April 7, 2016
I wrote this during the week and initially decided not to publish. The response of church leaders yesterday gave me a place where I’m willing to position myself, allowing to more easily share my thoughts for a time like this.
Perhaps I’ve always been slightly skeptical of the things that “everyone beliefs”. Perhaps I just listened to some very good friends pointing out that the initial #Zumamustfall events were more about white people defending their rejection of black majority rule than about movements actually seeking the good of “we the people”. Perhaps I’m just inherently skeptical about party-politicians, or else overly optimistic about constitutional democratic processes. For whichever reason, I find myself in this awkward place where it seems like my entire facebook timeline, who usually cannot agree either on how the Bible should be read or whether capitalism is a good idea, is in agreement that Zuma Must Fall. So I’m driven to writing, perhaps answering the question of a friend on what I would have added to the 6 April declaration by civil society organization, perhaps just giving some substance to my awkward attempts at toning down the slightly extremist language I’ve seen flame up. So this is my attempt at explaining why I’m not overly optimistic about the fall of Zuma, even if I do suspect that this is an inevitable event.
Some disclaimers are in order. I have no party political affiliation. I’m an ordained minister of a church which clearly state that you cannot remain ordained while being in any kind of leadership position in a political party. Together with many others I tend to expand this regulation to imply that you cannot remain ordained while being a card carrying member of any political party. In short: as a ordained minister I consider it part of my duty never to uncritically support a political party. But I am a ferocious supporter of the vote, and think that people should vote and that their vote should be held close to sacred.
So why am I not getting caught up in #ZumaMustFall? I’m not going to even attempt to defend president Jacob Zuma. He’s made some inexcusable mistakes, even while not everything he did was a mistake. Personally I kind of assumed that he’ll be recalled for some reasons like “bad health” around the time of the election of the next ANC president. I’m not really in favour of recalling presidents. I think we risk creating the belief that we can always “fix it later” if we’ve made a democratic mistake. As a rule that shouldn’t happen. We should vote with the assumption that we’ll be stuck with the elected official for 5 years, and make sure we vote for people we’d want to do the job for 5 years. In South Africa the recall of a second president in a row would be particularly problematic. That said, perhaps we are in a particularly problematic situation, warranting exceptional action. But let’s remember, recalling, impeaching or retiring a president should be an extremely exceptional thing.
But since the Constitutional Court case I’ve really struggled to buy into the call for Zuma to retire, be recalled or be impeached. Perhaps it’s the huge grey-ness around what exactly the call is that’s partly to blame for my lack of enthusiasm. I mean, what do civil society want? Should Zuma announce that he is retiring due to health reasons (we’ll all know that it won’t be entirely true, although I think if he doesn’t have health problems given the recent stress he must experience then he would surely be an exceptional man)? Should the ANC get together and recall him? Should parliament vote that they have no confidence in him or should they impeach him? It seems like we really don’t care: as long as the chair of the presidents office isn’t being warmed by him, it looks like my facebook timeline would be happy.
Let’s intersect the argument by just noting that any call for the fall the fall of the president play into an ongoing party political discourse. Yes we know, certain political parties has for a long time been telling us that the real problem with South Africa is Jacob Zuma, or for those slightly less committed to democracy and more willing to question majority vote, the ANC. One problem with at least the official opposition is that they’ve been raising some serious concerns about whether they really want Zuma to fall. Let me explain it this way: each call for a “vote of no confidence” or “impeachment” by the official opposition insures that it cannot happen in the immediate future. Obviously the majority party in parliament won’t be voting in a favour of a resolution to get rid of their appointed president if brought forth by the opposition. But more than that, it forces a greatly divided majority party to close ranks and defend a deeply problematic president. But perhaps that is what the opposition really wants. It seems like it is entirely in the favour of the opposition if Jacob Zuma remain president, since they then have a perfect election platform. So excuse me for doubting whether the opposition is really trying to work for “we the people” even if that would make their election campaigns far more difficult. In short: I’m not quite convinced that parliament is divided between those who serve party political interests and those who serve the people. It seems like the lines are quite blurry, and that all parliamentarians are to some extend working for the good of their respective parties rather than for “we the people”. The latest impeachment debate is not necessarily an exception. Any civil society response will have to ask questions not only about this or that party, but about parliamentary processes which does not work for the good of people, but rather seek to score cheap party political points.
But obviously these are not the only reasons. My bigger concern is that the call for Zuma to fall seem to repeat the strange idea (strange for modern democracies) that the change of the individual at the “top” would somehow miraculously save a country. It’s either that if we just get the right guy at the top (whether Mmusi Maimane or Julius Malema) or if we can just get rid of the wrong guy at the top (in this case Jacob Zuma, with the default replacement being Cyril Ramaphosa) then somehow things will get right. But how can we belief this of a complex institution like a modern democracy?
Furthermore, this belief allow us to buy into a very easy civil society response. A clear call: “Zuma Must Fall!”, easily understandable (seen in the confusion around how exactly he must fall), easily visualized (ask the cartoonists) and something which seem attainable within the short term – let’s face it, getting civil society committed for the long haul is probably asking too much.
In the process we might risk not working for the really important things.
Focusing the problem on the fall of an individual assume that there really isn’t anything wrong with the presidency as such, with the checks and balances making sure that the presidency doesn’t overstep its function. It’s an argument that Jacob Zuma was really just an exceptionally bad guy, and that if we can get a better president, then all will be well. But perhaps we should ask whether we want a presidency with the power to tumble a country into so much trouble (I’ll get to the question on why we blame this on a single individual later)? Should we not rather mobilize civil society around some suggestions on how the presidency functions? How cabinet ministers are appointed?
But the focus on the fall of an individual has some other risks. Each Sunday Christians from a variety of traditions remind ourselves that the evil in this world, the injustice and oppression, is not only something “out there”, not only something found among a elect group of “purely evil people”, but something which we are all part of in some way or the other. We’ve all sinned, Christians confess. But our current public discourse seem to belief that the “innocent” are now calling for the fall of “prime evil” (even if individuals might not subscribe to this kind of theology – and a theology it is, even if secular). Apart from the excessive political metaphors (comparisons with PW Botha or Adolf Hitler or the likes) it also misses how we are tied into the injustice that lead to this point – and let’s just point out that those making the most noise are not necessarily the least tied to the maintenance of immense social problems in our country. It’s not simply that we’ve all participated in the “petty corruption” of South Africa, but that we’ve participated in building a culture of excessive greed – found in the lengths to which we go in order to acquire the symbols of wealth and power (the suburban home, expensive motor or overseas holidays, or the clothes burned in certain teenage rituals) to our tacit support of extreme inequality – the disingenuousness of calling out Zuma for the fact that South Africa is the most unequal country without explicitly asking questions about the processes through which the top 1%, 5% or 10% (gini-coeffient is usually calculated according to the top 10% if I’m not mistaken) attain and retain this wealth should leave us with immense discomfort.
But there is a flip side to the problem of a belief in our own innocence: we tend to create the perception of a part of a society which is ultimately “evil”. We’ve seen this over the past few days in the discourse associated not only with the president but with the ANC as a whole. When a well-known public figure describe the ANC (implying the entire movement) as a “spineless bunch of self-serving sycophants” then we should indeed react with some discomfort. Once we’re convinced that there is a single evil which should fall “at all costs” we risk allowing the inconceivable – such as soldiers questioning the presidency (look around you and see what happens when soldiers decide that perhaps it would be better if the president was removed!). While there has been moments in history where the language of excessive evil might have been appropriate, this is not it. This is a fairly well functioning democracy, and if we had any doubts about it, the past 5 months revealed this brilliantly, both in the reappointment of Pravin Gordhan as well as in the Constitutional Court judgement.
So beyond the question of the power of the presidency I would hope that civil society will start focusing on a number of other things.
We all love the Public Protector right now, and with good reason. But a new Public Protector will have to be appointed soon, and the brilliant ruling by the Constitutional Court through Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng made sure that the role of the Public Protector will be even more important in future. Civil Society should start mobilising to insure that the next Public Protector will have adequate funding and that whoever is appointed will be someone with integrity above reproach.
The presidency of Jacob Zuma has been shrouded by questions about the excessive power of the “security cluster”, harking back to some of the darkest days in the history of our country, as well as the undue influence of big capital. Marikana, Guptas, or the recent murder of Bazooka Rhadebe might all be examples of the intersection of these two forces. Civil society need to have some serious conversations about how we insure that our democracy is not run by either the powers of guns or capital.
We have to insist that the solution cannot simply be in the replacement of one president with another nor with one political party with another, but that we are committed to working for a well functioning democracy where we not only resolve the current problems (and problems we have) but where we insure that the chances that any such problems occur again are significantly reduced. Anything less is simply not good enough.
So, in order to not allow this crisis to go to waste, let’s insist that the anger of South Africans is not reduced to changing faces, but to building our democracy into something even more resilient – but if that is the goal, then I have to say, I don’t think we’re starting out from such a bad place. We seem to have a democracy which functions quite well.
But let’s also remain clear on one thing: Jacob Zuma should not be removed “at all cost”. There is indeed a cost which is too high. In the call for the removal of a president we can indeed legitimize things which will cause far more harm in the long run. Let’s always count the cost.
This was my 5 minute introduction to a dialogue on Re-imagining Afrikaner Identity, organized by the WITS Institute for Critical Diversity Studies on 10 March 2016.
I often struggle to know which hat to put on for which conversation. But today, as is visible, I consciously participate from within the church. More particularly, I am an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. I do not speak on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church, but I do want to open up a conversation by speaking from within, or at least from the border of, this space. I’ll stick to my five minutes and just lay down some of my assumptions and the questions that I think is important if we want to start talking about re-imagining Afrikaner Christianity.
I take as for granted, since this was given through the topic, that people who identify as Afrikaner will, at least in the immediate future, continue to participate in this country as Afrikaners, that this identity either cannot, or perhaps should not, be destroyed in order to find a more human existence together, but that it should rather be transformed and re-imagined. While the transformation of Afrikaner identity should not be limited to its history of racism, I suspect that this is the most prominent aspect on the table today: Afrikaner culture and identity has been and continue to be, as was starkly illustrated on university campuses recently, drawn upon to fuel a white racist imagination.
That the church in general, and the Dutch Reformed Church in particular, played a deeply problematic role in the history of apartheid need not be expanded on when our time is so limited. On the other hand, that people who explicitly drew from their Christian faith and represented other parts of the institutional church played an important role in bringing apartheid to an end probably require little defending either. Christian faith can both liberate and oppress.
Let me perhaps add another point which might require much more critical scrutiny, but which I’ll also just accept for the sake of the conversation: Afrikaners are often deeply religious people. While such a statement should immediately be complemented with the point that South Africans in general are often deeply religious people, for the sake of our conversation the question really is how the religion of those who describe themselves as Afrikaners interact with how we imagine Afrikaner identity. Now this is not true of all Afrikaners, and even among the religious Afrikaners not all will describe themselves as Christian. But given that a significant part of the country in general and Afrikaners in particular describe themselves as Christian, and added to this that Christianity has been closely intertwined with the development of apartheid and modern racism, the ongoing Christian identity of Afrikaners is indeed something which require specific attention.
All these quite obvious points bring me to what I want us to explore in relation to re-imagining Afrikaner identity: Re-imagining Afrikaner identity will require re-imagining Afrikaner Christianity as well. And, the hope would be, that in re-imagining Afrikaner Christianity we might find ways of re-imagining Afrikaner identity.
But at this point a great deal of hesitancy is in order. Christianity has had an ambiguous role in South African history. For the sake of our conversation the problem that I would want to think about together with you is in particular found in the instances where Christians in general, but let’s keep to Afrikaner Christians in particular, have opted for ways of being and acting which through a Christian imagination is portrayed as benevolent while contributing to the formation of an inherently unequal society. What I believe we need to speak about in this context is particularly the ways in which Afrikaners are already re-imagining Afrikaner identity by re-imagining their Christian identity, but then constantly ask whether the re-imagined Christianities (plural) actually disrupt the ways in which Afrikaner identity is tied to white supremacy and paternalism, or whether it risks dressing up whiteness in language which is more acceptable while still solidifying its position of power in society as far as possible.
So I hope to invite a conversation on the ways in which Afrikaners are currently re-imagining their Christianity, and that we can use this space to critically reflect on the actual impact of these re-imagined Christianities. I might point out some of the re-imagining I see, and hope to hear of other attempts that you see and might be part of, and to start to critically think how each of these actually contribute to a re-imagined Afrikaner identity.
February 24, 2016
A number of disclaimers are in order.
I’m not in any way formally connected to the University of Pretoria, although I spent a good decade of my life in that space. I have many colleagues whom I trust wholly lecturing at UP, and I fully accept their eyewitness account and voice of reason on what happened on Monday 22 February.
I’m also not actively involved with the student community at this stage, and what I know is merely what I’ve been observing from a distance.
As with many who are familiar with the critical discourse on race and racism I had a negative kneejerk reaction to the #colourblind discourse when it popped up. However, I have a very positive feeling about the prayer movement. So without taking too much time, I hope to start thinking out loud about what it would mean to be a Christian yet not #colourblind.
First some notes on my positive response to the student prayer movement. So you needn’t know me that well to know that this would not be the default spiritual space to which I would navigate, but I do think that the church (although not the church exclusively) has the capacity and the language to draw people into an inclusive space. The sense I got by Monday evening was that this was needed. Really needed. And Christian students (possibly with a slightly more charismatic bend) did what came naturally to them: they gathered for public prayer and rituals (yes, the holding of hands, touching, sharing spaces, reciting words, those are rituals as well, and while not highly liturgical I get the sense that indeed they are deeply religious) which emphasized a common humanity and a common faith.
Now this would not be the first time in the history of South African racism that these particular rituals are drawn upon in public. There is a long history of these exact attempts at organizing reconciling events. As a white Christian I’ll attest to the value of these. These were spaces where I was allowed to explore a humanity which is broader and deeper than my white Afrikaner community of origin – a community which, for all its deep values which I can appreciate, remains deeply scarred by its own history of racism and patriarchy. Let us never underestimate how much of our humanity we need to give up on in order to maintain a racist system.
But because it is not the first time that these spaces are set up in response to racism in South Africa, we also need to be reminded of the problems which these spaces have left unresolved or even perpetuated in the past. This explains my kneejerk reaction, as well as the kneejerk reaction of others (which is probably what got me to write again).
Spaces focusing on setting up a symbolically reconciled Christian community often had to do this at the cost of explicit analysis of ongoing racial inequality, the racism that continue to structure society (not only in our economics, but in our assumptions about who is to provide the moral and intellectual leadership for various movements, to name but one example), and in particular that there has to be silence about the soft racism within these groups itself. The immense difficulty of having honest conversations about racism unfortunately work against the ideals of Christian unity – at least in the short term. Honest conversations about racism is not comfortable, and present a particular challenge to those symbolically illustrating the ideals of Christian love and community in public (yes, we can at a later stage ask whether true unity is not exactly what happen when we insist on the impossibility of not being in relationship in spite of the discomfort which our difficult conversation create).
Another reason why a kneejerk reaction does happen is due to the fear that Christian discourse (“there is neither Jew nor Greek”) can easily be co-opted for an assimilationist politic. Basically this mean that in the name of a Christian identity which should bind us together across our various ethnic and racial divides we create a monocultural space which ask that we leave that which does not conform to the hegemony of this space at the door. Now I’ll agree, there are times where this beats the alternative (if the alternative is a drive into essentialised oppositional identities), but it risks meaning that black people should just act more white and then all would be well and we can sing kumbaja (with all due respect to the hymn).
The claim to #colourblind-ness has a long history in the United States, and even there it has its problems. The borrowing across the Atlantic should already warn us that this might not speak to our particular questions of race and racism (which really is quite different form the US), but the repeated attempts at a discourse that claim that we “do not see race” which turn out to be false should also make us wary. Let’s not forget that it is the so-called “born frees” that are suddenly involved in something which (perhaps in slight exaggeration) is described as a “race war”.
The truth is that we do see race. There might be moments where our deep relational connection with other people cause us to momentarily forget or get confused about where we fit into this racialised society, but those are usually few and far between. But apart from the almost common-sense point that we are not #colourblind, we should go beyond this and find a way of saying that for Christians (probably true to humanity in general, but I do want to make sense of this within a particularly Christian frame) it is neither desirably not good to try and make ourselves #colourblind.
There is both a “soft” diversity reason for making this claim, but also a more “hard” social justice reason. Let’s start with what is more easily palatable.
Both our belief in the incarnation of Christ as well as the work of the Spirit should cause us to value the particularity of people’s identities. God became human not in the form of the so-called “universal man”, but as a Jewish Mediterranean peasant. The religious, ethnic and social-economic identity of the God-man Jesus matters. The way in which the gospel takes root within our diverse communities should similarly be held as important. The Spirit that blows where it wishes work through our whole being to renew and transform us, and in the body of Christ is enriched by the community between those from vastly different cultural and linguistic backgrounds who in community deepen our understanding of the one God. That’s all just very Christianese for saying that diversity if a gift to the church, and should be noted. We do not leave our identities at the church door, and nor should we.
But there is a more difficult aspect as well. Our calling into becoming followers, disciples, does not involve a universal set of laws, but rather ask that we are transformed in very particular ways. We could turn to the letters to the 7 congregations in Asia-minor or simply study the vastly different responses that people got from Jesus in the gospels. Who we are matter when we want to figure out what it means to be a disciple. What does it mean to follow Jesus as a male in a patriarchal society? How does my Christian identity transform the way I relate to questions of gender oppression? How does the complicity of Christian theology in maintaining this patriarchy impact on what I am called to do? What is the particular call of the gospel towards those who are white in a time after apartheid? What does the gospel call those who are black in a world where black people were made to belief in their own inferiority for centuries? What does it mean to be an Afrikaner Christian when in the name of Afrikaners people are being insulted and assaulted? The call and cost of discipleship cannot be the same regardless of who I am. My identity is closely intertwined with the search for what being a followed of Jesus should mean in my own life.
Now I get that given the violence of the past days we need spaces where we can just consolidate again. Spaces where we can just celebrate our shared humanity, spaces where we can just remind ourselves that we are not about to kill each other. But what we really need is not merely spaces where we can articulate a universal Christian identity but where we can accompany each other in trying to figure out what the particular challenge of the gospel is for me. Obviously we will still share many of the costs of discipleship. It is after all one gospel which we are trying to interpret. But the particular call of the gospel in particular situations is probably the witness which we need most.
So let us work on what it would mean to not leave my identity at the church door, but to more consciously allow the light of the gospel to through the community of faith illuminate who I truly am and what the specific challenge of the gospel is for who I am. So perhaps what we need are spaces where we can say: “I am white, and I am Christian, and I believe that the call of gospel on my life involve…”.
October 23, 2015
In large part I still don’t know I got here. I’ve seldom thought of myself as much of an activist. I’m probably as uncomfortable in a protest as the next white middle-class guy. But it’s clear that the students are right. They’ve been right all along (if you ever had doubts, you can also scroll down and consider the advise in the last paragraph). I can talk about the math on why they were right if you want, but we’ll have to grab a beer or a coffee for that. For now it’s enough to just say it: they were right and I knew it. The church supported them. Academics I trust supported them. So I knew that when the march go to the Union Buildings then I will join them. I decided to join as verbi divini minister – minister of the divine word – and the dress-code clearly revealed this.
Today I saw young students, beautiful young students, on the bus I took towards the inner-city. Their water bottles gave away their agenda.
Today I saw students gathering in a park. A joyous occasion. I saw white students learning the art of politics. Slowly, hesitantly, learning what it means to be part of a mass movement. I saw a massive amount of students, reflecting the demographics of this country, singing together, marching together, joking together, sharing space and company, dreams in their eyes about the future of this country. I walked with them and I knew: if these people represent where South Africa is going, then I want in. I want to be a part of this.
Today I saw ministers from different churches joining students. Some in liturgical wear, others indistinguishable from the students around them, representing a range of churches. When signs of violence started appearing I saw a senior minister tell us: “come, we need to go there”. “Isn’t is safer here?” another asked. “Indeed it is”, he answered, “but we have to help calm things down”.
Today I saw thousands upon thousands of students gathering with utmost discipline. Insisting on peace. I know that you’ll see thousands upon thousands of photos of a small group who might not fit this description, and I’ll get to them, but the norm of the day of peace.
Today I saw violence. Perhaps I’ve never seen violence in my protected existence as close as I’ve seen it today. For my white friends, today I saw a small group of both white and black male students instigating violence.
Today I saw pastors standing in front of a fence which students want to break down and occupying that space. At least for a while. I saw them promise to students that we are here with you. We support you. But insisting that this is not the way to go. And I saw angry, deeply angry, students respect that. I plead with my fellow pastors and church leaders: I saw students showing a cautious trust towards the church and faith leaders. Cautiously considering that the church does have the kind of integrity that we will stand with them. Please, we cannot let them down. Statements are great, but we will have to get together and think deeply about how we consciously journey with the young people of this country. I say this in particular to my own church, the Dutch Reformed Church, because, let’s face it, we are very very far removed from what the average South African is going through.
Yet, today I saw a Dutch Reformed minister standing with students, actually trusted enough that they would calm down around him, at least for a while, and repeatedly explaining the churches support for these students to every journalist approached him. And many did. Colleague, you know who you are, you earned my deepest respect today.
Today I saw how even with even this utmost discipline, even with student leaders from every party and group working for peace, it is really difficult to stop a small group of instigators. Probably impossible. Before you point a finger, stand in that space. Today I watched as a fire was started close to where the stage will be. Pastors around, lawyers for human rights around, and a massive amount of students working for peace around, without resorting to further violence it is almost impossible in the long run to stop a small group of instigators. And when a tire burn is burning it is burning.
Today I saw 10000 students (I guess the official number will be confirmed later) gathered at the the Union Buildings by 12:00. There was no problem by 12. But by 13:30 there was no sign, not even an announcement, from the people that had to speak. Nor by 14:30. We stood their shaking our heads. We could see how difficult it is becoming to contain those instigating violence. We knew that working through the program will give the majority of the students something to keep the peace with. We knew that what was needed was someone with the authority to speak to get onto that podium and speak. But it didn’t happen. Forgive me for getting the impression that someone wanted to delay this until there were instances with which to delelegitimize the students.
Today I some kind of armored vehicle driving through a crowd of students as if they are not there. To that driver: what were you thinking? There was absolutely no reason for doing that! I’m no security expert, and probably never will be, but I’m quite convinced that someone who is will be able to indicate that what happened today is simply not the way to work with a crowd of students.
Today I saw journalists on both side of the fence. I saw journalists among the students and journalists among the police. I know that you had to look at the conflict, but you will tell the story in the coming days. Hats of to you who can look beyond a single incident and see the broader movement.
Today I saw students regroup after teargas was thrown around. Not up by the gates where some clashes were happening, down by the grass where students were waiting. I saw students gather themselves, following leaders, peaceful with utmost discipline, preparing to occupy that space again.
Not everything was beautiful. Not everything was perfect. But you are going to make a choice whether you want to look at the thousands of students peacefully gathering or whether you want to look at the thousands of photos of the violence that did happen. I’m not blind to what happened. I stood as close to that fire as was humanly possible. But I know that this is not what defined today. Today was defined by the insistence of the majority that this will not be another violent clash. Today was defined by the two young woman who, deep into the day, took position right in front of me, where we were pastors were occupying the space next to a fence that some wanted to break open, to form their small part of a chain. It was defined by their insistence to each other that they’ll wait until tonight if needs be, but they will not engage in violence. You choose what you want to see. But it will probably say more about you than about what happened.
Today would have been a totally different story if someone walked onto that stage at 12:00 and made the announcement that was made at 15:00. It would have defined the story of this country in a way would have been far more hopeful. Alas.
That is what I saw today. I guess I need much more time to process this. I apologize if I can’t express this correctly. But this is what I saw. To the students I marched with this morning: if you are the future of this country, then I want in. You’re walk was a symbol of hope.
And to those who think the protests was unnecessary or even wrong. I sincerely hope that you’ll pay the 10% difference in you or your child’s university fees into some bursary fund.
September 18, 2014
The conference for John de Gruchy’s 75th birthday was an amazing experience. It seemed like no cost or trouble was spared to gather a selection of amazing speakers, and these speakers presented possible the most engaging set of lectures that I’ve ever heard in such a short time. Alan Boesak was to deliver the last main lecture, and many expected it to be an explosion. Boesak is without a doubt one of the most gifted speakers that South Africa has ever had, and his overview of the struggle against apartheid, of the problems in the transition to a democratic South Africa, and in all honesty, his sermon on the challenges facing the church and the world, was met with a standing ovation.
But his insistence that we have not yet dealt with white supremacy, said in the most pastoral of ways, even more particularly his softly spoken critique against an overemphasis of Afrikaner experiences of trauma in explaining racism, create that movement of white bodies, the shifting in the chairs, the darting eyes to note what black colleagues might be thinking, and while a conversation didn’t happen, if this were a round table rather than a lecture hall, and if all participated, my guess is that the struggle to adequately respond to whiteness and racism would also be audible in the words spoken by white participants.
But it was a young black women, a theological student presumably, most probably undergraduate, that may have caused a deeper explosion that Alan Boesak could. Whether those of us sitting there were aware of it at the moment I doubt, I doubt that she was aware of it. It started as a critique on Boesak, but this just hid the critique on the generation of Black Theologians that came after Boesak, and the even more fierce critique of the guild of academic theologians in general, of which many, if not most, in her experience would have been white.
“Dr Boesak”, she started out, “thank you for your work, but it has become a matter of entertainment.” Entertainment? I cringed. But entertainment was meant as theological work reduced to the public and political sphere. Yes, the irony should not be overlooked, how can it be that a theologian is “reduced” to the public sphere, that politicians quote a theologian but theologians don’t. She then continued with a plea that she and her generation want to do Black Theology, but that there are not space for this in the university. There are no space because “when we tell our lecturers that we want to do Black Theology, they tell us that there isn’t sufficient literature available”.
The response she got was that all of Alan’s books are in the library and on the shelves of lecturers (or more specifically, not on the shelves of lecturers because it was borrowed to students). But I suspect the response missed the mark. Yes, the books are in the library. But her experience that she is being told that she cannot work on Black Theology because there isn’t literature available does not refer to availability in the library, it hints at a response which said that it isn’t available. There isn’t anything academic that you can use to do Black Theology.
Now, I quote from memory, I don’t know who she was (and if anyone do know, I would love to contact her). I interpret generously to make a point. But what are we to say of this? Somehow I had the experience that a young black women, possibly an undergraduate student, disrupted the guild of South African academic theology with one question. And she did this by merely pointing out that academic theology has silenced the one attempt at making race a central question of critical theology, silenced it to the point where young Black theologians who know that race is a key theological question experience that the theological academy it not the place where this is to be asked.
The silence of particularly white theologians on matters of race has been pointed out repeatedly over the past 15 years or so. While much is done in theology on class and gender, race as a particularly theological problem and theological challenge is seldom directly engaged by theologians, specifically white theologians. For the moment let me just say that this silence seem to beg for a response, both in continuing the work of the tradition of Black Theology, but also by white theologians taking up this task.
June 7, 2013
We often hear that “apartheid was a heresy”, yet what exactly made this a heresy is at times lost in our church discussions. For those of us in the Dutch Reformed Church this might be partly because nowadays we are looking at a tennis game between a group in the church who find heresy everywhere, and another who cannot work with the concept of heresy at all (I’m rather drawn to the second one, so if this post relate to the current conversations on heresy I’m responding to myself).
Russel Botman share the story of how their class of theological students became convinced that apartheis is indeed a heresy. Jaap Durand was the lecturer in systematic theology, and challenged his students:
“You have been quite explicit about the legal, sociological, psychological, and political science reasons for your judgment on apartheid. I want to challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on apartheid.”
The answer he then provides is that “apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups.” Apartheid assume that people are inherently irreconcilable, while the gospel assume a radical reconciliation which transcend all borders.
We might want to revisit this idea that arguing from a belief of the inherent irreconcilability of people is nothing but a heresy, since this continue to be such a common idea. Is this not what underlies every statement that two groups of people will “never be able to find each other”? If we normalize the divisions in society by saying that “our cultures differ too much”, “there will always be conflict”, are we not assuming that people are inherently irreconcilable?
Socially I think there are two ideas which we are holding to in order to keep this heresy going. The one is the belief in some kind of essential group identity. White people will always be white people, always act like white people, and always want to be part of a group of white people. The other is that conflict between groups of people that are different are inevitable and natural. Yet neither of these are true.
Groups are fluid, change over time, merge with others, die out, have individuals abandon that group, and are joined by individuals who it would be inconceivable in another context. Religions as a social group provide a good example, or nationalities, but cultures, ethnicities and the way the world are constructed as races are not essential and eternal either. Secondly, even where we do belong to different social groups, conflict and strive is not inevitable. Groups of people find amazingly creative ways of living in harmony together.
Yes, group identities are strong and will form us over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. But they are not permanent. Conflict do exist between different groups, but it is not inevitable. Reconciliation is difficult (and true reconciliation should be difficult, if it isn’t difficult we might want to suspect that we are not yet totally honest with each other), but always possible. So let’s start watching the language of “never” and “impossible” when it relates to reconciliation.
This does not imply that we will sort out our divided legacy in this country in one generation, or even in my lifetime. But it does mean that I will reject every movement which support an irreconciled society, or which work with the assumption that we are inherently irreconcilable, and trying is therefore worthless. Let’s agree to end that kind of talk.
January 14, 2013
It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.
On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.
The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.
The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.
But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.
Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?
Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?
What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.
The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.
Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.
What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.
Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.