For many of us the weekend was spent struggling with the question: how do we worship after Lonmin? I remembered preaching the Sunday after Eugene Terre’blanche was murdered, that Sunday was a difficult sermon, but at least many of us felt like we had some consensus on what had to be said. My sermon focused on reconciliation, and in the sermon I could point to many people from diverse backgrounds who all called for the same thing: reconciliation.

This Sunday was more complex. Do we pray for the police, striking workers, government leaders? Should we pray for an end to violence or for a more just economy? I insisted on Saturday that the ethical challenge facing us is to insist that this event be interpreted in the broader context of a South Africa culture of violence (and other aspects which we might discover allowed this to happen). In the liturgy I believed it was not the time to identity either the police or the striking workers as the root of the problem. Tom Smith suggested that the only thing appropriate for this Sunday’s liturgy was lament. To my mind this was correct, and following some guidelines on using the Psalms in liturgical lament, our small church service in the inner-city cried out to God that things are not going well, and we focused on the fact that at times the church pray “Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us”.

I reflect on this in order to say that the presidential call for a week of mourning has some overlap with an appropriate Christian response to Marikana. The overlap should be recognized, but the limitations for the church following government into this week’s mourning should also be noted. I don’t want to downplay the public rituals of mourning that will be visible throughout the country this week. I think those are important, and I support president Zuma’s call. But as Christians I believe there should be more to our week (week? and then?) of mourning.

Typically mourning involves an expression of deep sorrow for the death of another, often accompanied with public symbols such as the wearing of black clothes, and in this case flags hanging half mast. According to some reports, Zuma added, and again I want to agree entirely with the importance of this, that part of our mourning should include reflecting “on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic”. But I do want to add two things for the church.

First, when entering a time of lament, the church cannot only give expression to deep sorrow. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from the plea that God will change our society. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from a process of committing to justice. I don’t yet know what justice will imply at Marikana. I don’t yet know what exactly justice will mean in the relationship between rich and poor in the coming months and years. But I know that as a Christian I cannot enter into a time of lament following Marikana without simultaneously being formed towards a commitment to participating in the reign of God at Marikana and beyond.

From this I want to add a second aspect which I believe is crucial at the moment. In some way we are all connected to Marikana. Marikana was not merely a once-off event, but it was a mirror of our society. Our time of lament should call us into a time of self-reflection, not merely feeling sorrow for those who suffer, but also asking how we are embedded in what happened. I say this not as a way of pre-empting our analysis, but rather as a call that social analysis involve self-reflection. I don’t doubt that we will have to talk about police reform (again!) in the coming months. We will rethink our labour union systems and in particular how they are related to big businesses and political parties. We will have to (again!) fix our eyes on the growing economic inequality. We will ask questions from multi-national companies and wonder how exactly their future in South Africa should look. The list goes on.

But if we are serious about saying that “never, never again”, and about going beyond finding a guilty party so that we can go on with our lives, happy that someone will pay the price, then it will require that we also see how we participate in keeping aspects of society which lead to further violence in place. This is not merely the work of social analysis, it is an act of spiritual discernment. This week, I believe the text which should lead us might be “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). From such a spirituality we might be able to engage in a process of public social analysis and critique, something which is too important to merely leave in the hands of official committees, but which is too sensitive to allow the continuing throwing around of wild theories which merely implicate our favourite guilty party. We cannot speak of lament if we continue to act as if this tragedy might merely give us the final evidence for what we have been saying all along.

So we mourn this week. But our mourning involve more than sorrow, it involved the prayers “let your kingdom come, let your will be done” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Only in this way can be prepare ourselves to insist on and contribute to an uncovering of the injustice of Marikana and a more peaceful future.

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 is 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. We could continue with hes 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 commited 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.

Although this is not some amazing theological insight, over the past months I’ve been reflecting on the church more and more as the community of those who continues the work of Jesus. The church is the resurrected community, which exists as embodiment of that which we confess to be God incarnate. But the metaphor is now stretching me into places which I didn’t expect.

We like to think of the church as the resurrected community, maybe keeping pictures of the triumphant Christ that is carrying the banner of victory while the whole evil world lies slain somewhere in the back of our minds. But what about the crucified church? Is the church not to become the crucified community for every generation?

When people stop by with the question: “did Jesus have to be crucified?”, I answer with a “yes”. But this yes can imply two things, and it is the second which I have in mind when I say yes. It can mean “yes” in the determinist way, thus saying that God had the whole life of Jesus planned out, and it ended with the cross, and thus God was the one hammering in the nails, God was Pilate condemning Jesus to be crucified, God was the Jewish leaders conspiring against Jesus, and God was the crowd shouting “crucify him”, because that is what “had to” happen, because “God planned it so”.

But what about this second option: Yes, Jesus had to be crucified, because when the source of all that is good enters this world, then crucifixion is the only option. The powers that be will always crucify the one who embodies that which Jesus embodied. So yes, it couldn’t have ended in any other way. The cross was the only way onto salvation.

But what then about the church? If the church is the be the resurrected body of Christ, the continuation of that which Jesus started, would than not imply crucifixion? Not in the martyr sense where I become the hero who “gave the finger to the man”, but simply facing the reality that where goodness is presented in the face of power, crucifixion is the only option.

I believe in the church crucified. Maybe that will be the church which stand silent in front of those who ask: “are you proclaiming the kingdom of God”, but the church who in its entire makeup shouts against those who misuse power. I believe in that church. The church crucified.

 

In the denomination I am part of, the situation concerning the debate over the Bible isn’t that different from what I belief exist in other places in the world. Within a popular environment “faith” is associated with a “high view of scripture” and a rejection of critical scholarship on the Bible. On the other hand “doubt” is associated with a “low view of scripture” and asking critical questions of the Bible.

There is however an obvious problem with this popular unpacking of two seemingly opposing views on the Bible. Wouldn’t true faith in the authority of scripture welcome loosening scripture from its parental ties of “divine inspiration”, stating that the ideas and arguments in the Bible, if taken seriously, can stand their own ground among the great literary, philosophical and religious traditions of history. And wouldn’t doubt in the authority of scripture require us to be all the more serious about its “divine inspiration”?

At this point criticism of the previous paragraph should point to the possibility of at least two other options (possibly more): That of critical engagement of the Bible with the exact purpose of pointing to the fact that it cannot stand it’s ground among the great literary, philosophical and religious traditions of history, and that of the faithful who critically engage the Bible in order to point to its divine inspiration. Both of these are self-refuting: Why even continue critical engagement with a text which cannot stand the text of time, and why even engage in proving divine inspiration to those who already believe in this inspiration (with this I need to mention that I believe that most modern-day apologetics are aimed at strengthening the faith of believers, not at converting the non-believers. If this were not true, why is it that conservative apologetics (all apologetics?) are mostly found in Christian bookshops and shelves?).

And is these last two examples not reactions against their opposites, rather than the natural result of their allies from the second paragraph? Critical engagement with the Bible with the sole purpose of pointing to its irrelevance, if continued indefinitely, is not really a continuation of the critical engagement with an authoritative and important text (in this context on the exact same level as other authoritative and important texts), but is a continued attempt to ridicule those who believe in divine inspiration. And Christian apologetics, if continued indefinitely, is not really a continuation of faithful belief in the divinely inspired text, but is a continued attempt at reacting against the criticism of academic study of the Bible.

These two then becomes the preached who preaches from the Bible against the usefulness of the Bible in modern society, or the academic which use the tools of the academy to point to the divine inspiration of the Bible, and to the fact that all we need is the Bible (but in both these acts the very acts in which is being participated argues against the statement being made).

I think a case can be made for those who doubt in the ability of the Bible as important text to stand its ground, and therefore remain true literalists, not attempting to explain the text against any background, and not taking random verses and sticking them together. Simply taking the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text as the Word of God (although I question whether such a position of radical doubt in the text and absolute faith in God who wrote the text is possible in our modern society).

Therefore I propose that we take the position of the absolute faithful. Putting the text out there on the marketplace, in the classroom. Opening it up for every possible criticism, for every literary and philosophical reading possible. This is faith. Facing the possibility that in this act you might be proven to be mistaken, but nonetheless acting out of your conviction. Only this act of radical criticism can be an act of radical faith in this modern society. And only through this can we find a text which has something to say for politics, philosophy, economics and spirituality.

I’m losing my humanity

October 15, 2010

Zizek says: “This is what you must be conscious of, that when you fight for your position, you at the same time fight for the universal frame of how your position will be perceived within this universal frame. This is for me, as every good feminist will tell you, the greatness of modern feminism. It’s not just we women want more. It’s we women want to redefine the very universality of what it means to be human. This is for me this modern notion of political struggle” – Marcus Pound

And we have to add that this is the case in every place where a dominant position which has become normalized (meaning that it is never in the position of being studies, being discussed, but always the position from which studies, discussions, and I dare say jokes, are being done) is being challenged.

Writing from a white, male, Afrikaner position, I am only too aware of how easy those in the normalized and/or dominant position translate the quest for liberation into a quest for “getting more stuff”. This, however, is an easy copout, a way of the easily identifiable examples which can be thrown into the face of those who are in the normalized position, without losing the privileged position of being “the most human”.

If we assume that the rich white male European (or is it American nowadays) position is the normal position of what it means to be “human”, and that all struggles are simply about the redistribution of  “stuff”, we miss the deep critique against the assumption of normality which woman, homosexuals, black and coloured, African (yes, I differentiate between black and African), previously colonized, voices bring onto the table. More than stuff, and more than simply another perspective which is but a variation on the normalized position (working from the idea that whatever the normalized group says is mostly universalizable, and others can simply change a few details to fit their views). It is a radical challenge against the normalized position, taking it from the throne of normality, challenging not merely the stuff, not merely a few details, but redefining what it means to be human.

And me, the white Afrikaner male? I can only find my own humanity if it is redefined by the voices which challenge my normality. To do this I would need to go through the hell of giving up this narrow perception of being human which I hold to. Lose my humanity so that I can truly find it. Die in order to live.

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.

review: Sout Project

May 6, 2010

It has often been said that the last thing to change in church is the liturgy. And it’s more often true than not. Theology develop, or maybe more correct would be to say that theology is contextualized, continually, but changing liturgy is often the most dangerous thing to do in church. In the church tradition that I am part of that has certainly been true on many occasions.

The current paradigm shifts happening in the world and the church, and also in South Africa, has been well thought through in many blogposts, academic articles, conversations, books and more. But on Sunday morning when I go to church our music still seem to reflect either the Renaissance era from which our tradition was born, of the height of the revivalist, late-modern fundamental, era which has strongly influenced the mega-church movements. Here and there you’ll find some of the old mystical hymns which is refreshing, but much of the words we sing would sound totally strange is we were to ever say them to each other in a conversation.

Along come my friend Nic Paton and the Sout Project. You can read the story behind the South Project, and it’s debut album Story here, so I’m not going to repeat too much of that. What first struck me about Story was the diversity of voices on the album. Children’s voices, men and woman, black voices, different languages. Suddenly I felt like being in South Africa, and no longer in Australia or America, where the gospel of my youth was born. But not entirely South Africa either, Nic lived in England for a long time, and I believe I hear some of Europe inbetween as well. It has somewhat of a global feel.

Brian Mclaren’s voice come through early on, I still remember the day when Nic recorded Mclaren for the album. But Mclaren’s voice not only come through when he himself sings, but throughout the album Mclaren’s influence on Nic can be heard in the theology. And this, for me, was the most refreshing part of Story. Nic put emerging theology into lyrics. I can now sing along to words which I am so comfortable with! Words to which I can say Aumen, So be it. And I can sing Aumen in various languages on one of the tracks as well.

Vine (Ubuntu), the second track on the CD, bring Nic’s brilliance to the fore in a special way for me personally. The words of John 15, about the vine and the branches are pulled into the lyrics, together with the Spirit from John 16, and merged with metaphors from our own world. “The Web of Life (remember that important book by Fritjof Capra a few decades ago?) is spun by your Spirit“, we hear a few times, “everything contained and sustained in you“, early on in the song, God’s spirit is what holds the universe together, is the energy within, and this flows from the vine of John 15. Maybe this is the song that I’d like to give to my confirmation class when we talk about the Holy Spirit.

One other song that I’d just must mention is Meditation with Mechtild, which is basically my very very good friend Annemie Bosch telling something of her story, which Nic then mixed in with some music to provide, for me, the deepest moment of spiritual reflection on the CD.

Nic will be in Jo’burg this weekend, and you can find him on Sunday morning at 9:30 at Ridgeway ministries in Wessels road in Woodmead, for what promised to be a truly postmodern and post-Apartheid event, with Nic’s music and our mutual friend Jackson Khosa bringing a message. You can find the event on facebook here. Story can be bought @ R110 here.

It would be really interesting to see how Nic’s creation will be used in local congregations that engage creatively with their liturgies.