I sat in church one morning as the preacher was sharing a story about Shane Claiborne. Suddenly a mass of thoughts kicked in which sprang from this one insight: this preacher doesn’t really want me to follow Claiborne! Why would the preacher propagate the example of Claiborne, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba… (Jesus?) and various radical voices if I shouldn’t follow in there footsteps? This is the post I’ve been meaning to write for many months. The one I maybe never should have written.

Youth ministry has a way of becoming a kind of barometer for what is cooking within the church. Here is the very simple test: In the church we like telling stories of Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Shane Claiborne (whom I mention because a story about him started this reflection in many ways) and many radicals. But what would the middle-class church do when we take these examples seriously? If we make them normative for youth ministry? What if youth ministry become a place where we tell children that they shouldn’t worry about getting a job and good education, but rather give up money and possessions in order to live among the poorest of the poor? And what if the children of the congregation would follow through on this? What if they were to literalize our examples, understanding our sermons and the examples we use as something which should actually be followed through?

Reinhold Niebuhr wasn’t the world’s greatest fan of the Mennonites and other radical church-based ethics. But maybe he can help us in understanding this fascination with the radicals. In the classic Christ and Culture Niebuhr himself have to acknowledge that there is a certain fascination with these approaches where what they say and what they do actually come together. When we find these voices embodying a radical non-violence, actually living with the poor, we have a certain kind of respect for them. Niebuhr himself didn’t seem to consider the Christ Against Culture approach, where he would list the examples of Mennonites and other radicals, to be really helpful, and most mainline voices would probably be more comfortable with some of Niebuhr’s other approaches. Our continued use of example of radicals might therefore be out of respect, but I’m thinking something more sinister is at work here.

In line with liberation theology 101 we should begin to be skeptical when we see how these radical voices is being used. The overused quote from Dom Helder Camara enlighten us on this topic: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” In the middle-class church we seem to like telling stories about the saints. But then the saints from Camara’s quote. Religious people. Those who give food to the poor. Those who practice Christianity in applaudable ways. We ignore the fact that these voices are calling into question the very existence of the churches in which we are quoting them! Because all of them, Claiborne, Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba (I have to add him at this point because of the frenzy running at the moment), Jesus, were not only the saints from Camara’s quote, but also the communists from Camara’s quote. They all called into question the middle-class white Western status quo (except for Jesus obviously, although it was another white Western middle-class that he was challenging). So maybe we like quoting saints. Not even the radicals from Niebuhr, those putting action into words, but those who participate in high-profile acts of compassion. But maybe something more sinister is at work here.

This obviously bring me to Peter Rollins (well maybe not so obviously, but it does). In one of Rollins’ parables (32 min into the conversation), he tells the story about the business man who lost his faith thanks to the preacher who prayed for him. This business man was using religion to define his being, while his material reality was that of being a corrupt business man. He could continue with his corrupt ways because of the religion of which he was part, which he could use as lie to tell himself that actually his corrupt ways doesn’t define him.

But let me go somewhat deeper, into an argument which I believe might underlie Rollins’ story. In Zizek’s A Plea for Fundamentalism (at 25 minutes) he shares the insight of Agnes Scheller. Scheller was in a concentration camp in the 2nd World War, and observed that the largest group of people became a kind of “living dead”. They lost life, not even fighting for existence. Another group however resorted to a kind of egotistical life or death struggle. Everything was allowed in order to continue living. Lie. Steal. Fight for life in the most ruthless ways. But among this second group there was always (emphasize always) the idea that there is someone somewhere in the concentration camps that were able to remain a moral person. Should they however find that this doesn’t exist, they would become part of the living dead. The paradox he states: In order to be this total egotist, you had to believe that there is someone who hasn’t become this egotist which you are.

Zizek continue to talk about how religion keep capitalism in place. But at this point I want to move away from him, since the example he use is of religion that advocates a disconnect from the material reality which help us to fully participate in the capitalism reality (which is beautifully illustrated in Rollins’ parable). But in some mainline liberal environments the examples we use is exactly those who critique the same things Zizek critiques, who might agree completely with Zizek. We use these examples, the radicals actually living that which they say (or at least we believe that they are living what they are believing), but with the understanding that these examples are not to be followed.

Is it not that we share these stories to tell each other that “there is someone who was able to actually live the Christian life, and my identity is determined by being a Christian, not by what I am busy with daily”? Ghandi we obviously use in the church as a kind of Jesus-follower, ignoring his Hindu background and focusing on the fact that he liked the sermon on the mount. We call in these people and name them examples for how we are supposed to live, but there is a collective understanding that these examples shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although they should be considered part of the tradition which we are part of, they are Christian, we are Christian, and therefore we are part of those who actually live this radical life (although our very existence as middle-class church are shouting against this idea).

My fear is therefore that the sinister reality is that we call in people as examples in order that we can continue never to follow these examples. When do they move from being an example to becoming the soothing voice telling us that it is OK to continue on the path that we are on, since they have lived the radical path on our behalf.

On a side note I have to clarify why I have Nelson Mandela on this list next to Mother Theresa: Isn’t our reactions to health of Madiba a reminder that we have used him as a soothing voice for our own non-commitment to reconciliation? If Madiba was truly the inspiration we claim, then we should be able to let him go in peace, since a whole country would have taken over that which he claimed to stand for. Is the idea that Madiba shouldn’t die not the ultimate reminder that when we loose this icon of reconciliation, we (and I’m speaking primarily from the white community) would have to face the reality that we have not committed ourselves to reconciliation? (In similar fashion to Rollins’ parable and Zizek’s example from the concentration camp).

And then we need to go to the end of the list. Jesus. When Nolan writes:

“On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christian or not. There are some remarkable exceptions, but by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God”

Why then do we call Jesus in as example? Is it because we think he should be followed?

I’m not against Mother Therese, Ghandi or Jesus. But if we use them to keep in place that which they were fighting against, then the faithful act might be to reject them.


beggars and restaurants

January 5, 2011

Yesterday was our 2 year anniversary. Yes, congratulations is in order. Since we moved closer to Pretoria inner-city this year, and are now living in Arcadia, everything which does not involve our jobs are an adventure in discovering a new world at the moment. Yes, we’ve visited the city many times over the past years, whether for leisure, with church-outreaches, or exploration (and Maryke worked in the inner-city for a few weeks 2 years ago), but it’s different now. The words of Bilbo literally make sense for us: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door”. Walking out our front door confronts us with a world which we don’t know the rules of.

So, we intentionally chose to celebrate out anniversary in a way which would contribute to this discovery. At this point my more excitedly missionary friends might be disappointed because I didn’t spend my anniversary with the homeless of the city, and my more middle-class-and-happy-to-be-so friends might be relieved that I didn’t confirm the fears they had of what I might be busy with, but we simply went to this quaint little restaurant, 2 blocks from where we live, which we found interesting before moving here. It’s called Taras Bulba Steakhouse. Nice place. Love the old black man that waiters the whole place, and by the look of it has been doing this job for many years, and does it real well.

Upon exiting we were confronted by a local beggar. Obviously starting out with the words: “I don’t want any money, just something to eat”.

I guess this is what you get when not going to malls: no one keeps the beggars away. Maybe this is part of the task of our malls and shopping centers: to make sure that you can get from the shop to the car without anyone reminding you that the middle class existence is not shared by everyone.

Obviously the idea of waiting till we were exiting the restaurant and then asking for food was planned. One might even call it manipulation, and maybe the world does fit what was happening. But is this wrong? Is it wrong that I am reminded of the fact that in this country some will go to bed hungry right after I’ve consumed my T-bone. Is it my right to live in a world where I can clear my roads of reminders of reality? Or is it the right of beggars to remind us of the reality in which we live? Or did I make the choice to be reminded of this reality when I chose Taras which opens onto Hamilton street, rather than the Spur in *** *** where numerous security guards would have made sure that this meeting would never happen?

Yesterday was the day of reconciliation, still celebrated as the day of the vow by some of my friends. I can thank my parents for never getting us into this whole day of the vow celebrations, although primary school made pretty sure that we were indoctrinated into the myths. And the Afrikaner community of which I am have been part all my life remain a constant reminder of these celebrations. The day of reconciliation, which replaced the day of the vow after apartheid, in many places continue to struggle to replace the day of the vow. And in a way it is understandable, since we have rich liturgies which we can draw upon to celebrate the day of the vow, but we struggle in creating liturgy for celebrating the day of reconciliation.

My celebration of the day of reconciliation came by accident really. We never got round to traveling on the Gautrain back when it was opened, and then one of our friends made the suggestion that we do the trip sometime during the week. That sometime ended up being 16 December. But, mainly due to previous experiences, we planned our trip a little different from how most others would have visited the Gautrain.

Yesterday morning started at Pretoria station. Metrorail. Third class. R7.25 from Pretoria to Isando. Apparently at some point the Metrorail and Gautrain will overlap at Roadsfield, so that you will be able to climb over from the one to the other, but not yet so. So we traveled the hour to Isando station. Walked back to Roadsfield, about an 8 minute walk I guess. And bought Gautrain cards. R10. Got on the train to Sandton. R21. Walked around Sandton city for a while and got some take aways. R40-R50. Back to Roadsfield, where we watched as the train from Isando was driving past us, and knew that a long wait was ahead. Walk to Isando. Sit around for a while, then decide to take a pilgrimage to OR Tambo. On foot. About a 25 minute walk when you don’t know the road. Get Americano Iced Coffee or something from Mugg & Bean. R25. Walk back to Isando. About a 15 minute walk when you know which road to take. Take a nap on the station. Take the train back together with many who had to work today, and for whom Pretoria station was not the last stop.

The reality of the unreconciled world was distinctly visible in this trip. One tweet from the group read “Experienced 2 very different worlds today. That of a 1st world South Africa. And that of a 3rd world South Africa. The difference is huge.” And it is true. Roadsfield station has not been opened yet for the Metrorail and Gautrain to be connected. There is something symbolic in this. These two worlds is not supposed to meet. Either you are on the Metrorail, or the Gautrain, but traveling both is strange. Traveling third class Metrorail in South Africa to visit Sandton City is unheard of.

But lets state is in all it’s harsh reality. On the Metrorail we were the only white people most of the time. We saw three other white people from a distance on Pretoria station for a moment. The rest of the train is black people from South Africa, and I guess from Southern Africa, with a few coloured people joining in. The Gautrain and Sandton City display the cosmopolitan ideal. People from all racial groups in South Africa, and of the world really. But let’s say this, with a continued disproportionate amount of white travelers and shoppers, and the same, although in the other direction, for black travelers and shoppers. The Gautrain is for those who can pay more than R1 per kilometer for public transport. OR Tambo is for those who can pay R80 for the last three kilometers of the Gautrain, or who has other means to get onto the airport. No one considered that those using the public transport of the populace might ever have the need to get onto the airport at a reasonable price.

I can go on and on, about the amount of security on the Gautrain vs the Metrorail. About the public facilities surrounding the Gautrain vs the Metrorail (let’s state it bluntly: public toilets which are regularly cleaned is a privilege for the rich, not a right for those human). But maybe I should end with the deadly honest recognition: the Gautrain gave the feel of being a tourist environment more than the means for daily travel which public transport is supposed to be. This is what people use to go shopping or to get of the airport. Yet, I didn’t feel like a tourist on the Gautrain. I blended in completely. The Metrorail on the other hand, never intended to be tourist transport, had me feeling like a tourist. Like the one not really knowing what’s going on. Always needing to ask where the next train is going to be. Always wondering whether I’m on the right place. When I traverse the unreconciled world, I am therefore constantly reminded that I am the one that need to be reconciled with those places where most people travel. I am the one removed from the world of daily life, into the world of cars, malls, or trains where everyone has a seat.

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.

It’s been some months since last I participated in a synchroblog. But the topic was impossible to ignore! Marginalization remain one of the most important questions in our globalized, capitalist, McWorld. But I am not marginilized. I am white and male. Educated. I speak a language which in a country of 11 official languages receive a lot of special attention. I was part of the privilaged few who could have 12 years of school education and 6 years of university education while always having a teacher of lecturer in class that was able to speak my home language. I have internet access, in a country with quite a low internet penetration. I am Christian, in a country where in many ways on a popular level it is just assumed that everyone is Christian, at least when you are white and Afrikaans. Yes, I am from the South, and I live in South Africa, that does take me out of at certain dominant narratives, and I am 26, which in the world in which I work could be argued that to make me somewhat marginalized.

In many ways I am the example of normality.

But yet white people are only 11% of South Africa.

The world is majority female, the worlds labour force is majority female, and Africa specifically is being carried on the backs of the mothers and grandmothers.

This is a country of second languages. Where children are being taught in languages other then their home language.

Although I’m the example of normality, I’m not normal at all, if normal is defined as the place where “most people” are. But the normalized position it not selected democratically. The normalized position is the position never being questioned. We talk about “female perspectives” or “black perspectives”, but assume the “male perspective” or “white perspective” to be… well, normal. The perspective, all other being a deviation from this normalized position. And this is not limited to popular culture, as academics until recently also weren’t putting any emphasis on white people as a “race like any other“, assuming whiteness to be the position from which others is being studies, and interestingly, this report points out how the behavioral sciences continue to universalize Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic people (specifically young Americans at universities).

Concerning race, South African sociologist Melissa Steyn writes:

As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard bywhich everyone else is measured. This makes white identity invisible, “even to theextent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being whitehas on their everyday lives”. In sum, because the racialness of their own lives is editedout, white people have been able to ignore the manner in which the notion of race has structured people’s life opportunities in society as a whole.

When seeing through the eyes of the marginalized, their might be something more important than recognizing the absolute horrors of life on the fringes of society, the suffering and oppression. If we are serious about racism, sexism, and all other phenomenons which create the marginalized in society (for economic reasons?), as systemic problems, and not simply the evil actions of individuals, then I would need to recognized my own non-normal normalized position. I would need to recognize my own indebtedness to this system of privilege. Yes, simply recognizing privilege is not solving the problem, but at least the privileged position of race (as Shannon Sullivan points out in Revealing Whiteness), and I believe the same can be said about other systems of privilege, has ways to keep itself in place, habits which manifest also among those who claim to be a voice in favour of the marginalized.

Our first task might then be to see ourselves through the eyes of the normalized. Recognizing our participation in different systems of privilege and power, so that we in turn can work for the transformation of systems which is continuing to create marginalized groups on so many different levels.

* * * * *

this part of the monthly synchroblog i enjoy being a part of, bloggers writing on the same topic on the same day.  november’s is a topic near & dear to my heart, seeing through the eyes of the marginalized. i encourage you to check out some of the other writers who participated, the early link list is at the bottom of this post & i’ll add to it as new ones come in over the course of today.  if you’re a blogger & want to be part of future synchroblogs, you can join on facebook or go to our newsynchroblog site and subscribe.

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.

The South African Partnership for Missional Churches, working closely with the Church Innovation Insitute from Saint Paul, like to read Luke 10:1-12 with a process called Dwelling in the Word. I can still vividly remember the first time I was in a meeting reading this text three years ago, and my first response was that I find verse 10-12 extremely arrogant. My partner, who was supposed to share with the group what I heard in the text wasn’t quite happy with what I said, and neither was the facilitator.

Since that day I’ve been sharing my discomfort with the text every time we had to read it, and usually found myself to be a lone voice. However, Wednesday morning at the Missionary by its very Nature conference with Roger Schroeder, I found myself in a group of 5 people who shared my discomfort, hearing possible colonial interpretations when they read the text, being uncomfortable with fear motives etc.

I’ve been meditating on Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Thesis the past 10 days or so again. So I guess this got me to consider whether it’s possible to re-read this text as a counterscript. In a way that does not get stuck in old theological controversies or metaphysical speculations. So, this is my re-reading of Luke 10:

Luke 10:1-12 – After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to the town of politics, where dishonesty and misuse of power reigned, the town of economics, where discrepancies between rich and poor reigned, and the town of ecology, where grave dangers existed. This was some of the places he intended to go to bring peace. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4You have only 1 goal: To go to the towns and houses where I have sent you. 5Proclaim to these houses: ‘Peace to this house!’ 6If in this house there is someone who is already sharing in this peace, or open to take part in this peace, you will find a connection, if not, you will remain a lone voice of peace. 7Partner with those who you find a connection with, stay with them, dream with them, and let them provide for you. Do not run away at the first hint of struggle, but stay with this one house that is open to peace. 8Whenever you enter a town and it’s people welcome you, become part of that town; 9care, cure the sickness of this town, and say to them: ‘God’s dream, the possibility of the impossible, has now come near you’ 10But should they refure the peace, should they wich to continue down paths of destruction for themselves and others, proclaim publicly: 11’This is wrong! We will have nothing to do with this! Yet the reality remain that God’s dream, the possibility of the impossible, is near. 12Know this: on the day when the dream which seem impossible come into existence, it will be more tolerable for the evils of ancient times that for those who refused to accept the peace, and chose to continue down destructive paths.”