The gospels give us two groups of narratives which provide us with a glimpse onto the resurrection. There are those narratives when people find the empty grave, and those where the resurrected Christ meet them. See for example Luke 24: First a group of women come to the grave, finding it to be empty, with messengers from God announcing that they shouldn’t look for the living among the dead, after which Peter run to the grave, confirming that it is indeed empty. Then two people are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are met by a stranger, a stranger whom they discover to be the resurrected Christ, just as this Christ disappear from their sight.

Modern debates about the resurrection, to my mind, don’t seem to focus on any of these narratives, but rather construct, from all sides of the popular debates, a new narrative not told by the writers of the gospel: the narrative of what happened inside the grave.

Take any construction of two sides to a popular debate on the resurrection, call them “conservative vs. progressive” or “fundamentalist vs. liberal” (both constructs of tensions in the church which I believe oversimplify the reality of real communities of faith) and you generally find a debate raging on: “could a body come back to life?” The question of what happened inside the grave. From various theological and scientific presuppositions we speculate on the missing narrative, the narrative inside the grave. Did the blood miraculously start to flow again? Was the body stolen? Was there a ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’ which rose out of a dead Jesus? Did this Jesus simply take the blankets of from his body and face and walk out?

These are not modern questions, but have been the subject of speculation for many centuries, and particularly in the first centuries of the church. But the gospel writers refuse to answer the many questions. The gospel writers, as authors of their books, have the power to reveal information hidden to the characters. They sometimes reveal information on what Jesus was thinking, or what he prayed when no one else was with him, so they are willing to present the reader with information which no one could actually know (in the technical sense which we modern people like to connect to the word ‘know’). But when it come to the grave, they don’t dare walk onto that ground.

So we are left with two narratives: The grave is empty. The resurrected Christ has appeared to Peter, the woman at the grave, the travelers to Emmaus.

Are we allowed to dare walk into the grave, attempting to guess what happened? I would say yes. I say yes simply because I don’t think anything is out of bounds. Simply because I think that the God which we find in the Bible is fine with our questions, our attempts at sense-making, our attempts at giving a coherent or rational (sometimes both, sometimes these two seem to exclude each other) argument for our beliefs, or the tradition within which we live.

But I do think we miss the point if our debates and conversations about the resurrection end up as a technical conversation about what happened within the grave. The grave is empty. That’s it. That’s enough. That’s what the gospel present us with. The resurrected Christ, the one with whom we have been resurrection (following the (post)-Pauline writings in Collosians), has appeared to his followers, and this changed their lives.

I want to dare say that if we move our conversations out of the grave and into life, away from what happened in the grave and into what should happen to those to whom the resurrection Christ appeared in their lives, we might find a conversation which both bind us together and lead the church into becoming salt and light. This, to my mind, is a conversation we are in dire need of. What is the implication of the resurrection for the economy, the ecology, for a world in which death, not life, is the reality which face a very large proportion of this planets inhabitants. If our belief in the resurrection don’t translate into a belief that the death facing us can be overcome (and leaving people to die because we believe that they will go to heaven is not believing that death has been overcome, but rather a firm belief that death has won, that opposing death is impossible), then I struggle to call it faith in the resurrected Christ.

This is the sixth year that I’m blogging on the resurrection on resurrection Sunday. Earlier posts can be found here.

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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?

A few blocks from where I live is a church called “to change the world” church (or something in that line). As soon as I finish up at the congregation I’m working at the moment (three weeks from now) I want to visit this church (as well as a few others in the inner-city area where I currently live). But in all honesty I want to visit them because I’m interested in the growing number of black urban prosperity churches in Africa, and I suspect this one to be a prime candidate (you really have to walk past it to understand my suspicion, but the google streetview image point to the space where it is situated, at the time of taking the photo about a year ago it was still “to let”).

I mention this because I have this growing suspicion of the popularity of mission. This is partly what lies behind the obvious attempt at controversy in titling a post “Against Mother Theresa” (I mean, who the hell (pun intended) is against Mother Theresa?), and I hope to unpack this more technically in a coming post. Because it’s not only the fast growing churches in urban Africa that is running with the popular theme that “you can change the world”. Since I’m facing the future of unemployment I’m looking through some church adds at the moment, and as a rule the mainline churches also find it important to remind us that they exist to “make a difference to society”.

This ideal I’ll obviously support, in spite of my growing skepticism concerning whether we actually mean what we say. Two quotes from what I’ve read yesterday point to what I believe we need to focus on if the church do believe that we are called to change the world, to make a difference.

Lester Brown writing in the New Scientist:

The question I get asked most is “What can I do?” People expect me to say change your light bulbs, recycle newspaper, but I say we must restructure the world economy, especially in energy. It’s about becoming politically active. If there’s a coal-fired power station near you, organise to close it down.

And this is the reality which I’m fearing in the church. We all want to do something. But the something should be personal, hands-on. We want to pick up papers. Hand out food. We don’t want to get involved in the messy world of politics where the systemic questions are being addressed.

And then there is South African theologian Klaus Nűrnberger writing in Prosperity, Poverty and Pollution:

Meanwhile, left-wing activism has changed from Marxist macro-economics, which has fallen to pieces, to small scale community development. Ideology has made way for romanticism about the symbolic universe of the marginalised. Others concentrate on isolated environmental issues. This is simply not good enough. While the emphasis on community empowerment at grass roots level is important, and while we do not want elephants and tigers to die out, it is the macro-economic context in which grass roots development and ecological sustainability will either flourish or flounder.

Now we’ve made all kinds of arguments when confronted with the systemic questions. We regularly tell each other that people will change when busying themselves with the random acts of kindness, and then become more inclined to participate in the broad systemic changes. We also divide the solutions, and say that some should busy themselves with “community empowerment at grass roots level” while others address the broad political questions. And while I think both these arguments have some merit, I also believe that both can potentially be just another way of sustaining the status quo, just as the middle-class church which focus on changing the world, but refuse to address the macro-economic questions, is most probably more keeping the status quo in place than changing the world.

So what can I do to change the world? Probably nothing. And this is the reality which our hyper-modern, hyper-individual personalities does not want to face. I cannot change the world (in spite of all the examples we like to hold up as heroes, Mandela, Theresa, Ghandi), to change the world we will have to give it a shot. Because changing the world will require us to organize ourselves, to lobby, protest, analyze, construct alternative solutions, implement alternative solutions, create a new world. We will have to address the macro-economic world in which we live. And we will have to do it, we cannot out-source it to either the Americans or the politicians.

I spent the weekend down in Pietermaritzburg with the steering committee of ANiSA, visioning what the role of ANiSA might be in South Africa today. Coming from the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed church environment (a context to which I declared my love in one of the sessions, admittedly in similar fashion to which Ani Difranco declare love to her country), I found the conversations source of hope. The crowd was diverse in race, language, church background (gender however is a question which I would hope to see more diversity in future). We came with very different theological backgrounds, but with a willingness to consider radical possibilities, and a strong commitment to justice and peace.

The day was spent drafting a kind of vision statement, through discussion of one-word concepts which might be used to tell something of the values of this network. The discussions opened up an amazing richness which I hope can continue to flow into the broader theological discussion in South Africa. The best meetings I’ve had in the church all contained two aspects, both which I found at ANiSA as well: deep theological debate, and lots of laughter. With out the deep debate, we end up simply stating some kind of common denominator, which contributes nothing, and changes no one. Without laughter we take ourselves too seriously, and we are no longer able to change. We had the intense debate, but with a lightness which opened up everyone (that’s how it felt at least) to the possibility that I may be changed through these discussions.

Probably the concept which stimulated the most conversation was “simplicity”. Our various reactions convinced us that this concept, contested as it is, is of the utmost importance to our context today, although we acknowledge the complexity with the term.

For myself, I think the double-bind we experience is that the fact that we find ourselves in South Africa, with its poverty and economic inequality, vast riches and extreme poverty, calls us to seriously discuss what the simple lifestyle would mean. However, exactly because this is the context we find ourselves in, we acknowledge that it is almost impossible to state with clarity what simplicity and simple living would look like. When we call for simplicity, for simple living, it is not yet a call which is defined in the detail of what the exact implication would be, but a very strong value, calling us to take this conversation very seriously, and work through the questions which the South African context births.

The call towards simplicity may never be just another way of romanticizing poverty in some spiritual way. The poor is not those who are living lives of simplicity. Simplicity require that we have access to that which we need to simply live, it is not a blind call to “simply own less and less, simply have access to less and less”. I’d describe the call to simplicity as a deeply prophetic call. Prophetic in the old-school sense of pointing out that: “this way of inequality and over-consumption for a few is not just, not sustainable. If we continue down this road it will lead to our death! It will create violence! Therefore we need to turn from our greedy ways”. It is a critical voice to those of us in positions of power and privilege to rethink our participation in the global economic and ecological systems, as well as in the local relations with those whom we should call neighbours. As such simplicity must be more than just an individual private choice, but must be a public outcry, a systemic suggestion for a better world.

In a way I’d therefore say that simplicity is a choice. It is a choice which some do not have, and others choose not to make. It is the choice which those who have it should make, so that those who do not have access to the choice of living in simplicity can be made room for. Still, we don’t have an answer to what this life would look like in hard financial terms. However, this acknowledgement of the complexity of the question may never become just another way of postponing the critical question facing us.

I’ve been intrigued with space in its various forms for all my life. My first memory of intentionally contemplating space was by studying the planets and the stars at the age of 8. This was followed by reading every science fiction book I could lay hands on, ultimately culminating in the Mars Trilogy, which I’m still re-reading, and consider to be one of the most important influences on my thoughts on space over the years. When one of the characters, Arkady, the token anarchist of the book, described his vision for a new world, it is to a large extend a description of how space should be structured: do we separate living and working quarters? Do we build in squares of circles? How does the space we create contribute to an egalitarian society? This was at the age of 16. In recent years my reflections and experimentation concerning space has found a number of spaces into which it grew:

  • I ran a few experiments with kind of “open space” camps with people in their early 20’s from 2008. The experiment lead us to a place where camp programs was not the issue, but the way we constructed space became more and more important.
  • Starting 2009 I experimented with liturgy and space, in a service where the way in which the space was constructed was more important than the order of the liturgy. Steve wrote some thoughts on the very early experiment (only a few weeks after we started) and I posted some photos.
  • Also, in 2009 I moved into a community with friends right after getting married. Ours was not a very religious intentional community with Bible studies and programs, but simply sharing the space, working against our own individualism and using less space in the long run (primarily for ecological reasons). This year the space in which I had my office, as part of the community in which I live, also had important symbolism.
  • Lastly I reflected on space in some of my academic work. Writing an assignment titled “Jesus’ disregard for rules of space” in 2008, and working on the role of religion in the public space since 2008 and still continuing.

So, I’m drenched in reflecting on space, and this continues.

Ons space which was important in my own life over the past 5 years was the inner city of Pretoria. Actually, I guess when we whities talk about “inner-city” we mean everything west of the “sunnyside” sign in Jorrison street which students are taught to interpret as “now you’re in the danger zone”. It’s the space which white people decided to leave of the past 15/20 years. Sunnyside, the Pretoria central, Salvokop. Over the years these places changed from being the spaces which must be feared, to some of my favourite places in the city. And for years me and Maryke have been dreaming of moving closer to the city.

In the last few weeks we started to look each other in the eye, and decided that the dreamlike talk should become reality. And a few minutes ago I sent the email confirming that we will be taking a flat in Arcadia.

Now, Arcadia is not the most dodgy place in the city you will find, actually quite middle-class. But it’s a conscience decision to move out of the suburbs, and out of predominantly white spaces, into the space where ambulances and police disturb you, where people are living in flats and close to each other, and where being white mean that you are a minority. We are not on a mission to the city. We don’t have a plan by which to save the city. We are moving to the city hoping that it will save us. Change us.

Together with us one of our house-mates from the past 2 years, Andre, will be joining. This is the space into which we will be moving. What will we do while there? We will be living there. Hopefully I’ll be blogging more on this in the year to come.

In Violence Zizek points to some questions which again got me thinking about the always persistent notions in Christianity that we have a task to convert the whole society to Christ, meaning that all should become part of the church. He writes:

What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is? What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous “there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks”) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other “particularistic” religions, there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto ”All men are brothers,” however, also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men.

My reflection at this stage does not concern the questions whether this is a legitimate interpretation of Paul, but rather the quote serve to open up questions concerning evangelical universalism.

A distinctive marker of Christianity is the ways in which it created categories for interpreting the act of entering into the faith community which opened up this faith community to all, regardless of culture or background. Obviously Paul’s thoughts was important in this process. I usually describe this to my confirmation classes by saying that the crime that the followers of Jesus, those called Christians, committed against the Jews was to open up the Jewish faith to everyone – they made it too easy to become a Jew. Gone where the days of circumcision, which made it literally painful to become a member once you were an adult (and obviously opened up possibilities for woman to become part of the faith community).

Again similar categories were created within the protestant Reformation, sola gratia, sola fidei. But again the critique from Zizek is applicable, because if membership is sola gratia, but the sola fidei is still a prerequisite, it puts a question mark either on the choice of faith, or on the non-believer. Either you don’t have a choice, or else you’re choice against that which is assumed is open to everyone open possibilities for the most brutal forms of exclusion (and the history of the church is ample examples of this).

However, this is not the only interpretations possible. In an article titled How my mind has changed. Mission and the alternative community*, David Bosch describes his own project from the years 1972-1982 as

What I have attempted to do— not very successfully, I am afraid, judging by the reaction, particularly in the Afrikaans Reformed Churches! — was to build on and develop further the intrinsic similarities that I believe exist between Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiologies.

He unpacks this by explaining that

The more identifiably separate and unique the church is as a community of believers (Anabaptism) the greater significance it has for the world (Calvinism).

Whether this is what Bosch intended or not, I’m not yet completely sure about, but on a very simplistic level this assumes that church and world can never become the same, that the church should always be but a part of a broader community, and not identifiable as the community**, always smaller than the community, smaller than the world. The experimental garden. The place where things are possible which would not be considered in the world.

How then is this significance for the world to manifest when this community is truly unique?

I suggest that we need a deeper exploration of the idea of public dialogue.

If our own place is understood as part of a broader dialogue, and our contribution to the world and transformation of the world (mission) is found in our uniqueness, it opens up possibilities that this world can contain a place for others. Exactly as a Christian, I can create an openness which recognize the voices of others within this public dialogue, contributing to the positive evolution of society. However, I do this only from a position of faith, of a firm conviction that also the way of the church, in its uniqueness, has significance for the world.

Maybe, in this post-secular world, this could even be done without condescension. Not only could we recognize that certain distinctly different worldviews are siblings of our own (be it the monotheistic faiths, or secularism), but the growing recognition of the important role which for example eastern religions need to play in our time (think of conversations on ecology) also open up the idea of a dialogue where the other need not be defeated, but where uniquely different views are needed in the ongoing dialogue concerning what Christians would call the kingdom of God (that which is the dream of how things could be in this world).

And the church then? Well, we would need to discover and live our distinctness as the community which over the past 2000 years reflected on the tradition which grew out of the life and words of Jesus. For the sake of society we need to contribute from our uniqueness as church.

* Bosch, D. J. 1982. “How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community”, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 41 (December), pp. 6–10.

** My guess is that chapter 13 of Transforming Mission, and the 1993 chapter in The Good News of the Kingdom: MissionTheology in the Third Millennium titled God’s Reigh and the Rulers of this World both open up the possibility that different church traditions might be appropriate at different times and places. This might open up the possibility of interpreting Bosch in such a way that at times a complete identification between church and community is possible, but as a rule I believe you don’t find this idea in Bosch.

After a great conversation earlier today with one of the student pastors around the University of Pretoria (not Dutch Reformed), I starting thinking about the small practical sides of living eco-friendly again. How do we bring it down to earth, so to speak. Out of the big atmospheric questions (not that those are not important), into the daily actions of living. And doing it eco-friendly. And keeping it practical. And since we talk about theology mostly on this blog (although the non-religious should also be able to identify with much of these thoughts), making it a spiritual thing, a faith thing, a theology thing… eco-theology. And since we recognize that there is this huge crisis we need to respond to, and we have this tradition of liturgy in the church, of participating in actions which point to a greater reality, and form us with this greater reality in mind, let’s talk about liturgy. But hopefully most of us have realized by now that we are not primarily formed by what happens Sunday morning in church, but by what happens day-after-day in life. So I’ll talk about a liturgy of life. eco-theology and a liturgy of life.

Two short suggestions:

  1. I’ve mentioned a few short thoughts on food and theology in the past. Food is a great liturgical act. For better or for worse. I can go about weekly to pick up the trash in the different streams around Pretoria, and really, we should spend more time picking up trash, but it can easily remain external to my being, something I do from time to time to feel that I’ve done something eco-friendly. But change your diet, and you change a pattern, a rhythm, a way of life. This is true for changing your diet in many ways. I would suggest that the food we eat can become a primary part of an eco-theology liturgy of life. Food has been central to spirituality since like forever. Fasting. Feasting. Eucharist. Eat only what you need, not more. Eat only the amount of meat that you need, not more. Eat with others, don’t prepare for only one person.
  2. Travel the speed of God, the speed of the people. Many have written about slowing down as an act of spirituality, as finding God in a slower way of life. I’ve mentioned becoming part of my own context more through public transport. For many of us the reality is that we travel faster and more than the average person. We rush around in our own car to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, using way more energy than the average person, and missing the place where most people are. And if we take the incarnation seriously, we’d have to say that this is where we’d find God as well. Part of our eco-friendly liturgy of life I’d suggest could be, travel more with others. And the reality is that if I change the way I do my daily travels, I change my whole way of life! No longer in charge of everything, not longer always able to be where I want to be when I want to be, but part of a greater system. Interconnected with the whole society through my travels. Liturgically reminding my day by day of the realities of average life.

Thanx to the community in which I live, there commitment to the environment, and willingness to think through actions, in the first I’ve had the privilege of dwelling into. And 18 months down the line, I find myself constantly reminded of the reality of economic and ecological injustice every time I find myself in a place where people just never think about food. The second still lies there waiting for me every time I drive past the taxi rank close to my house.