simplicity: one of the most complex questions facing us
December 10, 2010
I spent the weekend down in Pietermaritzburg with the steering committee of ANiSA, visioning what the role of ANiSA might be in South Africa today. Coming from the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed church environment (a context to which I declared my love in one of the sessions, admittedly in similar fashion to which Ani Difranco declare love to her country), I found the conversations source of hope. The crowd was diverse in race, language, church background (gender however is a question which I would hope to see more diversity in future). We came with very different theological backgrounds, but with a willingness to consider radical possibilities, and a strong commitment to justice and peace.
The day was spent drafting a kind of vision statement, through discussion of one-word concepts which might be used to tell something of the values of this network. The discussions opened up an amazing richness which I hope can continue to flow into the broader theological discussion in South Africa. The best meetings I’ve had in the church all contained two aspects, both which I found at ANiSA as well: deep theological debate, and lots of laughter. With out the deep debate, we end up simply stating some kind of common denominator, which contributes nothing, and changes no one. Without laughter we take ourselves too seriously, and we are no longer able to change. We had the intense debate, but with a lightness which opened up everyone (that’s how it felt at least) to the possibility that I may be changed through these discussions.
Probably the concept which stimulated the most conversation was “simplicity”. Our various reactions convinced us that this concept, contested as it is, is of the utmost importance to our context today, although we acknowledge the complexity with the term.
For myself, I think the double-bind we experience is that the fact that we find ourselves in South Africa, with its poverty and economic inequality, vast riches and extreme poverty, calls us to seriously discuss what the simple lifestyle would mean. However, exactly because this is the context we find ourselves in, we acknowledge that it is almost impossible to state with clarity what simplicity and simple living would look like. When we call for simplicity, for simple living, it is not yet a call which is defined in the detail of what the exact implication would be, but a very strong value, calling us to take this conversation very seriously, and work through the questions which the South African context births.
The call towards simplicity may never be just another way of romanticizing poverty in some spiritual way. The poor is not those who are living lives of simplicity. Simplicity require that we have access to that which we need to simply live, it is not a blind call to “simply own less and less, simply have access to less and less”. I’d describe the call to simplicity as a deeply prophetic call. Prophetic in the old-school sense of pointing out that: “this way of inequality and over-consumption for a few is not just, not sustainable. If we continue down this road it will lead to our death! It will create violence! Therefore we need to turn from our greedy ways”. It is a critical voice to those of us in positions of power and privilege to rethink our participation in the global economic and ecological systems, as well as in the local relations with those whom we should call neighbours. As such simplicity must be more than just an individual private choice, but must be a public outcry, a systemic suggestion for a better world.
In a way I’d therefore say that simplicity is a choice. It is a choice which some do not have, and others choose not to make. It is the choice which those who have it should make, so that those who do not have access to the choice of living in simplicity can be made room for. Still, we don’t have an answer to what this life would look like in hard financial terms. However, this acknowledgement of the complexity of the question may never become just another way of postponing the critical question facing us.