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.

Am I a racist?

May 24, 2012

The article started appearing on my timeline last night sometime. I use facebook’s subscription options generously, which helps me to see that which I actually want to see. This allow me to bypass most of the blatant racist rhetoric on news24 comment sections.

It’s an article which I usually would have skipped, were it not for the friends who shared it. I know these people. They are not the right-wing type. Many of them aren’t even the “good-ol’ middle-of-the-road, let’s love our neighbours and not get involved in all this political mumbo-jumbo Christian”-type. Many of them are active voices for the acceptance of Belhar. They are people for whom church unity is non-negotiable. They are the people whom I want to spend the future of this church with. So when they share an article titles “I am a racist”, particularly if 3, 4 or more of them start sharing the same article, I follow the link.

My father had a fascination with etymology. He has one of those “Etymological dictionaries” next to his computer, and like to check random words in it. My Greek lecturer told us etymology cannot really provide you with the meaning of words (if I remember that class correctly), since meaning is constructed by how words are used in the present, not by finding some pristine untainted past meaning. Nonetheless, sometimes etymology is interesting. And when someone claim that, mostly due to the actions of the ANC, “the word racist has lost it’s original meaning and now only get’s used to describe a white person doing something a black person doesn’t like”, one have to wonder about etymology and the meaning of words.

What exactly is this “original meaning”. Truth be told, few people walk around with etymological dictionaries wondering about the “original meaning”. And I doubt that the author is actually concerned about the fact that the word ‘recently’ started moving away from its Nazi roots, insisting that ‘racism’ should remain used only as it was originally intended: as a system of scientific thought which had the intent to proof that those of European descent were superior due to biologically reasons.

Truth is that, although this kind of scientific racism was active in South Africa, that was never the most dominant approach and sometimes actively rejected (read Samual Dubow’s brilliant analysis on this topic). Apartheid and Nazism might show certain similarities, but they were not the same.

But I don’t think that the “original meaning” the author refers to is apartheid either. Making racism and apartheid synonymous (something which is not uncommon in South Africa), imply that racism is a legalized system of classification and exclusionary laws privileging those who are categorized as “white”. Is that the problem, that we dare use “racism” in any way apart from such a definition?

Many who are comfortable with the author’s thoughts, will shout out against DJ’s and FHM models who dare call someone a “kaffir”. Although derogatory names is obviously not the same as a legalized system like apartheid, we easily recognize their use as “racism”.

Here is our problem, I think: Beverley Tatum tell the story of the response of a white teacher when she was asked how it would feel if someone called her a racist: “She said it would feel as though she had been punched in the stomach or called a “low-life scum.”” We have found a general consensus that racism is wrong. In particularly more liberal circles (and I think also most Church circles regardless of theological position), we have found a general consensus that racism is not only wrong, but that it is like calling someone a “low-life scum”. For those white people who actively oppose Nazism and apartheid, who like Obama and Mandela, who might even have had a black person sleep in their guest bedroom (or even been in the Black Sash and written the first article on the death of Steve Biko) to be called a racist is like being punched in the stomach. But we don’t know what the word mean.

The author doesn’t really define racism. Or does she? It seems like the author concern racism to be any kind of action which someone doesn’t like in which the one doing it clearly stated that aspects of these categories which we call race influence this action. So if a company states that they will hire a black person rather than a white person, because they want to get their BEE scorecard right (not a very good reason in my mind, I would prefer if people do stuff for ethical rather than legal reasons, but let’s leave that for today), then it is “racism”. When UCT set different standards for entry into courses depending on race, then that is racism (honestly, the comparison between the white student who had 8 distinctions and was refused and the black student who barely passed is getting a bit old, the UCT example is somewhat more realistic). I do believe the author would agree that if someone actively states that they refuse to hire black people that would also be racism.

But if me and my black boss, who frequently travel together, and have both read one or two books on racism in the past, point out patterns in how security personnel at airports treat us differently, can we call it racism? The personnel are mainly black, and most probably not aware that their is a pattern where he has to show proof of identification more often than I have to.

And if I continue to have a sense of fear when I get the impression that I’m trailed by a black person in Sunnyside, but I don’t even recognize when I’m trailed by a white person in Hatfield, is that racism?

And if I have different emotions when looking at photos of white squatters than I would have when looking at black squatters, is that racism?

And if I find myself listening more intently to the white speaker than the black speaker, somewhere deep inside myself assuming that the white person know what she/he is speaking about, assuming that they did their research with the required precision etc, is that racism?

And if police (also black policemen) just have a tendency to assume that black people was responsible for a crime, and therefore end up finding more of the black criminals because that is where they look, is that racism?

And when a global economic system and educational system is structured so that is “just happens” that white people tend to have more capital, more businesses, more degrees, is that racism?

One response in a context such as this is to refuse any talk about racism. To insist that any reference to race is not allowed. The article took a different route. Irritated with the difficulty of discussion this topic, the difficulty that we don’t understand what is meant by the term, and the perception that it has become a “political card”, or a vague reference used when no other critique can be brought into an argument, the author attempt to make it absurd by presenting certain situations which would then be “racist” under this absurd understanding. Perhaps its just another attempt at saying: “let’s stop all this talk about racism, it’s absurd” (although their is a message in the article that the biggest problem or racism today is reversed racism against white people, not an uncommon thread in white rhetoric).

Given the fact that their is no real biological grounds for grouping people into the races we do, and even less grounds for pointing out qualities which is inherently connected to these biological markers, some prefer to say that we should rather just stop any reference to race. It doesn’t help us to speak about race at all (says these voices that heard some vague Marxist critique on the topic somewhere).

I believe two things should guide us:

First, what we have as “races” today is something that was constructed historically over the long period of time. Its development is complex, and is intertwined with class, gender, culture, language and many other aspects. I am stuck with constantly being given an interpretation of what it would imply to be “white”. I find myself in a community which consist primarily of those who reinforce this same racialized ideas. To break with it is not impossible, but will take generations of hard work on various levels: on our minds, on our societal structures, on the language we use, on the images found in the media, on the habits deeply ingrained on an unconscious level.

Second, we will have to learn to use the word “racism” responsibly, and to define what we mean when we use it. I think it is am important word. It is a word which remind us of a history to which we never want to go back to. But it is a dangerous word. It is a word that can be misunderstood. And it is a word which the popular use of has lead to various reductions, various attempts at scapegoating while portraying others as innocent.

What is racism? Racism is that which cause me to see that which I identify as “white” as more important, more correct, more trustworthy or more moral, than that which I identify as “black”. Racism is that which cause those who are identified as “black” to suffer more through the structuring of society than those who are identified as “white”.

Am I a racist?

The image which help some of us, is to say that I am a racist like a recovering addict.

I am a recovering racist. I struggle with the ideas I have internalized. I struggle with turning a blind eye towards, justifying, or even supporting policies and systems which end up harming black people more than white people. I struggle with assuming that a white life is worth more than a black life. I struggle with sometimes revolting when I see black and white people in romantic relationships. And my struggle at times become most visible when I want to convince myself and the world that “I am not a racist”. I don’t have a problem.

So I am a racist. A recovering racist. It’s a painful process. And sometimes I need a support group where I can share my struggles, because without this, I find myself either denying that I’m struggling with this, or making jokes or absurd statements about this.

I didn’t follow the tweets and facebook discussions on the DA youth poster 3 weeks ago. Also decided to wait a while with responding, since the hype and emotions around it doesn’t necessarily create the ideal space for reflection. First: I don’t think they were necessarily wrong to create the poster. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what the poster is portraying either. On the contrary, I think the nerve that they touched with the poster need to be examined, and that we can learn a lot by slowly reflecting on our instinctive reactions to the poster. I do however think the poster is naive, and that if a romantic and/or sexual relation between a black man and a white woman is the symbol for the future that they are working for, then we need a new opposition party. So let me explain.

Some responses to the poster had so-called “moderate” voices fall back upon hard-core racist rhetoric. Comments such as “I am a DA supporter, but this is like cross-breeding a goat and a sheep” do reveal the depth of racist formation in South Africa. After a long history of attempting to convince the country that indeed that was some inherent difference associated with a few biological markers (primarily skin colour), it would be naive to think that 18 years of democracy would exorcise these ideas.

But responses on a “lighter” note is just as revealing. Decades after we have found consensus in academia that there is no such thing as “race”, that external biological markers are not revealing any internal qualities, we still find “caring” responses about the fact that the children from a mixed-race sexual relation would have no identity, or about the fact that cultures are incompatible. These attempts to justify our discomfort with an image need to be examined, its a deep reminder that we have a lot of baggage to work through.

However, what the poster are best at revealing remain hidden from public discourse. It is the instinctive feelings from those of us who have been trained on politically correct responses. I don’t use politically correct in the negative sense here! There is things that we know is acceptable (such as sexual relations between consenting adults regardless of the racial categories in which society place them), and therefore wouldn’t voice critique upon, yet continue to struggle with internally, on an emotional level. Deep within ourselves, hidden from the media, twitter or blogs, is the question whether we ourselves would be willing or able to disregard race when reflecting on our possible sexual relations, or those of our children.

I write the previous three paragraphs not as a kind of guilt trip about the deep racism which “others” still reveal, but rather as an attempt at an honest reflection from within the “own” position of white South Africans. To some extent our reactions to the poster does reveal the depth of what a racist past has done to us.

If we are to move beyond this poster, if we are to move towards the future which the DA imagine, then it might help to stop and reflect on where our instinctive responses come from. The relation between sex and race has been important throughout the development of racial notions during modernity. Studying this remain important if we are to de-racialize society, if we want to undo the effects of a system of white superiority. Within a system in which strict biological markers was associated with internal qualities, sexual relations across these racial boundaries create many questions on what the quality would be of the children born from these. The particular fear is that the “pure” white race, with its superior qualities would become extinct when mixed with “inferior blood”.

But more is at stake here. Black and white bodies is defined to some extent in relation to sexuality. The black male body being associated with a “sexual predator”, always seeking to prey on the white female body, to rape the white female. The black female body is defined as the tempter, responsible for tempting the white male body into unacceptable sexual relations. Furthermore, the black female body is constructed in the gaze of the white male as a sexual object, a body good for the gratification of white male sexual desires, as long as these remain out of sight, since the children born from these relations will be of  “lesser quality”. In contrast to the black female body, the white female body is supposed to be “pure” (reminding that race and gender cannot be separated). And the white male body? Well, since it is white males that construct identities under a racist patriarchal society, these bodies are possible considered the most perfect beings, in perfect balance. But the modern history of racism is scattered with the untold stories of white men raping black women, to some extent being the act against which many of the above notions is constructed.

I point this out as a reminder that indeed the DA is on to something when they imagine a future where the racialised nature of sexuality no longer determine the social networks of society. On a side note this short reflection should remind us that if they changed the poster around so that it was a black male and white female, they might have found themselves with even more fierce reactions, but let’s leave it at that.

However, I found the poster to be deeply dissatisfying. Not merely because it was provocative (sometimes public images need to provoke reaction to stimulate public reflection), but because I find it somewhat conservative… and yes, I did intend this last statement. Let me explain.

The poster seek to reveal the depths of our personal prejudices and fears concerning race, and imagine a future no longer determined by these. This is its strongest as well as weakest point, as one of my mentors sometimes said. While I tried to point out the strength of this image above, the limits need to be discussed as well.

Let’s put is this way: while more difficult to portray in a single image, an image imagining a future where schools reflect the reality of the country, and where we don’t look twice at this might have been more radical. A future where if I drove past any primary school, the playground would reflect kids exhibiting features which once was used as markers dividing people, and where these markers would no longer determine who is in this school. In short, an image imagining a future where basically every school would consist of a majority of black kids and a minority of white kids, merely because race no longer determine where kids go to school.

Or what about an image of a South Africa where the super-rich no longer dominate in extremely expensive residential areas which exclude the majority. What about an image which imagine a future where my level of education and my position at work no longer determine who my neighbour would be, a future where the vast inequalities no longer exist. While the relation sex and race is indeed very important, and has been an important contribution to maintaining the racist social structure of society, exclusionary economic practices has been as important, if not more. Merely accepting a future where we don’t look twice when a white man is in a sexual relationship with a black woman to some extent simply reinforce the existing status quo, a status quo where a small, generally economically secure, white minority mix freely with the emerging black middle class and elite while assuring that the privileged position of some (although the image of exactly who the “some” is might change) remain intact and the majority remain in dire circumstances (the majority in South Africa remaining, and possible remaining for the imaginable future, the Black African population).

While I welcome the challenge the DA Student Organization bring concerning the way in which sex and sexuality has been racialised, and indeed I hope that they would do more than a poster, and contribute to a healthy public debate on the actual complexities involved with their image, the poster still leave me wondering whether they are willing to voice the necessary critique against exclusionary economic practices, internationally, but with its counterpart in South Africa. Will the DASA be willing to imagine a future where we will not allow residential spaces which exclude the majority and which are ecologically unsustainable, schools which are only for the elites while many rural black schools provide horrible education, super-salaries for some while unemployment remain a primary challenge. All these questions has as much to do with race as sex has to do with race, but they force us beyond the questions of personal prejudice. While the sex questions might contribute to renewed challenging of structural racism in the long run (a different argument, but I do think that it is indeed the case), on its own it might just comfort us into believing that racism is merely about not being willing to date a black or white man.

The idea that the “right thing to do” is to refuse to indicate race on a census form isn’t new, and it isn’t exclusive to white people either. But in the preamble to the 2011 census it was discussed anew by some, so it deserves some reflection upon. More particularly, I want to respond to a recent article by Brent Meersman in which he argued for defining himself as “other” in the census. A kind of disclaimer need to be made first however. I agree with most of the individual arguments Brent made. I don’t consider his stance to be in some sense inherently problematic, although I do think using apartheid style categories has a use in South Africa which need to be recognized. To some extent I want to share Samantha Vice’s stance that I’m writing for those whites who see there own selves as problematic, because we recognize our own habits, thought patterns and relations to be constituted by the socialized location of whiteness which we find ourselves in. I do not think that it is impossible to break with my own whiteness, and indeed I believe that South African society provide important opportunities for doing exactly this, however I don’t think a easy refusal to admit my own embeddedness within a process of white racialisation will bring about breaking with these habits.

I think Brent’s introduction is important. Indeed we have in South Africa came to the conviction that racism is wrong. Well at least, white South Africans as a group has come to the conviction that racism is wrong, I doubt whether there is a long history of a black consensus that racism is morally defensible. But still, this “we”, white South Africans, who actually came to this conviction along with the rest of our country it important. Secondly, it remain important to remind ourselves that the whole enterprise of scientific racism, the attempt to defend a racist casting of the world on scientific grounds, has failed completely.

It’s however somewhat more complex to apply these two convictions to an actual public debate in South Africa. First of, we don’t agree on what exactly the racism is that we all agree on that it is wrong. Even if we take an Oxford definition (which is not a bad definition, but being a dictionary, can’t be expected to completely agree with the various sociological definitions of the word ‘racism’), we will differ on when exactly examples fit the definition. To provide a practical example: I don’t think Tim du Plessis consider his recent column to be racist, but read that in a diverse group, and see the difference of opinion on the question. Secondly, although we have a scientific consensus on the non-existence of race, public opinion is not formed by scientific consensus, and it is debatable how many of the ideas from a previous white scientific consensus still hold in the minds of people. Furthermore, to draw these two together, we don’t really agree on when our attitudes actually reflect a continuation of scientific racism rather than breaking with it. For example, if someone make the comment that black people don’t own businesses because of a particular “communal culture”, is that racism or not? It seems to rejects the biological foundation, yet it might very well again assume an essentialised identity which can easily be identified by a visible marker.

Brent is furthermore correct that there exist many instances where the census question is degrading, and where is simply doesn’t work. This is to be assumed, since the categories created by the apartheid system (and similar systems all over the world) cannot be connected to any essential marker and in spite of a whole generations of academics (well, actually a few generations) attempting to find a final solution on exactly how the various races supposedly fit together, nothing was produced. You cannot easily divide the South African society into 4 meaningful groups by using some kind of biological marker. On the other hand, if you want to divide South Africa into groups according to biological markers, you’ll end up with an endless list of divisions, all equally valid. On the other hand, we are stuck with the problem that the fourfold division of apartheid works.

And this is where I want to argue why I said “white” on that census form.

I am aware that many doesn’t fit into the fourfold division of apartheid. For example, a kid born in 1996 from a mother who was called White during apartheid and a father that was called Black has nothing to do with the particular communities which arose in the areas designated for those Coloured. This person’s identity would most probably not be formed by grandparents and parents that shared a social location formed by a particular relation to those who were White and in power, her/his opportunities are not determined by the historic developments and infrastructure in the areas where Coloured people were supposed to live. So it become very difficult to make any kind of argument that it would be helpful for a census to count one more person as Coloured. On the other hand, this young person, even when born in 1996, would be confronted with internalized ideas about those born out of sexual relations which involve persons from different racial groups (yes, these non-existing contructs which is the leftover from a dominant time and which we can’t find consensus on whether the category should still be used). This child will enter a school sometime, and people will treat this person while drawing on deeply held believes. Sometimes they will break with what has been carried over from their parents and the communities in which they grew up (and indeed, I do believe that every new group of grade 1 kids in South Africa provide more examples of children breaking the patterns handed over to them), but the fact that there is a norm for how relations form and examples of those breaking with them reminds that we have a way to go.

But I was born from parents both from communities that were White. Although I can trace my ancestry to an Malayan slave from the 1700’s, this had little effect on the process of social formation happened. Even though our neighbours on all sides were black when I was a kid, I still grew up within a community which treated me as white, and day after day entrenched the identities which grew out of the European engagement with the world and decades of development of false ideas about race. Both white Afrikaner people and black Swazi’s reaffirmed these notions day after day. Yes, attempts were made to provide an alternative. My parents were very particular in emphasizing to us that all people are equal and created by God. We had black people eating lunch with us as if they were family. My father cried when a black friend died. These events was important. They are still important. They break the patterns. But they way in which I was treated, the teachers that taught me, the family that I spent holidays with (all of them with tertiary qualifications), the contacts I built up through friendships, these continue to show the patterns set out by a long history of racialisation of society (of which apartheid was a very particular extreme example).

I think Brent is correct that we won’t change a society by merely transforming statistics on how the elite classes of society look. Indeed, such a process of transformation can indeed become a “perverse legitimization of neoliberalism”, an insight which we need in our public debate in South Africa. On the other hand, we might find that challenging the same neoliberalism (without going into the debate on exactly what this neoliberalism is or whether this is indeed the system followed in South Africa today), or maybe more particularly the inequalities in society, without looking at issues of race. To point out that the growth in inequality among black South Africans was primarily responsible for the growth in our gini-coefficient is not sufficient reason to ignore the continued spread of capital. In other words, it is true that we have an emerging black economic elite which are gathering wealth in ways which is in no way morally defensible (yes, this do open up a new can of worms for another day, but that is indeed what I believe), but that does not take away that access to capital continue to be largely determined by race: if you were born white in 1994 you still have a much larger change to join that elite, be it the 1% of Occupy Wall Street or the 15% which get access to a tertiary institution.

That is why I said “white”. I don’t think South Africa can be fully understood by looking at race, but neither can it be folly understood by ignoring race. And I want to know how things have changed in the past 18 years, and how they continue to change in the coming 50. I want to know whether Black kids are getting the same opportunities as white kids (not whether a few elites are getting the, but whether the average kid is), but I also want to know whether all kids, regardless of what the apartheid system and Western racial thought wanted to classify them as, have better opportunities than they had 30 years ago. I want to know whether traditionally Black and Coloured areas continue to be excessively plagued by violent crime. I know my knowledge open the possibility that it will be misused the entrench old stereotypes that “black kids are lazy and therefore cannot go to university” or that “Coloured men don’t want to live and therefore kill each other”. This need to be fought as well. But since I’m firmly convinced that scientific racism got it wrong, I cannot connect “black” and “lazy” (since that would imply that this biological marker is somehow connected to a particular character).

If I notice that these Apartheid categories still “work”, if they still provide a pattern for who goes to university, who get’s jobs, who get access to money, who are treated how at airports and by the police, I have a responsibility to ask how this pattern is connected to our history. The history before, during and after apartheid. The relations might be complex, or very obvious, but they set the agenda for those who believe that the inequalities lessened. This will not give all the answer, it will not illuminate every fault line in society, but it will help us to tract our development along fixing one of them.

Therefore, I said “white”, because I want every government member, every activist and every researcher, to know that what the situation is that one person who was born out of a community which treated according the the rules and laws and cultural norms set for those who are “white” find himself in.

The broad assumption of public theology as the theology has implications for public policy and life in general. Public theology assume that theology does not merely speak about the spiritual life of the individual believer of community, but that churches and individuals can make a unique contribution to the well-being of society by drawing on our particular tradition. In short, we believe that by drawing on language reflecting on God we can point to ways in which society can be better.

The question on how this should be done has received a bit more debate: is our task to merely repeat the words of our tradition in public, contributing the tradition itself to public life, or should we translate our specifically theological vision into language which is accessible to those outside our tradition? Although we can’t say that there is consensus on this, my feeling is that in Ecumenical theology we are more prone to speak in words which can be understood and used even if those who listen do not share our tradition. Some would argue that there might be times when this is impossible (how do you translate the love of enemies into language accessible to the modern democracy?) and others that we should continue to enrich the public discourse by our own language as well (thus we draw a bill of rights to remind society that everyone is equal, yet add that we believe everyone is equal and valuable because they are made in the image of God). But I do find that more and more churches and theologians speaking about public policy do it in way which would be understandable to the broad society.

We might argue that this is a good thing. It imply that churches recognized their place in a pluralistic society, assume that they have to take others into account, and participate in a public discourse without asking all other parties to adopt their rules of engagement. It imply that the church recognized that society is not the church, yet also affirm that what happen in society is of importance to God as we understand God. I think there is a lot of value in this.

However, there is a danger as well. The danger is that we can participate in the public discourse and raise our voices on issues of public policy without drawing on our own tradition, but by merely affirming a political model or the view of a political party. By stating this as a danger, I’m not suggesting that political theories is inherently problematic, but I am affirming my belief that as church we have a unique perspective to contribute. What I am suggesting is that public theologians and the public church might at times need to commit to reverse engineer our stance on public issues and our suggestions for public policies, asking ourselves how this would sound if we state this as a theological position.

For example: if we as church take the stance that individual property rights may not be rejected in a process of land reform, what is the underlying theology? If we defend democracy, or a specific form such as a constitutional democracy, how would we motivate this to ourselves by drawing from our own wells? I don’t want a church writing a theological treatise to government on the issue of land reform, but for the church to engage with itself on our own suggestions on public policy, we need to articulate how this connect with how we speak about God.

This might not always be possible. Our theological tradition is certainly not the only, and often not the best, voice to inform our opinions on issues of public concern and public policy. But if this is the case we might want to admin among ourselves that we take a position on pragmatic grounds, or because of our commitment to this or that theory which belief has won the debate on what is the best for society. It might only be a thought experiment, but I do think it might be one worth engaging in: let’s consider for a moment what our churches’ stance on various issues reflect about our underlying theology. Let’s consider that our actions are a lived theology which can be engaged by seeing God in what we say concerning issues of public policy. So where public theology like to claim that we argue from theology to public policy (something which I have my doubts on how often it happens), I want to suggest that we argue from public policy towards theology, seeing which God is shining through the cracks of our participation in the public discourse on politics and public policy.

Zizek:

If there is a unifying thesis that runs through the bric-a-brac of reflections on violence that follow, it is that a similar paradox holds true for violence. At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance. This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious-and extensively studied-cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.

Violence, p1

Bosch:

Third, there is the matter of violence. Support for violence is intrinsic to Marxism. Without condoning the violence of the status quo and Christians’ blessing of it (which is actually the bigger problem), one has to express concern about the support for revolutionary violence (which is actually the lesser problem, since it is really a response to the violence of the system) in some branches of liberation theology.

Transforming Mission, p441

They reflect on different aspects. But a common thread is an important reminder: the violence of the status quo is the bigger problem. I’m convinced we’ll achieve more if our public discourse tackle the issue of economic exclusion and inequality, inhumane living conditions and deep racism, elements of what I would consider to constitute the violence of the status quo today, almost inevitable by-products of the smooth functioning of our economic system. Violence, also in it’s “subjective” forms, is a serious problem facing South Africa. Yet the vigor with which we are tackling this issue might just be deflecting attention from the violence of the status quo, the violence that keep the the privileged the privileged, and the poor the poor. Creating the impression that the “real problem” is individual acts of violence associated with what is considered criminal, while this should be read symptom of a bigger problem of violence.

A personal introduction is in order for this blogpost: I think that the past two years has been a very long conversion experience, and an ongoing one. It was characterized by a journey into a space where I am no longer the answer for the world, but where I begin to notice how I am embedded in the sins of the world. I you scan through the posts from the past two years, Amahoro possibly being the single most important event in this journey, much of this will be found. It is an ongoing journey, one which I find to be struggling with, but one which are pushing me into a world from which I can never return, and I believe pushing be towards the Jesus whom I have learned to call Messiah.

The phrase “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6) has always been one of those strange moments in the journey with the Bible of the congregations and groups where I’ve spent my life. Luckily Matthew (Matthew 5) gave us an easy cop-out when talking about “blessed are the poor in spirit”, that phrase we knew how to interpret. But it is Luke which continue to push our imaginations. What do we do with the blessed poor?

I can quickly think of two common ways we solve this statement. The first is by projecting onto the poor those things we experience as lacing in our own lives: rest, not worrying, community with others. The second is my spiritualizing poverty so that everyone become poor. Some are poor because they lack meaningful family relations, others because they lack money.

But for Jesus some people were categorized as poor, and some as non-poor, as rich. The poor had little room to manege their own lives, they were oppressed by a system of taxes and the rich taking over their land. But I also don’t get the idea that Jesus is romanticizing poverty. He is not the kind of ascetic who call people into poverty, because of some deeper spiritual meaning. Jesus is a prophet challenging the system of injustice which create the poor. Yet Jesus is the one saying that “blessed are the poor”.

However, when we move away from this passage, then the poor are no longer romanticized nor spiritualized. We are aware of the fact that poverty is a very real problem in our country, and I would say that the dominant approach within the church is that the poor are pitied, and that we want to help the poor. We want to bless the poor. Sometimes we would even talk about blessing the poor with our gifts and help. If we were to stand up and do our own sermon on the plain (what we generally call the part in Luke where this phrase is found), we would probably start with: “Let us participate in the coming of the kingdom of God by blessing those who are poor. Let us bless the poor” (even using nice missional language like participation in the kingdom of God). But would we start our sermon with the words: “Blessed are you, the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”.

What does this imply? If I understand Belhar correctly, then God is in a unique way present with those who are suffering. Belhar states “… that in a world full of injustice and enmity He is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged and that He calls his Church to follw Him in this”. In his commentary on this text, Piet Naudé writes: “God does not stand by the poor because they are poor or because – as in a class struggle – he is in a particular way the God of the working class. In God, there is no injustice. God stands with the people who suffer in situations of injustice, because of this in justice. God can do no other. This is how God is.”

What does the the poor being blessed imply in Luke? Not that they have access to the lost ideals of the middle class, but that the kingdom of God is their’s. Maybe we could say that the kingdom of God can be found among those who suffer. I usually explain the “kingdom of God” to youth groups with two statements: First, the kingdom of God is how this world would look if God was king and not the rulers of this world. Second, the kingdom of God is God’s dream for the world, how God dream the world to be. Is it to much to say that among those who suffer in situations of injustice, those who we can call the poor (being more than an economic category, but being those who are placed at the bottom of the system), there we will find God’s dream for how the world should look. There we find the dream of what the world might be if God were to be king and not the rulers of this world.

What would happen if those of us in the rich church exorsise our drive to be the ones who are blessing the poor, and start recognizing the poor as those blessed by God. Those who find themselves in the place where God is to be found, and start listening for the dreams of what the kingdom of God might look like. Obviously we do not enter this space in a naive manner, where the voices of the poor suddenly become some kind of direct link towards the voice of God. The poor have no more direct line to the thoughts of God than the spiritual does, and listening to one lone voice is not hearing the voice of God, just as listening to one lone super-spiritual congregant is hearing the voice of God. But if we dare enter into conversation with those who are poor, with the entirety of this category whom of people we call poor, dare listening to what the poor are dreaming the world to be like, might it not be that we will find among those to whom the kingdom of God belong dreams of what this kingdom might look like? And if we then want to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God, then it might not be through our blessing of the poor, but through the discovery of the blessedness of the poor, and the participation in the coming of the world which the poor are dreaming into being.

A personal conclusion is in order as well: I’m not at this place. I struggle with this. I like to find solutions for poverty rather than listen to the world the poor are dreaming into being. I like to be the hero. But most of all, I’m not sure if I’m ready for the radical dreams the poor are dreaming, I fear that I might not like what I’m hearing. But might it be that these dreams are the coming into being of the kingdom of God? I think I need help struggling through this, so your thoughts will be appreciated.