#blackmonday, how the reformation was co-opted

October 31, 2017

500 years. 500 years of protestant churches being drawn into this, that, or the other nationalist project. 500 years of ethnic organization of the church. To hell with Acts and Paul’s letters. We’ve known this all along. Why, we’ve become so used to it that we don’t even find it strange that “Dutch” is still found in the name of a church in South Africa (yes, “Dutch” in “Dutch Reformed” survived elsewhere as well). Forget the denominational fracturing of the one church that came in the wake of the protestant reformation. Probably more important is that the church was carved up ethnically, and in South Africa in a very particular way, racially.

It’s not new. We know this. When David Bosch tried to explain why apartheid was a specifically theological problem, it was this deep mistake in protestant ecclesiology, which allowed protestant ecclesiology to get so drawn up into social and national identities, which he discerned to be at the heart of apartheid theology, missiology, and politics. It was, at least in part, the reformation that made it possible for that fateful synod of 1857 to finally say that “us and the converts from the pagans” (in this formulation confirming the more recent thesis of Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter that our racial theologies are embedded in a supersessionist imagination) may go our separate ways at the table of the Lord.

More recently I reviewed Thomas Howard’s Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism. What makes Howard’s argument interesting is showing how commemorations of the reformation has itself been drawn into nationalist projects over the centuries. While he was writing primarily about the German context, I then mentioned that this is something that must be kept in mind in South Africa as well. Just how explicitly relevant this might become I couldn’t yet imagine.

Along came Ernst Roets, calling South Africa to protest farm murders. But Roets drew together Monday 30 October and Tuesday 31 October, in a single paragraph calling his audience to participate in both, and drawing the events around Luther into a strategic motivation for yesterday’s protests. The seamless way in which he could do it, and as a brilliant communicater know that his audience will experience no tension with his doing so, should leave us with a deep suspicion on what our commemorations symbolically do.

Boesak, Beyers, Belhar. And others could be added. A long list could be made of South African attempts at finding a specifically Reformed, generally Protestant, and broadly Christian identity not only no longer tied to white racism and European colonialism, but in active opposition to this. But we should not forget that the church, our theology, and yes, the 500 year celebration of the reformation, is a site of struggle. There is a theological struggle around what work today’s reformation commemoration (and that which it signifies more broadly) should do for us politically.

If rugby “united a nation and inspired the world” in 1995 (a slightly ludicrous claim when taken literally, and probably even figuratively, but nonetheless, symbols matter), then in hindsight we might remember 30 October as one of the moments which (at least symbolically) had some the most destructive effects on our struggling attempt at forming a new community after one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century. The brutal irony (or is that, sadly, no irony) that Afriforum claimed that they did this in support of the 1995 World Cup team should not pass us by (the original post on their website has now been replaced with a different message, but they claimed that they received a letter from the 1995 Springbok team).

But not only rugby was co-opted into yesterday’s events. It was liturgical. Bowing knees. Laying crosses. And yes, for Roets and Afriforum at least, drawn into the remembrance of the reformation. But the discourse on violence in South Africa has always been drawn into the construction of race and the process of theologically thinking through our identity.

It’s not that we don’t have an immense problem with violence in South Africa. We do. But Slavoj Žižek’s comments in Violence: Six sideways reflections on racism and hurricane Katrina is sadly relevant to our own situation: “even if ALL reports of violence and rape were to be proved factually true, the stories circulating about them would still be “pathological” and racist, since what motivated these stories was not facts, but racist prejudices, the satisfaction felt by those who would be able to say: “You see, blacks are really like that, violent barbarians under the thin layer of civilisation!””

Even if every statistic thrown around in the past few days was correct (and, most probably it was not), the discourse that was constructed drew from and played into an interpretation of post-apartheid South Africa (also found in a broader colonial period preceding this) which construct black people as fundamentally violent and murderous and white people as primarily the victims of violence (even if, today at least, the exceptions would be acknowledged from time to time).

But weaved into this is an idea of a Christian identity, a Protestant, and more specifically Reformed identity, which acts as symbol not only for white presence in South Africa, but for a God-sanctioned, missionary presence, sent for the salvation of African people, yet constantly opposing communion with black people. This salvific mission might be focused on souls, but it could just as easily be focused on bodies (“no farmer, no pap”?), and the lack of communion might be hidden by a shared photo moment from a march, yet persist in a fundamental lack of intimacy, and more specifically, lack of desire for deep intimacy – a break between soteriology and ecclesiology that has persisted throughout the colonial period and into the present.

We can argue on how many black people participated (from circulating photos it doesn’t seem like a lot) or whether old South African flags were doing the round (some photos are clearly from way before the IPhone, but the video of the singing of Die Stem isn’t being disputed as far as I can see). We can try and tell each other that it was about “all murders”, but the fact is that this twist was an attempt at making more palatable the fact that within days of the release of the national crime statistics, a national march was called to protest a very specific subsection of those statistics – a subsection that has for decades been drawn into the discourse on white vulnerability in post-apartheid South Africa. Individual symbols is not what made black Monday play into a long history of white supremacy, from its inceptions it was built on a longstanding idea that the problem of violent crime in South Africa is mostly the fact that white people are being killed.

In a chapter written some years ago I concluded that “Our rhetoric on violent crime can be seen as a barometer of racialization in South Africa, and it reflects a particular lived theology among white people.” I might have been putting it too mildly back then. It was part of a longer argument. But Christian faith, Reformed identity in a particular way, and white people making race while speaking about violence has a long, a very long, history in this part of the world. People sing Die Stem in 2017 in one moment, kneel down to pray the next, and celebrate the reformation the following day.

Ernst reminded us that commemorating the reformation as a particular moment in the celebration of whiteness still has immense currency in contemporary South Africa. Just as insisting that all deaths matter did not do the political work of undermining a white march protesting the murder of white people as of particular significance, so insisting on the reformation as a universal moment most probably will not do the theological work of undermining the way the commemoration of 500 years of the reformation are drawn into the construction of national and racial identities.

The answer, if there is one, will not be easy. I hold the reformation lightly myself. But it would be naïve to proceed as if this historical moment and the symbolism around it can function politically neutral. Whiteness, violence, Christian faith, and reformation are intertwined in South Africa, to the point where we will have to think about every one of these whenever we mention the other. The struggle for reformed identity continue to impact the present, and will continue to impact the future, and the way in which reformation faith can again (or still) be drawn into the reconstruction of a white supremacist is something we need to remain aware of.

So as Tuesday 31 October come to a close, it might be good to reflect on the work that our commemoration are doing for us both theologically and politically. Not merely what our intensions are, but where our commemoration might be being drawn into nationalist and racist projects which reveal some very old problems in protestant ecclesiologies and white theologies.

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