Yesterday being reformation Sunday, it struck me that Zapiro’s 21 October depiction of the current political chaos in South Africa also contains a (hidden?) warning to the church. While the ANC and the dissidents are fighting each other for the right to be recognised as the true ANC, the masses who gave them their mandate to govern are suffering because their energies are focussed inwards.
In a sense that is what happened during and after the reformation. As the powerful roman catholic church became more and more corrupt, it was challenged from within. Martin Luther tried to reform the church until he was eventually expelled. That was followed by a period of violence and even wars between protestants and catholics. The movie Luther renders a very vivid portrayal of some of these events.
Instead of healing the world, one part of the church was at war with itself, causing a lot of suffering and death, thus compromising its calling in the pursuit of truth. The reformation did not involve the eastern or orthodox church.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the reformation was a bad idea and that Luther and co. should have just shut up and carried on quietly in their little corners, doing what was expected of good monks of that time. Luther was also strongly opposed to the violence. I am a child of the reformation myself and as such very grateful for all the good things it gave us.
The question before us however as we reflect on the reformation is how do the memories of the reformation colour our interaction with the world and our “intra-action” within the church? Will our quest in the emerging church conversation to return to the roots of being the church become an exercise of claiming the title of the true church or will we discover that somehow we need to find ways to function as the whole body of Christ if we want to be a credible voice in this world that couldn’t care less what religion you represent let alone what brand of Christianity?
So what does all of this have to do with Psalm 82? It is a matter of interpretation whether the gods in this psalm are heavenly beings or Israel’s judges/rulers who regard themselves as gods. Essentially we hear God saying that the powerful will be held responsible for defending the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the weak, the fatherless. It is easy to point the finger at those who hold political, judicial, economic and military power – and rightly so. But that is the comfortable option.
The Old Testament is full of God’s demands that justice be done to widows, orphans, the poor, the oppressed and other powerless members of society. One of the key aspects of the kingdom of God, so central to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, is good news for the poor and the oppressed (e.g. Luke 4:16-20, Matthew 11:4-6). James 1:27 says that true religion is looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself pure from being polluted by the world.
Psalm 82 addresses the powerful. When Jesus instructs his followers to make disciples of all nations at the end of Matthew 28 He does so having just reminded them that all power in heaven and on earth belongs to Him. Working in His powerful name, what are we, the church doing to, in the words of Psalm 82 “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless”, to “maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed”, to “rescue the weak and needy” and to “deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”? The more we do these things together as part of the larger body of Christ the more we will together become the true church.