument for this way of understanding the content of the Christian message.

At the same time, you express the opinion that "a true sense" of these comprehensive and public dimensions of the gospel "is missing in the soft, self-indulged Christianity of the West." From a South African perspective, this seems very true and it also seems important to understand some of the deep-seated reasons for this lack of conviction concerning the gospel as public truth. These reasons probably differ from context to context, perhaps even "the West" is too broad a category to use in this regard, since there may be very different reasons why diverse groups of Christians in different societies and cultures in the so-called West today do not share this conviction that the Christian message has implications for public life. Perhaps some traditions and communities never really understood the gospel in this way. Perhaps some who once shared this conviction have changed their mind, under the pressure of the spirit of the time, of powerful contemporary cultural assumptions in their societies. Even at the Free University of Amsterdam, born from Kuyper's own vision, there are today those who warn against attempts to engage in public life in the name of the gospel, since it will almost inevitably only serve "ulterior motives."

In South Africa today, many Christians and indeed many Reformed believers also seem to have lost their confidence in the public truth of the Christian gospel. Some of the reasons we share with many others in our world – modernization, secularism, radical pluralism. Some of the reasons, however, are more specific to the South African experience – the deep awareness that the Christian gospel was part and parcel of the justification of apartheid; the deeply disturbing realization that it is so easy to abuse the message of Jesus Christ and the Bible in our public involvement, without even understanding what we are doing; the painful acknowledgement that we may be driven by the Great Commission but fail to follow the Great Commandment; a deeply disturbing sense of the ambiguity of what we are doing in the name of the Christian message; the remorse, the feelings of responsibility and perhaps guilt for what was done to human beings in mistaken attempts to obey God's will.

The result of all of this in South Africa today is a radical form of self-secularization. It is as if a majority of Christians, for diverse reasons, no longer share the basic thrust of your argument and the traditional Reformed and definitely Kuyperian understanding of the Christian message. Many South Africans, of whom close to 80% confess to be Christian, seem to think that the religious freedom protected by our new democratic Constitution means the freedom from religion, the freedom not only of the state but also of society and all institutions of social and public life, to be free of any religious presence and discourse. The majority of South African Christians and churches almost willingly and eagerly, whether under the influence of whatever cultural assumptions from the West, or under the influence of feeling of shame and guilt for what happened in the past, seem to withdraw all possible presence of the Christian message from all spheres of public life, whether politics, economic life, culture, education, or the public media.

Is it, therefore, possible to resist this powerful process of self-secularization? Doing that may perhaps not be so easy, precisely because the motivation behind such resistance may again be suspect, as your paper secondly shows.


The motivation behind our Christian public witness is indeed also at stake. There can be little doubt – at least in South Africa – that the motivation of many Christians who want to oppose the present wave of secularization and self-secularization is deeply problematic, that many want to use the gospel message to assert and protect their own positions of privilege and power in society. It is indeed possible that the deepest motivation behind our Christian public witness – a motivation often hidden from ourselves as well – may be our longing to serve our way of life.

The question, therefore, raised by your paper, is whether it is indeed possible to find a way of Christian involvement in public life, of Christian public witness through words and deeds, that is motivated not by self-serving religious group interest, but by the gospel itself, by the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior which Paul describes in Titus 3, God's surprising generosity (chrestotes) and love-for-human-beings (philanthropia), which renews, instructs and motivates us also to live active lives reflecting this goodness and loving-kindness towards all. Could we find forms of public theology and public witness truly motivated by what has been called Calvin's "social humanism," by Kuyper's views on the riches of common grace, by Karl Barth's insight into "the humanity of God"?

The South African experience reminds us not to answer yes too easily. Increasingly, South Africans, both former oppressed and oppressors, today painfully realize how the gospel message was implicated in the apartheid history, how Christian mission and witness, also when done with the best of intentions, may in fact serve other interests and deny others basic respect, freedom and humanity – and as a result of this insight, many feel that this should never happen again, and that it is more proper for Christian witness to withdraw itself voluntarily from all forms of public involvement. Yet, despite such hesitations, your paper strongly affirms that it should be possible to practice forms of public witness based on the motivation of the gospel.

The idea and the practice of religious freedom would probably have to play a crucial role in such a public witness to the gospel. Religious freedom integrally belongs to the search for ways to live peacefully together, respecting the humanity and dignity of all. Understood as a positive right, it should be at the heart of Christian understandings of human dignity.

The problem is, of course, that religious freedom is also an ambiguous notion, used in diverse ways, often motivated by self-serving purposes. It could become an instrument to serve one's own interest, as sadly often happens in South Africa today. Several recent incidents involving issues of religious freedom, respect and tolerance dramatically demonstrate the urge amongst Christians to argue with the rhetorical style of "we should also do what Muslims are doing and also stand up for our religious freedom and claim our Christian rights and in fact while we are by far the majority in this society we should not even hesitate to claim special privileges." They become very vocal and assertive, in a new surge for public influence and power, which raises your third question concerning the ways, the style, form or method of Christian public witness.


The ways in which we witness publicly tot Jesus Christ are also at stake. Hopefully, we shall during the discussion reflect on concrete and constructive ways to do this, in the world in which we live. As Christians we continuously have to learn how to speak and we have to learn how to act, in a changing world. This is perhaps the real challenge of your paper, in the way it was the challenge of Kuyper's form of Calvinism.

From a South African perspective, Christians face at least three temptations in this regard. A first and most obvious temptation is to proclaim the gospel with ways and means that serve ulterior purposes and interests, to make our witness serve our ideologies, our power struggles, our economic and political ideals, our nationalisms and imperialisms. When Kuyper said that every square inch of the world belongs to Jesus Christ, he did not mean that it therefore belongs to us, to the church, to his followers. We all too easily mistake the cosmic lordship of Christ Crucified for our own lordship and power. It happened in South Africa and it may still be happening. When one reads, for example, Berger and Huntington's description of some forms of evangelical Christian witness as perhaps "the most important popular movement serving (mostly inadvertently) as vehicle of contemporary cultural globalization," this should probably raise some self-critical questions about the methodology of Christian witness, and of its long-term affects on human beings in their communities. Your paper warns against this temptation.

A second temptation is to identify Christian witness so completely with the spread of Western-style democracy, secular society, individual human rights - including religious freedom - that the proper way for Christians seems to be to propagate these cultural ideals as much as possible, with all possible means, and nothing more. In a way, this is happening in South Africa today. Then democratic constitutions become the new bible. A bill of rights becomes the new gospel. The task of the church is simply to legitimize the democratic government and support its initiatives. Christian life is merely sharing common opinions and values. Then Christian witness becomes a synonym for liberal democracy, and nothing more. Again, your paper warns against this temptation.

A third temptation is not to have any witness at all, but to be silent, to be apathetic, not to care, not to get involved, simply to continue with our lives as if nothing is happening that should concern Christians, as if the Christian gospel does not have any implications for life, society and history and for what is happening around us, today. Perhaps this is, most of all, what happened in apartheid South Africa.

Last year in Augsburg, during the 450th anniversary of the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) and perhaps the birth of what would develop into religious freedom, the role of religions in different conflict situations in our world was examined during an inter-disciplinary scholarly conference. Reflecting on the role of Christianity in the apartheid struggle it again became clear that the churches never really justified or supported violence and conflict, but they did to a very large extent remain silent. It was as if they simply preferred to look away, not to see, not to get involved, not to risk speaking the gospel into the real conflict around them.

Your paper offers a powerful appeal against this temptation. This is also the thrust of Archbishop Tutu's comment. When we remain silent, when we turn away and attempt not to see, we darken the face of the compassionate Triune God to those who suffer, to the many victims, not only of individual persecution, but also of collective and systemic oppression and denial of their dignity and humanity. Through our silence in the face of suffering, injustice and human freedom denied, we make the gospel incredible – and according to Tutu, that may be the most vicious of all.