The last three weeks of my 2019 African teaching tour were spent in Tanzania and Kenya. This was truly a special time. I cherish the many fond memories of teaching my fellow pastors and interacting with them during our breaks. Invariably I thought during these days: “What went wrong? What went wrong with us in the West?” No doubt one would be able to find every evil that has become so common among us in the northern hemisphere also here in Africa. And yet these societies – though much poorer materially speaking – seem so much healthier, and dare I say happier! So what is the reason for that?
What went wrong?
You don’t need to ponder this question very long for the answer to jump up right before your eyes: Of course, the impact of the fall shows its sorry symptoms here as well, but common vices have not become virtues here (in East Africa) yet! Good and evil are still clearly defined and distinguished like they used to be among us in the West. Here in Africa, it seems society at large does not seek to squeeze you into a decadent and debauched mold, at least not yet. In fact, a university professor told me after a church service in Nairobi that she cannot for her life comprehend why Western powers are so keen to foist upon Kenya their empty values when everyone can see how those values have plunged their civilization into a morass it will not easily emerge from. That is what went wrong. In the West, vice has become a virtue. Because there is no prophetic vision, the people have cast off all restraint (Prov. 29:18).
Somewhere in my lectures to my students, I mentioned that contemporary Western politics and culture are now being driven by three mighty forces: power, money and sex, and (sorry to say) the greatest of these is sex. It takes no rocket science to figure this out. But it did not use to be so. The big change finally came after the two great wars. It was then that Western societies began to finally wrest itself free from the “bondage” of every authority outside of itself: from God, the church, the Bible, and finally, even from natural law itself, until in our day, even institutions like the family and the state are crumbling.
According to international best-selling author and historian from Tel Aviv – Yuval Noah Harari – that is exactly what liberty is all about. Liberty is to do whatever you feel is right. To follow your heart! Remember Woodstock 1969? Not even what you think is right, but what you feel is right, for not even your thinking may infringe upon your sense of radical individual liberty. Indeed all restraint has been thrown to the wind. Thank God this notion of liberty is not in vogue in most of Africa yet (South Africa being a different story of course).
So as Westerners we think we are now truly free. Until two recent shooting sprees in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio (again!) brutally reminded Americans that we are not doing so well at all. And so the pundits started talking and the political experts asking who or what is to blame? One of their answers struck a chord with me. It was that of Peter Lavelle of The Duran. What he said came down to this (in my own words): “It has taken us some time to realize that violent video-games, Netflix and porn were not such good replacements for faith, hope and love and the good old family values based on an everlasting Gospel”. In other words, we are now reaping what we have sown for decades. But there will be of course no singing, dancing, and mirth accompanying this sort of harvest. It will only bring about the proverbial “sackcloth and ashes” in our towns and cities.
It was not always so. We were not always a violence-craving and sex-besotted society. There was a time when we were still inspired by prophetic vision. The kind of vision that elevates people to a much nobler plane than their basest instincts would demand. There was a time when true virtue was still cherished and praised. When restraint was truly practiced. When modesty was an ideal for the civilized and when dying to one’s basic instincts for the sake of the greater common good and God’s glory, was lauded as something excellent. There was a time when the stories of a Saint Patrick or a Joan of Arc, of a Mary Slessor or a David Brainerd still inspired generations. There was a time when Jesus’ radical call to discipleship, or his challenge to a rich young ruler, still tugged at every heart. But the sun has set on that era now for us in the West.
The Life of Malchus by Jerome
I was reminded of these former times as I read a most wonderful short story for a second time. The Life of Malchus was written by the church father Jerome late in the 4th century. Before I share this story, let me clarify that I am happily married and no advocate for voluntary celibacy as the highest standard for Christian piety. I also believe the early church was unduly influenced by neo-Platonic thought in its pursuit of asceticism. And yet I do have immense respect for these early monks and their radical devotion to Christ. I think we can learn much from them. Read their stories and you will learn that it is not only possible but hugely beneficial, rewarding and fulfilling not to live for comfort and convenience, much less so for the constant gratification of your flesh. Lasting joy and fulfillment are simply not found in having your body pampered and your taste buds satisfied, or by avoiding every possible discomfort and difficulty that may confront you in this world. Happiness does not necessarily follow when we maximize pleasure and minimize the Gospel’s call, or by living life avoiding that which may require a little effort or cause a bit of pain.
Jerome tells us that he came across a remarkable Syrian Christian called Malchus, when he was still a young man and Malchus already advanced in years. Malchus and his wife we are told, “were so devout and wore away the threshold of the church so assiduously that you might have taken them to be Zacharias and Elizabeth from the Gospel, except that John was not with them”. So Jerome asked someone in that city (east of Antioch in Syria) what it was that bound this couple together in such love and devotion.
Drawn by his great curiosity Jerome went up to ask the elderly Malchus himself. What follows are some extracts from a truly remarkable account of any early Christian life. When he was still a young man Malchus ran away from his pagan parents who tried to force him into marriage as their only child. The young man was inspired by the lives of the early Christian monks in their wholehearted devotion to Christ. Monasticism was a movement that gained momentum in the fourth century, as a response to the corrupting influence of power and money in the life of the church, after three centuries of robust faith, brotherly love… and persecution.
Nevertheless, at some point in time, after joining a monastery, Malchus decided to go back home to comfort his mother who was now a widow. He traveled in a caravan of people since that was the only way to avoid raids in the desert. Notwithstanding, at some point they were attacked by a band of Ishmaelites who swooped on them, taking many slaves. Malchus was taken into captivity together with a young woman, whose husband was kidnapped by another raiding party, separating them for good.
The old man continued telling Jerome: “I was assigned the task of looking after the sheep as they grazed”. He found this a comfort in the midst of his misfortunes, for his new station reminded him of Jacob and Moses’ sojourns in the desert. He lived on fresh cheese and milk, prayed without ceasing and sang the psalms he had learned in the monastery, praising God that he could live the life of a monk as a shepherd in the desert.
A different kind of marriage, a rare sort of love
“But nothing is ever safe when the devil is around,” old Malchus told the young Jerome. His new master wanted to make him even more faithful by offering him the woman as a wife who had been captured with him. “When I refused her, saying that I was a Christian, and was not allowed to marry a woman whose husband was still alive, my owner became implacable in his fury. He drew his sword and was on the point of attacking me”. Malchus was saved from the sword only by taking the woman into his arms.
When night fell he led his new wife into a derelict cave with great sorrow. He did not want to forsake his monastic state. “What was the point of leaving my family, my country, and my property for good, to serve the Lord, only to do that very thing which I rejected then?” he said to his poor wife. And so he pulled out his sword intending to kill himself. She threw herself at his feet saying: “I beg you in the name of Jesus Christ, I implore you by the crisis of this moment, do not shed your blood, for I will be blamed for it. Or if you are determined to die, turn the sword on me first. It would be better for us to be united in this way”.
“Why should you die to avoid marrying me? I would die if you wish to be united with me. So take me as a partner in chastity and cherish the bond of the spirit rather than that of the body. Let our masters believe you to be a married man, let Christ know you as a brother. We shall easily convince them that we are married when they see us loving each other in this way”. Malchus was astounded. Admiring the woman’s virtue, he loved her more than a wife. “But never did I see her body naked, never did I touch her flesh, for I was afraid to lose in peacetime what I had preserved in time of conflict”. Many days passed in this form of marriage. Their masters were now assured that they will not escape, as Malchus was tending the sheep during the day, while she was doing her chores for the master.
One day tending the sheep Malchus studied the ants in front of him. As he watched them working together so harmoniously he longed back for his days in the monastery and decided to escape. And that is what they did after some careful planning and preparations. They tried to wipe out their tracks in the desert, by drifting downstream, but after three days they spotted two people coming towards them on camels in a distance. They feared for the worst. In their terror, they noticed a cave but feared to take shelter in it lest they should be bitten or stung by some poisonous reptile that was also seeking shelter from the blazing sun.
Entering the cave they immediately turned to the left, just behind the entrance. Moments later they saw their master and one of his slaves standing outside the cave. The servant came in to find and drag them out. His voice echoed through the cave: “Come out you villains. Come out to die! What are you waiting for?” He was still talking when as from nowhere a lioness came from the back of the dark cave, attacking and strangling the man. Unable to control his anger, and unbeknown to what had happened, their master entered the cave as well with furious shouts. He met the exact same fate. “Who would ever believe…”Malchus said, “that before our very eyes a beast would fight to protect us?” The lioness then picked up her cub with her teeth and left the cave as lodging to the scared young couple.
After some time they gathered enough courage to venture outside. They found the two camels chewing the cud, mounted them and journeyed through the desert for ten days until they reached a Roman fort. There they appeared before a tribune telling him their incredible story. And so Malchus ended up joining his blessed brothers at the monastery again, entrusting his wife to the virgins, for he loved her as a sister. Ever since they went to the local church together, until Jerome spotted them in their old age.
Jerome ends his account as follows: “The elderly Malchus told me this story when I was a young man. I have related it to you now that I am an old man… Tell this to later generations so that they may know that amid swords, wild beasts, and desert regions, chastity is never taken captive and that a person who is dedicated to Christ can die but cannot be defeated”.
Jerome wrote this account in defense of the monastic ideal. Even though we won’t defend every aspect of that ideal, we cannot but admire this generation of Christians – living seventeen hundred years ago in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt – for their high view of the Christian life and for their devotion to Christ. Their vision inspired generations to live to a higher standard of self-denial and Christian virtue, even if their radical asceticism was not imitated by all. In fact, their vision became the vital link that preserved true Christianity through medieval times, and also sparked the Reformation of the 16th Century. Most of the earliest reformers were monks. Martin Luther himself was greatly inspired by the legacy of the Brothers of the Common Life.
Tante Maike’s escape from the DDR
Their vision even lingered on beyond the Second World War! A true story I once heard comes to mind, illustrating how the flame of self-denial and sincere Christian affection was still burning strong after many centuries. “Tante” (aunt) Meike, by then 90 years old, told her story to my mother at a nursing home in Pretoria just before the turn of the century.
During the Second World War “Tante” Maike (then known as Frau Krueger) lost her young husband in action during World War II in Italy. He was a medical doctor with the parachute battalion. Their plane was downed by the Allies. Maike’s father was a well-known pastor and evangelist – Ernst Modersohn – who preached the true and living Gospel during very dark times of great unrighteousness in Germany. Both her parents died soon after the war of cancer, leaving Maike with her three children, all under the age of ten, behind in the grim new reality of what became the DDR: Communist East Germany. What’s more, like so many Europeans after the war, they had fallen on very hard times. Food was scarce and costly.
Thousands of miles away the South African German community encouraged its people to send parcels of food and comfort to their kin back in Europe. And so a certain bachelor farmer Fritz Wortmann began sending parcels to the Krueger family in East Germany. As soon as these parcels arrived – which Maike always opened in the presence of the police at the post office to win their trust, even sharing some of its delicacies with them – she wrote to the unknown benefactor expressing her family’s heartfelt gratitude. The exchange of parcels and thank-you letters continued until one day Fritz felt that God had pressed it upon his heart to go and rescue the Krueger family out of East Germany. He had only recently been converted to Christ and was touched by the writings of a certain pastor Modersohn in a German evangelical magazine. Learning that Maike was that pastor’s daughter, Fritz was moved by God’s love and compassion to plan their escape.
In those days it was still possible for East Germans (under strict security) to visit relatives in West Germany, but only for a couple of days. The monstrous wall was only built by 1962. Planning an escape was nevertheless a daring thing to do, for if East German State Security got only a sniff of anything, you were in very big trouble. In no way could Frau Krueger relate anything to her three children. She first traveled across the border in 1951 to meet Fritz at Schlachtenzee. To her surprise, she returned as his fiancee. It was all part of the plan to get her out.
Her next trip to West Berlin would be her last. She had to move very quickly when her visa arrived. There was no farewell party. She simply locked her house’s door, and left everything behind, except for some silver which she hid in their suitcase. To the children, she did not say a word. One can just imagine her anxiety as they traveled by train to West Berlin and officers came around. And they did, thankfully searching the luggage of others in their train compartment, and not theirs. Months earlier, while wrestling with God whether it was indeed His will that she emigrated to South Africa, He showed her without a shadow of a doubt that it was! And so the Lord heard their prayers and supplications and they arrived safely in West Berlin.
Soon after arriving she and Fritz Wortmann got married in Stuttgart. Now she could emigrate to South Africa! Or so she thought. The authorities were however not satisfied yet. They demanded documents from her hometown, which would, of course, have been impossible to obtain. Until one day the West German official told her: “My dear woman, if you had told me right at the start that your father was Ernst Modersohn, I would have immediately given you your passport!”. She was stunned. The last hurdle was crossed.
And so Maike got married to a man she had never seen! They left West Germany for South Africa and lived as Mr. and Mrs. Wortmann in Winterton (Natal) with her three children. Tante Maike related to my mother how, a few years later, a close friend asked her: “Maike, don’t you think it’s about time that you give your husband his marital privileges?” For until now, they had lived together like Malchus and his wife centuries ago in the Syrian desert! Maike heeded her friend’s advice and soon after God blessed them with a daughter. They lived happily together in service to God and in love for mankind for many more years. There in the nursing home, she proudly showed off her Bible with large print that her late husband gave her when her eyes began to grow dim.
No need for further explanations
When there is no vision, a people cast off all restraint. It is not hard to see why and where things have gone wrong in the West. We pursued our freedom. We scoffed at God’s wonders. We killed our visionaries. We persecuted God’s prophets. We “burned” all the good books, by simply throwing them away. We shunned all sacrifice and deified comfort, pleasure and ease. And we pursued vanity, utter vanity, until we began to turn vice into virtue and to call virtue evil. 1969 has come the full circle.
That is what went wrong in El Paso and Dayton. Seek no further explanation, for none other will be found. Let us not fool ourselves that the problem lies with “mentally ill” individuals. It lies with a seriously ill society, that has cast off all restraint in its pursuit of vanity. Even in the church the easiest path to glory, and the nicest feeling in worship, were often sought by scholars, clergy and laymen alike. My prayer is that a new generation may arise: filled with a vision of the Lord God’s matchless grace and glory, and passionate for Christ’s radical call to discipleship again.
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, 2018: Chapter 3
- The Incredible Sixties by Jules Archer, 1986: Chapter 8
- Early Christian Lives translated by Carolinne White, Penguin Classics, 1998
- The Good Hand of God by Marie-Luise Wortmann, 2003