A small part of the South African cyber space, the religious corner, is abuzz. Usually some or other dominee (minister in the Dutch Reformed Church) or other religious leader creates this type of hype by sharing a thought (via Facebook or Twitter), sermon, or book that can be labelled “liberal”. Think of, amongst others, the recent sacking of Jean Oosthuizen or “Om te mag twyfel” written by Julian Muller. This time it seems the table is turned. A dominee, Stefaan de Jager, whom can be described as more conservative shared a thought on Facebook which simply got the blood boiling. I quote (via Kletskerk):

“Dit moet tragies wees as jy `n ateis is en jou kind deur die dood verloor. Jou kind is so dood soos `n hond. Niks meer en niks minder nie. Troosteloos.” and “lyk my as jy `n ateis is is dit dan dalk nie so `n slegte plan om jou kind te laat uitsit as hy/sy ly nie. Daar is immers ten diepste mos nie vir hulle `n verskil tussen mens en dier nie. Albei bloot biologiese wesens. Huil dan na die tyd so `n bietjie oor jou kind soos oor jou dooie hondjie en kom dan daaroor en kry `n ander kind.”

(Short paraphrase: If you are atheist then it seems that your children and dogs (pets) should be equated to each other, if a child suffers, put him/her down like a pet and get a new one, as the child is merely a biological being.).

As Christians we should shudder at the callousness with which anyone, let alone a spiritual leader, can throw stereotypes and generalizations about with so much sincerity and conviction. This seems to fly in the face everything Jesus stood for and commanded his followers to be, a group of people who reaching out to the marginalized in care, understanding, and love.

It seems that Ds de Jager forgot that the loss of any life is tragic, be that the life of a child or the life of an elderly person, the life of a woman or the life of a man, the life of a Atheist, a Muslim, or a Christian, the life of a human being or the life of an animal, domesticated or wild, the life of an individual or the life of a species. The loss of life is always tragic. However, death is indeed a natural process; living, by definition, means that we will die. And with every death something, at least in this reality, is lost of the image of G-d, not the complete image but a certain snapshot of G-d’s image. Indeed we are all created in the image of G-d; we are all creature-ly.

At the same time I must wonder about the way that Ds de Jager uses the term “atheist”. The origin of the word, in Greek atheos [a- not + theos – god], can be translated “without god”, a translation that opens a number of possibilities, which I don’t think Ds de Jager entertained.

Firstly, if we translate atheos as “without god” is it not possible to say that there was and always will be only one true atheist, namely Jesus Christ; although only for a short time on Good Friday. Do we as Christians not hold that only Christ was truly G-d-forsaken in order for us, and all of creation, to live? Do we not profess that it is only by the care of G-d, through G-d’s own breath that creation is sustained?

Secondly, if you do not want to go that far and translate the Greek as god-not-existing; does the word not refer to a very specific understanding of G-d? Specifically a theistic understanding of G-d, a G-d that lives somewhere above, but close to our known Earth/Solar system/Universe and that has direct control every aspect of our daily lives, that can see, hear, and known everything at the same time whilst simultaneously be everywhere. It seems that, if this is Ds de Jager’s approach, everyone that does not believe in G-d or understand G-d like he does, is included in his pronouncement. The conviction thus, believe like I do or get over the death of your child, even more so, put them down when they suffer and get a new one.

Thirdly, is it not possible that by using the term atheist Ds de Jager forgets his own history? Can it not be argued that the first Christians were some of the world’s first atheists? Indeed, they did not believe in god as described by Judaism nor did they hold to the understanding of the Greeks and Romans with their plethora of gods. From the perspective of the Jews and the Romans the early Christians could indeed be classified as atheists, today Christians might be classified as the same by any pantheist, still by the Jews as well as the Muslims.

However, the statement is not only problematic because it only contributes sanctity to the lives of those who believe like Ds de Jager and the dubious use of the term atheist, it also puts on the table the importance of making public statements in the social media-sphere. Some commentators on the Kletskerk-post would like us to believe that Ds de Jager was justified in making this statement as a summary of the opinion of atheists themselves (Henk Zeeman and Mauritz Coetzee amongst others). The trouble is that, firstly, it is quite arrogant to turn the argument of another into a caricature like this and, secondly, social media hardly every respects context. The way that Ds de Jager formulated his response in conversation with others exposes something of his underlying worldview and intolerance to those who believe or not-believe differently than he does. I would like to argue that such a position flies in the face of the compassion that is the heart of G-d’s love for us, creation as a whole, and our mandate as Christians to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Over above the theological implications of this statement and the responses it generated on the Kletskerk Facebook wall, is my personal reaction to it. Week after week I, together with a number of other young, unemployed theologians, send in application after application for jobs in the church. It so often happens that it is the Ds De Jagers of this world that receive our applications and CV’s. The result; we are lucky to make it though the first, brief evaluation onto any kind of a short list where we are bound to come face to face with an early judgement if we do not toe the party, read conservative, line.

It seems what we believe is still more important than the faith that stokes the fires of our core, it seems we are still holding on to precise dogma, whilst we are failing to realize our own brokenness and the call to be the healing to others which we so desperately seek. The time has come to realize that a believing and non-believing world are not interested in our pseudo-philosophical, metaphysical, and religious speculation but are hungry and thirsty for those who profess any kind of faith to start living accordingly.

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