Maybe not #colourblind, but Christian indeed
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…”.