“Who is the Lord, that I should hear him and let Israel go?”
“If you…had only recognized the things that make for peace.”
My meditation for today was already prepared when. on Tuesday, the news broke that Robert Mugabe had resigned as president of Zimbabwe. This momentous event demanded that I start again, for how could we today ignore what has happened north of our border this past week? An event that is not only of great significance for our neighbours, but also one that has the potential to influence developments in our own country in the coming days. The message is clear: corrupt rulers, powerful as they are, can be brought down. But equally clear is the message that liberation does not necessarily bring justice and peace, for freedom is always an ongoing, and never-ending struggle to establish a just society. This is not only the testimony of history; it is also the testimony of the Bible.
There were two formative events in the history of ancient Israel. The first was when Abraham left home in response to the call of God and by faith went into an unknown future trusting in God’s promised covenant. The second was when Moses rose up to lead the enslaved Israelites against the tyranny of Pharaoh which, after many failed attempts to convince Pharaoh, eventually led to their liberation and journey into the wilderness in search of the land where they could live in freedom, justice and peace. At the same time a journey full of dangers and digressions, of dashed hopes and failures as well as moments in which their faith was restored and their resolve to continue was strengthened.
No one understood these OT stories better than John Calvin, whom we remember alongside Martin Luther in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. In the final chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, written during the years when the Huguenots in his native France were being persecuted by the French regime, Calvin reflected on these stories about the downfall of tyrants and the liberation of oppressed people, and wrote these words:
“Here are revealed God’s goodness, God’s power and God’s providence. For sometimes he raises up avengers from among his servants, and arms them with his command to punish the wicked government and delivers his people, oppressed in unjust ways, from miserable calamity…However these deeds of men are judged in themselves, still the Lord accomplished his work through them alike when he broke the bloody sceptres of arrogant kings and when he overturned intolerable governments. Let the princes hear and be afraid.”
Calvin was an early advocate of constitutional democracy, so his preferred way of political change was through the peaceful processes of constitutional law. But he acknowledged that sometimes in history cruel dictators arise who refuse to listen to those who cry for justice. “Let my people go!” Moses thundered on behalf of God. But Pharaoh cynically and disparagingly replied: “Who is the Lord, that I should hear him and let Israel go?” As Jesus centuries later told the rulers of Jerusalem, they refused to recognize “the things that make for peace.” At such times extraordinary measures are required. But like Jesus and the prophets, Calvin cautioned against the use of violence to overthrow tyranny, advocating prayer and patience, and action by constituted authority. But he also spoke about God raising up “avengers among his servants” to “punish wicked government and deliver his people, oppressed in unjust ways, from miserable calamity.” When we Christians pray for the end to unjust rule we should not be surprised if God answers such prayers through people who rise up in struggles for their liberation.
But certainly, a striking feature about what happened in Zimbabwe is that the downfall of Mugabe after decades of misrule and tyranny, did not result in any fatalities! That is remarkable when you think about it. It is almost as though the army and political leadership had read Calvin, acting decisively yet with restraint. This does not necessarily mean that the army has suddenly become a champion of democracy, or that there is any guarantee that democratic rule will now flourish, but we can give thanks that a corrupt dictator has been toppled without the shedding of blood, and a fresh start has been made possible.
The fact is, corrupt governments can be forced to face reality by the protests and pressure of people and prophets. So in Calvin’s words: “Let the princes (and presidents) hear and be afraid.” This is a moral universe. It might not always seem so, but then come these moments in history when “the mighty are brought down from their seats” and our faith in God’s covenant of justice is restored. Of course, not everybody believes that God has a hand in such events, but if we do believe this we must also recognise that God’s hands are ours. To pray for an end to unjust rule does not mean that we can sit around doing nothing, for God brings down tyrants in response to prayer that leads to action.
We know only too well that liberation does not invariably bring justice and peace; but it sets people free to begin or restart their journey towards the promised land. And that journey requires that those who long for justice should work for justice, those who loves peace should be peacemakers, and those who pray for reconciliation should be its agents. So let us pray for the people of Zimbabwe as they go forward that they will be blessed with wise rulers and find the necessary strength and wisdom to achieve the land of promise they desire and deserve. And may our prayers for an end to corruption and for the rebirth of a just democracy in South Africa also lead to actions that claim God’s promise of a land of justice, prosperity and peace.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 3 November 2017