In the midst of overwhelming polarizing tension
Since our service on Sunday, we were drawn into the overwhelming polarizing tension developing in the wake of the violent murder of a young farmer, Brendin Horner, and the subsequent protest in the Free State town, Senekal. What is evident from these events is that political opportunists – on all sides of the spectrum – are taking center stage in using these events to promote their own causes, often to the detriment of peace and unity in this province. This made me wonder: what is an appropriate Christian response to these events? Said differently, do we have a responsibility? Or yet in another way: do we have the “ability” to respond?
An ethic of responsibility
In his essay “Ethics of Responsibility in a Theological Perspective,” German theologian Wolgang Huber writes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of responsibility. It is worthwhile quoting him at length here:
“(Bonhoeffer) is not, or not longer, only interested in God or Christ calling a person to discipleship, to obedience. This interest dominated his book on Discipleship with its key sentence: “Only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe.” In his Ethics he is not only interested in the human person as an obedient believer and believing obedient, but as an answerer, as a responder. So, his interest moves to the interaction between call and answer. The vocation is seen from the perspective of the person who calls. The addressee is asked to respond to this call. The vocation is understood as an activity of God in Christ. The response is a human activity. The appropriate term for this response is “responsibility”. Bonhoeffer changes the traditional understanding in the way in which he establishes a relationship between Christ’s calling and the human answer, the human responsibility. “From Christ’s perspective this life is now my vocation; from my own perspective it is my responsibility.” Bonhoeffer takes the example of Jesus to clarify how obedience and freedom or, as he now prefers to formulate, the commitment to human beings and to God and the freedom of our own life together determine the structure of responsible life. This responsible life is the answer to God’s call, to his vocation” (Huber, 2020:194).
Bonhoeffer himself is known for his resistance and public opposition to the Nazi regime which later led to his execution. What I love about Bonhoeffer’s definition of responsibility is this idea that we are “answerers” or “responders.” In this sense, our vocation – our life trajectory or purpose – is to give an answer to Christ’s calling. Our whole life, one can say, is one big answer to the calling that we get from Christ.
To whom or to what do we respond?
To whom or to what do you respond? This is perhaps the most difficult question that I need to ask myself during this week. What is pertinent from the media is that our responses are very often not directed towards Christ’s calling (i.e. peace, love, compassion, justice, etc.). Rather, we respond to volk-identities, to political persuasion, to violence, to anger, to hatred, and fear of the future.
On reading Exodus 20 I was grasped by this metanarrative where God talks, and Israel responds. We see, in at least two accounts (i.e. Exodus 3:14 and 6:2), how the “I am” speaks to Israel. Following these “I am” revelations, one gets the idea that God introduces Godself to these people. It is, however, not only the words that are remarkable in the God-engagement but also God’s concretization of those words in God’s acts of liberation and providence at major turning points in their story. What is not so clearly shown, however, is how the people respond to this God-talk. Nevertheless, what is clear is that God requires a response. For this relationship to be real, one can say, the people need to give an answer to this call from God. So how do they respond?
Exodus 15 is perhaps the best response to the call of the “I am” and, when reading it, one gets the overwhelming idea that the people’s entire livelihood is, in fact, a song to the God who delivered them from Egypt. In this song, we find an appropriate response in the worship of a life lived in gratitude.
Many times, in our own lives, song, and prayer, like in Exodus 15, is an appropriate response to God’s call. But this can never be the only response. A life lived in a relationship with this dynamic God also requires a different response, that is: a life lived in accordance with God’s calling. Often, we read Exodus 20 as a list of do’s and don’ts, but how will it change our reading if we had to read it as an appropriate response to God’s calling? In this sense, we find, in Exodus 20, how God places, so the speak, the appropriate response in Israel’s mouths. Take some time to read through it again and ask yourself the question: how are these guidelines helping Israel respond to the loving, liberating, and gracious God that led them out of Egypt?
1-2 God spoke all these words: I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. 3 No other gods, only me. 4-6 No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments. 7 No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name. 8-11 Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day. 12 Honor your father and mother so that you’ll live a long time in the land that God, your God, is giving you. 13 No murder. 14 No adultery. 15 No stealing. 16 No lies about your neighbor. 17 No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s.
How different will the outcome of our conflicts be if we did not answer to all these other gods fighting for our support and attention? What would happen if we were to give answers – with our lives – to God? This, necessitates the pertinent question: “what is Christ calling me toward?” The answer to that question should be very specific to your own life and situation, but I believe it will always include loving God and loving neighbor (yes, especially those whom we do not regard as neighbors). Perhaps this is what Exodus tried to help the Israelites with.