I don’t want to add much to the millions of words that have passed through our internet connections and onto our screens on where we are as a country. But I want to add a few to the question on what we say, and what I consider to be the key theological (and economic, political, social) point that we must hear in the immediate.

A decade ago I often sat around a table with Mpho Putu, as part of the ANiSA discernment group reflecting on what is happening in the communities of our country. Mpho always reminded us that a third of South Africans are food insecure. One third of people are not guaranteed that they and their families will be able to consistently go to bed having eaten enough.

According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) 20% of South Africans would have been at crisis level in terms of food security in the January – March 2021 period. This means that 20% of South African “Households either (1) Have food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition; or (2) Are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies.” (p. 35) Part of that 20% is at catastrophic levels. It excludes the 31% who are not in crisis mode, but are still forced to choose between essential items each month. It does not yet touch on the difficult trade-offs made by those in the 50% who should technically be able to afford what is considered essential (and meeting the essentials should not be out measure of adequacy).

In heartless statistical numbers this reflects what Abahlali baseMjondolo emphasized when responding with a call for just peace. People are hungry. People are desperate. You cannot build communities and a broader society when people are hungry and desperate.

I promise my children that they will never go hungry. I cannot imaging not being able to make that promise. Millions of parents cannot make that promise!

I’m drawn to John Dominic Crossan’s reminder that food was at the heart of Jesus’ message. And specifically that people should have food. “All God’s people must receive a fair share of God’s earth” (The Greatest Prayer). Share God’s food with God’s people. That’s the gospel. Our Father, let your kingdom come, let everyone have their daily bread. We must be clear: that which prevents people from having adequate food is opposing the kingdom of God. It’s not just unjust, it is evil!

Businesses must be rebuilt, shops must be restock, but what we need is a line in the sand saying that never, never again, will a household go hungry. From time to time I check myself against the work of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMBEJD) group. In their latest figures, a household of four people need R2860 for a basic nutritious diet. That excludes the electricity to cook, the transport to buy.

This should be non-negotiable if we want to talk about rebuilding. Every person, regardless of employment status, must have a just share of God’s food. I don’t know what it would mean if this is non-negotiable. I don’t know what it will mean for how taxes should be set, or which policies should be pushed. There are particular food needs this week. But there is a general food crisis that will continue next week, next month, and next year. How do we join today in ways informed by the urgency of being faced with the evil of a society structured such that people do not receive a fair share of God’s resources? How long will it be before we will say that “Never, never again, will people go hungry…”

Here is my problem with the Angus covenant episode: Christians don’t apologise for heresy. An apology is simply not the appropriate response to heretical theology.

And we should for no moment underestimate this: that the Jew and Afrikaner presents the only two ‘nations’ with whom God has made a covenant is indeed heresy. The problem is not with the ‘only’. You don’t solve this through including more ‘nations’ into this covenant. The problem is with the ethnic delineation of the idea of a covenantal relation, and with how racial ideology is sustained through a Christian believe in the church, or worse in this case, the ‘Afrikaner nation’ taking the place of Israel in the hearts and mind of God.

And it’s not a slip of the tongue. It’s not just a brief hyperbole. Buchan’s ‘Afrikaner nation’ indeed mediates God’s salvation. The good missionary, Buchan obviously believes that God wants to save South Africa. But God’s salvation will come through this covenantal people – the ‘Afrikaner nation’. It is a gathering of this covenantal people that will bring about the salvation of another national group – the mythic ‘South African nation’.

Beyers Naudé addressed the matter in the following words:

The first – and to my mind the strongest – factor in moulding the attitude of the Afrikaner has been his explicable but nevertheless unacceptable identification of his people as “a chosen people” with Israel, the chosen people of God of the Old Testament…

This view of the Afrikaner people as a chosen nation called to a special God-given mission and manifest destiny as ordained by God was born out of a totally wrong interpretation of the Old Testament which led to a distortion of God’s purpose. Afrikaners saw themselves as a chosen people, planted by God in the southernmost part of a vast continent, for the special purpose of bemg the torchbearers of the Gospel to the millions of heathens in dark Africa…

The comparisons between the vicissitudes of the chosen people, Israel, and those of his own nation were so striking and so manifold that he fell prey to the natural temptation of a false identification of himself and his people with that of Israel…

(The African and Race Relations, 1967)

Naudé probably didn’t yet have the theological language to get to the even deeper heart of the problem. In recent years Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter argued these points most forcefully in the two books that came to be called to the “Duke School of Race and Theology”. Whiteness is built on the earlier conviction that the Christianity takes over the place of Israel in the heart and mind of God. But not simply the church, rather, building on and contributing to a Christian theology and white racial anthropology, it is the Christian Europe in particular (and it’s white extension in the colonies) that exists as the people through whom God’s salvation will come. Not Israel, but white Europe.

Making multiple conceptual jumps, in brief: it is not the mere aesthetic of a white Jesus that is at play, but an even deeper white Christ. Christ here is the prototype of whiteness, that towards which all the world should be drawn, represented by those racially marked as white.

Now, Buchan draws on a more particular version of this general white heresy, that being that the Afrikaner has a particular claim to being God’s new covenantal people. Afrikaners were not alone in this, others have made this claim over the centuries as well. But this particular version of the heresy has done immeasurable damage and underpinned immense violence in this part of the world.

So perhaps we must be clear on the problem with Buchan’s apology. First of all, we don’t apologize for heresy. And if this ethnic and racial reading of God’s covenantal work constitutes heresy – and I think we must take that charge seriously, then something different is necessary. I mean, apology is all good, but that’s not really what we do when confronted with our own heretical theologies. In these cases we listen to the One Holy Catholic Church. We search ourselves, discerning how our own heretical understanding of God’s salvation may have pervaded our lives. We repent and grow together with the Church into a more faithful understanding of God.

Secondly, the apology does not actually respond to the problem at all. By adding to his racial reading of covenant that also those who have “given their life to Jesus Christ” are in such a covenantal relation, he seems to strengthen the idea that there are certain ‘nations’ who by virtue of some ethnic-racial identity are in covenantal relation, and then there are also others as individuals added to such a covenant. The response to this heretical covenantal theology requires a conscious rejection of the heresy, but the apology does not seem to venture there.

Lastly, the problem is perhaps not that the statement brought division (oh how many times will Christians believe that this is the main problem with our racism), but rather that the statement reinforces hierarchy. At the heart of whiteness are deeply held convictions of an anthropological hierarchy where that which is white is more firmly positioned close to God, having a higher salvific possibility, and its opposite being firmly lodged outside or at the fringes of God’s work of salvation – and if drawn in then mediated through whiteness.

Both the initial comment and the response seem to fit quite easily with the racial theology underpinning centuries of conquest: that a particular group, racially marked, was divinely called to act as conduit for God’s work of salvation in the southern part of Africa, that faith is in a special way mediated by those ethnically marked, and that God covenantal relations are ethnic and racial choices.

I have no intention of trying to take the moral high ground here. I’m a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and I am quite clear that while my own church may have done a lot of work in trying to live an apology for apartheid, we have not dealt with the charge of heresy brought against us in 1982. We have a long way to go in working through the implications of heresy. But this incident should make it clear to us: our heretical theologies of whiteness remain very much alive, and we cannot shy away from opening up the wound and allowing the painful work of cleaning things out to happen.

500 years. 500 years of protestant churches being drawn into this, that, or the other nationalist project. 500 years of ethnic organization of the church. To hell with Acts and Paul’s letters. We’ve known this all along. Why, we’ve become so used to it that we don’t even find it strange that “Dutch” is still found in the name of a church in South Africa (yes, “Dutch” in “Dutch Reformed” survived elsewhere as well). Forget the denominational fracturing of the one church that came in the wake of the protestant reformation. Probably more important is that the church was carved up ethnically, and in South Africa in a very particular way, racially.

It’s not new. We know this. When David Bosch tried to explain why apartheid was a specifically theological problem, it was this deep mistake in protestant ecclesiology, which allowed protestant ecclesiology to get so drawn up into social and national identities, which he discerned to be at the heart of apartheid theology, missiology, and politics. It was, at least in part, the reformation that made it possible for that fateful synod of 1857 to finally say that “us and the converts from the pagans” (in this formulation confirming the more recent thesis of Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter that our racial theologies are embedded in a supersessionist imagination) may go our separate ways at the table of the Lord.

More recently I reviewed Thomas Howard’s Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism. What makes Howard’s argument interesting is showing how commemorations of the reformation has itself been drawn into nationalist projects over the centuries. While he was writing primarily about the German context, I then mentioned that this is something that must be kept in mind in South Africa as well. Just how explicitly relevant this might become I couldn’t yet imagine.

Along came Ernst Roets, calling South Africa to protest farm murders. But Roets drew together Monday 30 October and Tuesday 31 October, in a single paragraph calling his audience to participate in both, and drawing the events around Luther into a strategic motivation for yesterday’s protests. The seamless way in which he could do it, and as a brilliant communicater know that his audience will experience no tension with his doing so, should leave us with a deep suspicion on what our commemorations symbolically do.

Boesak, Beyers, Belhar. And others could be added. A long list could be made of South African attempts at finding a specifically Reformed, generally Protestant, and broadly Christian identity not only no longer tied to white racism and European colonialism, but in active opposition to this. But we should not forget that the church, our theology, and yes, the 500 year celebration of the reformation, is a site of struggle. There is a theological struggle around what work today’s reformation commemoration (and that which it signifies more broadly) should do for us politically.

If rugby “united a nation and inspired the world” in 1995 (a slightly ludicrous claim when taken literally, and probably even figuratively, but nonetheless, symbols matter), then in hindsight we might remember 30 October as one of the moments which (at least symbolically) had some the most destructive effects on our struggling attempt at forming a new community after one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century. The brutal irony (or is that, sadly, no irony) that Afriforum claimed that they did this in support of the 1995 World Cup team should not pass us by (the original post on their website has now been replaced with a different message, but they claimed that they received a letter from the 1995 Springbok team).

But not only rugby was co-opted into yesterday’s events. It was liturgical. Bowing knees. Laying crosses. And yes, for Roets and Afriforum at least, drawn into the remembrance of the reformation. But the discourse on violence in South Africa has always been drawn into the construction of race and the process of theologically thinking through our identity.

It’s not that we don’t have an immense problem with violence in South Africa. We do. But Slavoj Žižek’s comments in Violence: Six sideways reflections on racism and hurricane Katrina is sadly relevant to our own situation: “even if ALL reports of violence and rape were to be proved factually true, the stories circulating about them would still be “pathological” and racist, since what motivated these stories was not facts, but racist prejudices, the satisfaction felt by those who would be able to say: “You see, blacks are really like that, violent barbarians under the thin layer of civilisation!””

Even if every statistic thrown around in the past few days was correct (and, most probably it was not), the discourse that was constructed drew from and played into an interpretation of post-apartheid South Africa (also found in a broader colonial period preceding this) which construct black people as fundamentally violent and murderous and white people as primarily the victims of violence (even if, today at least, the exceptions would be acknowledged from time to time).

But weaved into this is an idea of a Christian identity, a Protestant, and more specifically Reformed identity, which acts as symbol not only for white presence in South Africa, but for a God-sanctioned, missionary presence, sent for the salvation of African people, yet constantly opposing communion with black people. This salvific mission might be focused on souls, but it could just as easily be focused on bodies (“no farmer, no pap”?), and the lack of communion might be hidden by a shared photo moment from a march, yet persist in a fundamental lack of intimacy, and more specifically, lack of desire for deep intimacy – a break between soteriology and ecclesiology that has persisted throughout the colonial period and into the present.

We can argue on how many black people participated (from circulating photos it doesn’t seem like a lot) or whether old South African flags were doing the round (some photos are clearly from way before the IPhone, but the video of the singing of Die Stem isn’t being disputed as far as I can see). We can try and tell each other that it was about “all murders”, but the fact is that this twist was an attempt at making more palatable the fact that within days of the release of the national crime statistics, a national march was called to protest a very specific subsection of those statistics – a subsection that has for decades been drawn into the discourse on white vulnerability in post-apartheid South Africa. Individual symbols is not what made black Monday play into a long history of white supremacy, from its inceptions it was built on a longstanding idea that the problem of violent crime in South Africa is mostly the fact that white people are being killed.

In a chapter written some years ago I concluded that “Our rhetoric on violent crime can be seen as a barometer of racialization in South Africa, and it reflects a particular lived theology among white people.” I might have been putting it too mildly back then. It was part of a longer argument. But Christian faith, Reformed identity in a particular way, and white people making race while speaking about violence has a long, a very long, history in this part of the world. People sing Die Stem in 2017 in one moment, kneel down to pray the next, and celebrate the reformation the following day.

Ernst reminded us that commemorating the reformation as a particular moment in the celebration of whiteness still has immense currency in contemporary South Africa. Just as insisting that all deaths matter did not do the political work of undermining a white march protesting the murder of white people as of particular significance, so insisting on the reformation as a universal moment most probably will not do the theological work of undermining the way the commemoration of 500 years of the reformation are drawn into the construction of national and racial identities.

The answer, if there is one, will not be easy. I hold the reformation lightly myself. But it would be naïve to proceed as if this historical moment and the symbolism around it can function politically neutral. Whiteness, violence, Christian faith, and reformation are intertwined in South Africa, to the point where we will have to think about every one of these whenever we mention the other. The struggle for reformed identity continue to impact the present, and will continue to impact the future, and the way in which reformation faith can again (or still) be drawn into the reconstruction of a white supremacist is something we need to remain aware of.

So as Tuesday 31 October come to a close, it might be good to reflect on the work that our commemoration are doing for us both theologically and politically. Not merely what our intensions are, but where our commemoration might be being drawn into nationalist and racist projects which reveal some very old problems in protestant ecclesiologies and white theologies.

It is probably safe to say that for the almost 1000 people attending The Justice Conference over the past two days it was a good experience. The cynic might easily say that this is just another big church event, with nice music, a nice vibe, lots of talking, and a spiritual high that will dissipate in much less time than it took to organize the event. The cynics wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but there is still much more to be said.

While a look from afar might have given the impression that this is just another big church event thing, I do suspect that a cautious listening to the language spoken reveal a slow change in the church – at least in South Africa. For the outsider, it seemed quite clear that The Justice Conference was a conscious attempt to draw in the broad South African church, with a particular emphasis on those that might not have historically spoken about justice as a core aspect of the gospel. So, we came from all over – Anglicans, mega-church Charismatics, Church of the Nazarene, Seventh Day Adventists, classic Pentecostals, and even the odd Dutch Reformed Church voice welcomed into the space.

As these events go, by now we’ve learned to bypass the numerous things that we’ve historically struggled to find each other on. Baptism, Eucharist, and ordination is left at the door – let each deal with this on their own. Interestingly the Bible is not left at the door – in this space, noting the place from which we are reading the Bible is immensely important.

But certain theological markers are emerging. Perhaps it would have slipped by many of the younger participants – we all tend to think that the way the church think at the moment is just how it has been always, and then miss the deep shifts that are happening over time. So what are some of the emerging theological markers of a justice theology, a justice theology shared by people across the many divides that shape the church today (so not just a simple liberation theology practiced by academics, but a justice theology that emerge from the diverse church community in South Africa)?

  • The future does not get higher priority than the present

For me one of the most significant aspects emerging is the emphasis on the present – on this world. This does not take away the chorus of different understandings of heaven, life after death, or a final new creation. It quite simply says that the next world does not get higher priority than this world. This world is not just an unfortunate temporary home where we merely prepare for another world. This world matters. That this world reflects God’s dream is at the heart of the gospel. Hearing this from those representing churches that historically would have given a clear priority to the future seems to me a marker of a justice theology in South Africa. Maybe Apartheid did teach us some lessons – on how the future can be used to sustain injustice in the present.

  • Souls do not get higher priority than bodies

Closely connected to how we think about the future is how we think about bodies and souls. A priority for the future over the present seem to inevitably bring about a priority of souls over bodies. Historically colonialism and slavery consciously emphasized saving souls as a way to morally justify the destruction of (black) bodies – although the horrors of emphasizing souls over bodies is far wider than colonialism and slavery. Jesus had a body. God created our bodies. Our bodies matter to God. Our bodily integrity matters to God. Looking after the bodies of people is not just an ethical response because we are thankful for how God has saved us (our souls?), it is at the heart of the gospel.

  • Humans are good

If bodies matter, it is deeply connected to the believe that humans are good. No, not that humans are without sin, nor that humans are incapable of committing great evil, but that human beings are fundamentally good. I find this one of the key points that Black and African theologies brought against the European colonial theologies – which started with “you have sinned” rather than “you are God’s creation”. It is the firm belief in the goodness of creation and of humans than become the mirror against which we see the horror of the present – what we made the world into is something which is not good. It is an obvious rejection of centuries of racist and colonialist theologies that considered “some” humans as good, “some” bodies as a reflection of the image of God. Yes, more could be said about the goodness of all of creation, and ecological questions should undoubtedly become part of a justice theology in the trenches, but I guess the South African moment we are in forces us into thinking about humans.

  • Where we see God in history matters

But we can emphasize the present, bodies, and the goodness of humanity while still standing aloof of the concrete questions of society. Perhaps the risk for those of us in the so-called “ecumenical” churches is exactly in this, since we did indeed emphasize the present for a long time, and have been slowly learning to emphasize bodies and the goodness of humans as well. Here, unfortunately, Helen Zille also enters the scene. Because how we understand history was never disconnected from how we understood the work of God. The idea that colonialism was really a well-intended, required, and even while contributing to suffering, at its heart a positive development cannot be disconnected from the idea that this phase in history was part of how God worked in history. Our ideas on where God is going with history, on where God stands, on who’s side God is on (or whether God takes sides) became a fundamental part of how we understood colonialism. While this difficult work of discernment is dangerous, since we obviously carry our theories of society and social change into our understanding of God, it is also important to this justice theology. This is a slowly emerging consensus that God is in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed, and that God acts in history on the side of the poor and the oppressed (so that the historic process which contribute to the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is not the work of God, and against the work of God). Yes, and this is also where we that say ‘no’, it is not only about how all lives matter, or about how all bodies are beautiful, but about a theology that speaks to the particular: in this moment, we discern God standing in a particular place, and we seek to stand where God stands.

 

I know that more things could be added to this. We could tap into our histories of theologies seeking justice, and there is a rich history, and note other aspects that we need to think about. But if I listened well over the past two days, then these markers are where the church in South Africa is currently in building a justice theology that bridge church and academy and the various church traditions that we are from. It is easier to see the importance of theology in the negative: theology can justify apartheid, can convince people that grave atrocities are the will of God. But theology can also over time form us into a people that work for a just world, and the search for such a theology not just in the thick books of academic theology, but in the lives of people of faith and the spirituality of the broad church, is an extremely important quest. The Justice Conference was not the Kingdom of God, and there are critical questions that remain, but there is also a sense in which the church is giving words to a justice theology that is grounded in the lives of living faith communities, and we should not underestimate the long-term effect of this.

It is time we start thinking deeply about violence again. Then again, when has there been a time in South Africa that we should not have thought deeply about violence? That which we call South Africa was constituted through extreme violence. Ours is an immensely violent space. But at this moment we seem to have found an address for our call for non-violence. In a society as violent as ours, yet with a deep history of non-violent activism as well, calling for non-violence should not be considered strange. But why do we have such a struggle to do this consistently?

Two things are lying open, coming to my attention, through the great system of sharing which is the contemporary networked society, at about the same time (although being moments about a day apart). On the one hand reports that Shaeera Kalla wareports that Shaeera Kalla was shot in the back with rubber bullets 10 times. Yes, one more moment of the horror that was the past few weeks, but through the random fact that I learned of this moments after sending the Powerpoint for a brief presentation containing an iconic photo of her leading a march about a year ago, a presentation that I’ll have to give in a foreign space tomorrow morning, this horrific moment forces me to stop. On the other hand a call, drawing broadly on Martin Luther King, for students to maintain the moral high ground and wage a non-violent struggle.

I’ve always been drawn to non-violence resistance, and while I acknowledge that it continue to be a slow learning curve for someone formed by a deeply violent culture, and a church open in its support for violence, I continue to be convinced that this is indeed what I am committed to. Why? I guess I could make long and sophisticated arguments, and I don’t deny that they are needed, but the short version is probably that it is a remnant of my WWJD spirituality, and the conviction that indeed, non-violence and deep peace was indeed central to what Jesus was about, even when elaborated in more complex arguments, remain fundamental to my conviction.

But for all of this pious conviction, piety which hopefully overflow far beyond the walls of the sanctuary, I’m left tasking a bit of bile at much of the calls for peace amidst campus protests. The inconsistencies is becoming unbearable.

With all the horror we expressed after Marikana, few who mouth non-violence were campaigning active demilitarization of the police, and even of progressively reducing police carrying and using of weapons. We seem incapable of imagining a society which express absolute horror at every moment of police brutality, yet we have a rich repertoire of language to express our outrage at the kid who picks up a stone. We are convinced that students should not respond to violence with violence, yet lack the capacity to imaging a response to vandalism (I do not deny that there was instances of vandalism and intimidation, and I cannot condone this) which does not involve state-sanctioned violence.

We insist on non-violent strategies, yet we fail to consider our own role in this. Non-violent strategies rely on the ears, the conscience, the heart, of those of us who are touched by these actions. 15000-20000 students marching to the union building in an act of non-violent protest rely on the fact that government, business, civil society, academics, and churches will in this action take note of their concern and give the kind of weight needed to shift the priorities of society. How do we call for non-violent strategies without putting our bodies into positions which allow these actions to be successful? While we might differ on the details of policies every moral fiber in our bodies should acknowledge that it can never be justified that financial means determine access to or success in education. Yet every piece of research will tell you that financial means is directly correlated with access to and success in education, also higher education. We are faced with a deeply moral concern, a fight for the soul not only of universities, but of our society: education, a key foundation of a healthy modern society, has increasingly become a commodity. We talk about education as an investment, about increased salaries as a return on investment, yet when students become the conscience of us all, forcing our attention onto the deep inhumanness of our society, we fail to give the needed weight to insure that this concern is addressed. And then we express our disgust when a different strategy is used. We like quoting King, but we forget that “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

And then we haven’t started talking about the ongoing inconsistencies in how we respond to immediate moments of violent action verses the ongoing systemic violence. We claim it is about violence, but when economic exclusion result in directly shortening the lifespan of a vast portion of the world and the country we call for slow processes of development. When student activities risk destruction to property we call for the immediate response of security forces. My pointing this out should in no way condone the moments of setting light to property, of breaking a window, but how do we call on the moral conscience of students when our own moral conscience has become totally numb to the ongoing brutalities and overly aware of the moments on transgression? Such a distortion, obviously not disconnected from the function of the images that we see flowing through our facebook feed (it is difficult to take a photo of a board of directors buying land which results in an old women needing to walk even further to get access to clean water, taking a few years off her life), should, is nothing short of a crisis of discernment, and for those of us who are religious in general and Christian in particular, it is nothing short of a crisis of faith.

Yes, I acknowledge that I struggle to imagine a world without the monopoly on violence that we have given to the nation state. But how many rubber bullets will we justify through the argument that “some students were vandalizing property and intimidating fellow students”? How many bombs dropped from planes will be justify through the reminded that there was someone that strapped a bomb to their body. And in which world to be expect that our moral call for non-violence will be heard while we bracket the state from that call? If I heard Jesus correctly then indeed violence is not part of the agenda. Indeed, Jesus did think that the Kingdom will not come through the use of violence. Jesus also walked close to those who differed from him on this point. And Jesus, it would seem to be, was clear that it was the oppressive violence of occupying forces that was of deeper concern (Dominic Crossan’s The Greatest Prayer is simultaneously historically helpful and spiritually nourishing in this regard).

In this violent society there might be few things we need more than a commitment to non-violence. But in this distorted society there might be few things which disrupt the quest for non-violence and peace more than our inconsistent insistence on non-violence.

My colleague, friend, and at times sparring partner Dion Forster has been sharing some thoughts on our contemporary losing of faith in Mandela. But his argument require some push-back, so Dion, here is the push-back. I guess we have a bit of a history of pushing back against and together with each other. Let’s continue thinking deeply on this.

Dion’s argument is that post-1994 South Africa has adopted a civil religion. No, not the Methodist Church of which Dion and a large group of high profile ANC members are members, nor a particular form of Charismatic Christianity that many think was drawn into state sanction through the National Religious Leaders Forum (as opposition to the South African Council of Churches who wasn’t towing the line). Rather, this civil religion was our very politics and public ideology itself. To argue this Dion reads major figures and events through religious analogy (and perhaps more than analogy). Mandela as messiah. Tutu as high priest. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as symbolic ritual and national reconciliation its eschatological (or is that teleological?) goal justified through a doctrine of the rainbow nation. It has a sacred text (the constitution) and hymn (Nkosi sikelel i’Afrika).

In the process Dion repeats a number of criticisms which would have been quite shocking (at least in the mouth of a white university professor from Stellenbosch) until a few years ago, but which has become common today. Mandela’s role in the negotiation process is questioned. The TRC’s forgiveness of perpetrators and lack of compensation for victims is mentioned. The constitution as protecting the privileged is mentioned (Dion does not connect this to section 25, the property clause, but since this is where this critique is most often pointed towards, I would assume that is what he is aiming at) as well as its perceived lack of restorative justice.

In many ways this is a dominent narrative of contemporary critical discourse. What is not entirely clear is whether Dion consider the problem to be in its excesses (it becoming religious, in a sense) or whether he agrees that there is a fundamental critique that is valid, and if there is, what exactly it is? For example, Dion, are you arguing in support of changing the constitution? Perhaps of rejecting the constitution and starting over? Should the so-called negotiated settlement be rejected or renegotiated? What does this narrative make of proposals that a so-called “Nuremberg trial” would have allowed for a deeper resolution to our problems?

But I have a deeper question about the narrative. Two things happen in this narrative. Firstly, the alternative theologies are silenced by presenting this as civil religion on the one hand and by discerning its rejection primarily through recent events. Secondly, the silence on how present critiques draw on alternative visions from the past leaves the future open in this narrative, and Dion then fills the future with a particular vision. Let me explain.

First, South Africa did indeed have something of a dominent public narrative over much of the past 22 years. I think it did indeed function like a religion, and much of it was actually informed quite consciously by religious convictions. There is a theology behind the rainbow nation! But there has always been a counter narrative. The critique that Dion mentions did not emerge with the student movement, even if the student movement forced the attention of the likes of us (white middle class dominees) onto this critique (but we could have heard it had we listened). That alternative narrative need to be explored. It runs through Black Consciousness, the Pan Africanist Congress, the economic left in the older SACP and unions. For those of us in theology, it runs through Black Theology, Kairos, the CI, certain parts of the ICT. These are broad strokes. I’m not yet equipped enought to indicate how each contributes to the alternative narrative, and where they reject the narrative that became dominant or bought into the dominant narrative at later stages. The point is that reading our story as one of consensus with later disillusionment is skewing the picture. The skewing becomes more clear with the second point.

The little bit that I do understand from the student movements (and related movements) is actively drawing from this alternative narrative. Biko in particular (the alternative messiah?), but also Fanon. Marx and Lenin (not always sure how the EFF relates to this, but it is right there in its constitution). Rick Turner seem to be appearing as well. Black Theology seem to be making something of a return. Noting this makes it clear that the critique is not merely of the excesses of our dominant narrative (that it became religious), and that a general Christian or atheist (on this point the two might not be that far apart) conviction that such a false religion should best be lost is therefore appropriate. Rather, the critique is of a very particular kind of dominant narrative, and the proposal is that particular alternative voices be listened to.

There is a very strong historic dimension. There is a tradition behind the protest. This tradition has been with us always.

This brings be to my main point: “I am of the mind that South Africans should lose their false civil religion and exchange it for an ethics of responsibility”. This statement is perhaps only possible by silencing the alternative tradition that is being drawn upon in current critiques. If it were mere disillusionment we could perhaps have made a variety of proposals on what is needed. But we are confronted with an alternative narrative and eschatology, and we need to take this seriously.

I’m not opposed to an ethics of responsibility (I was a students of and assistant to Etienne de Villiers for many years, so I guess something rubbed of), but it would be irresonsibly (excuse the pun) to use student movements, and even the voice of the Qwabe’s, to suggest that an ethics of resonsibility is what should be called for. Dion, would an ethics of responsibility not be quite at home with the compromises of the negotiations, with the constant reminders of the global limitations to economic policy proposals, and the narrative of slow and incremental change as opposed to a revolution? Perhaps you should help us with the details of what an ethics of responsibility would be, but I think that a good argument can be made that it is exactly an ethics of responsibility that is being rejected…

We often hear that “apartheid was a heresy”, yet what exactly made this a heresy is at times lost in our church discussions. For those of us in the Dutch Reformed Church this might be partly because nowadays we are looking at a tennis game between a group in the church who find heresy everywhere, and another who cannot work with the concept of heresy at all (I’m rather drawn to the second one, so if this post relate to the current conversations on heresy I’m responding to myself).

Russel Botman share the story of how their class of theological students became convinced that apartheis is indeed a heresy. Jaap Durand was the lecturer in systematic theology, and challenged his students:

“You have been quite explicit about the legal, sociological, psychological, and political science reasons for your judgment on apartheid. I want to challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on apartheid.”

The answer he then provides is that “apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups.” Apartheid assume that people are inherently irreconcilable, while the gospel assume a radical reconciliation which transcend all borders.

We might want to revisit this idea that arguing from a belief of the inherent irreconcilability of people is nothing but a heresy, since this continue to be such a common idea. Is this not what underlies every statement that two groups of people will “never be able to find each other”? If we normalize the divisions in society by saying that “our cultures differ too much”, “there will always be conflict”, are we not assuming that people are inherently irreconcilable?

Socially I think there are two ideas which we are holding to in order to keep this heresy going. The one is the belief in some kind of essential group identity. White people will always be white people, always act like white people, and always want to be part of a group of white people. The other is that conflict between groups of people that are different are inevitable and natural. Yet neither of these are true.

Groups are fluid, change over time, merge with others, die out, have individuals abandon that group, and are joined by individuals who it would be inconceivable in another context. Religions as a social group provide a good example, or nationalities, but cultures, ethnicities and the way the world are constructed as races are not essential and eternal either. Secondly, even where we do belong to different social groups, conflict and strive is not inevitable. Groups of people find amazingly creative ways of living in harmony together.

Yes, group identities are strong and will form us over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. But they are not permanent. Conflict do exist between different groups, but it is not inevitable. Reconciliation is difficult (and true reconciliation should be difficult, if it isn’t difficult we might want to suspect that we are not yet totally honest with each other), but always possible. So let’s start watching the language of “never” and “impossible” when it relates to reconciliation.

This does not imply that we will sort out our divided legacy in this country in one generation, or even in my lifetime. But it does mean that I will reject every movement which support an irreconciled society, or which work with the assumption that we are inherently irreconcilable, and trying is therefore worthless. Let’s agree to end that kind of talk.