June 14, 2010
A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.
The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).
Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.
What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.
One of the narratives that Steyn identifies in Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be she called A Whiter Shade of White. This group of whites in the post-Apartheid 90’s denies the influence of their own whiteness, or of race in general, on themselves and other. In my reading of her work I had the idea of this being a typical liberal type of line. Definitely opposed to racist talk. Actually, so opposed to racist talk, that all talk about race is rejected, even considered racist. Some of the quotes by white respondents from Steyn includes:
Whiteness had no part in my identity or culture (p107)
I am who I am; I just happen to be white (p109)
In Whiteness: An Introduction. Steve Garner makes a similar note about certain approaches found with whites, where
seeing ‘race’ at all is often imagined as being racist by itself
Steyn critiques this approach saying:
The “black” world is not taken seriously; certainly not on its own terms. Ironically, (in this case) color blindness also diminishes the bitter history of black struggle (p106)
a desire to close the discussion on the past is one strand within a general pattern of denial. The appeal to let sleeping dogs lie hides the crucial issue of which dogs are still holding onto the bones. It is an evasion of the extent to which the past permeates the present, of how the legacy of social injustice continues into the future. (p112-113)
In a very practical way, I experienced myself participating in this approach at a stage of my life, I think it must have been late highschool and/or early university years. This was characterized by almost an inability to use the terms “white” or “black”, by an emotional reaction when doing this, and an inability to express myself concerning racial issues. Furthermore, I denied my own racism by being aware of the more blatant and vocal racism that I’d see in the people around me.
I think it is a danger for those who are typically “good people”, who identify themselves as “not racist”. It’s important in my own thinking, because many “church people”, who like to be “good people” and “not racist” can easily fall into this approach. And while I think the attempt at non-racialism to be found within this group can be appreciated, the problem is the dishonesty about their own racialism, and those of others.
If Steyn is correct, then the sad part of this approach is that it
may find at some stage that far from being ahead of the pact, it hasn’t kept up with the Africanization going on in other white identities (p157)
In moving past this approach, I had to force myself to start using the words “white” and “black” again. Further along the line, I had to learn about other races existing as well, and start naming them. I’m still in process of learning this. After that I had to be honest about my emotions and perceptions concerning race. What do I really feel and think concerning black and colored people? What about Asian and Arab peoples? What irritated me? I needed to put these into words, and still need to put this into words, to that my emotions and perceptions can be challenged. More importantly, and much more difficult, I had to start calling myself white. I am a white person (although with some Malayan blood a number of generation back). This is more important, because I have to recognize that I am not the norm, and have been racialised in a specific way within this multi-racial world. In understanding this, and putting this into words, I hope I can start growing into a deeper understanding and appreciation of different races around me, and again even more importantly, see the blind spots in my own race, and be open to change by learning from other racess.
This is the difficult journey that I’m trying to be on. But it’s really a difficult journey.
June 4, 2010
I finally finished Melissa Steyn’s Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, one of the attempts to understand a changing white identity after 1994. It’s actually not a very difficult read, and I’d say an easy introduction to the discussion concerning race and postcolonial thought in South Africa. Her approach was to identify changing white narratives, ways in which whites are adapting their own self-understanding to cope in a changing South Africa. After a theoretical introduction, the largest part of the book is used to tell the stories of those who responded to her research, and share how they seem to understand themselves. She does this with the minimum academic terminology, and using catchphrases which are quite memorable. I found the five narratives quite useful to understand where I myself currently am, and how I’ve attempted to find ways of reconstructing my racial identity over time, and I believe her narratives will be useful in facilitating conversations with white South Africans concerning race.
However, my book has a number of notes which contain the number “2010” and a “?”, wondering how things has changed since Steyn did her research in the middle to late 90’s and 2010. If Whiteness in the 90’s wasn’t what it used to be under Apartheid, then I want to add that it isn’t what it used to be in the 90’s anymore either. Her subtitle, “White Identity in a Changing South Africa” still apply. White identity has changed as thousands of white South Africans left the country, and those of us who remained had to reconstruct our own self-understanding in relation to them, but also as more and more distinctly different from them, as we recognized that we didn’t leave because we didn’t want to, even when many around us did leave.
From our side, truly becoming “white Africans” as Steyn called it, has proved to take much longer than many has hoped for. As we grapple with our past, the trauma of thousands of young white soldiers never debriefed after a was of which the motivation turned out to be highly questionable at least has been surfacing. The reality of a younger generation that many hoped would grow up “color blind”, but who have inherited the racism of their fathers, who somehow grew up with a Knowledge in the Blood many hoped we were rid of, are reminding us that this issue is going to be much more complex than simply waking up and being part of a new South Africa.
But I’d say Steyn remain an important read for white South Africans today.
The Latin phrase Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: “Outside the Church there is no salvation“. This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the third century. The axiom is often used as short-hand for the doctrine, upheld by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, that the Church is absolutely necessary for salvation (cf. “one true faith“). The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one for whom this sounds somewhat strange.
- Firstly, any New Testament scholar, and many critical readers of the New Testament, will tell you that Jesus did not personally establish the church. He did not start a new faith either.
- Secondly, the idea that the church serve as the means by which grace is won obviously won’t hold ground if the first foundation doesn’t hold ground.
- However, to be honest, most of us probably had to change our minds because we had friends who simply don’t attend church. These doctrines won’t hold in a post-Christondom environment, because the concept of “church” and it’s place in society has changed completely.
The environment within which these doctrines developed worked with this structure:
King and Nobles
Animals, Plants, and Objects
But this has changed. Or so we would think.
Andrew Root has done a brilliant study on how we made the relationships of relational youth minitry an end to a means, the end being getting kids into heaven. But getting kids into heaven doesn’t even seem enough of an end anymore. We gotta get them into church. So even though we talk about missional churches all the time, we structure entire youth ministries around getting kids into church. Yeah, they do short-term outreaches and community projects, but in the end we add these to a growing list of “church-stuff” that our kids have done.
If our entire youth ministry goes about to get the next generation into church, aren’t we then still holding to “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”? If we measure our success against how many kids we got to church how frequently, what is the theological presupposition underlying that?
July 2, 2009
A few needed thoughts on the kingdom of God by Gerd Theissen in The Religion of the Earliest Churches:
This myth (the kingdom of God) is simply consistent Jewish monotheism: God will finally be the one and only God, alongside whom there will no longer be any other powers to limit his rule …
In Judaism this includes the rule of the one and only God. Now Jesus combines this talk of the kingly rule of God, i.e. a political metaphor, with a second, family, metaphor: the image of God as father…
It is striking that Jesus always speaks only of the kingdom of God, of God’s basileia as an objective entity, but never of God as ‘king’, of basileus as a personal role. This produces a void for him which he fills with the metaphor of father: in God’s kingly rue God comes to power not as ‘king’ but as ‘father’. As familia dei, the ‘family of God’, his sons and daughters have a privileged relationship to him and take part in his rule. Therefore in the Our Father the central message of Jesus is summed up as ‘Our Father, your kingdom come… ‘ In every respect this message is this a revitalization of the Jewish sign world in the light of two basic metaphors which come into the centre. However, for Jesus this ‘myth’ of the coming kingly rule of the Father takes a form which is characterized by two special features. In both cases the mythical world is extended or transformed in a unique way: by a historicizing, poeticizing and ‘demilitarizing’ of myth.
Just a note, when Theissen refer to Jewish thoughts, he specifically do not refer to Pharasaic thought.
Second note. Maybe this demilitarization of the kingdom of God need to be kept in mind when modern metaphors for the kingdom of God is looked for.
May 12, 2009
Scot McKnight is visiting South Africa again. It’s been just over a year since last time he visited. Running a search on “McKnight” on my blog revealed some interesting things on how the emerging church scene changed since then, and Scot’s role in this from my perspective. I gave him an article David Bosch wrote about 25 years ago partly in response to the Lausanne Covenent today, and on it thanked him for the role he plays in keeping different voices together. I really respect the way in which he talks about some of the voices he differs with in private conversations.
Last night he talked with our church council on the Blue Parakeet, and I’m kicking myself for not video-taping it. Afterwards we had dinner together. Today he talked on conversion, and from tomorrow we’ll be discussing acts with him.
I’m not going to try and repeat all that was said, but this is the image that we used in the discussion:
Conversion is this process of moving from the context where you are to the “church”, the group where are are moving towards. This may be a megachurch or small group meeting somewhere that won’t ever call themselves church. Conversion is changing my story to be told through the lens of this new self understanding I now have, which is formed by this group.
Part of converting is a crisis that is addressed. For years now I’ve been getting more and more uncomfortable with the fact that we have been creating a crisis in our attempts of evangelism. This crisis have usually been by painting a vivid picture of how someone might just burn in hell, or in lighter forms convincing someone of the severity of his/her sins, and this warthful God that really cannot help but punish us, that is of course just. Scot mentioned Brian Mclaren’s moral question: How can a just God punish a lifetime of sins with eternal torment?
But what Scot was actually talking about in the end was how people deconvert from Christianity, how people become non-Christians. What is the crisis moments that lead to this?
In his book Finding Faith Loosing Faith he talks about a number of crisis that leads to deconversion. I’ll order the book sometime, and will mention them more when I get the book, but form today’s talk Scot confirmed one thing: Fundamentalism creates extremely good soil for atheism to flourish in. I’ve been saying this for a long time now. The crisis that fundamentalism creates is that an expectation on infallability of the Bible is created that cannot be met, and the text never intended to meet, when that realisation dawn on someone, it has the potential of leading to atheism.
Of course there are other reasons for deconverstion as well. But I’ll skip them for now. This is a model that I believe I’ll use again, and would love to know more about.
April 25, 2009
I’m reading The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello which Cori and Kevin gave us for our wedding. The following story de Mello wrote explains a lot of my own struggle with religion, faith and church. But it’s a story, so you decide what it mean for you:
Nasruddin is Dead
Nasruddin was in a philosophical frame of mind: “Life and death-who can say what they are?” His wife, who was busy in the kitchen, overheard him and said, “You men are all alike-quite unpractical. Anyone can tell that when a man’s extremities are rigid and cold, he is dead.”
Nasruddin was impressed by his wife’s practical wisdom. Once when he was out in the winter snow, he felt his hands and feet go numb. “I must be dead,” he thought. Then came a further thought: “What am I doing walking around it I am dead? I should be lying down like a normal corpse.” Which is just what he did.
An hour later, a group of travelers, finding him by the roadside, begad to argue whether he was alive or dead. Nasruddin yearned to cry out, “You fools, can’t you see my extremities are cold and rigid?” But he knew better than to say that, for corpses do not talk.
The travelers finally concluded he was dead, and hoisted the corpse onto their shoulders with a view to carrying it to the cemetery for burial. They hadn’t gone far when they came to a forking of the ways. A fresh dispute arose among them as to which road led to the cemetery. Nasruddin put up with this for as long as he could. Then he sat up and said, “Excuse me, gentlemen, but the road that leads to the cemetery is the one to your left. I know that corpses do not speak, but I have broken the rule this once and I assure you it will not happen again.”
When reality clashes with a rigidly held belief, reality is generally the loser.
Well, you interpret the story. I’ll keep on telling it for some time I think, because it so beautifully sums up my feelings on so many things I find in the way people approach religion, faith and church.