South African tertiary education is in a crisis. A number of our universities have been temporarily shut down amidst student protests and calls for free and decolonized education.
There are generally two sorts of responses. The first is to condemn the movement for the damage it is causing, both to the universities and the students who attend them. The second is to empathize with the cause as responding to part of the larger systemic problems faced by (generally) non-whites in South Africa. Conversation after conversation (online and in person) focusses on either the legitimacy of the cause or the havoc it wreaks.
I have tried to follow the story closely and search my own heart. How does being a white, middle-class South African prejudice my view of things? What are these students saying? What are their experiences? Leaving the few who resort to violence aside, one hears real pain in the stories of those who inherited post-apartheid South Africa. The system is difficult and expensive for those who have fewer resources as a direct result of the policies of the past – racist policies whose effects are still very much felt. Surely Christians of all people should hear the cry of the poor here? Surely compassion – not anger – should be our first response?
But will the universities being shut down really help the poor? Many commentators think not. I think we can safely say that damage being done to the institutions will have even worse returns for the poor than does the present – also untenable – situation. How would it help to fight so hard to have free education and then find that very degree worth nothing because the institution no longer has any recognition?
These are difficult questions, questions I am unqualified to answer. But as a pastor and student of the Bible it is my responsibility to think through these matters from a Christian perspective. So here goes.
Christian theology starts with the concepts of Creation and Fall. God created a good world with people made in his image tasked to live in, keep, and enjoy it. However, they failed. In their rebellion against God’s rule, people decided they would make their own rules. Human history is the story of how that worked out. For the Christian the Fall has affected everything. Nothing works as it should. No one reasons as they should. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Everything is broken.”
What Christians call gospel or good news is that God has acted in history to fix what is broken. We call this ‘redemption’ – a word which connotes bringing back to a former state. For us, the highlight of God’s program of redemption is Jesus’ arrival in the world, death on a cross, and resurrection. These things form the centre of our theology, the point from which everything else must be worked out.
So the question Christians need to ask is this: “How does the fall affect #FeesMustFall?” The answer can be seen wherever there is undue violence and destruction, wherever the cause grows more important that the lives of people. But we must also ask, “How does the fall affect the status quo against which #FeesMustFall contends?” The answer, I think, is that those who benefit more from the system as it stands are blinded to the plight of others. The fall can be seen in the selfishness that says: “I don’t have time to hear their complaints; let’s just get on with it and finish the academic year.”
The point is straightforward: the fall affects us all, in whichever camp we find ourselves.
But what about redemption? What do Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean for #FeesMustFall? Well, on one level they mean the plight of the poor has been heard by the most important ear of all. God has responded to our plight by initiating a new reign, one that will – I think on this we can all agree – topple the existing structures. Talk about revolution! God’s people – the community of Jesus’ followers – continue to announce that reign – “Jesus is Lord” – and to live their lives in the sacrificial way Jesus exemplified.
What does redemption mean for those who despair of the future of the University? Well, it means we follow the one who taught us that in everything we must do to others as we would have them do to us, one who taught that loving our enemies and each other summarizes his demands upon us, one whose call to follow him is grounded in his actions on the cross – the cross! – the path he would have us all take. Surely following this King calls for an approach different to simply shaking our heads at #FeesMustFall? We follow a King who taught that being like the Samaritan is what loving your neighbour looks like; and don’t forget, that was a costly stop for the Samaritan.
John Stott taught that we must affirm who we are in Creation and deny who we are in the Fall. For all of us who follow Jesus, this will mean affirming the need to stand by those who remain affected by the injustices of the past, those who have less than we do, even those who are our enemies. I recently read Miroslav Volf say: “Every deployment of power in war must pass the following simple test: Is it a case of love of enemy? If it is, it is licit; if it is not, it isn’t.” And it will mean denying selfishness, violence, injustice and destruction – in whatever forms they are found (the destruction caused both by blocking our ears and burning our buildings).
In the final analysis, the Christian can see that the fall has effected both #FeesMustFall and the structures against which that movement is set. We are therefore not required to pick sides, but to remember that Jesus is the real revolutionary. When people join the revolution he began over the powers of this evil world, we get to say ‘yes’ to any movement that promotes justice and peace and ‘no’ to anything that would have one without the other.