Choosing Life over Death
The Sawatzky Family
Location: Mthatha, South Africa
Term start date: 11/01/2005
Home congregation: Assembly Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind.; Shalom Mennonite Church, Newton, Kan.
Ministry: Anna and Joe work with Bethany Bible School, a teaching ministry for leaders of African-Initiated Churches in Eastern Cape Province.
At our Mennonite Ministries in South Africa retreat over the turn of the year, we were privileged to have several sessions with the former general secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, Jack Suderman. We spent mornings with Jack while he shared biblical insights for mission and discussed these insights in light of situations that we deal with.
Jack shared about the importance of good biblical interpretation. Looking at the story of the wise men who come to visit Jesus, we see the life and death consequences of incorrect biblical interpretation. The Magi came to Jerusalem following a star that signaled to them the birth of the “king of the Jews.” Based on their study, they believed that the king of the Jews had to be born in Jerusalem. And so they come to Herod to inquire about the new king. Herod, feeling threatened, summoned his wise people. His scholars read prophecies of a king to be born and saw that such a king must be born in Bethlehem—“geographically close, but theologically very far apart,” says Jack.
As a result of this exegetical “mistake,” King Herod has all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed.
The task for us is to at least do no harm through our exegesis.
Over Christmas, a woman from our church in Mthatha released her husband to go home to his family for part of the holidays. When he did not reach home, people began to look for him. He was found murdered in town. We attended his funeral several weeks later. The pastor, Rev. Mthethiseni Ntapo, was to lead the service and Joe, my husband, was to preach. As is the custom, we gathered in the rondavel (a round, thatched-roof building) before the funeral, which would take place in a tent. The mourners sat on mats on the floor, and everyone took turns speaking, singing and praying.
During this session, Joe had been mulling over various texts on which he could preach. As the time for the service to begin drew near, the coffin was brought out from the wall for everyone to see the deceased in flesh one last time. As the murdered man’s sons aged 12 and 10 circled the coffin, it became clear that this was not a situation of comforting the bereaved. In the community where the church is located, there have been several incidences of mob violence carried out against suspected murderers. In the most recent case, a widow of a pastor was murdered by her husband’s congregants in a property dispute, and then the community around carried out vengeance against the murderers, becoming, of course, murderers themselves. Our primary task was to prevent the sons of the murdered man from becoming murderers or being murdered themselves.
So Joe chose to preach on Cain and Abel and to relate the story of that death to Jesus’ death as interpreted in Hebrews 12— the blood that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” It was a strong message and was received with joy, but we knew no more than that.
The next day at church, we heard more of the story. Ntapo told us that during the early part of the funeral, which we had not understood, the friends of the deceased had stood to tell the story of the death. In their manner of telling, they implicated the widow in his murder. One man had begun wondering aloud why the husband had been alone in town without his wife, and had ended with: “I had better stop there.” Malice and ill will were running high when Joe got up to preach. Ntapo said, “But that word silenced them. It was a miracle since you didn’t even know.”
I am grateful to pastors and others who speak a prophetic word into the lives of people suffering, whether that suffering is known or unknown. The word that comes from the Word can reverse the drive toward death and harm. It has the power to heal and bring newness of life.
Contributed by Anna Sawatzky