The dangers and possibilities of re-imagining Afrikaner Christianity

March 10, 2016

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.

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