June 29, 2010
I remember one comment from a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago distinctly. I cannot remember what we talked about, but one phrase has stuck with me ever since: “We are more middle-class than Christian”. It was a critique that I could work with. Even though it was a critique that I realized has drastic implications for my own personal life. And I agree with what he said. Sometimes we are more middle-class than Christian. Our actions are shaped more strongly by our economic position than our religious identity.
But thinking back on my experiences of church as a kid, being middle-class (or rich) was not an all-encompassing identity in our congregation. Although the critique that the Dutch Reformed church is mostly a middle-class church would probably have held for the congregation I grew up in, we had some poor people in the congregation.
I remember one lady who always attended church with her kids. Her husband didn’t make life easy for her, and even as a young teen I knew that she really struggled. She was really poor. I know that I could sense the discomfort in her involvement in the congregation, people didn’t really know what to do with her, but she was there. Year in, year out. And she was involved with the congregation.
Maybe an even stronger memory was from the kids that was in my youth group whom I sometimes got to know, and sometimes even had the opportunity of visiting there homes. The one was the neighbor of the above mentioned woman. I remember walking into the small pre-fab home she shared with a father and sister, and there was nothing in the living room. Not a single piece of furniture.
Those who were truly poor were a minority. The poor mostly attended other congregations. But at least I can remember sharing faith with some poor people.
My friends comment isn’t that difficult to find in our churches really. I guess we don’t really change anything after recognizing this, but I’ve heard similar thoughts in other places. Sometimes our denomination would be described as a middle-class church, and it would be generally accepted, sometimes as something inevitable, sometimes as something that should change.
But I’ve never (or at least outside of a small group of people focusing on this specific issue) hear anyone saying: “We are more white than Christian”. Yet,whiteness was the most-shared characteristic among those attending the congregation in which I grew up in. Not middle-class, not Reformed, not even Christian (and I’m talking about people understanding themselves as Christian, not making judgments on what “real Christians” would look like) was as common a mark as being white. We were primarily a white congregation, above all else. We had diverse sexual orientations (although not admitted at that stage), diverse spiritualities, diverse theological presuppositions, diverse income-groups, we even had people who weren’t 1st language Afrikaans speakers (very few, but they were there), but all of us were white. That characteristic was primary. (Let me just make a note that I grew up in a very small town, which probably caused the congregation to be even more diverse, since you didn’t have the wide variety of specializing congregations, and closed suburbs, that my current city context offers)
It’s 2010, and in most places this has not changed much. So I want to suggest that if I want to understand my own church. The one I grew up in, even the one I’m currently attending and pastoring, and the denomination I’m part of, I should start by understanding it as a white church. I am part of a white church. And if for us anything is more dominant that being Christian, then it must be being white.
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.
March 4, 2010
Apartheid ended in 1994. Yes, I know. And the voices who reminded me in the past that I must remember that things were much worse under Apartheid, and not downplay this by making as if nothing has changed have a point. But to say we are post-Apartheid, fails to recognize that neither our hearts nor our systems have gotten rid of this legacy completely. Much has changed, and we can thank God for that. But much didn’t change for many South Africans.
I am white. Sibitiwe might have complimented me with a black heart. But I remain a white theologian in Africa. Less and less European as the months go by. More and more being baptized in the water of Africa as transformative experience after transformative experience, as relationship after relationthips, and relationships over time, is deepening my experience of this country, this continent. With all it’s problems and questions. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is my home. I am from Africa.
My church may be irrelevent, in spite of the examples of really good works of development being done, for which we also thank God, and should not consider futile. I know that for the bigger part of South Africa we won’t be missed when we are gone. They might miss our help, but in very few circumstances will they miss our friendship. There are exceptions, but they are exactly that: exceptions.
The journey that Dutch Reformed congregations will have to go on is a long journey I know, it’s a difficult journey, and we will require a lot of help. But it is a journey which some of us are willing to commit to with everything we have.
March 3, 2010
This was the transformative experience that gave rise to the writing of this story. It’s controversial I know. And I somewhat fear for writing this.
I have never approved of the segregated church I am part of. I cannot remember a day in my life that I both knew about Belhar and rejected Belhar. Everywhere I went I always made the more pro-unification choice that was on the table. Sometimes I even attempted to stretch the table a bit, to put options on the table that weren’t considered. I remember attending an URCSA meeting in 2007 that NG students were invited to, but being the only one who went. I remember the setting up of the meeting of URCSA theological students leadership and NG theological students leadership in the same year, and we actually organized a visit of both groups to a worship session of the other. Few students attended, but the experience was positive. I guess I didn’t change the face of the faculty at UP in the process, but at least I made some friends.
At times I have been extremely critical of my own church, and the process of unity. I guess taking things a few notches further than most of the “open” voices in the church. I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we become one church structurally, without local congregations actually reflecting this. What I dream of and hope for has been for true unity in worship and action for many years now.
Deconstruction makes you mad, I sometimes think. Once you start down that rabbit hole, realize why you are doing what you are doing, what you are actually saying, how this is being heard by other voices, and how far away from “justice”, “mercy” and “truth” your one life really is, it becomes almost unbearable. But Africa has taught me that I can never fully deconstruct myself. I need the other to deconstruct me. I need to be open to the voice of an other, a different perspective, to help me interpret my own life and actions, to understand what it is that I am actually doing.
I don’t want to make a hero out of someone, and most of my transformative experiences was with voices that you have never heard of. And this one was only possible because of these voices, and others, who have helped me to make me open to hear the different perspective this post is about.
It was at the opening of the South African Missiological Society of 2010 when Jonathan Jansen spoke, and he dared to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mainly white crowd). The way I heard him was that the Dutch Reformed Church was teaching their members week by week that it is OK not to ask : “Who is my neighbour”, by allowing them to sit in all white churches in South Africa. This might not have been what he said, but this is what I heard.
Deconstruction makes me mad. My thoughts went on to think in the line of liturgy. What was this liturgy of white worship communicating week by week, whatever we might be preaching? I saw it as communicating that the white ghetto was OK, that the lack of friendships with people of all races and colours was OK. That the distance we kept between ourselves and black people was OK. My thoughts went on to the idea that we might be doing a hell of a lot of development work in South Africa, but we will never be able to contribute to the transformation and reconciliation of a country if we keep this liturgy of whiteness.
January 18, 2010
I attended the South African Missiological Society’s (SAMS) yearly meeting from 13-15 January. It was my first time there. I went, as well as presented a paper, because of the theme: “A missional church in Southern Africa 1999-2009 A Moment of Truth?”. But I guess I went more specifically because of the way in which the call for papers was formulated on the Missionalia blog, which referred specifically to “emerging churches”, and since I knew of felt like younger voices, and the voices of those active in the blogosphere, had an obligation to participate at the conference.
Jonathan Jansen opened the conference. I had respect for him in his days at the University of Pretoria, but basically only from the few articles he wrote in the University newspaper that I read. I never heard him speak, or read his books before. He made no secret of the fact that what South Africa needs is racial integration, and he will do he’s part, but that churches who still proceed with segregated worship is not helping. Going so far to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mostly white crowd).
Of the 12 papers presented four came from the South African Partnership for Missional Churches. Nelus Niemandt, Jurgens Hendriks, Danie Mouton and Frederick Marais (together with Xilele Simon or the last part of the paper). These first four names are all senior voices from the Dutch Reformed Church. Four papers was presented by bloggers (not that this mean they actually form a category in the conference, but they do seem to point to a somewhat different path. Myself, Reggie Nel, Tom Smith and Guillaume Smit.
Four other papers I won’t really mention, either because they talked about some totally different from the above eight papers (Christof Sauer and Billy Gama), I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say (Pastor Des, who talked about something he called emerging/missional), or I didn’t attend (Willem Saayman, which I am really really sad about, because from what I gather from the tweets, he really can help the emerging and missional conversations in South Africa along).
The first eight papers I mentioned all talked in some way about emerging and missional churches. Reggie Nel mentioned in a paper read at last year’s joint New Testament and Missionlogy day-long conference on “The Missionary Task of the Church” that he perceives a difference between those in Southern Africa clustered under the missional banner, who are mostly drawn by the Dutch Reformed Church, and then especially the above mentioned partnership, and those who identified with emergent (I would differ from him, I think emerging is actually the term being used in South Africa), who he says is about a generation or two younger than the first group, and who’s conversation are framed by blogs and social networks.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t find much that overlap between the two groups, there is a lot in common. Neither does it mean that either of the group can be captured in one definition, I think both have a variety of voices grouped under an umbrella term. But I do believe some of the different nuances came out at the conference, although a much deeper analysis of the papers would have to be made to actually point them out. When I do get written copies of the papers I might make an attempt at this.
Steve Hays asked four questions of SAMS participants, which I will answer tomorrow:
1. What do you think was the best paper/presentation?
2. Please give an abstract of the most important points.
3. What was the most important/significant thing you learned at the congress
(not necessarily from the paperts — chatting to people over coffeee late at
night often yields better insights)
4. Were you inspired to do anything as a result of the congress? If so, what?
If you attended, why not answer it as well, on your blog or in tomorrow’s comment section.
October 30, 2009
Recently a group of black theological students of the URCSA studying at UP visited the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto together with some fellow theological students from the DRC and some visiting students from the USA. Some time after the visit, the students said (in a discussion) that the Hector Peterson memorial “is not a place to visit with white people” since “it only makes you angry”. What had made them angry was that the white students said at the memorial: “We were not even born when this happened”, without any acknowledgement of their connectedness with their parents and grandparents who had been born at the time and without owning up to the fact that they had benefited from their “whiteness”, even though they were never in the position to support or perpetrate apartheid. The unwillingness or inability to acknowledge white privilege flowing from the apartheid system is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in South Africa, and it will have to be addressed in a reconciling mission praxis.
From a paper entitled “RECONCILING ENCOUNTERS IN LUKE-ACTS” delivered by Prof Klippies Kritzenger at a conference in Stellenbosch, May 2009.
More than once I talked about the Afrikaner tribe in a series of posts on Afrikaner identity written after Amahoro 2009. I’ve been thinking about a number of Afrikaans songs for years now, and the song which probably best formulate the thoughts of many young white South Africans is that of “Nie langer” (“not any more”) by Klopjag, that shouts out that we won’t be saying sorry any more. It’s been bothering me ever since I first heard it.
The reason can partly be found in the paragraph above: it’s not acknowledging the fact that we benefited from being white, since we are connected to our parents and grandparents. But my discomfort has been growing ever deeper, and it’s more than simply the fact that we benefited from the past. What bothers me is the fact that we actually disconnect ourselves from our own history with this song, with these words. The URCSA students maybe have a much more natural understanding of belonging to a group, to a culture, to a tribe.
My thoughts on this found special meaning in an experience at Amahoro, really a conversion experience, where my Afrikaner identity suddenly found meaning for Africa, where I believe I became an African theologian in my own eyes. Not by forgetting the past. Not by disconnecting from it in the way that the story above tells. But exactly by connecting, by remembering, by saying sorry (not out of emotions of guilt, because I honestly can’t say I experience these emotions, but in a process of reconciliation), by admitting that my tribe was wrong.
My call to Christian Afrikaners is to join your tribe. Not in opposition to the South Africa of which you are part. Not on Loftus at a Curry Cup final. But by embracing your connectedness to the past. By visiting the Hector Peterson memorial and not distancing yourself from what it says, but by connecting, working through the pain and the hurt (and my non-Afrikaner and non-white readers must hear this, embracing the connectness is a really hurtful process!), so that we can find the reconciliation on the other side. Also, to find, as a white man, liberation within Africa:
After telling our story, the story of our people, proud at times, standing guilty at times, one of my new Kenyan friends said these words: “You need to come to Kenya and come tell your story! Our people need to hear that someone can admit that they were wrong.” Those must have been some of the most liberating words I’ve ever heard!
Quoted from How one Afrikaner became an African theologian
(and on a side-note, I was part of the group that visited the Hector Peterson museum from the story above)
June 27, 2009
Chris asked me today what Amahoro meant to me. My answer probably surprised the room: Amahoro called me back to the white Afrikaner people. Amahoro called me back to the Dutch Reformed Church, the white one. Linking with everyone from Africa was a great experience, and I look forward to joining the family next year in Nairobi, but for me the calling of Amahoro was not primarily to the worst suffering in Africa, but to a small tribe of people who are known for the efficiency with which we could oppress.
I probably need to explain.
This probably started when I seriously began digging into the missiology of David Bosch, and seeking for an approach to the emerging field of public theology which would take the work of Bosch into account. Up to now this haven’t really happened in the public theology conversation. Part of my discussion of Bosch was understanding his ecclesiology, specifically the way he used the alternative community concept of the Anabaptists, combined it with his own Reformed theology.
Bosch talked about the church as God’s experimental garden. The church is not only the community that is sent out to change the world, but also the place where we show the world what God’s dream would look like. For Bosch in the Apartheid years this would have meant showing an Apartheid government that black and white can live together, that the world isn’t going to come to an end when black and white share a meal.
What exactly all this mean to me I don’t know. But I do know that I pray for my people, and yes, I call the Afrikaners my people. I pray, and hear the voice of God calling this, that these people can in the years to come journey out of our heritage, and become part of Africa, of this continent with it’s struggles, with it’s African theologians and our beautiful way of talking about God amidst suffering. It’s like the way Bosch understood the reign of God, it’s here, but it’s still coming. The Afrikaner is part of Africa, but we are also still becoming part of Africa.
In different ways we responded to Amahoro. For me it wasn’t walking away from this church that still refuse to embrace Belhar, but embracing this church. Not embracing it as it is, but this deep feeling that I cannot go without them. I need to see these people transition. I cannot run and call them from afar, tell them how wonderful it is here on the other side, where we are wholly part of Africa. I need to walk with them. The world need us to make this journey, to show that yes, whatever you might remember about this group of people, through God even we can make this journey.
Nic said it at one stage at Amahoro. We pitch our tents out far, and then come back to the church and journey with them. Amahoro stretch the road to when my tent is pitched even further, but it also sent me back, I’ve seen something of the road, now I must go on the journey with others.
This is most probably not the last time I’ll blog on this. I just know that these words it not what’s going on in my head, but I need to start to try and formulate this truckload of thoughts that’s still racing.