Going on to three years ago I wrote a post titles “my Afrikaner myth of meaning“. It was births from an experience in explaining the wall images from the Voortrekker monument to a visiting lecturer. This paragraph says something of what happened:

But something happened while I was explaining this to this international theologian. I got to see the story anew. Everything I ever learned about myth suddenly seemed to fit my own history, even though it only happened 150 years ago. This was the Afrikaner myth of origin. This was how we became the Afrikaner volk, how we differentiated ourselves from the Netherlands, also from France, Germany, and especially from Britian. It was by moving.

In the above mentioned post I tried to find positive implications from the Afrikaner myth which I could use in my own self-understanding. In the months and years after this post, my talk about the Afrikaner myth and the vow focused more on how the vow was part of the myth which explained why Apartheid was to be accepted, since God chose the white people over-and-above the black people of South Africa. I became less positive about this Afrikaner myth of meaning. Although I have continued my talk of being Afrikaner, maybe bet summarized in a recent post titled “I’ll just be that other white African, an Afrikaner“.

My reason for writing this post, however, is simply to point you to words by Christi van der Westhuizen concerning Afrikaner Mythology. In White Power she writes:

Malan, the first NP leader to become prime minister under apartheid, leaned strongly on his background as a dominee (clergyman) to alchemise Afrikaner nationalism into a civil religion. This was encapsulated in his slogan ‘Believe in your God, Believe in your Country, Believe in Yourself’, compelling enough for Afrikaner nationalists for it to remain the NP’s motto until the 1960s. Malan was a consummate ideologue who conjured up heady visions of the future in his rhetorical mix of religion, history and nationalism. Afrikaner nationalist mythology reinterpreted the motley groups of families that had left the Cape colony as a coherent nationalist action, the Great Trek, by ethnically similar people. Figures such as Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius and Sarel Cilliers were exhumed from the depths of history and paraded as leaders inspired by Afrikaner nationalism. To them, the Great Trek was more than a conquest of territory, proselytised Malan – it was ‘an act of faith, and the acceptance of a God-given task’. The Voortrekker victory over Zulu forces at the Battle of Blood River was immortalised in the Day of the Vow on 16 December, when Afrikaners were called upon to remember their promise to God to remain Afrikaner nationalists. The Afrikaner were ‘a volk with a calling … behind our South African volk existence and history sits a purpose. We as volk should be aware of it, and live it to the best of our ability.

White power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party page 23-24

I remember one comment from a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago distinctly. I cannot remember what we talked about, but one phrase has stuck with me ever since: “We are more middle-class than Christian”. It was a critique that I could work with. Even though it was a critique that I realized has drastic implications for my own personal life. And I agree with what he said. Sometimes we are more middle-class than Christian. Our actions are shaped more strongly by our economic position than our religious identity.

But thinking back on my experiences of church as a kid, being middle-class (or rich) was not an all-encompassing identity in our congregation. Although the critique that the Dutch Reformed church is mostly a middle-class church would probably have held for the congregation I grew up in, we had some poor people in the congregation.

I remember one lady who always attended church with her kids. Her husband didn’t make life easy for her, and even as a young teen I knew that she really struggled. She was really poor. I know that I could sense the discomfort in her involvement in the congregation, people didn’t really know what to do with her, but she was there. Year in, year out. And she was involved with the congregation.

Maybe an even stronger memory was from the kids that was in my youth group whom I sometimes got to know, and sometimes even had the opportunity of visiting there homes. The one was the neighbor of the above mentioned woman. I remember walking into the small pre-fab home she shared with a father and sister, and there was nothing in the living room. Not a single piece of furniture.

Those who were truly poor were a minority. The poor mostly attended other congregations. But at least I can remember sharing faith with some poor people.

My friends comment isn’t that difficult to find in our churches really. I guess we don’t really change anything after recognizing this, but I’ve heard similar thoughts in other places. Sometimes our denomination would be described as a middle-class church, and it would be generally accepted, sometimes as something inevitable, sometimes as something that should change.

But I’ve never (or at least outside of a small group of people focusing on this specific issue) hear anyone saying: “We are more white than Christian”. Yet,whiteness was the most-shared characteristic among those attending the congregation in which I grew up in. Not middle-class, not Reformed, not even Christian (and I’m talking about people understanding themselves as Christian, not making judgments on what “real Christians” would look like) was as common a mark as being white. We were primarily a white congregation, above all else. We had diverse sexual orientations (although not admitted at that stage), diverse spiritualities, diverse theological presuppositions, diverse income-groups, we even had people who weren’t 1st language Afrikaans speakers (very few, but they were there), but all of us were white. That characteristic was primary. (Let me just make a note that I grew up in a very small town, which probably caused the congregation to be even more diverse, since you didn’t have the wide variety of specializing congregations, and closed suburbs, that my current city context offers)

It’s 2010, and in most places this has not changed much. So I want to suggest that if I want to understand my own church. The one I grew up in, even the one I’m currently attending and pastoring, and the denomination I’m part of, I should start by understanding it as a white church. I am part of a white church. And if for us anything is more dominant that being Christian, then it must be being white.

A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.

The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me  not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating  a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).

Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.

What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.

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.

This was the transformative experience that gave rise to the writing of this story. It’s controversial I know. And I somewhat fear for writing this.

I have never approved of the segregated church I am part of. I cannot remember a day in my life that I both knew about Belhar and rejected Belhar. Everywhere I went I always made the more pro-unification choice that was on the table. Sometimes I even attempted to stretch the table a bit, to put options on the table that weren’t considered. I remember attending an URCSA meeting in 2007 that NG students were invited to, but being the only one who went. I remember the setting up of the meeting of URCSA theological students leadership and NG theological students leadership in the same year, and we actually organized a visit of both groups to a worship session of the other. Few students attended, but the experience was positive. I guess I didn’t change the face of the faculty at UP in the process, but at least I made some friends.

At times I have been extremely critical of my own church, and the process of unity. I guess taking things a few notches further than most of the “open” voices in the church. I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we become one church structurally, without local congregations actually reflecting this. What I dream of and hope for has been for true unity in worship and action for many years now.

Deconstruction makes you mad, I sometimes think. Once you start down that rabbit hole, realize why you are doing what you are doing, what you are actually saying, how this is being heard by other voices, and how far away from “justice”, “mercy” and “truth” your one life really is, it becomes almost unbearable. But Africa has taught me that I can never fully deconstruct myself. I need the other to deconstruct me. I need to be open to the voice of an other, a different perspective, to help me interpret my own life and actions, to understand what it is that I am actually doing.

I don’t want to make a hero out of someone, and most of my transformative experiences was with voices that you have never heard of. And this one was only possible because of these voices, and others, who have helped me to make me open to hear the different perspective this post is about.

It was at the opening of the South African Missiological Society of 2010 when Jonathan Jansen spoke, and he dared to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mainly white crowd). The way I heard him was that the Dutch Reformed Church was teaching their members week by week that it is OK not to ask : “Who is my neighbour”, by allowing them to sit in all white churches in South Africa. This might not have been what he said, but this is what I heard.

Deconstruction makes me mad. My thoughts went on to think in the line of liturgy. What was this liturgy of white worship communicating week by week, whatever we might be preaching? I saw it as communicating that the white ghetto was OK, that the lack of friendships with people of all races and colours was OK. That the distance we kept between ourselves and black people was OK. My thoughts went on to the idea that we might be doing a hell of a lot of development work in South Africa, but we will never be able to contribute to the transformation and reconciliation of a country if we keep this liturgy of whiteness.

Andrew Jones’s post on the emerging church maturing has again caused a stir in the blogosphere. He talks about the movement going mainline, and ceasing to be radical and controversial. Danielle Shroyer has written a good response called What do you do when a revolution isn’t sexy anymore? (hat-tip to Steve Hayes). Actually, the tension about the end of the emerging church has been running for a number of years now, and immediately after reading Andrew’s post my mind jumped to the September 2008 “death of emerging” conversation. Although a lot of us took part in that conversation, it was the claims made at the Out of Ur blog that caught the attention of a lot of people.

Mark Sayers, in a post that was discussed somewhat earlier this year, wrote that: “at first the movement’s energy and internal dialogue is centered around defining itself against the common enemy. But then as time passes the internal dialogue of the movement begins to shift away from ‘defining against’ to ‘defining itself’.” This seems to be quite accurate of much of what has been happening in the emerging church conversation over the past few years. The moment, I believe, which best captured this was when Dan Kimball declared that he is using missional more, because of the tension around the term emerging, and because the definition has changed form what he intended in The Emerging Church. But many voices has been adding their ideas to the fact that the emerging movement is fractured, and worked to define it. Apart from Mark’s post, I quickly think of Mark Driscoll on this video and Jim Belcher in Deep Church, and in a way Tony Jones’s The New Christians also attempted to help to better define a specific interpretation of emerging. I believe this is already signs of a movement, a revolution, maturing.

When the revolution is over, a lot of work need to start. Danielle mentioned some of this work. This doesn’t mean that the revolution has failed, on the contrary.

The revolution need to be studied, to answer the question: What the hell happened? Andrew talked about this history writing, so did Steve. I believe there is a lot of work to be done to just try and figure out what happened in the church over the past couple of decades. Linked to this, is that we need to critically examen the voices from the revolution. We will have to recognize where we were just being “hip church”, rather than contextualizing the gospel in the Western culture. Voices need to be evaluated, and the reality is that in the long term we are going to look back and recognize that some who seemed to be part of the revolution just “didn’t get it”. This is needed for a movement to mature.

Furthermore we would have to recognize the wider context in which the revolution happened. Brian Mclaren has mentioned a broader conversation a number of times, mentioning that liberation theology, feminist theology, and postcolonial theology was in a way part of the same revolution, but preceded the emerging church. You can listen to an example of him speaking about this here. The emerging church still has a lot of work to do regarding it’s relationship to Third World theology. In spite of Amahoro, from this side of the equator it would seem like the interculturation that Bosch called for still isn’t happening, and till we can say that we (and with we, as an Afrikaner theologian, I’m applying the same challenge to myself than I am to my friends from the First World) are getting this right, serious questions must be asked about our claims that we are moving beyond the modern, colonial, mindset which we have been critiquing.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the church at Wittenberg, it was sexy. It was real sexy! He inspired revolutionaries after him with that act. He became a myth, to say the least. When the young John Calvin, a second generation reformer, wrote his Institutions, it wasn’t sexy at all. He inspired many to take the implications of the Reformation seriously, but he didn’t inspire a revolution with that act. But Calvin was needed. Calvin was needed aso to critique the revolutionaries before him, to point to them where they were stuck in some of the negative aspects of the Roman way they were revolting against. Calvin was needed to make things work in a new way.

I notice young theological students starting their training today, not even bothered by some of the more controversial doctrinal questions that is still running around in emerging conversations, because they were bred and fed in youth ministries that was part of the emerging conversation for years now. And I wonder, what will happen when these young people, not necessarily revolutionaries, but the result of a revolution, start doing church, living the way of Jesus as postmoderns no longer fighting against modernity?

18 December was the day Avatar was released in South Africa. 18 December was also the day of the Copenhagen accord.

Today I finally came around to reading the reports of Copenhagen. And I finally came around to watching Avatar. A sad concurrency of events.

Yes, Avatar is good. It might be one of those movies which will take me quite some time to work through. It presents a weird and magically wonderful world with effects which few, if anyone, have ever been able do. In combining this with the total over-romanticization of primal cultures, it reminds me of the 1999 Hallmark mini-series of Journey to the Center of the Earth (which I haven’t seen in 8 years or so, but I remember finding really brilliant at the time).

Avatar portrays this beautifully wonderful world of perfect pantheism (although they mess up this theological concept a bit with typical popular western theological ideas, but that will have to be left for another post), where everything is connected, and everything is in balance. It’s an Eden environment, where humanoids feel nature, care for nature, name the animals.

The movie is a blatant critique of colonialism, of the disconnect with nature brought about by our technocratic society, of the destruction of the earth by humans, of the disregard of everything sacred. And dare I say that the general reaction to this critique is positive. For many, the fantastic fantasy world of Pandora point to what we know, on a deep level, to be right, and true. Peace. Harmony. With all of creation. Living a simple lifestyle. Caring for the environment. Yes, all this and more, the beautiful world of Pandora is what we want. But we want to keep it fantasy.

Almost as if we need the fantasy of the possible life in harmony with nature, to keep our technocratic militaristic consumerist world alive. As if we know that as soon as the hope of peace and harmony disappear, we’ll die. So we keep the fantasy alive, so that we can continue our destruction. Because as soon as we walk out of Avatar, we continue our Christmas shopping, buying more than we need, and more than the earth can sustain. We go back to our lives in security villages and kept safe by large armies that keep the possibility of a society where the masses are living in absolute poverty alive. And not only do we shrug at a climate deal which screams against everything that Avatar has been fighting for, we kind of know that we are not willing to change our own lifestyles to be in harmony with our mother earth.

As the days after Copenhagen pass, the reaction of sadness, and sometimes madness, is heard over and over again. Yes, the thoughtful recognize the difficulties that the conversations faces, the thoughtful know that a first step in the right direction has been made. But the reality is that we are making decisions to safe our own asses. We have heard that gaia (to use Lovelock’s language) is going to make it difficult for humans, and we are willing to keep to the limits which was set so that our own comforts aren’t threatened. But harmony with the earth isn’t even on the table. Actually going above and beyond what the economy and human survival require isn’t even considered. A world where the human species is connected with everything around it is kept for the fantasy world of Pandora.