March 19, 2017
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.