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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In large part I still don’t know I got here. I’ve seldom thought of myself as much of an activist. I’m probably as uncomfortable in a protest as the next white middle-class guy. But it’s clear that the students are right. They’ve been right all along (if you ever had doubts, you can also scroll down and consider the advise in the last paragraph). I can talk about the math on why they were right if you want, but we’ll have to grab a beer or a coffee for that. For now it’s enough to just say it: they were right and I knew it. The church supported them. Academics I trust supported them. So I knew that when the march go to the Union Buildings then I will join them. I decided to join as verbi divini minister – minister of the divine word – and the dress-code clearly revealed this.

Today I saw young students, beautiful young students, on the bus I took towards the inner-city. Their water bottles gave away their agenda.

Today I saw students gathering in a park. A joyous occasion. I saw white students learning the art of politics. Slowly, hesitantly, learning what it means to be part of a mass movement. I saw a massive amount of students, reflecting the demographics of this country, singing together, marching together, joking together, sharing space and company, dreams in their eyes about the future of this country. I walked with them and I knew: if these people represent where South Africa is going, then I want in. I want to be a part of this.

Today I saw ministers from different churches joining students. Some in liturgical wear, others indistinguishable from the students around them, representing a range of churches. When signs of violence started appearing I saw a senior minister tell us: “come, we need to go there”. “Isn’t is safer here?” another asked. “Indeed it is”, he answered, “but we have to help calm things down”.

Today I saw thousands upon thousands of students gathering with utmost discipline. Insisting on peace. I know that you’ll see thousands upon thousands of photos of a small group who might not fit this description, and I’ll get to them, but the norm of the day of peace.

Today I saw violence. Perhaps I’ve never seen violence in my protected existence as close as I’ve seen it today. For my white friends, today I saw a small group of both white and black male students instigating violence.

Today I saw pastors standing in front of a fence which students want to break down and occupying that space. At least for a while. I saw them promise to students that we are here with you. We support you. But insisting that this is not the way to go. And I saw angry, deeply angry, students respect that. I plead with my fellow pastors and church leaders: I saw students showing a cautious trust towards the church and faith leaders. Cautiously considering that the church does have the kind of integrity that we will stand with them. Please, we cannot let them down. Statements are great, but we will have to get together and think deeply about how we consciously journey with the young people of this country. I say this in particular to my own church, the Dutch Reformed Church, because, let’s face it, we are very very far removed from what the average South African is going through.

Yet, today I saw a Dutch Reformed minister standing with students, actually trusted enough that they would calm down around him, at least for a while, and repeatedly explaining the churches support for these students to every journalist approached him. And many did. Colleague, you know who you are, you earned my deepest respect today.

Today I saw how even with even this utmost discipline, even with student leaders from every party and group working for peace, it is really difficult to stop a small group of instigators. Probably impossible. Before you point a finger, stand in that space. Today I watched as a fire was started close to where the stage will be. Pastors around, lawyers for human rights around, and a massive amount of students working for peace around, without resorting to further violence it is almost impossible in the long run to stop a small group of instigators. And when a tire burn is burning it is burning.

Today I saw 10000 students (I guess the official number will be confirmed later) gathered at the the Union Buildings by 12:00. There was no problem by 12. But by 13:30 there was no sign, not even an announcement, from the people that had to speak. Nor by 14:30. We stood their shaking our heads. We could see how difficult it is becoming to contain those instigating violence. We knew that working through the program will give the majority of the students something to keep the peace with. We knew that what was needed was someone with the authority to speak to get onto that podium and speak. But it didn’t happen. Forgive me for getting the impression that someone wanted to delay this until there were instances with which to delelegitimize the students.

Today I some kind of armored vehicle driving through a crowd of students as if they are not there. To that driver: what were you thinking? There was absolutely no reason for doing that! I’m no security expert, and probably never will be, but I’m quite convinced that someone who is will be able to indicate that what happened today is simply not the way to work with a crowd of students.

Today I saw journalists on both side of the fence. I saw journalists among the students and journalists among the police. I know that you had to look at the conflict, but you will tell the story in the coming days. Hats of to you who can look beyond a single incident and see the broader movement.

Today I saw students regroup after teargas was thrown around. Not up by the gates where some clashes were happening, down by the grass where students were waiting. I saw students gather themselves, following leaders, peaceful with utmost discipline, preparing to occupy that space again.

Not everything was beautiful. Not everything was perfect. But you are going to make a choice whether you want to look at the thousands of students peacefully gathering or whether you want to look at the thousands of photos of the violence that did happen. I’m not blind to what happened. I stood as close to that fire as was humanly possible. But I know that this is not what defined today. Today was defined by the insistence of the majority that this will not be another violent clash. Today was defined by the two young woman who, deep into the day, took position right in front of me, where we were pastors were occupying the space next to a fence that some wanted to break open, to form their small part of a chain. It was defined by their insistence to each other that they’ll wait until tonight if needs be, but they will not engage in violence. You choose what you want to see. But it will probably say more about you than about what happened.

Today would have been a totally different story if someone walked onto that stage at 12:00 and made the announcement that was made at 15:00. It would have defined the story of this country in a way would have been far more hopeful. Alas.

That is what I saw today. I guess I need much more time to process this. I apologize if I can’t express this correctly. But this is what I saw. To the students I marched with this morning: if you are the future of this country, then I want in. You’re walk was a symbol of hope.

And to those who think the protests was unnecessary or even wrong. I sincerely hope that you’ll pay the 10% difference in you or your child’s university fees into some bursary fund.

We often hear that “apartheid was a heresy”, yet what exactly made this a heresy is at times lost in our church discussions. For those of us in the Dutch Reformed Church this might be partly because nowadays we are looking at a tennis game between a group in the church who find heresy everywhere, and another who cannot work with the concept of heresy at all (I’m rather drawn to the second one, so if this post relate to the current conversations on heresy I’m responding to myself).

Russel Botman share the story of how their class of theological students became convinced that apartheis is indeed a heresy. Jaap Durand was the lecturer in systematic theology, and challenged his students:

“You have been quite explicit about the legal, sociological, psychological, and political science reasons for your judgment on apartheid. I want to challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on apartheid.”

The answer he then provides is that “apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups.” Apartheid assume that people are inherently irreconcilable, while the gospel assume a radical reconciliation which transcend all borders.

We might want to revisit this idea that arguing from a belief of the inherent irreconcilability of people is nothing but a heresy, since this continue to be such a common idea. Is this not what underlies every statement that two groups of people will “never be able to find each other”? If we normalize the divisions in society by saying that “our cultures differ too much”, “there will always be conflict”, are we not assuming that people are inherently irreconcilable?

Socially I think there are two ideas which we are holding to in order to keep this heresy going. The one is the belief in some kind of essential group identity. White people will always be white people, always act like white people, and always want to be part of a group of white people. The other is that conflict between groups of people that are different are inevitable and natural. Yet neither of these are true.

Groups are fluid, change over time, merge with others, die out, have individuals abandon that group, and are joined by individuals who it would be inconceivable in another context. Religions as a social group provide a good example, or nationalities, but cultures, ethnicities and the way the world are constructed as races are not essential and eternal either. Secondly, even where we do belong to different social groups, conflict and strive is not inevitable. Groups of people find amazingly creative ways of living in harmony together.

Yes, group identities are strong and will form us over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. But they are not permanent. Conflict do exist between different groups, but it is not inevitable. Reconciliation is difficult (and true reconciliation should be difficult, if it isn’t difficult we might want to suspect that we are not yet totally honest with each other), but always possible. So let’s start watching the language of “never” and “impossible” when it relates to reconciliation.

This does not imply that we will sort out our divided legacy in this country in one generation, or even in my lifetime. But it does mean that I will reject every movement which support an irreconciled society, or which work with the assumption that we are inherently irreconcilable, and trying is therefore worthless. Let’s agree to end that kind of talk.

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.

plotting mission

August 12, 2011

In many ways what I’m going to write will create a few artificial categories or “shifts”, and I will have to simplify things in order to speak. Simultaneously, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in conversation with church leaders to find out that our thinking about mission has already been simplified. What I’d like to do is take a few arguments for a “shifting missiology”, drawing on a number of very specific conversations that I can think of from the past few months, to produce something of a map of where we are. With “we” I’m thinking about white middle-class churches and theologians, because that is what I know, and that is where I come from. In plotting I’ll be drawing primarily on David Bosch, since his overview is what I know best, and since everyone, basically no matter which shift you are arguing for, like to quote him at some point.

1. From saving souls to saving bodies

Remember the time when if you’d ask a Sunday School class what the church is supposed to do, and they’d answer you that the church should “tell people about God”… well, those times are this times for the white suburban church. Somewhere in our DNA we still struggle with the idea that the primary (and at times exclusive) task of the church is to save the souls of heathens. When we do a soup kitchen, our primary objective is to “soften them up for the gospel”. In Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he point to writings from the very early colonialist period, where one of the pro-slavery arguments was that slavery gave black people a chance to become Christians, and thus their souls will be saved for eternity. The idea that “at least their souls will go to heaven”, either in it’s hard form, where that is all that matters, or in it’s softer form, where that is the primary concern, and any attention to the real life issues of people is reduced to second place at best continue to be very much prevalent in white churches today.

This is the shift many church leaders find themselves in: how do we move people from a focus on saving souls to saving bodies. It is the shift from handing out a bread in order to get an open door to “share the gospel” (already reducing the gospel to a spiritual message), to handing out a bread because that is what we believe the gospel to be. In the writings of Bosch you can look at his reactions to the 1974 Lausanne covenant to see his reactions to the idea that what was called evangelism is somehow the “primary” objective of mission. For Bosch there could be no exclusive or even primary focus on “saving souls”. This shift is important. But it’s not the only important shift happening.

2. From charity to development

“Don’t give a person a fish, teach them to fish” we like to say in our middle-class white congregations. If we keep on handing out food, we’ll be handing out food till kingdom come, we should rather develop skills in order for people to be able to find their own food. It is a shift which start to recognize that there are people in society who simply isn’t “sharing in the goods” as we are, and building on the belief that we should be saving bodies, and then continuing to say that we should not only save bodies, but save societies, we will argue for starting elaborate development projects. Education. Job creation. These are the answers for our society, this is what mission is about, and this is what the church should be about.

In a sense this is always a rediscovery. This colonial Western churches always has a strong emphasis on “developing” the “underdeveloped” nations. At some point this task of development was handed over to the state, with mission hospitals and mission schools being funded, or totally taken over, by the modern nation-states developing in Africa. But, at the moment we do see a re-emergence of a shift “from charity to development”. To find the arguments for development in Bosch you will have to turn to the chapter on “Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment”. Reference to the move from charity to what in Transforming Mission is called the “comprehensive approach” can be found in chapter 10.

3. From development to liberation

In all the talk about Bosch in my own church, what still remain a theme seldom discussed is Bosch’s critique on the development model. For some (although this is not common at all) in the white middle-class suburban church, Bosch’s thoughts under the heading “The Challenge to Progress Thinking” (p 356-358 of Transforming Mission) formulate the shift they suggest. Bosch doesn’t waste words, and if these 2 pages are taken seriously, for those in the white suburban church who doesn’t already find themselves in the midst of this shift, it might feel like participation in mission is impossible. Because this shift seek to destabilize the power relations, become suspicious of “solutions” provided by the rich which continue to keep the rich the rich.

When those of us in the white church start talking about this shift, then it imply a serious self-critique. It is a move away from the idea that we can somehow bring salvation (by saving souls, handing out bread, or teaching skills), and are in need of salvation because of our own indebtedness to the systems of power which has formed us into being white. For those who are rich and white, and moving from development to liberation, the move might best be illustrated by Bosch’s own move from thinking about the “church for others” (Witness to the World), to the “church with others” (Transforming Mission).

Two reasons caused me to point to these movements. The first is as a reminder that simply because we find a shift in the mission theology of a congregation or church leader, doesn’t imply that we have “arrived”. Sometimes the discovery of a gospel which is not merely spiritual, or of a gospel which not only talk about charity towards the poor, but about a comprehensive approach of upliftment, give rise to the idea that we have finally found “the answer” to what the gospel is about. These shifts are important, but the conversion of white Christianity will require a long and tedious process, and we’d do well to remember that our shifts are, for the moment at least, en-route. It is part of a long process of exorcising a gospel which for centuries taught us that we are the main beneficiaries of the gospel, and the answer God gave to the world.

The second reason for pointing to this is as a reminder to myself that I won’t be making this shift on my own. Shifting my own mission theology, which remain in a process of shifting, will require an extensive process of listening, primarily listening to those voices from what was created as the “Third World”. While every movement illustrated is important, and we should be applauding congregations which make whichever is the next shift that they need to take, in the long run we as the white church will have to face the fact that we won’t be saving ourselves. Others will help us in converting from the privilege and power which we were born into. The last shift is not the final shift, but it is a necessary shift if we are to find any hope of moving beyond a liberation approach (which had it’s own problems).

In the introduction of Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he recounts the story of two neighbourhood missionaries visiting his God-loving-Jesus-following black mother on an evangelistic mission. In classic hit-them-hard evangelism they entered the yard on a mission, with various possible interpretations of this word fitting for the sentence, and, believing that they were on God’s mission, were entirely focused. So focused were they, that they never stopped to find out whether this women had any connection to the church, not to mention that she was the heart and soul of a local Baptist congregation. At one point his mother interrupted them to share the good news that she indeed was a God-loving-Jesus-following kind of person, but this only temporarily had them loose sight of their mission, before they continued with their pre-recited speech…

It has become customary to create caricatures of these kind of scenes, an exercise which I have participated in in the past. For the moment however, I want to move past this scene. By sharing some version of this scene, and then rejecting it, we might be falsely cleansing our names from being carriers of the white middle-class messiah into a world where messiah of the poor has long been awaiting us. I believe that the danger of middle class Christians carrying a rich messiah into a world, without noticing their own need for salvation has not ended.

Many would call this the “age of mission”. We quote writers who talks about the “missio Dei”, and we even find ourselves in this weird almost middle-ages kind of place where churches are starting to use this Latin phrase in church communication. This is the age in which we are rediscovering the so-called long-lost ideal pre-Constantinian church on a God’s mission. Now, don’t get me wrong, this might be one of the most important developments in the history of the church, although far better descriptions should be given than the previous sentence, but there is a very real danger when the white middle-class church re-position ourselves as the center of this rediscovery.

Note: when I use mission in the next paragraph or two I thinking primarily of mission as development, as Bosch described it. Although Bosch himself rejected this idea, my observation is that this remain dominant in much of what is being called mission within the white middle-class South African church. The coming paragraphs is only relevant as far as this approach remain dominant. The question of whether this is indeed dominant rests on a lived theology, rather than what gets written. The test is not whether you can quote the emerging paradigm of mission, but whether what you are doing has broken with the notion of mission as development.

The problem arise when the very thing which we claim to be the element assisting the white middle-class church in breaking with white middle-class Christianity with colonial Christianity, is that which is keeping it in place. Mission become a kind of fetish keeping the privileged white position in place. In stead of radically challenging the systems which keep the poor poor, the church attempt to contribute by working within this very system and making it “better”. Our mission does not serve to end the oppression of poverty, but rather serve as a vehicle to allow white middle-class Christians not to face the fact that our own privilege is inherently tied in with the oppressed position of others.

In short: I do mission in order to continue my existence in an unjust world. I do mission so that I do not need to face the fact that who I am is tied in with the oppression of others.

Now I come to the “danger” part. The moment we go on “the missio Dei” (see this classic picture from a number of years ago), our mission gets elevated above critique. Similar to the neighbourhood evangelists, we cannot hear when we are told that our very mission is keeping injustice in place, rather than working towards the dismantling of unjust systems. Mission might make us immune to the fact that the most important task of the white middle-class church is listening to how we are embedded within a system of injustice, is our own conversion.

Note: I do not for a moment deny that their is something even worse that mission as development: namely the very injustice which I claim this form of mission might be hiding. Neither do I deny that even worse forms of mission (mission as exclusively the salvation of souls, or mission as charity) exist, and function in the same way as described above, with even less contribution to the very real lives of people. I do however worry about a rising notion of mission which promise a salvation for the world which frowns upon radical transformation of systems which are responsible for injustice, and which are embedded within a theological framework which seems elevated above critique.

I guess the missional reawakening being experienced at the moment can be described as something of the following:

Mission isn’t simply going to faraway countries with nice beaches or forests and preaching the salvation of souls to naked natives (and teaching them not to be naked in the process), mission is asking “what is God up to”, and joining this in my life day to day, and for those Christologically inclined something about the Kingdom of God need to be added.

I guess this is not a bad definition, and Ive preached it myself. Telling people that “life” is mission. It’s about the way I approach my job (no, not about smiling to the secretary, but hopefully about considering whether the work I’m doing is oppressing others, or freeing them), my relationships, you name it. And there is something beautiful about this, if the evangelical in my comes out I’ll say something biblical about this. Live your whole life in the face of God, and participate in the work of the triune God every day. Really beautiful.

Almost too beautiful. But I’ll go with this kind of talk for the moment, obviously assuming that you’ve used you’re “God-given rational mind” and all the tools of analyzing the context and trying to find out what would be “good”, since I confess that God is the source of all that is good.

In this same vein, you find this notion that “God has placed our congregation in this place, and we are called to serve God here”. Again, really beautiful talk. I love it. With one problem: God didn’t put you there.

OK, listen me out before you report the blasphemy.

Did God create the townships? The suburbs? The racially segregated areas in South Africa?

Did God put all the rich people into one security village, and did God appoint those in power who make sure that the beggars don’t bother the taxpayers?

No matter how you interpret “that which we call God”, Christian theology would say “no” to the above questions. This world is broken.

Although I applaud this broader understanding of mission, there is a warning that needs to be heard: God didn’t place you in the suburbs*, in most cases Apartheid did. Mission then becomes the questioning of the systems which give us this nice privileged suburban life, while making sure few enough people have access to it, so that we don’t spread the little capital available too thin. Sometimes mission will imply that we ask whether we should even be in this context.

We might even want to remind ourselves of the old-school missionaries. Those who didn’t accept the context in which God had them to be born, but who felt the call to a different context. Please, let us not imitate them too closely, that the mission of the church has committed it’s own evils is a well-known fact by now. But they might be a nice corrective to those who found that God called them to the suburbs, and understanding mission as keeping this status quo in place.

A third way might be in order: Neither the going to faraway countries with nice heathens and learning them western manners, nor the simple acceptance of the suburb where “God has placed me”. Our task might be to critically ask whether this context should exist, and challenge the structure which create oppressive contexts, not simply fix small issues we encounter within some particular context.

* I’m not on a suburb-bashing mission (no pun intended), but I do believe that serious questions need to be asked about the development of suburbs. Furthermore, I use this example because this is my own context (I live in the suburbs, attend church in the suburbs, preach in the suburbs).