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.

Recently a group of black theological students of the URCSA studying at UP visited the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto together with some fellow theological students from the DRC and some visiting students from the USA. Some time after the visit, the students said (in a discussion) that the Hector Peterson memorial “is not a place to visit with white people” since “it only makes you angry”. What had made them angry was that the white students said at the memorial: “We were not even born when this happened”, without any acknowledgement of their connectedness with their parents and grandparents who had been  born at the time and without owning up to the fact that they had benefited from their “whiteness”, even though they were never in the position to support or perpetrate apartheid. The unwillingness or inability to acknowledge white privilege flowing from the apartheid system is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in South Africa, and it will have to be addressed in a reconciling mission praxis.

From a paper entitled “RECONCILING ENCOUNTERS IN LUKE-ACTS” delivered by Prof Klippies Kritzenger at a conference in Stellenbosch, May 2009.

More than once I talked about the Afrikaner tribe in a series of posts on Afrikaner identity written after Amahoro 2009. I’ve been thinking about a number of Afrikaans songs for years now, and the song which probably best formulate the thoughts of many young white South Africans is that of  “Nie langer” (“not any more”) by Klopjag, that shouts out that we won’t be saying sorry any more. It’s been bothering me ever since I first heard it.

The reason can partly be found in the paragraph above: it’s not acknowledging the fact that we benefited from being white, since we are connected to our parents and grandparents. But my discomfort has been growing ever deeper, and it’s more than simply the fact that we benefited from the past. What bothers me is the fact that we actually disconnect ourselves from our own history with this song, with these words. The URCSA students maybe have a much more natural understanding of belonging to a group, to a culture, to a tribe.

My thoughts on this found special meaning in an experience at Amahoro, really a conversion experience, where my Afrikaner identity suddenly found meaning for Africa, where I believe I became an African theologian in my own eyes. Not by forgetting the past. Not by disconnecting from it in the way that the story above tells. But exactly by connecting, by remembering, by saying sorry (not out of emotions of guilt, because I honestly can’t say I experience these emotions, but in a process of reconciliation), by admitting that my tribe was wrong.

My call to Christian Afrikaners is to join your tribe. Not in opposition to the South Africa of which you are part. Not on Loftus at a Curry Cup final. But by embracing your connectedness to the past. By visiting the Hector Peterson memorial and not distancing yourself from what it says, but by connecting, working through the pain and the hurt (and my non-Afrikaner and non-white readers must hear this, embracing the connectness is a really hurtful process!), so that we can find the reconciliation on the other side. Also, to find, as a white man, liberation within Africa:

After telling our story, the story of our people, proud at times, standing guilty at times, one of my new Kenyan friends said these words: “You need to come to Kenya and come tell your story! Our people need to hear that someone can admit that they were wrong.” Those must have been some of the most liberating words I’ve ever heard!

Quoted from How one Afrikaner became an African theologian

(and on a side-note, I was part of the group that visited the Hector Peterson museum from the story above)

My brain is cluttered with thoughts concerning the church as “alternative community” at the moment. I’m writing a mini-dissertation at record speed, and my middle chapter concerned primarily some thoughts on this concept. For the purpose of my dissertation, I moved away from this concept, but didn’t reject it. I really think Bosch was able to keep this fine balance of always keeping the alternative community as part of the tensioness whole of our approaches to understanding the relation church and world. At the end of Transforming Mission he talks about a distinct community, which I believe communicates this more nuanced understanding, not the there-is-nothing-good-in-culture approach we found in Resident Aliens, but an understanding which have the church and especially individual Christians as part of the world, but always in way that is distinctly church. I started trying to explain this here.

Come have said that Bosch was probably the greatest South African theologian, and the current growing interest in Transforming Mission might also point to that. For me, and a few of us who studied at the University of Pretoria over the last few years, Andries van Aarde would be another one of the most brilliant theological minds that South African theology has ever delivered. In some circles he isn’t popular, because of his participation in historical Jesus research (on which I’ve written here). Van Aarde has recently been showing some interest in emerging literature, wrote a brilliant article in an academic journal using Mclaren’s the church on the other side concept, and seems like he might be developing more and more thoughts on what church is looking outside the institutional and denominational boundaries. Van Aarde also uses the alternative community concept.

In a recent paper delivered at a seminar on public theology, he used the concept not to point to an alternative on society, but an alternative on institutional church. Such alternative communties Van Aarde calls the church on the other side, which might be similar to some of the non-denominational communities we see forming within the emerging conversation.

Between 1975 and 1982, when David Bosch was using the alternative community concept, he used it to talk about a church which should change society by showing it that reconciliation was possible. This was especially concerned with racial reconciliation in South Africa. Bosch wanted the church to be a united church, in order to show society that unity is possible, and in that way help society to change.

Currently Van Aarde’s alternative communities consists of those who have already reached second naiveté. Without going into his argument, I just want to note that what he is talking about is communities consisting of those who have had a change in worldview and theology, and therefore no longer find themselves comfortable within the bounds of institutional church. But if part of this change (and Van Aarde is not saying this, but I have a gutt feel he might agree) include a larger emphasise on orthopraxy, then Bosch’s alternative communities of reconciliation might also be important in this.

Within a South African church context (speaking specifically from the Dutch Reformed Church of which I am part, but this reality I believe is still very common also outside my own church) of churches and congregations devided along racial and economic lines, a combination of Van Aarde and Bosch might be appropriate. We need alternative communities which can point to an alternative to existing churches. These communities should point the way forward, showing that unity is possible. Contrary to the earlier Bosch, this is not to provide a strong alternative upon society, for that his later distinct community remain more appropriate, but to help churches in forming communities which is reconciled. To point to way forward, showing us that it is possible to be a united church.

Hopefully this can be part of the gift which emerging churches in South Africa give the church in South Africa, and also give the world…