Whose side is God on?

“This Bible is an important part of your calling to duty. When you are overwhelmed with doubt, pain, or when you find yourself wavering, you must turn to this wonderful book for answers… You are now called to play your part in defending our country. It is my prayer that this Bible will be your comfort so that you can fulfil your duty and South Africa and her people will forever be proud of you. Of all the weapons you carry, this is the greatest because it is the Weapon of God.”

HoldingBIble Cropped

This is the inscription that was on the inside cover of Bibles given to soldiers of the South African Defense Force; the army which was responsible for enforcing the brutal system of apartheid in that country prior to the event of its overturning.

Written by then President P.W. Botha, it is evidence of the degree to which much of the church was willing to be nationalised and commandeered by ultimately unbiblical forces. As one observer put it, they “stood by silently and watched apartheid’s murderous plan unfold” – and they thought their Bible supported it.

Interestingly, the person from whom I learned about the above inscription is a South African sociologist named Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who had the opportunity to personally interview in prison one of apartheid’s central enforcers; a man named Eugene de Kock (nicknamed ‘Prime Evil’ by some of those who were oppressed in his time.) Having read Gobodo-Madikizela’s amazing book a few years ago, scouring it this morning I was impressed again with its poignancy. What’s particularly interesting here is Gobodo-Madikizela’s account of de Kock’s surprise when he came across a Bible in the knapsack of one of the members of the opposition army. When she asked him about it, he answered:

“Here we have a SWAPO [South West African People’s Organisation] man who is supposed to be a communist, who is supposed to be the enemy, the personification of the Antichrist, but who also ten-to-one that morning may have read the same Scripture lesson that said the enemy will be given into your hands. On whose side is God now? I expected to find a Little Red Book there, or one of Lenin’s condensed writings. And there they had the same Bible that my men and I carried in our rucksacks. They’ve got exactly the same Bible…”

Gobodo-Madikizela goes on to express her own surprise that de Kock seemed unaware there could be other readings of this Scripture that challenged his own. To me this is testimony to the problems inherent in becoming a reader of the Bible who has made the Bible “an important part of” something and thereby usurped its authority; a reader who no longer submits that reading to the larger interpretive conversation; who shrugs off contrary readings and criticism in favour of what has been taken to be the blessed angle.

When that happens, the authority of Scripture is deadened and the authority of the interpreter (or the interpreter’s favoured community) takes precedence. As Christians we confess belief in the authority of Scripture, but we need to confess the authority of Scripture in as much as it is read in the Spirit, which means under the authority of the living Word, Jesus Christ, who brings readers into a loving and thus listening- and-truth-speaking communion, in order to read and to be read by the Bible.

Revd Dr Jon Coutts

Jon is a full-time member of the Trinity faculty, lecturing in Theology. Originally from Canada, he pastored a number of churches before moving to Bristol from Greater Vancouver with his wife and their four boys. He also has a fervent admiration for English football.

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