It is probably safe to say that for the almost 1000 people attending The Justice Conference over the past two days it was a good experience. The cynic might easily say that this is just another big church event, with nice music, a nice vibe, lots of talking, and a spiritual high that will dissipate in much less time than it took to organize the event. The cynics wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but there is still much more to be said.

While a look from afar might have given the impression that this is just another big church event thing, I do suspect that a cautious listening to the language spoken reveal a slow change in the church – at least in South Africa. For the outsider, it seemed quite clear that The Justice Conference was a conscious attempt to draw in the broad South African church, with a particular emphasis on those that might not have historically spoken about justice as a core aspect of the gospel. So, we came from all over – Anglicans, mega-church Charismatics, Church of the Nazarene, Seventh Day Adventists, classic Pentecostals, and even the odd Dutch Reformed Church voice welcomed into the space.

As these events go, by now we’ve learned to bypass the numerous things that we’ve historically struggled to find each other on. Baptism, Eucharist, and ordination is left at the door – let each deal with this on their own. Interestingly the Bible is not left at the door – in this space, noting the place from which we are reading the Bible is immensely important.

But certain theological markers are emerging. Perhaps it would have slipped by many of the younger participants – we all tend to think that the way the church think at the moment is just how it has been always, and then miss the deep shifts that are happening over time. So what are some of the emerging theological markers of a justice theology, a justice theology shared by people across the many divides that shape the church today (so not just a simple liberation theology practiced by academics, but a justice theology that emerge from the diverse church community in South Africa)?

  • The future does not get higher priority than the present

For me one of the most significant aspects emerging is the emphasis on the present – on this world. This does not take away the chorus of different understandings of heaven, life after death, or a final new creation. It quite simply says that the next world does not get higher priority than this world. This world is not just an unfortunate temporary home where we merely prepare for another world. This world matters. That this world reflects God’s dream is at the heart of the gospel. Hearing this from those representing churches that historically would have given a clear priority to the future seems to me a marker of a justice theology in South Africa. Maybe Apartheid did teach us some lessons – on how the future can be used to sustain injustice in the present.

  • Souls do not get higher priority than bodies

Closely connected to how we think about the future is how we think about bodies and souls. A priority for the future over the present seem to inevitably bring about a priority of souls over bodies. Historically colonialism and slavery consciously emphasized saving souls as a way to morally justify the destruction of (black) bodies – although the horrors of emphasizing souls over bodies is far wider than colonialism and slavery. Jesus had a body. God created our bodies. Our bodies matter to God. Our bodily integrity matters to God. Looking after the bodies of people is not just an ethical response because we are thankful for how God has saved us (our souls?), it is at the heart of the gospel.

  • Humans are good

If bodies matter, it is deeply connected to the believe that humans are good. No, not that humans are without sin, nor that humans are incapable of committing great evil, but that human beings are fundamentally good. I find this one of the key points that Black and African theologies brought against the European colonial theologies – which started with “you have sinned” rather than “you are God’s creation”. It is the firm belief in the goodness of creation and of humans than become the mirror against which we see the horror of the present – what we made the world into is something which is not good. It is an obvious rejection of centuries of racist and colonialist theologies that considered “some” humans as good, “some” bodies as a reflection of the image of God. Yes, more could be said about the goodness of all of creation, and ecological questions should undoubtedly become part of a justice theology in the trenches, but I guess the South African moment we are in forces us into thinking about humans.

  • Where we see God in history matters

But we can emphasize the present, bodies, and the goodness of humanity while still standing aloof of the concrete questions of society. Perhaps the risk for those of us in the so-called “ecumenical” churches is exactly in this, since we did indeed emphasize the present for a long time, and have been slowly learning to emphasize bodies and the goodness of humans as well. Here, unfortunately, Helen Zille also enters the scene. Because how we understand history was never disconnected from how we understood the work of God. The idea that colonialism was really a well-intended, required, and even while contributing to suffering, at its heart a positive development cannot be disconnected from the idea that this phase in history was part of how God worked in history. Our ideas on where God is going with history, on where God stands, on who’s side God is on (or whether God takes sides) became a fundamental part of how we understood colonialism. While this difficult work of discernment is dangerous, since we obviously carry our theories of society and social change into our understanding of God, it is also important to this justice theology. This is a slowly emerging consensus that God is in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed, and that God acts in history on the side of the poor and the oppressed (so that the historic process which contribute to the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is not the work of God, and against the work of God). Yes, and this is also where we that say ‘no’, it is not only about how all lives matter, or about how all bodies are beautiful, but about a theology that speaks to the particular: in this moment, we discern God standing in a particular place, and we seek to stand where God stands.

 

I know that more things could be added to this. We could tap into our histories of theologies seeking justice, and there is a rich history, and note other aspects that we need to think about. But if I listened well over the past two days, then these markers are where the church in South Africa is currently in building a justice theology that bridge church and academy and the various church traditions that we are from. It is easier to see the importance of theology in the negative: theology can justify apartheid, can convince people that grave atrocities are the will of God. But theology can also over time form us into a people that work for a just world, and the search for such a theology not just in the thick books of academic theology, but in the lives of people of faith and the spirituality of the broad church, is an extremely important quest. The Justice Conference was not the Kingdom of God, and there are critical questions that remain, but there is also a sense in which the church is giving words to a justice theology that is grounded in the lives of living faith communities, and we should not underestimate the long-term effect of this.

It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.

On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.

The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.

The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.

But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.

Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?

Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?

What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.

The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.

Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.

What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.

Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.

A few weeks ago I arranged to speak with someone from CABSA, to find out from her how she think the church is doing in it’s mission in a context of HIV and AIDS. It was one of those conversations where I quickly realized that the best thing I could do is to keep my mouth shut about everything I thought I knew about HIV and AIDS, and just listen. Early in the conversation she explained that the question she is asking is not whether a congregation are involved with an AIDS project here or there, but rather whether they are HIV competent. HIV competent meant that the congregation understood the complexities of the problem, contributed to breaking down the stigmas concerning HIV and AIDS, and in short, was a space where those who carry the virus would feel safe to participate in this community. Very few congregations would be able to call themselves HIV competent.

Over the past year, and the past few months specifically, I’ve been struggling with some similar questions concerning mission. To state it bluntly: I’m disillusioned with the way the church always want to fix the problems of others, while keeping them on a distance. Something deeper is needed. Maybe we need some missional competence (although I hated the concept even while writing the post title), or something like it. We need to be poverty competent, suffering competent, in the sense that the friend from CABSA challenged me.

What would mission become when the local congregation isn’t asking themselves “where is God active in the world today”, and then join projects in the community, but start asking themselves: “who are the poor today? why are they poor? how do we end poverty? and most importantly: is this a community in which the poor, as the poor, are welcome?”. These questions might be somewhat in tension with the reflections in the previous post, which should lead us to ask “who are the poor whom this congregation should be joining and learning from?”, yet, these questions might be somewhat more practical for the average middle-class white congregation to ask.

It is the change from: we are running a soup kitchen down the street to those who benefit from the soup kitchen are teaching Sunday school, serving as elders, and participating in the life of this community. It is the change from we are handing out breastmilk to HIV+ mothers to some of our cell group leaders are HIV+.

Maybe that wouldn’t make us competent. Maybe that wouldn’t even make us missional. Maybe that would just remind us that we are broken. Maybe brokenness is closer to the core of being church than mission?

 

What I’m about to write is not radical. But it’s not ordinary either. There is people doing radical stuff in church today, and I like many of them. But there is some pretty ordinary stuff that we argue away which might be some of the most radical actions to take. I don’t want to over-simplify things, I firmly believe that what really change the world lie on the level of the systemic rather than the personal (although I don’t think we ever have systemic change without a large amount of personal changes which developed habits which might make these systemic changes possible). I think this is ordinary since you don’t really have to look very far to see that this has been at the heart of church all along. I think this is radical because I really find it difficult to do just this. So after dozens of emerging books, and years of reflecting on some of the most brilliant theologies written, I want to ask this: what would a local congregation look like is we just did this:

1) Adopt kids

The early church was radical because it had a different view of children. It rejected the patriarchal idea that children could be thrown away, and we also have stories of how Christian actually picked up and cared for the kids who was thrown away (which contributed to the growth of the early church, since these children then tended to grow up as Christians). In South Africa the number of orphans is growing into the millions, and many more live in houses where social workers need to take them away.

I want to dare say that the most radical and most significant missional thing a local congregation can do today is to create a culture where children is adopted. I know this is a difficult process, but imagine a congregation where the whole congregation is structured to support people who have adopted and are adopting orphans. In our mostly affluent congregations we might even have a greater responsibility towards this.

2) Share meals

It’s no secret that meals play an important role in the gospels and early church. In one of the most radical ideas in the gospel Jesus suggest that we shouldn’t invite the rich and famous to our parties, but the homeless and poor. Jesus himself crossed some serious boundaries when he ate with certain groups. In our time when many progressive voices are reflecting on the importance of “third spaces”, we might want to rethink the importance of sharing our “first spaces” (our homes) with others.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy. As I’m typing I’m thinking of a whole bunch of stories of people who started trying this, and found it to be quite difficult. When we prepare food for others, we share something quite intimate, when we sit around a table, we are forced to speak longer than we might have wanted to, with people we don’t really know what to way to. But imagine a congregation where everyone is sharing meals with each other, with strangers, and with people they generally wouldn’t have spoken to, on a regular basis.

3) Live a simple life

The call towards simplicity has been at the core of Christian ethics throughout history. Simply being able to not do stuff just because everyone is doing it, or because you need to display your wealth. In our time it is becoming of critical importance that we find a way to live more simply, and from this tradition of millenia of practicing simply living, we might contribute.

Imagine a congregation where everyone is just seeking to live more simple. Smaller houses. More shared spaces. Less debt. Driving cars for longer before replacing them. Constantly reminding each other what “enough” imply. As I’ve said before, simplicity might be one of the most complex questions facing us, but just imagine a congregation where this is at heart (and I’m thinking now of congregations which traditionally would award affluent lifestyles, since this is the context I know).

What would happen if we just took one of these and just did it? What would you add as very basic ideas which the local congregation, any local congregation, might engage in which is both ordinary and radical?

The idea that has been working in me for the past year or two could be explained as the conviction that ideas which is not unpacked in all its complexity in the actual material (I’m starting to sound like those literalists who put 4 descriptives before the word “resurrection” just to make sure that you definitely agree with in the minutest detail with them) reality of our existence, then we should be very skeptical as to what the real intent of that idea is. I know that many in philosophy and theology has unpacked this much better than I have, but nonetheless, I need to write to get my head around this.

Even on ‘n popular level we have always claimed that the idea and its application should exist together. When it doesn’t, we make statements such as “practice what you preach”, and we talk about the hypocritical nature of the church. We especially love to talk about the church, although I believe the same should apply to most of modern liberal society. Because who will ever claim that what we should do is exploit the poor? Yet those in power participate in exactly this on a constant basis, whether Christian or not.

But rarely do we measure on what we actually do. In reality we have all this guards which we’ve employed so that no one could ever really know what I’m doing. So if you’d dare to make blatant racist comments, or claim that the plight of the poor should be of no concern, or that the destruction of the earth is not something which we should put energy into stopping, you will find yourself with a lot of harsh criticism. But if you choose to move out of a suburb which is attracting more and more black residents, spend your money in a way which will never be accessible to the majority, or consume products in a way which is not environmentally sustainable, little will be heard, except from a few radicals which we’ve worked out of mainstream conversations. So long as you make the right noises about all the good things you intend, and keep from braking these rules in the most blatant ways, you’ll be left alone, even considered a moral citizen whom are contributing to the social well-being of society.

And then we get those who follow Jesus, or those who follow Marx, that sit at a coffee-shop and discuss this new world where the first will be last, and where we should not wait to be served, but serve others, or where we dream of a world where the workers will not do work which they can’t afford to buy (and how many waiters can afford to sit at coffee-shops and be waited upon?). (and yes, I was sitting with Christian friends with Marxist inclinations at a coffee-shop in the past week)

And while the simple non-participation in the coffee-shops of our day might not lead to any kind of revolution creating a new world, we simply fail to notice that when ordering a Latté we are participating in keeping this system of unequal distribution in place. We have these nice ideas, but the true conversation towards our own ideas, that conversation which actually change our material reality in much more dramatic ways than by challenging our participation in coffee-shops (which can really be said to be an arguable example), that is what it is about.

However, it’s about more than hypocrisy. The skeptical view which we need to engage in the church, is that not only are our good ideas not reflected in how we construct our lives in this world, but our good ideas might actually be what keep us from constructing our concrete lives in a way which reflect the vision we claim to have of society. It is exactly because we can sit in church on Sunday mornings and dream about a society where all are equal that we can go out during the week and participate in a society where equality is a continually fading dream, always knowing that on Sunday morning a preacher will believe on our behalf that this dream is actually true, and thanks to this rhetoric we will be able to continue one more week.

So, since I have to go now for a meeting with fellow pastors at a local coffee-shop, and to prove that I’m don’t have in mind the typical examples of those who preach a heaven one day or something blatantly non-material as that, I’ll conclude with what I’m thinking about but still has to unpack more: is all this talk about mission actually changing the church, or is it exactly because of all this talk about mission that the so-called postmodern church is able to continue without actually changing.

In a brilliant paper analyzing research in the behavioral sciences titled The Weirdest People in the World? (HAT-TIP to Richard Beck) it is pointed out that

(A) recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries

Furthermore

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses. In other words, a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

This group is called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) because, not only do they point out that not all studies on this group can be universalized, but in comparative research it would seem that this group generally lie on the extreme many different aspects which research has been done on. You can find many examples in the paper.

In a growing conversation over the past years many of us have become skeptical of the easy way in which we buy into American church models and ideas. Think about our models for youth ministry, mega-churches, emerging churches etc. Think about all the times George Barna statistics is quoted, usually with a disclaimer such as “we know that this is America, but we are only a few years behind them”.

Although this article doesn’t talk about church, it does raise the suspicion concerning the effectiveness of American church models even further. It compares Westerners to non-Westerners, only to find that Westerners are somewhat weird in the world, being the extreme in different aspects of their being, and not the universal example. The Americans are compared to the rest of the Western world, just to find that in many respects Americans are the extreme with the Western world. Other comparisons are also made, and some things which do seem to be universal is also pointed out.

Reggie has been pushing me on this point over the past years, and I’m more convinced than ever that he is correct: We need to do local research on church, society and theology. This do not mean we ignore American research, we can learn a lot from the vast amount of research that is being done in America. But the findings cannot be assumed to be true for our own context. Furthermore I would suggest that it would be almost impossible to engage American dialogue partners whom are unable to recognize the contextuality of their own approaches to church and theology (and sadly many of the American books on the shelves of our Christian bookshops, and speakers we fly in to “teach” us do not seem to have the necessary skills to recognize this, although they might mention “this is how it work in my context” a few times when talking).

If their is truth in the study in behavioral sciences, and if the behavior of a group influence the forms of church which gets created (not such a far-out assumption to make), then many of the typically American models of church created speak not only to a context which is different from the context in which I need to work, but are born from a context and speak to a context which is really on the extreme of society in the world. This might be the last place where we should look to if we were to find universal ideas on church.

This is not a total rejection of American diologue partners. I have learned a lot from American voices, but just a call that we listen to Americans as Americans. A country somewhere out there which seem to be quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. I am from South Africa, and this country is also quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. So let’s find ways of engaging our own strangeness.

White kid in Swaziland

February 23, 2010

I grew up in the southern part of a small country called Swaziland. It has less than a million people living in it, and most on them living in the north. My father was a pastor in a black congregation there. The people of Swaziland are poor, as is general for the most of Africa. We lived in a 600m2 house owned by the church, across the street my father’s black collegue was living in a much smaller house with his family.

I have many good memories from this place. Typical child stuff – playing, climbing trees, riding bicycle. But I also remember the black congregations in which my father was working. I remember the singing, and even today still remember some of the songs, and recognize them in black congretions in Mamelodi when I visit. I remember the ways in which they collected the meagre amount of money on a Sunday, with singing and dancing.

But I never had black friends in Swaziland. Well, apparently I had as a very small kid according to my parents, but I can’t remember them. My friends were white. Blacks were the other. They played by themselves. We played by ourselves. When we had birthday parties, it was the white kids from the small white community in South Africa, and the white kids that we went to school with in Piet Retief, the white town on the other side of the border.

I do remember some of the black collegues my father had, with some of them I can remember not really noticing colour. Not caring to be touched by them. Easily talking to them. Especially Baba Gama, who always checked to see if I could recognize his voice when he was calling and I would answer. I remember black people sharing the table with us at our home, and we with them at conferences. I had much of the inter-culture experience that kids of missionaries have. I treasure that.

But I know this: the black people living across the street, the black people in town, even the black congregants, I weren’t looking at them as equals. I don’t know if I were racist at this stage of my life, but I definitely had a sense than the black people among whom I were living weren’t “on the same level”.