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11 December 2013

Evangelicals and apartheid

Evangelicals and apartheid

During the dark years of apartheid, where black people suffered years of government-backed injustice, it could have seemed that evangelical Christians were silent. South Africa was crippled in the politics of fear and turmoil from 1948 onward.

Writing in a special anti-apartheid edition of the Evangelical Alliance's Crusade magazine in October 1956 – the same year Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC) was charged with high treason but the charges later dropped – its editors urged "reconciliation".

"The Church must stand firm here or it ceases to be the Church," they wrote. "In the end the colour bar is not a racial or political problem. It is a theological and spiritual problem. It touches the very heart of the Christian gospel. That gospel, so the Church professes, is a gospel of reconciliation. The world has a right to question that claim and to inquire in all honesty. If the gospel is not big enough to reconcile man to man, is it really big enough to reconcile man to God?"

In the 1980s, when liberation movements like the ANC were growing and open conflict erupted, a group called Concerned Evangelicals (CE) formed in Soweto. Meetings took place in a church in a township and at one point children were seen escaping through the windows of the school next door after security forces stormed in.

In 1986 the Evangelical Alliance published their writings: Evangelical Witness in South Africa: South Africans critique their own theology and practice by 132 Concerned Evangelicals. The group talked through their frustrations that it seemed that "our evangelical family has a track record of supporting and legitimising oppressive regimes here and elsewhere and have tended to assume conservative positions which maintain the status quo".

They spoke of their current difficulties: "Black Christians in South Africa in the townships are facing a crisis of faith caused by the contradictions they have to live with on a daily basis as they try to live their faith in this crisis. This crisis of faith is caused by the dilemma of being oppressed and exploited by people who claim to be Christians."

In this published booklet Clive Calver, the then general secretary of the Alliance, and Philip Mohabir, chair of the West Indian Evangelical Alliance, wrote the foreword. "The old conviction that evangelicals had to be involved in the real world as instruments of change under the hand of God is being reborn," they wrote. "May we learn together not just to oppose apartheid elsewhere, but to live out the principles of reconciliation in our land."

The Concerned Evangelicals group made it clear that they needed a way of relating to evangelicals in the UK and as a response, the Evangelical Alliance formed Evangelical Support for South Africa (ESSA) in 1987.

The ESSA was a coalition whose members included, Tearfund, the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA), Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice, Frontier Youth Trust, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and a member of CE who was studying in the UK at the time.

Their aim was to be a forum for receiving, discussing and disseminating information about South Africa and to call British evangelicals to appropriate action on behalf of Christians in South Africa.

Through Different Eyes was a visit to Soweto for 25 young British Christians organised by ESSA. Christmas in Soweto was an idea article from April/May 1992 which gave them an opportunity to tell of their experiences.

A Roll on Justice roadshow toured eight churches in the UK where Caesar Molebatsi, director of Youth Alive ministries in Soweto and a member of CE, was the main speaker.

Former Alliance general director Rev Joel Edwards, who was general secretary of ACEA at the time, visited South Africa as part of an international delegation in 1990. On his return he wrote South Africa: fight against fear for idea magazine: "South Africa is a land of extremes; of privilege and poverty, of 'blacks' and 'whites' and where the beauty of the landscape is marred by the beast called apartheid.

"Within the churches there exists the tensions associated with the wider society. There is white fear of challenging existing structures and, even in some sections of the black church an anxiety about being identified as 'communists' or 'extreme'.

"Evangelicals have taken up the struggle to relate the gospel to the problems of South Africa. The Church in Britain has a direct responsibility to join this struggle.We were stunned with the direct question from a tearful leading UDF Methodist layman who explained: This could not be justified in any language, particularly by those who call themselves Christians Why have you taken so long?"

Moss Ntlha is the current general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance in South Africa. The UK Alliance worked with Moss in the late 80s and 1990s when he was one of the leaders of Concerned Evangelicals.

In recognition of the Alliance's involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, Mike Morris (international director Evangelical Alliance) was invited by the ANC to attend the ceremony for the installation of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994.
South Africa's miracle reports on his experience.

NB: Links above provide electronic full versions on ISSUU of the archive articles.