Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Stan:
I hear you say that the second coming or apocalypse has already happened? My question is, when will the world start getting better? I live in South Africa, and we have 55 murders per day. Crime here is unexplainable, and people fear for their lives every day. Surely this cannot continue till the day that we all pass away?
Thanks for your important question, Stan.
It is difficult to feel hope for ourselves, our families, communities, careers, and the future when we are living during a difficult time in a challenging locale. In this response I will offer you some practical and spiritual insights. As it turns out, you have asked a question about a subject that is very personal for Annette and me.
Murder rates around the world
South Africa is indeed suffering a high murder rate. According to South Africa’s Annual Crime Statistics published by the South Africa Police Service in September, 2018 (see: “South Africa’s Murder Rate Climbs as Police ‘Drop the Ball’”), your country’s murder rate has risen to its highest level in 9 years: 56 murders a day, or 35.2 per 100,000 people. This murder rate moves South Africa to 9th in the world for intentional homicides. Countries with higher homicide rates per 100,000 people are:
- El Salvador: 82.84
- Honduras: 56.52
- Venezuela: 56.33
- US Virgin Islands: 49.26
- Jamaica: 47.1
- Lesotho: 41.25
- Belize: 37.6
- Saint Vincent and The Grenadines: 36.46
(See: “List of countries by intentional homicide rate” on Wikipedia.)
When it comes to metropolitan homicide rates, however, only three of South Africa’s cities—Cape Town, Durban, and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth)—place in the top 50 of cities worldwide. (See: “List of cities by murder rate” on Wikipedia.)
While the murder rate in South Africa has risen over the last few years, it is actually down from the rate of 67.9 per 100,000 people in 1995. Progress is never a straight line. For reasons we set forth below, we anticipate that with time South Africa’s murder rate will decline. Annette and I share great hope for the future of your country and for the quality of life of its citizens. We are convinced that your country’s best days are ahead of it.
And for our readers living in Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and other troubled areas of the world, please keep reading for some thoughts on the current social situation throughout the world.
But first, let’s discuss why Annette and I are excited about South Africa’s future.
Our experience of South Africa
In the past six months we have visited South Africa twice, and we’ve just bought plane tickets to visit again. Through the wonders of the Internet, we watch SABC News, read South African newspapers, and listen to Talk Radio 702 on a weekly basis. We have also read numerous fiction and nonfiction books by South African authors. Annette is studying Sesotho with the goal of becoming fluent in the language. Thereafter she intends to learn Zulu.
While South Africa is known for the beauty of its landscape, wildlife, and weather, we believe South Africa’s greatest beauty lies in the thoughtful nature of its people, such as you. In the last year we’ve been privileged to get to know many South Africans and to engage in deep conversations about life in South Africa, its difficult history, and its complicated present in which legal apartheid has ended but economic apartheid continues. We’ve learned a lot about the country, the culture, human nature, and in the process, about ourselves.
Most of our time in South Africa has been spent in Soweto, where the home church of The New Church of Southern Africa, and its seminary, Mooki Memorial College, are located. We have also visited some of its churches in the Pretoria area, including several days spent in Soshanguve. And we’ve visited church dignitaries in Potchefstroom.
Prior to our first visit last December, we knew of South Africa’s reputation for being dangerous. However, when we travel we prefer to immerse ourselves in the culture of the country we are visiting. Staying in a distant, walled-off hotel was never an option for us. Since the New Church community—our community—has centers in Soweto and Soshanguve, that is where we booked our accommodations. At the airport we rented a car and off we went, not knowing what to expect.
Contrary to the rhetoric on social media, we never found ourselves in any sort of danger, despite being out alone, sometimes at night. We’ve driven back and forth in Soweto and Soshanguve, including Annette driving alone in Soweto, and to and from the Pretoria area, to run various errands while I was engaged in tasks at the seminary and church in Orlando East, Soweto. Our experience isn’t to say that we could never find ourselves being victimized, but rather that sometimes fear itself can overpower the actual reality of the threat level.
We were at a Shoprite in Soweto when a young man wryly asked Annette if she was concerned about being in a dangerous township. (He was clearly being ironic.) She replied in halting Sotho that she was happy to be there, and enjoying Soweto. He responded by high-fiving her and welcoming her to the community. I stood in line at a gas station ATM in Soweto and chatted with one of the locals, who ribbed me about obviously being a tourist because I was buying bottled water. Meanwhile, the people of our church welcomed us with open arms and overflowing warmth.
That’s how it has been. The totality of our experience in Soweto and Soshanguve is one of welcoming and enjoyment. We aren’t so naïve as to think we could never be victimized. But based on our experience so far, it is clear to us that as long as one exercises caution and situational awareness, as one would in any large urban area, one will most likely be fine. The homicide rate in South Africa is real. But also real is the tragic fact that the victims are overwhelmingly black Africans. And it is our prayer for South Africa that these murders—and all murders—will subside as South Africa continues its forward progress.
Despite the issues of Eskom and load shedding, the shrinking value of the South African Rand, traffic congestion, land ownership, and so on, we firmly believe that your country has a bright future. When all of the untapped human potential of South Africa is brought online, the country will enjoy an even more prominent role on the world stage. South Africans are some of the most industrious and creative entrepreneurs we’ve encountered in our travels. There is a reason why your country is being courted by other economic powers around the world.
Crime is a worldwide problem
In our own country, the United States, we also live with a high murder rate and the threat of crime. The United States incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world. Our citizens pioneered the concept of carjacking during the drug wars of the 1980s, and we shamefully lead the way in mass shootings of workers at jobsites and of children in their schools.
The U. S. murder rate of 5.35 per 100,000 appears to pale in comparison to South Africa. But the reality is that many of our metropolitan areas suffer much higher rates. In St. Louis, Missouri, a beautiful city and one of my childhood homes, the murder rate was 66.1 per 100,000 in 2017. Baltimore, Maryland follows with a rate of 55.77. Thereafter, we’ve got Detroit, New Orleans, Kansas City, and so on, that suffer high murder rates. Despite the stressful crime statistics, these cities are communities of good people who will get through this difficult time in their history, and move on to a brighter and more peaceful future.
The same goes for many other cities and countries around the world that are currently plagued with high rates of murder and other crime.
Addressing high crime rates
Murder rates tend to be higher in areas where we humans abuse our power and fail to recognize the humanity of our neighbors, treating them badly and oppressing them instead of loving, respecting, and serving them. And failure to recognize another person’s humanity isn’t limited to race relations. Even within the same race, people often separate themselves by economic status, language and culture, and political and religious beliefs.
One way to reduce the murder rate is to engage with our fellow human beings, acknowledge their humanity, and get to know them. (Indeed, the primary ingredient for increasing murder and atrocity is dehumanizing one’s enemies.)
When we get to know the people who live in areas plagued by high crime rates, and learn about their culture and their situation, it not only eases tensions in and of itself, but also makes it possible to take constructive action to address the underlying causes of all that crime.
The most obvious underlying cause of the high crime rates in South Africa is the country’s high unemployment and poverty rates. We have made much progress against poverty in recent decades. Worldwide, poverty rates are at all-time lows. Unfortunately, due largely to its recent history, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has lagged far behind other parts of the world in overcoming poverty. (See: “Decline of Global Extreme Poverty Continues but Has Slowed: World Bank.”)
It is an unavoidable reality that where there is a high rate of poverty and unemployment, some people are going to resort to crime in their desperation for the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, and so on. In such areas, the wonder is not the high crime rate, but the fact that so many good people refuse to succumb to the temptation of easy money through criminal activity. Even in poverty-stricken areas, most people continue to live good and honest, if often desperate, lives.
However, it only takes a small percentage of the population engaging in crime to make crime rates zoom. There will always be criminals, even in wealthy areas. But the best way to reduce the overall crime rate is to make it possible for people to support themselves through honest work. This means improving the economic situation in poverty-stricken areas so that the large numbers of unemployed people can find work to support themselves and their families. This takes away the primary motivation for otherwise decent people to turn to crime.
How to improve the economic situation in poverty-stricken areas is a social, economic, and political question rather than a spiritual one. This blog is not the place to discuss the best ways to improve the economy of South Africa and other parts of the world that struggle with high poverty and crime rates. But it is the place to say that when we care about our fellow human beings who are suffering, that is when we will apply our head, heart, and hands to overcoming the causes of their suffering.
Many other countries around the world have lifted themselves out of poverty and into prosperity. Over time, South Africa will do the same—even if it is taking much longer than the bulk of its citizens thought when they first threw off the oppressive yoke of apartheid a quarter century ago.
So please don’t despair about South Africa’s murder rate. Yes, it is a problem to be acknowledged. But it will subside as your country makes forward social and economic progress from a very difficult history.
Bridging the racial and cultural gap
When we were at the Johannesburg airport for our return flight to the U. S. on our most recent trip, we met a nice young South African man excited to travel to the United States for the first time. We were queued up at the boarding gate to go through yet another security checkpoint before getting onto the airplane. This check was more intrusive than the main security section of the airport as these agents actually required bags to be opened and searched and all liquids to be discarded. Making small talk, the young man in front of us scratched the back of his sandy-blonde hair and said, with agitation in his voice, “I’m sorry about this. It is because of my country.”
“No,” we replied, “It’s because of our country. The U. S. requires additional security checks at the boarding gates for international flights to its ports of entry. This happens in many places in the world where the plane is departing directly for the U. S.,” we told him. As we spoke further, he shared his itinerary and we welcomed him to America, telling him that we hoped he’d enjoyed his stay.
He inquired about our stay in South Africa—and did a double-take when we said we’d spent most of our time in Soweto. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and have never gone there,” he said. We encouraged him to visit Soweto upon his return to South Africa. We guaranteed him that he would be pleasantly surprised.
I share this to say that the number one way that an individual person can aid in reducing their area’s murder rate is to visit communities of differing races and cultures, and recognize and acknowledge the humanity in their neighbors. Building these bridges leads to a healing of the nation. Without this healing on the human level, there will be no economic healing. A strong economy requires everyone to respect one another, and to work together across racial and cultural lines in order to address and overcome the common problems of the nation.
All countries experience tough times, and come through them. South Africa is a beautiful country that is on a journey toward prosperity not unlike other countries that have taken that journey before it.
The New Jerusalem is descending . . .
Now let’s take a broader and deeper look at the question of how things can still be so out of whack here on earth if, as we believe, the Second Coming has already happened. (About that, please see: “Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?”)
The vision of the beautiful new era of humanity that will come into being at the time of the Lord’s promised Second Coming is found in the last two chapters of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. As shown in the article linked just above, this is not a literal vision, but a metaphorical one. Let’s read the opening verses of that vision:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1–5)
Sounds pretty good! No more death or mourning or crying or pain!
. . . But it never says that it lands
But notice that the new Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven from God. It doesn’t say anything about it landing on earth! Traditional interpretations of this story in the book of Revelation assume that it will land. But the Bible never actually says that.
In other words, metaphorically speaking, the new Jerusalem, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, will always be something we aspire to, something that is always moving closer, but not something that we ever fully achieve in this earthly life.
Over the centuries, many religious, social, and political leaders have put forth visions of utopias where there will be no more poverty, suffering, and pain. Some have even tried to achieve these utopias. But they have always failed to achieve the glorious vision with which they started. Indeed, many of these experiments in creating a perfect society have quickly become dystopias instead.
Ironically, the word “utopia” comes from two Greek words meaning “no place.” Because the reality is that there is no perfect human community. As the book of Job says, even the angels and heaven itself are not perfect (Job 4:18; 15:15). How, then, can we expect perfection here on earth?
Does this mean things will always be terrible?
No. It means that we humans will always have more work to do in making the beautiful vision and promise of the new Jerusalem a reality here on earth. It is something we will always be moving toward. It is something that will always be coming down out of heaven from God. The new Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation gives us an ideal that we can work for.
God will not magically fix humanity
And it is our job to do that work.
Many Christians look forward to a time when God will sweep away all of the evil in the world, and usher in a perfect society. But they are ignoring all the places where the Bible tells us that for anything like this to happen, we must do the work of repentance from our selfish and greedy ways, and engage in an active life of love and service to our fellow human beings.
For example, the book of Revelation itself says:
See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to each person’s work. . . . Blessed are those who do his commandments, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:12, 14, italics added)
God isn’t just going to magically give everyone a reward. That reward is going to be given according to the work that we do, and based upon whether we follow the Lord’s commandments.
The greatest of those commandments is that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28–31).
We must do the work of overcoming societal wrongs
Loving the Lord our God may seem easy enough. God is up there in heaven, where we can love God from afar.
But loving our neighbor as ourselves means loving all of those ordinary people that we may not care about or respect or even want anything to do with. It means crossing racial and cultural barriers, and loving people who don’t look like us. It means believing that their needs and their wellbeing are just as important as our own.
It means rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of overcoming the ancient evils of greed and lust for power that are behind all of the oppression and destruction that we have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate upon one another.
It means doing the hard work of facing the underlying causes of poverty and its associated crime, and making the changes both in our own attitudes and in our social and political systems to overcome these evils not only around the world, but especially in our own country and our own neighborhood.
God will not do our work for us. What God will do, if we are willing, is give us the strength, motivation, and guidance to do that work ourselves.
We are the people who will make things better
You see, we are God’s messengers, and God’s hands, here on earth.
There is not some other group of people that God is going to send in to fix everything.
We are the people God has sent.
We are the people God has put here on earth to face and overcome the evil, pain, and suffering that we humans—not God!—have inflicted upon one another.
Yes, the Second Coming has happened, and is happening right now. And it happens as we look beyond our own comfort and welfare, and devote our lives to improving life for other people—both those who look like us and those who don’t.
When do things start getting better?
They start getting better when we start following the new commandment that the Lord has given us for our times:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading: