Sibusiso Mlotshwa

1Now on that very occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2And Jesus responded and said to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans just because they have suffered this fate? 3No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4Or do you think that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse offenders than all the other people who live in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

There is something about Tragedies. Disasters. Calamities. Whatever you call them. Events that are so shocking that they interrupt the normal life as we know it. There is something about these events that brings out the most soul-searching questions from within us. We all love normality, consistency and a certain pace to life. Nobody likes uncertainty. And yet the only consistent thing about life is that life keeps changing. Some changes (or I should call them interruptions) are so radical that they draw from within us questions about God, life and other people like no other situations do. This was the case with the people that “reported” a situation to Jesus (v 1 above).

The news of what Pilate had done to Galileans was the common talk of the town. Pilate had a reputation of inciting violence from the Jews by committing acts that were abominable according to Jewish religion. When the Jews would react, He would order them to be killed or massacred. Pilate was an evil man. [*]

And so naturally this report was brought to Jesus in the hope that he would tag along their nationalistic agenda and interpret the events the way they saw them. SA has faced many tragedies over the past decades. Many people have lost their lives and others have been arrested in these events. Speculations are rife until this day as to what the real causes are behind these calamities (Marikana, FeesMustFall, different kinds of protests). We have all kinds of answers to these events.

We are always looking for Jesus to be an arbitrator in determining whether our group and our view are on the right side of the argument. We ask questions like “Why would people loot their own shops and destroy property that they will need tomorrow??” “Why does a particular race act and respond in ways that don’t seem to make sense to the other one??” We like diagnosing and apportioning blame to one another. This has become a national sport in South Africa. Similarly this seems to be the way people in Jesus day processed such events. They were asking Jesus with a pre-supposed answer as to why the disaster happened amongst the Galileans. If the Galileans faced this disaster (according to their logic) surely it must be because they were bigger sinners than the Jews.

This was the research question for most of the people: “Who are the worst sinners amongst us?” But interestingly Jesus is not drawn in to give political commentary about which group is acting morally or immorally. It is a nice thesis or propositional question, but for the purpose of reconciliation amongst different races, it does not achieve much. In other words, if we were to induce a principle from what Jesus does not say to the people, we would say: it is not helpful to compare degrees of sinfulness amongst different groups of people. In response to the report of what Pilate had done, Jesus does not denounce Pilate nor does he apportion blame to any group. He answers with an emphatic “NO!”  “No” is Jesus’ first word in the original (Greek) text. Absolute negation “NO!” The Galileans are not greater sinners for having being cruelly murdered by an authoritarian governor.

The Bible gives a few reasons why this is true:

  • Believing that certain people are greater sinners because of a tragedy they face does not give an adequate answer as to why those people face more tragedy than others. In other words, Jesus’ answer does not assume that if you are less of a sinner, you will not face tragedies. Or that if you are a greater sinner, you will face more severe tragedies. Job’s life is a perfect example of how even someone who is righteous can face the worst of disasters. (Job 1:1)
  • Sin is very deceptive. To apportion greater sin to a community because of a calamity they are facing undermines the pervasive nature of sin. Certain sins that are considered great in the Bible are not always outwardly visible, or proceed from those who experience greater calamities. (John 9:1-3)
  • Across the Bible, we find many different people acting in many different ways for many different reasons. Similarly, today, there could be a 1000 reasons why people do what they do, why people revolt and at times act in irrational ways. In a tragedy there are often competing narratives about the reasons why certain actions were taken or not taken.

By all means let us not be lazy and give superficial answers to deep problems. We need to do the hard work of thinking how to solve complex, social, economic, psychological and spiritual problems. As Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to get lost in the blame game of he-said / she-said, of playing the political football of blaming one group over another as if groups acted in a homogenous way. We will forfeit our prophetic call to be voices to a lost generation.

The truth of the matter is, disasters happen. They happen for a lot of different reasons (we can let political analyst speculate). I submit that the question we should rather be asking is “What is our responsibility in being peacemakers in volatile situations?” In other words, “How do we bring water to help the affected people between the fires?” This is Jesus’ call to the people. “Unless you repent you will likewise perish.” Jesus places the responsibility right back to each individual in the group. They were reporting to him the situation on a corporate/group level, but Jesus puts the responsibility at the individual level.

We have to be good at asking the right questions during these seasons in our country. “Why” questions are good and necessary, but if they don’t translate to the “How” question, conversations can quickly deteriorate into putting people into different opinion cages and throwing away the key with no prospect of opening the door in order to dialogue with each other. So how do we respond then? Here are 10 suggested ways:

 We fast and pray. I mean pray fervently. I mean pray like we have a God who can actually change the situation in a moment. With just a word. We switch off the radio, the news and the cellphone and we pray. (James 5:16-17)

We engage. Giving personal, superficial, judgmental criticism has become a hobby even amongst Christians. Always seek to engage and look beyond the superficial to see the real issues. The call to be peacemakers should override the need to be right. You and I are not the president. Maybe your ideas of the country could work, maybe they wouldn’t. But that’s ok, because even if nobody does things right (or the way we want them to), we can still be peacemakers and not stoke the fires of negativity in an already volatile situation. (Phil 4:8)

We repent. If you looted (stole) stuff that is not yours, please return it back to its rightful owner. That is true repentance. If you have the privilege of being a business owner or pay some kind of salary to anybody, pay them above the minimum wage and treat them fairly. (Luke 19:1-9)

We show concern and compassion. It has been so refreshing getting calls and messages from other Christians who are further removed from the situation, asking how we are doing and how they can help. Pick up the phone. Call a friend from an affected area and listen. If you don’t have a friend or an acquaintance in the township or rural areas, change the people that sit at your dinner table. We will only grow by relationship and by knowing each others’ issues. (Romans 12:9-21)

We provide help. Is there a need that we can meet? Can we volunteer to build back what was broken? Can we join those who are sweeping the streets and taking back affected communities? (James 2:14-17)

We reduce the inequality gap. Way after the media has stopped showing images of looting and buildings on fire, there will remain the stubborn statistic that SA is still the most unequal society in the world. And the poor we have by far outnumber the rich. Let us keep on working in various ways to reduce that gap. Violence and looting does not always have the face of people storming shops and taking things that are not theirs, but it also has the face of oppressive systemic structures that are kept alive by men and women in boardrooms with smart suits and ties. (Micah 6:8)

We uplift others as we climb the proverbial corporate ladder. There has to be a way that businesses can make profit not to fill up CEO or shareholder pockets but to build communities. The current status quo will not entirely allow individuals to acquire wealth for personal gain only, but we have to think harder about how to use money as a tool to empower others. (James 4:13-17)

We lead. A factor which has not been mentioned in this tragedy is the failure of community leadership. Whatever happened to community leaders? People with a voice of reason. When did our communities become self-governing without respected elders and voices to bring sanity to a situation? Our Christianity needs to be lived out in public. We do not need secret-agent Christians. We need CIA (Christians in Action). We need to be the respected voices in community Whatsapp groups. We need to be the leaders in giving solutions to our communities on preventing crime. We need to be salt and light. This goes beyond impoverished communities to every Christian living with other people in any sort of community. (Mathew 5:13-14)

We act with urgency. Immediately after talking about the Galilean and Siloam tragedies, Jesus gives the parable of the fig tree which does not bear fruit (Luke13:6-9). The point of the parable I believe is urgency. As Christians we need to be concerned about bearing fruit more than winning an argument. How are we redeeming the time? How are we finding solutions to our country’s problems instead of complaining about what is not being done? Time is moving. People are perishing. Jesus is coming back. Are we repenting and calling others to repent, and trusting in Jesus to make wrong things right? Or are we stuck in apportioning blame to other entities and thereby justifying our lack of involvement in finding solutions? (Ephesians 5:15-16)

We wait patiently. After doing what we can do, we wait and we trust. We trust in God’s timing to intervene in solving matters we have no influence over. We keep preaching the Gospel of reconciliation. We love our neighbour. We serve our communities. It is instructive that when our Lord Jesus had all the rights to blame others for what was done to him, He instead chose to pray for their forgiveness from His Father. (Luke 23:24)

[*] One commentator explains: “Luke records the death of Galileans at the hand of Pilate here. Galilee was a hotbed for fanatics that strived to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel. Galilee was not under Pilate’s jurisdiction, but when these Galileans came to Jerusalem, Pilate had them killed. Pilate’s treachery eventually caught up with him. Several years after the crucifixion of Christ, a prophet claimed to possess a supernatural gift that enabled him to locate consecrated Jewish vessels, allegedly hidden in secret places by Moses. When this prophet announced that he would unearth these vessels, Samaritans turned out in large numbers to observe the event. Pilate, who thought the entire affair was a disguise for some other political or military activity, dispatched Roman forces to assault and massacre the crowd that had gathered. In the end, it became apparent that nothing political had been intended. The Samaritans felt such great loss for those who died, they formally requested that the governor of Syria intervene in this matter. Their complaints of Pilate became so numerous that he was eventually summoned to Rome in 36 A.D. to give account for his actions before the Emperor Tiberius himself. These indictments resulted in his removal from office and exile to Gaul (modern-day France).” [Matoon on Pilate]