In recent days, I have been confronted with the thoughtful challenge as to whether or not it is right for a Christian to leave a country that seems to be falling apart. The conversations and questions have been honest and sincere. I have appreciated the opportunity to revisit this matter, for this is certainly not a theoretical issue for those of us living in South Africa. The question of “fight or flight?” is once again being put before us.
Recent dialogues on talk shows have at times shared the common thread of comparing South Africa with the downgrade of Zimbabwe. Some business leaders are saying that we are “heading north,” as it were, with our economy (which is another way of saying that our economy is actually heading south!). Are they correct? I don’t know.
Of course, the violent eruptions on most of our state-run universities is a cause for deep alarm. As I read many of the accounts, the word “anarchy” comes to mind. The most recent crime stats released by the Minister of Police are not encouraging. Generally speaking, crime is a long way from being under control. We are justified in questioning, what does the future hold for us in South Africa? In many ways, our country at times seems like a war zone and so, again, should we stay and fight or is flight the wiser course? After all, what about our children, what kind of a future do they have here in the land of the Protea? I don’t know, and none of us are prophets. And so, in light of the current unsettling realities, if you have the opportunity to emigrate from South Africa, should you? Again, I don’t know. As Paul reminds us, it is before the Lord our Master that we stand or fall (Romans 14:4). We answer ultimately to Him.
Nevertheless, though each of us must decide for ourselves, such a decision should be made only in light of a full-orbed scriptural picture. In this article I want to make the argument that the Christian should give strong consideration to remaining within a kind of “war zone” rather than fleeing to a perceived comfort zone.
Let me deal with an obvious objection to the never-emigrate argument. On a couple of occasions before His appointed time of the cross, Jesus was confronted with hostility and He wisely removed Himself from harm’s way (Luke 4:28–30; John 7:1). There were times when Paul’s life was under threat and he got out of town (Acts 9:23–25; 17:5–10; cf. 23:11–35). In Matthew 24:15–28, Jesus warned the infant church in Jerusalem to flee when they began to see the signs of His impending judgement upon the city. When intense persecution broke out upon the church in Jerusalem, the majority of the church fled the city (Acts 8:1–5; 11:19–21). In the Old Testament, we could cite the examples of God’s command for Lot and his family to flee from Sodom and Gomorrah; the flight of Jacob and his family to Egypt during the famine. The exodus, and God’s command to the Jews to willingly go to Babylon when that nation conquered Jerusalem, would also be examples. So, yes, there are several biblical examples to justify the conclusion that there are times when God provides a way of escape from a dangerous place. There are times when a Christian should leave a war zone for a safer zone.
But we need to be careful of drawing a direct line from these biblical examples to our own situation, particularly here in South Africa. When all of the facts are considered, it seems that, in many cases, the two scenarios are chalk and cheese. Here is what I mean.
It seems to me that if a person, family or group of people are under direct or imminent threat of violence, they are wise to avoid it. I think of the many Jewish people in Germany, Austria and Poland in the late 1930s who, when they saw Hitler’s blood-drenched writing on the wall, took advantage of the opportunity to flee while they could. Again, the case in Acts 8 of the persecuted church in Jerusalem serves as an instructive example. Their lives were under threat and a living Christian is usually a more effective witness than a dead one (though the case of Stephen certainly defies this point!). When Paul’s life was under direct threat, and he had the opportunity to spare his life and to extend the length and reach of his ministry, he did so. But note that, in all of these cases, these individuals emigrated from a war zone to a safety zone because of the danger of physical violence—never because of the desire to protect their economic interest. One might object that Jacob’s move to Egypt would be an exception. However, even in that case, it was a matter of physical survival; they were not fleeing a difficult place merely for an economic comfort zone. And this is my concern, and hence my caution.
I am concerned that many of us Christians are tempted to leave South Africa motivated primarily by the quest for a comfort zone. In fact, the ones who can afford to emigrate are usually living in neighbourhoods that are far safer than those who cannot emigrate. If this is the major motivation for emigrating, then I would caution against it.
Someone has wonderfully and succinctly summed up what should be our response when faced with such difficulties: “The Christian moves towards need, not towards comfort.” Our country is in need of strong churches. Perhaps we should rather move closer to them than an ocean away from them.
A while back, I met a Zimbabwean brother who, having lived in the USA for the past fifteen years, had recently moved back to Harare. I asked him why he returned. He told me a most remarkable story.
He said that he had met an American lady whose son has been ministering for many years in Zimbabwe. Several years ago, this man’s wife (her daughter-in-law) contracted malaria and died in Zimbabwe. The son came back to the States with his children for a time to grieve with the larger family. But after that, he and his children went back to Zimbabwe where he has continued to minister. The brother who was telling me this story paused, looked at me and said, “Here I was, a Zimbabwean Christian pursuing the American dream while this American family was pursuing the betterment of my people through the gospel. That is when I decided that I needed to return and to connect with a good church in Harare and serve the Lord, and my people.” You see, he chose what in some ways is a war zone over a comfort zone.
Is this to say that his example is the template for every Christian faced with such a situation? Not at all. But the principle must be considered by all. Has God put us here in South Africa for such a time as this? What is it that is really driving us to want to “flee as a bird to our mountain”? (Psalm 11:1). Are missionaries the only Christians expected to leave their comfort zone in order to live in a social, political, religious war zone elsewhere? I don’t think so. And, in fact, if the majority of Christians who are financially able to emigrate do so, what will happen to those missionaries sent and supported by churches in South Africa? In other words, fleeing for a comfort zone may actually increase the discomfort zone of those whom we have sent.
You may not agree with my thesis. And that is okay: Disagreement that leads to constructive dialogue is healthy and helpful. All I ask is that we honestly examine our hearts when it comes to the temptation to fear; and the accompanying temptation to settle for comfort. Our societal circumstances are disturbing. Yet what an opportunity we have to experience the presence and power of our “Commander,” the Lord of hosts (see Joshua 5:13–15), right here in this spiritual war zone.