In October 2015, students at university campuses across SA began protesting that the fee increases of 10.5% were too high. These fees were based on increasing costs of materials, inflation, and teacher’s salaries. The students demanded no increase in the fees for the services they were receiving. Between the government and the university heads, the students’ demands were met for that year.
But this year the fees had to be raised again. Beginning in August 2016, students began peacefully protesting around the country on campuses. As part of this protest, they also blocked some roads and buildings as well as stopping fellow students from entering the schools. Because of these student protests, the universities expanded their security eventually to the police force. Now, these young people want to “shut down the universities.” To carry out this goal, there has been R600 million property damage already. That is the equivalent of 220 km’s of tar road. Some are demanding entirely free education rather than merely release from the year’s increase.
Scripture speaks often to the poor and about the poor even featuring poor prophets and leaders throughout the Bible. Jesus and many of the early Christians were poor. The prophets of the OT rebuked Israel often for the way they handled the poor. Further, in this country in the past, blacks have been treated with a harsh, confining hand.
Since around 75% of the country claims to be Christian, how should a Christian respond? Should they support the Fees Must Fall movement (also called #FeesMustFall), or oppose it? Should they blend support and opposition? To answer these questions, I will use a moral syllogism to compare a Biblical teaching with a modern situation.
Stealing is a terrible sin.
The first proposition comes from Scripture, and the second comes from the current state of affairs in the country. What is stealing? The question is more complicated than it appears at first glance.
As a first definition, stealing is taking what is not yours. Thieves do this taking by force or deception. The thieves used force on the man traveling to Jericho (Luke 10:30). Ahab used deception to take Naboth’s land (1 Kings 21:6-10). But there is more to stealing than that.
He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. Eph. 4:28
What is the opposite of stealing in this passage? Labor. Then a second definition of stealing is gaining wealth without permission or work.
Stealing implies the doctrine of private property. Theft doesn’t exist in a universe where everyone owns everything. Property is wealth that belongs to or is owned by someone—owning and belonging are the central ideas broken by stealing.
1 “You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. 2 If your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. 3 Thus you shall do with his donkey, and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them.” Deut. 22:1-3
These words forever establish the doctrine of private ownership or personal property. You must neither take nor ignore someone’s donkey. (22:1) You cannot assume property that is lost. (22:2) If you happen on the chance to take property that someone has lost, you must be quick to return it to the owner. (22:3) Is this spirit common in our country? If your wallet or phone was lost, how many people out of 100 would return it? Moses certainly wrote this law intending it to be a broad principle governing all property because in verse 3 he says it can be anything lost that belongs to your neighbor. Protecting property rights and ownership are the heart behind the command: Do not steal.
Once when traveling to Mozambique, I saw a sign in a village near the Pafuri Gate which said in Tsonga, “Xa mina i xa wena.” In English, “What’s mine is yours.” If this were merely a statement of neighborly generosity, then it would be fitting with Jesus Christ’s teaching. However, it is very common to find cloudy views of ownership in rural Africa promoted by the traditional religion from where this saying originated.
In modern times, there are two popular economic systems that deny private property—Socialism and communism. These are two very similar economic systems with one great fundamental idea binding them together: Government must control private property. Socialism attempts to do this through legislation in generally more peaceful settings, and communism attempts to do this through a military revolution. In short, socialists look for government to control property, and communists work for the same thing with guns. In both cases, government takes some or all control of property.
Since private property is so basic to Christianity, both socialism and communism struggle to even define the word “steal.” How can you prohibit or punish theft, if ownership and property are unclear? Therefore a third definition of actions that tend to erase the importance of private property under normal circumstances.
The history of the Bible supplies many examples of thievery so that we can test our definitions by the actual cases in Scripture itself. The Westminster Larger Catechism lists 32 different kinds of stealing (Questions 141-142).
- Robbers with guns. Luke 10:30
- Kidnapping and slave trade. Ex. 21:16
- Tricking customers when you sell. Pro. 11:1
- Dodging taxes. Rom. 13:7
- Taking something that you find without trying to return it. Deut. 22:1-3
- Receiving a gift that you know was stolen. 1 Kings 21:16
- Living off the wealth of others without working. Eph. 4:28 with 2 Thess. 3:10-11
- Increased taxes. 1 Sam. 9:7 and 10-18
How bad is stealing? What are its effects on society? Stealing impoverishes society by loss of goods and increased costs. It associates the thief with Satan, one of whose names is Thief (John 10:10). It denies private property which is a fundamental assumption in the laws against stealing. Stealing destroys the wealth, religion, and stability of a society.
In summary, taking wealth and benefits without work or permission or subtly reducing the line between your neighbors property and your own is the terrible sin of stealing.
The Bible condemns theft, and therefore all Christians must as well. Yet the most difficult part of making ethical decisions is often comparing the text of Scripture with the present day. Let us now look at what these students are doing. What are they doing, and what are they trying to do? What is their goal?
The goal of the Fees Must Fall Movement is stealing.
At first, let me acknowledge that the people involved in this movement would probably not admit this is their goal. But part of being a faithful minister is to use words the way God uses them.
What is the “Fees Must Fall Movement” (FMF)? It is an effort to get free higher education for most of the citizens of SA. If you make less than R600,000, the minister of higher education promised to have the government pay for the fee increases. This is more than what Section 29 of the Constitution promises: a “right to basic education,” but not a right to university.
The FMF wants to help poor people, and a genuine desire to serve the poorest in ways that we will lead to the greatest good is a Christian virtue. But “no increases” is not enough for many in this movement. They want free higher education. What is this but a desire for goods and services for which they have not paid? Who is paying? Certainly not the students who are protesting—at least they don’t foresee themselves paying directly. Someone of course has to pay for these fees. Who is that? Does this other party want to pay? Is the other party receiving the benefit? If someone does not receive any benefit, but they are forced to pay, isn’t that the Bible’s definition of theft?
Further, by damaging private property, they have taken that property as their own already before it was given to them justly or unjustly.
Behind the FMF demands are some assumptions (presuppositions) that lie quietly in the background.
- “We all deserve education.”
A Christian thinks that as a man he deserves freedom from government intervention and his own private property. As a sinner, he deserves God’s judgment for eternity. There is no category in Scripture for talking about great rights outside of these basic expectations. Jesus, the apostles, and the greatest Christians did not have formal education.
- “Education should be free.”
Do not steal. An education is a service that must be acquired by work, not a gift that God gives indiscriminately to all men such as air, rain, and sunshine.
- “Education must be decolonized.”
Our Lord called Himself the Way and the Truth. There is no “colonial truth” and “African truth” just like there are not different Messiahs for each ethnicity. As Christians our goal should be to advance in truth, regardless of the color of the person who brings us this rare commodity.
- “Education must make all ethnic groups feel good about their values.”
Some ethnic values come from false religion and will tend to destroy happiness, wealth, and prosperity.
- Islamic polygamy
- Islamic wife-beating
- Female circumcision in North Africa
- Suttee in ancient India
- The caste system of Hinduism
- The European slave trade
- Afrikaans apartheid
None of these practices are good, but all of them were sired from some false religious commitments and embodied in a culture. A true education serves young minds by finding for them solid footing not good feelings.
- “Education is a basic right.”
Do the laws in the OT provide for education for all the children in Israel? No. When God arranged a perfect society on earth through the nation of Israel, He did not require the government or the heads of families to give education to all.
- “Those who have more money should pay for those who have less money.”
“The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel,” Ex. 30:15
The OT required an even 10% or a single amount payable by everyone. The rich were free to help the poor, but there was no requirement—no government redistribution of private property.
- “The goal of life is a good job and a comfortable way of life.”
In general, the FMF protesters are more interested in a salary than an education. Are students consuming more books or more media? Are they spending extra money on fashions or tools to increase their knowledge? Are they willing to work while they study? Would they still be willing to attend the institutions if they received a high quality education, but no paper confirming that?
- “The government can give wealth away without any consequences.”
Wealth must be created by hard work (Gen. 1:26 and Eph. 4:28). The government has no wealth unless it takes from citizens. Someone may respond that the government is paying and the government does now “want” to pay since it has been persuaded by the people. However, that is assuming the government has wealth.
- “The world is stacked against black people.”
Even if we grant that conclusion for the sake of the discussion, the free market removes most of the effects of racism, and it removes those sinful tendencies far better than other systems. As Thomas Sowell points out in Basic Economics, companies in the US that didn’t hire blacks after the Civil War eventually lost business and some closed down. The cheaper services of the black Americans eventually gained them a client base. This is why the greatest way to reduce racism is to make sure the markets are entirely free from government control. FMF is a tidal wave of pressure on government to take more money and then dedicate it to universities.
These assumptions oppose the Christian ideas of private property and personal responsibility. This collection urges young people to get without work, to use the government as a tool to force redistribution. The de-emphasis (and literal destruction) of private property, the anticipation of raised taxes as the solution, and the disinterest in working for personal benefits classify the FMF movement as an organized expression of stealing.
My argument has followed a simple syllogism.
- Proposition 1: Stealing is a terrible sin.
- Proposition 2: The goal of the FMF movement is stealing.
If both of these are true, then the conclusion must follow:
- The goal of the FMF movement is a terrible sin.
But is the word “terrible” justified? How bad is the FMF movement?
The goal of the FMF movement is a terrible sin.
Since it is stealing, it will bring God’s ultimate wrath on those involved. Stealing is a sin that God will judge with the fierceness of His wrath unless each thief hides Himself under the protection of Jesus Christ. And we know that whoever is born of God, does not continue in sin (1 John 3:9). It is terrible because of future judgment.
Since it represents foolish and unscriptural thinking about economics, it will ultimately trap poor Africans in even stronger chains of poverty. The FMF movement represents Marxist thought which has never raised a country to prosperity. The only hope for poor Africans is a mindset that urges them to create wealth rather than a mindset that urges them to redistribute wealth.
Since it encourages violence, covetousness, laziness, and a shirking of personal responsibility, it will lead the nation to greater instability than the founders of the movement ever foresaw. They have promised to shut down the universities and some have even threatened to shut down the country.
Since it ignores history, it is doomed to failure. Does anyone travel to Tanzania or Zimbabwe or North Korea or China or Venezuela for education? Each of these countries tried to play the socialist and communist game, and their economies are not the first choice for tourism nor high standards of living.
Since the students are not thinking about the future generations, only about themselves, it promises dangerous times for our children. Socialist economies are historically weak, but African socialist economies are often disasters such as Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania in the 1970’s. Why isn’t the wealth in that country from the 1960’s serving the present generation? South Africa will look similar if they follow a similar economic path.
Since it distracts from eternity, it will damage the efforts of soulwinners and evangelists. Wayne Grudem’s interesting The Poverty of Nations reminds us that the main difference between rich and poor nations is a mindset. That mindset could best be summarized as a Christian worldview that finds its foundation in a regenerated heart. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to Africa’s poverty. But since the FMF focus is on this earth, their great need will only be pressed further into the shadows.
- “We can’t afford education.”
First, a lack of money to buy education is no justification for stealing education. Second, if anyone really wants to learn there are libraries and many free resources available for those who are hungry for knowledge. Third, it may take several generations before a majority of the people are able to reach a higher level of formal training. Historically, we must not forget that colleges and universities are a relatively new phenomena.
- “Communism is in the Bible.”
Yes, Acts 4:32-37 records a kind of Christian communism, but there are vital differences between what happened then and what is being advocated now. First, those who shared their goods were all and only Christians. Second, they were experiencing a great revival so that each of them was willing to work hard and deny themselves. Third, they were experiencing persecution for their commitment to Jesus Christ. Fourth, it was limited in time and geography. There is no evidence that all the Christian churches did this, but the opposite. Paul taught many churches to have private property.
- “Jesus told us to love and help each other.”
Helping people to think correctly about long-term wealth creation is the most loving thing we can for the present lives on earth. Socialism is no more loving than confirming someone in their deeply held belief in a lie.
- “This is justice as a way of fixing the consequences of apartheid.”
Should we fix one injustice with another? Should black taxpayers have to pay for the universities to correct the problems of apartheid? Should whites who opposed apartheid? How long do these retributive taxes stay in effect? Expensive universities are not a legacy of apartheid, but of foolish governments who print fiat currency.
- “Other countries do this.”
That is no way to think about ethical or theological difficulties. Let us start with examining the goodness, truth, and beauty of a proposition in light of the Bible.
- “Blacks are still suffering while whites are comfortable.”
If we care about the poorest people, then we must not accept short-sighted solutions to their problems. A starving person needs food, not a hallucinogenic drug. The question we should ask is, “What character must each member of society have in order for that society to be rich?” The solution is not found in money because the real question has little to do with it.
No short cuts
Christians work hard for their wealth rather than taking goods and services by force. If we love the poorest people, then we will not promote something that hurts them. And a solution that is unscriptural will certainly hurt the poorest (Deut. 6:24).