Pastor Jonathan and the Crocodiles: A modern parable

William Saunderson-Meyer says to a great degree we believe what we want to believe


There’s the ancient tale of Jonah and the whale. Now there’s a modern twist, about Jonathan and the crocodiles, which made worldwide headlines this week.

Afer fasting and praying for a week, Pastor Jonathan Mthethwa of the Saint of the Last Days Church in White River, Mpumalanga, tried last Saturday to replicate the Biblical account of Jesus Christ walking water. But, instead of striding across the Crocodile River, his feet remained firmly on the riverbed. 

That is, until three crocodiles seized him and ate him. And unlike Jonah’s whale, Jono’s crocs didn’t spit him out. 

The report was carried with glee in an array of mainstream publications, including the Daily MailExpress and The Independent in London, New Zealand HeraldArab TimesInternational Business Times, Nigeria's Daily Post, the Zimbabwe Mail, as well as AOL, the Christian Daily and the Christian Post in the United States.

It was, however, fake news and not particulary well disguised fake news, either. A cursory Google would have revealed that the story was first published in February on a satirical website.

However, it is not the professional failures of the media that is the most interesting aspect of this. It is that the item went viral because of a simple human trait: we all select information that accords with our beliefs and prejudices. 

Non-Christians and atheists wanted to believe the report because it accorded with their view of Christians as naive dupes. The developed world wanted to believe it because it accorded with their view of Africans as backward. The rest of Africa perhaps wanted to believe it because it mocks those arrogant South Africans. And Christians of the mainstream faiths would have seen it as a timely modern parable illustrating the dangers of fundamentalist literalism. 

It is this reality, that we have to pick our way though a world of fiercely contesting ideologies and faiths, which forms the backdrop to a case currently before the Gauteng High Court. 

Fedsas‚ the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools‚ is defending the right of six Afrikaans state schools to have Christian assemblies‚ hold Christian prayers during school time and to advertise themselves as having a “Christian ethos”. An application was brought by Hans Pietersen‚ a father of triplets‚ who argues that single-religion schools are unconstitutional and discriminatory, and wants them interdicted from having Christian assemblies or voluntary Christian meetings at breaks.

Fedsas cites, in support of its view, research by behavioural expert Dr Tanya Robinson, who held focus groups at religious Afrikaans schools. She concluded that children would feel “devastated and defeated” if Christian teaching was banned and argued that religious teaching – presumably any religious teaching – plays an important role in the psycho-social development of children.

Solidarity trade union supports Fedsas, pointing out that a ruling against religious teaching would affect 24,000 state schools. It says that the application runs counter to the conviction of 95% of South Africans who identify themselves with a religion, of which about 85% are Christians.

This is a saga that is set to run. Whatever the High Court ruling, the issue is important enough for both sides to go all the way to the Constitutional Court, since the judgment will define fundamentally what cultural values future generations of school children will be exposed to. 

SA is constitutionally a secular state. That does not mean, as some mischievously assert, that it is an atheist state. 

Our secularism is not an attempt to suppress religion, but to prevent any faith from using institutional and state structures to dominate another faith. By that measure alone, the Fedsas defence seems doomed.

But the constitution also protects the individual’s right to freedom of association and belief. If the majority of students in a school want to have Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu or Judaic values to be reflected in their daily activities – as long as this does not exclude or penalise those of another or no faith – what business is it of the state to interfere?

As Solidarity’s chief executive Dr Dirk Hermann points out, persuasively, in his court submission, “There is no such thing as neutral education…. Even a secular approach constitutes a certain worldview that is to be enforced on school communities.

He is on shakier ground when he asserts that “the absence of those [Christian] values, practices and ethos would have radical consequences for the culture at schools, and later also for South Africa.” After all, today’s SA is hardly a showcase for Christian values.

On the other hand, it is also difficult to deny that whatever the significant failures of the great religions, were it not for the values that they have imbued in successive generations, certainly in the western world, life would likely be considerably more Hobbesian – nasty, brutish and short.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whom would you best trust to devise a moral framework for your children. A pastor, or a rabbi, or an imam or a priest? Or an ostensibly impartial Department of Education bureaucrat?

Personally, I’d rather have contesting faiths, no matter how self-serving each might be. Morality, like truth, is best served by listening to a variety of voices.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye