Understanding Evil as a Zeitgeist

By: Corneel Booysen

The role of the Calvinistic Theodicy in the civil religion of the Afrikaner during Apartheid

1.    Overview

This paper will introduce the Calvinistic Theodicy, some of its more famous proponents as well as its strengths and weaknesses. After the introduction of Calvinism, the civil religion of the Afrikaner during Apartheid will be analyzed as a rationalization of a political agenda through the Calvinistic worldview.

2. Definitions

The American Heritage Dictionary provides the following description for the word Zeitgeist:The general moral, intellectual, and cultural climate of an era; Zeitgeist is German for ‘time-spirit.’” This research paper makes use of the word in this sense, that, for evil to prosper you need a critical mass of certain elements to be present and make people behave in a discriminatory manner. This paper aims to show that there were more than enough of these factors present during the formation of Apartheid.

The Calvinistic theodicy, as a component of Calvinism and its theme of predetermination, holds the position that God is in complete control of His people’s destiny. It is within this central belief that we find the following basic elements.

3. Elements of the Calvinistic Theodicy

Having defined the term Zeitgeist and the Calvinistic theodicy, we now turn our attention to the rise of Afrikaner belief system. According to Dunbar Moodie in his book “The Rise of Afrikanerdom,” the civil religion of the Afrikaner aligns closely with the Calvinistic Theodicy (Moodie, 12-15). This theodicy includes elements of many other theodicies including Power, Participation, Recompense, Soul Making and Apocalypticism.

The Power and Participation aspects of the religion can be found in the basic tenants of Calvinism, namely that of Depravity and Predestination. According to these, Mankind is totally depraved and unwilling to seek God due to our sinful nature, and, therefore, God has chosen from eternity which humans will be saved. Moreover, if we are one of the “chosen,” we will not be able to resist God’s Saving Grace. By the same token, if we are not one of God’s chosen, there is nothing that we can humanly do to be saved (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion). Notice how all the power is ascribed to God, leaving humanity with no power, not even free will.

The roots of the Redemptive and Soul Making aspects of the religion can be found in these words of John Calvin:

God is deemed omnipotent, not because he can act though he may cease or be idle, or because by a general instinct he continues the order of nature previously appointed; but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel (Calvin, I, 16:3).

This means that God is involved in every little detail of what happens in heaven and on earth. He is therefore also involved with and allows tragedy or evil in people’s lives. The belief is, that this evil allows the believer to get closer to God and become more Christ-like as the believer associate more with the image of the suffering Christ (Calvin, III, 25:3). Secondly, the believer can trust God that the ultimate goal of all the suffering will be a “greater good.

The Apocalyptic aspect of the Calvinistic Theodicy is rooted in the belief that “one day” the suffering of all believers, or rather God’s elect, will be end when God returns. In many Bible verses the believer is reminded that on that day, God will wipe away all tears. Notice how Calvin seizes on this idea and makes it his own:

They will turn their eye to that day (Isaiah 25:8; Rev. 7:17), on which the Lord will receive his faithful servants, wipe away all tears from their eyes, clothe them in a robe of glory and joy, feed them with the ineffable sweetness of his pleasures, exalt them to share with him in his greatness; in fine, admit them to a participation in his happiness” (Calvin, III, 9:6).

In summary then, the Calvinistic Theodicy has the elements of Power in that God controls everything, especially who will be saved and who will be lost. The Redemptive element takes God’s power to the next level by claiming that God allow evil and suffering in our lives and that all our circumstances, good and evil, serves an ultimate purpose of good. Lastly, there is the Apocalyptic promise that God will return and end the suffering of all believers.

4. Strengths

As was illustrated in the description of the Power and Redemptive aspects of Calvinistic theodicy, God controls everything that happens in the universe to the smallest detail. This means that He will save us in spite of our own deficiencies. It also means that God allows all good and evil that a believer experiences. The “the greater good”– is used to explain just about any suffering. This way, God is never directly blamed for evil, because suffering is deemed good. It also implies that humanity does not have to try to understand evil or suffering very deeply, as it is all due to God’s will.

5. Weaknesses

When the implications of the Calvinistic principle of Predestination is combined with the belief that God is allowed to introduce both good and evil into the lives of all humanity, the visceral reaction could be that of repulsion. Are we really supposed to see genocide or natural disasters as part of God’s plan? How should we react to evil? Should we abstain from preventing evil or alleviating suffering to avoid interfering with God’s plans? How is a stillborn baby supposed to benefit from her own suffering? Moreover, and even more disturbing, could it be that the baby was just an instrument in the hand of the ruthless God to make her already believing parents believe deeper – through suffering? However, the more dangerous aspect of this theodicy, as this paper will show, is the Calvinistic notion of a special elect group that God uses to fulfill His purpose. This belief has caused perverted belief systems that serve as the bedrock for discriminatory worldviews.

6. Proponents

The individuals described here, represent the origin and systematic perversion of an idea of a special elect group that God will use to fulfill His plan. As such, the order that these individuals are introduced in is deliberate to show the systematic perversion of a certain belief.

John Calvin (born Jehan Cauvin: 1509 – 1564), is the well-known author of the “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” and the father of Calvinism. According to Moodie, Calvin accepted the basic tenants of Martin Luther’s reformation theology but felt that God was more powerful than Luther described Him (Moodie, 22). The result is a theology that describes an all-powerful, all-consuming,
all-controlling God, who cannot be resisted.

Abraham Kuyper (born Abraham Kuijper: 1837 – 1920) was a Neo-Calvinist theologian and the Dutch Prime Minister from 1901 to 1905. Moodie, in his book, points to a specific statement by Calvin on the “intermediate election” of an ethnic group to fulfill God’s purpose (Moodie, 26). This notion of a chosen ethnic group was interpreted by Kuyper to mean that God’s people should control all aspects of society. According to the research paper “Abraham Kuyper and the Rise of Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands” by Justus M. van der Kroef, it was this idea of Calvin and the influence of “anti-revolutionaries” like Groen van Prinsterer and Willem Bilderdijk, who turned the idea of a chosen ethnic group, into holy nationalism that would result in a government that: “functioned to maintain discipline and order in the handiwork of God, which included the well-being of all members of the divine order” (van der Kroef, 319). Kuyper’s ideas of sovereignty in all spheres (including government), served as inspiration for the ultra-conservative Gereformeerde (or Dopper) church in South Africa. It also inspired the next proponent, Paul Kruger, of the merits of interpreting Calvinism to frame the experiences of a specific group of people.

Paul Kruger (born Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger: 1825 –1904), was the fifth president of South Africa and the leader of the Afrikaner resistance against English Imperialism during the Anglo-Boer War. Paul Kruger gravitated to the Old Testament idea that Calvin and Kuyper adopted, of a covenant or chosen people. He was one of the cofounders of the Gereformeerde church according to the Research Paper “Puritans in Africa,” by Andre du Toit. He is also considered the father of the Afrikaner civil religion (Moodie, 22).

7. Afrikaner Civil Religion as a Manifestation of Calvinism

The definition of the Afrikaner civil religion is most eloquently summarized in the words of Dr. D. F. Malan, the fifth prime minister of South Africa: “Our history is the greatest masterpiece of the centuries. We hold this nationhood as our due for it was given to us by the Architect of the universe” (Moodie, 1).

In the late nineteenth century, as the Afrikaner started reflecting on the history of their “volk” (people) through the filter of religion, every experience, good or bad was interpreted as being brought upon the people by the hand of God. The reader will remember that this belief stays true to the Redemptive aspects of the Calvinistic theodicy. This interpretation resulted in the creation of a “sacred history” by many important figures like Paul Kruger, Dr. S. J. du Toit, (a firm believer in Kuyper’s theories) and C. J Langenhoven. This history, just like the “sacred histories” of other nations, was depicting the Afrikaner as the good protagonist who overcame many injustices through the “divine guidance of God.” This sacred history was published in book form in 1930 with the title “Ossewa Gedenkboek” (Ox Wagon Memorial). The impact of this book was so tremendous that the newspaper The Burger referred to it as follows,

In all reverence, I would call it the New Testament of Afrikanerdom. Again with the greatest reverence I would declare that it deserves a place on the household altar beside the family Bible. For if the Bible shaped the Afrikaner People, then the Gedenkboek reveals that product in its deepest being (Moodie, 11).

One pivotal incident that stands out in the history of the Afrikaner is the battle of Blood River. The account of the battle according to the sacred history reads, “There followed the memorable battle of Blood River on December 16, 1838, where the solemn oath was sworn to celebrate that day each year to the glory of the Lord if He would grant them victory” (Moodie, 6). The reality was a little different. According to Professor Leonard Thompson in his book, A History of South Africa, 3rd edition, “. . . the emigrants mustered a powerful commando, five hundred strong toward the heart of the Zulu kingdom. Every white member of the commando possessed at least one gun, and the expedition also had two small cannons” (Thompson, 133). Thompson continues to describe how the Zulus attacked the commando while the latter was laagered in a strong defensive position next to the Ncome River. “Eventually the Zulu’s retreated, leaving about three thousand dead around the laager. The commando lost not one member” (Thompson, 133). This senseless slaughter of people seems macabre to those of us reviewing the cold facts, but in the sacred history, it was revered as the day God showed His Redemptive hand and that He had a purpose for the Afrikaner “volk” (people).

Paul Kruger was a deeply religious man and frequently made mention of his own personal faith during his public speeches. Many of these charismatic speeches occurred at places like Paardekraal during cultural festivals. During these emotionally charged speeches, he frequently referred to the Kuyperian ideals of a “chosen people” and reminded the crowd of the covenant that they made with God when He “saved” them at Blood River. These speeches during the 1880’s at Paardekraal on Afrikaner festivals and the writings of people like S.J. du Toit and Paul Kruger, were so influential that it triggered a surge of nationalism among the Afrikaners. Historians like Moodie see these events and this period in time as the birthing of the Afrikaner civil religion.

8. Developing the Zeitgeist of Apartheid

Given the description of a Zeitgeist as the moral, intellectual and cultural spirit of an era, it is important to point out, that it is almost impossible to convince a civilized society to commit evil on a large scale, when only one custom or practice of that society is morally wrong. It takes many factors, many shades of gray to be painted onto the canvas of a country before its citizens start mistaking the picture for reality. This section of the paper is dedicated to outline the “shades of gray,” the factors that contributed to the Zeitgeist of Apartheid.

8.1 Spiritual (The Israel obsession)

Even before Paul Kruger established the civil religion of the Afrikaner, there was a desire among the Boer people to find an interpretation or deeper meaning for their experiences and suffering. In essence, it was a desire for an applicable theodicy. According to Michael Hughey in the Article, “Chosen Peoples, Chosen Races: Religion and the Structure of Race Relations in the United States and South Africa,” the Boer folk transformed their faith into a “folk Calvinism” and,

They searched the Bible for an understanding of their contemporary circumstances and concerns. They especially emphasized Old Testament parallels to their own situations. Thus, for examples, the Trek was likened to an exodus away from the British Pharaoh, a Trek leader was hailed as a second Moses, and the Zulu were viewed either as Canaanites deserving to be crushed or as the cursed children of Ham destined for servitude (Hughey, 24). 2

This almost compulsive identification with the Afrikaner “volk” (people) as an instance of the Israel archetype, became a consistent worldview for the Afrikaner that later morphed into the desire for the Promised Land or utopia where the Afrikaner could live, once the opposition was crushed.
This idea of a “volk” (people) with a divine destiny, was strengthened by the many church and party leaders who received their education in Germany, where they got infatuated by the ideology of “Volk und Vaterland” in Nazism and the German Christian movement (Chidester, 532).

8.2 Symbolism (Celebrating the sacred history)

The Afrikaner created many monuments in remembrance of various heroes, their language – Afrikaans, and the heroic woman and suffering children who died in the concentration camps during the

2 The idea of the black people being the “sons of the biblical Ham”, turned into the powerful and tragic belief that they were meant to be hewers of wood and drawers of water (Moodie, 29).

Anglo Boer war. During numerous emotionally charged gatherings at these sacred spaces, the memories of those heroes, as well as the images and themes of the civil religion, were constantly repeated until the refrain was etched into the Afrikaner’s soul (Moodie, 19).

One building, the Voortrekker Monument just outside Pretoria, is probably the most significant of these symbols. Erected between 1937 and 1938, this monument imbues so much symbolism and historical meaning, that it holds the place of the “volk” (people’s) temple in the hearts of the Afrikaner. Nowhere else is the exclusivity of the Afrikaner civil religion more vivid than in the heart of this temple. The central focus of the monument is a cenotaph in remembrance of the battle of Blood River. Each year, on December 16, a small sliver of sunlight illuminates the words on the cenotaph “Ons vir Jou, Suid Afrika” (We for Thee, South Africa), in a symbolic ritual that is revered by the “volk” (people).

8.3 Fear (The product of an ever-present perceived existential threat)

From the very early history of the white settlers in the Cape Province, the element of existential fear was present in the psyche of the Afrikaner nation. Fear of being murdered by the native inhabitants or by the British Empire through starvation and exposure in the concentration camps; fear of losing their language (Afrikaans) and being forced to speak English. Another fear was that their religion will be “Anglicized.” The latter caused intense disagreement among the Afrikaner theologians. Opposing the Neo-Calvinism of the Transvaal theologians was the evangelical preacher Andrew Murray and his followers, who maintained a majority in the N.G church synod of the Cape Province. Paul Kruger and the Kuyperian theologians from the Transvaal province accused the Cape theologians of Methodism for allowing different races to worship together and for having revival meetings (Moodie, 59-61). As there was no point in the history of South Africa where the Afrikaner population constituted a majority, true Democracy was also feared. In the later years of Apartheid, the South African border war and the actions of liberation armies like the ANC, served to keep the perception of an existential threat alive. Although many of these threats were real, there were also times when the perceived threat was larger than the real threat. The result was that fear became part of the emotional makeup of the Afrikaner.

8.4 Ethical (Legislating racial purity)

The Bible uses the classification of “sheep and goat nations” to refer to the good (sheep) – and bad (goat) nations that will be decided by a final judgment in the end times. The Afrikaner, deeply under the impression of the “sheep and goat nation” references in the Bible and determined to keep racial purity, decided to legislate where people stay and whom they marry. According to Yoon Jung Park in his article, “White, Honorary White, or Non-White: Apartheid Era Constructions of Chinese,” once the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Group Areas Act of 1950 became law, it had very complex repercussions for other races in South Africa. All races were classified as being either European or Non-European in general appearance. For instance, the Japanese race was declared to be European and the Chinese race was classified as Non-European. In a similar manner, every ethnic group in the country was ruthlessly classified, solely based on appearance and regardless of the traumatic effect it had on many people.

8.6 Teaching violence (A history of Corporal Punishment)

South Africa was always a violent society and this was mirrored by a law system that had no scruples to sentence adults and even children to be whipped. These troubling statistics show how many people received sentences to be whipped as recently as 1975.

Race of offender Number Percentage
White 54 1.8
African 2,403 82.6
Coloured 451 15.5
Asian 2 .1
Total 2,910 100

(Midley, 398)
Beyond the statistics of how criminals were treated, most children regularly received severe spankings both at home and in school. All teachers had the right to spank children with a variety of objects on a variety of body parts. Spankings at school were so severe that it sometimes caused bleeding wounds. All of this was considered “perfectly legal”. This culture of punishment permeated society and extended into interracial relations. It was common for white farmers to beat their black workers or for white (and sometimes black) Policemen to slap, punch and kick black members of the public during criminal investigations. Countless “confessions” were extracted using torture. . .

During Apartheid years, while conscription was in effect, all white men had to submit to a compulsory two-year term of military service. The South African Police Force was one of the armed forces and as such took in a fair share of young men who were ruthlessly brainwashed through months of severe physical training and emotional torture that included physical abuse, sleep deprivation, stress positions and fake death scenarios. One of the more heinous techniques used for brain washing, was to force these eighteen year old boys to watch videos of black prisoners being tortured to death. Many of the videos were aimed at dehumanizing black people in the minds of impressionable white minds and therefore black individuals committed much of the violence depicted in these “training” videos.

In this bedrock of violence, the nationalistic message of the civil religion and the sacred history was introduced to impressionable young minds that were ruthlessly taught from young, to follow orders.

9. Conclusion

Extending from cenotaph in the Voortrekker Monument – the symbolic altar of the Afrikaner civil religion – is an ideological chasm that runs through the heart of the Afrikaner and isolates him from anybody with a difference race, language or religion. When the celebration of the senseless slaughter of another race, becomes the corner stone of your civilization, then there is no possible way any other race can ever identify with that symbol. Calvin’s “intermediate election,” the idea that God sometimes choose a group of people to fulfill His purpose, was perverted by theologians like Abraham Kuyper and again by charismatic leaders like Paul Kruger, until it became a license for racial discrimination and a rationalization for every atrocious act.

This theodicy, Calvinism, with its theme of the unbridled power of an all-consuming God who controls every aspect of the lives of His people, including their thoughts and decisions – eventually reflects in the actions of the believer, as power is yielded recklessly. However the deeper, and somewhat more disturbing, conclusion that can be reached is that a very many of the perpetrators of Apartheid believed with all their hearts that when they were following orders – as they were ruthlessly taught to do from very young – they were doing God’s work and fulfilling His will.

As shown in this study, when a believer looks to his religion to verify the integrity of his actions, only to find the same misguided belief system as in his politics, his culture, his sacred history – then this triangulation of justification, generates evil in the form of a Zeitgeist – a spirit of the times, an echo chamber that assures the “predestination of decisions.”

Works Cited

  • Calvin, J. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1536.
  • Moodie, T. The rise of Afrikanerdom : Power, Apartheid, and the Afrikaner Civil Religion.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

  • Kroef J. Abraham Kuyper and the Rise of Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands.

Church History [serial online]. December 1948; 17(4):316-334. Available from: Historical Abstracts, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 17, 2012.

  • Thompson, Leonard. A history of South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • DuToit A. Puritans in Africa? Afrikaner “Calvinism” and Kuyperian Neo-Calvinism in late

Nineteenth-Century South Africa. Comparative Studies in Society & History [serial online]. April 1985; 27(2):209-240. Available from: Historical Abstracts, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 17, 2012

  • Hughey M. Chosen Peoples, Chosen Races: Religion and the Structure of Race Relations in the

United States and South Africa. International Journal Of Politics, Culture & Society [serial online]. September 1987; 1(1):23. Available from: SocINDEX with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 18, 2012.

  • Chidester, David. Christianity: A Global History. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
  • YOON JUNG P. White, Honorary White, or Non-White: Apartheid Era Constructions of Chinese.

Afro-Hispanic Review [serial online]. Spring 2008; 27(1):123-138. Available from: Humanities International Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 18, 2012.

  • Midgley J. Corporal Punishment And Penal Policy: Notes on the Continued Use of

Corporal Punishment with Reference to South Africa. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology [serial online]. Spring1982 1982; 73(1):388-403. Available from: SocINDEX with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 20, 2012.