“Faith without works is dead!”
Pessimists say that the cup is half empty; and optimists, that it is half full. Some people are pessimists by nature. For them the world, the Hermanus town council, and the church are hopelessly falling apart, South Africa is going to the dogs (don’t ask me what dogs have to do with it!), the government is totally corrupt, people always let you down, young people have no discipline, tomorrow is going to be worse than today — even when they hear good news they automatically add a negative comment, “yes, but!”. Optimists also seem to be optimists by nature. South Africa is getting better, the dogs don’t bite and snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them, people are always so nice, young people are a pleasure, and what a great day it is today despite the heat and south-easter, it could be worse. It is easy to understand why people are pessimists, especially in circumstances such as we see every day on TV. “It is,” Bonhoeffer wrote shortly before his arrest, “more sensible to be pessimistic, disappointments are left behind, and one can face people unembarrassed. Hence, the clever frown upon optimism.” But then he goes on to praise optimism because it is:
a power of life, a power of hope when others resign, a power to hold our heads high when all seems to come to naught, a power to tolerate setbacks, a power that never abandons the future to the opponent but lays claim to it,
Pessimists may keep our feet on the ground but optimists keep hope alive. But perhaps it would be best if we were all realists who accepted the way things are, for good or ill, and then got off our butts to make things better, neither bemoaning nor turning a blind eye to what is wrong or bad. In the end, does it really matter if the glass is half empty or half full ? What matters is whether we are going to do what needs to be done to fill the cup to the brim. If we are not working to make the world a better place, things will get worse whether we are pessimists or optimists.
There were plenty of prophets of doom in the Old Testament. The difference between a true prophet and false one was that whereas the true prophet told the political and religious leaders how bad things were and they had better change their ways, the false prophets always said things were just fine, “peace, peace, when there was no peace.” But the true prophets were actually being realists. They were not just saying how bad things were, they were calling on people to change, to change their attitudes, change their hearts and minds, and start doing things differently. The same was true of Jesus, Jesus laid it on the line when speaking truth to power, when castigating the religious hypocrites of his day, and the corrupt rulers in the Temple and the Palaces of Jerusalem and Tiberias. He did not have much faith in their willingness to change. But he saw possibilities for healing and change in seemingly hopeless situation. He saw the good in people rejected as irreligious, isolated because they had contagious diseases, shunned because they were tax-collectors and prostitutes, or simply ignored because they were poor. He did not give up on them. He exuded the power of life, and hope.
The apostle James was clearly a realist. He knew about the great gulf between wealth and poverty in his day but decided to do something about it. To those who said they believed in God but did nothing to help the poor he retorted “faith without works is dead” and went on to say “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Sparklekid Theo likewise tells us “Just get on with it!” Yes, politicians are corrupt, the power outages are unacceptable, the conditions in the township are bad, but let’s get on and do something to make life better for everyone. That attitude releases the power of life and hope. And there are many such good news stories being told today around South Africa that demonstrate this in big or small ways. Listen to one from the kindergarten across the road from Volmoed:
January 2015 kicked off with great excitement and a school filled with 38 little children, some more happy than others to join our school. Our classes bursting at their seams with small little faces eager to embark on this new exciting path of their lives. From our 38 students 4 are from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, a number from farms in the area and then a host of children from Zwelihle. Two of our 3 teachers will continue their education this year via Klein Karoo and I am so excited to see how quickly they are developing, not only in their teaching abilities but also in their confidence.
Immediately after the conference held in Stellenbosch last September to celebrate my 75th birthday, a group of participants got together and decided to do something about poverty in South Africa. They called the project AHA! which stands for “Authentic, Hopeful Action.” They were realists who did not simply want to talk about change but to act in ways that made a real difference to the lives of the poor. I was not at that meeting, but I was made the Patron of AHA. This means that even though my “shelf-life” is coming to an end I can cajole people into doing things that might make a difference in the lives of poor people.
The AHA website has many practical suggestions that could make a difference, some of them we could all do without too much effort. For example if you don’t already, you can give R 5 to the garage attendant whenever your car is filled. This won’t fundamentally alter the material conditions in poor communities, but if each garage attendant at Engen down the road got R5 from five people a day, he or she would earn at least a R100 extra per week. Multiply that by 10 garage attendants and that would mean a R 1000 would find its way into the life of the township! And then multiply it across the country at every filing station!
The list of possibilities whereby we can help make a difference to the lives of other people through authentic, hopeful action is endless if only we put our minds to it and get on with it. At the very least we could go onto the AHA webpage, or talk to Theo over coffee, to find out what even those of us whose shelf-life is short can do. This is surely better than talking ourselves into a state of despair about the state of the nation! Whether congenitally pessimists or optimists, let us be realists. Poverty is a crime against humanity, especially in a country where there is so much wealth. We don’t need a AHA moment or movement to tell us. But we do need to act authentically and hopefully, and maybe. some help to know what we can do, to show by our works what our faith means. Instead of saying AMEN or ALLELUIA today, let us all shout “AHA!”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 February 2015