May 12, 2011
What I’m about to write is not radical. But it’s not ordinary either. There is people doing radical stuff in church today, and I like many of them. But there is some pretty ordinary stuff that we argue away which might be some of the most radical actions to take. I don’t want to over-simplify things, I firmly believe that what really change the world lie on the level of the systemic rather than the personal (although I don’t think we ever have systemic change without a large amount of personal changes which developed habits which might make these systemic changes possible). I think this is ordinary since you don’t really have to look very far to see that this has been at the heart of church all along. I think this is radical because I really find it difficult to do just this. So after dozens of emerging books, and years of reflecting on some of the most brilliant theologies written, I want to ask this: what would a local congregation look like is we just did this:
1) Adopt kids
The early church was radical because it had a different view of children. It rejected the patriarchal idea that children could be thrown away, and we also have stories of how Christian actually picked up and cared for the kids who was thrown away (which contributed to the growth of the early church, since these children then tended to grow up as Christians). In South Africa the number of orphans is growing into the millions, and many more live in houses where social workers need to take them away.
I want to dare say that the most radical and most significant missional thing a local congregation can do today is to create a culture where children is adopted. I know this is a difficult process, but imagine a congregation where the whole congregation is structured to support people who have adopted and are adopting orphans. In our mostly affluent congregations we might even have a greater responsibility towards this.
2) Share meals
It’s no secret that meals play an important role in the gospels and early church. In one of the most radical ideas in the gospel Jesus suggest that we shouldn’t invite the rich and famous to our parties, but the homeless and poor. Jesus himself crossed some serious boundaries when he ate with certain groups. In our time when many progressive voices are reflecting on the importance of “third spaces”, we might want to rethink the importance of sharing our “first spaces” (our homes) with others.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy. As I’m typing I’m thinking of a whole bunch of stories of people who started trying this, and found it to be quite difficult. When we prepare food for others, we share something quite intimate, when we sit around a table, we are forced to speak longer than we might have wanted to, with people we don’t really know what to way to. But imagine a congregation where everyone is sharing meals with each other, with strangers, and with people they generally wouldn’t have spoken to, on a regular basis.
3) Live a simple life
The call towards simplicity has been at the core of Christian ethics throughout history. Simply being able to not do stuff just because everyone is doing it, or because you need to display your wealth. In our time it is becoming of critical importance that we find a way to live more simply, and from this tradition of millenia of practicing simply living, we might contribute.
Imagine a congregation where everyone is just seeking to live more simple. Smaller houses. More shared spaces. Less debt. Driving cars for longer before replacing them. Constantly reminding each other what “enough” imply. As I’ve said before, simplicity might be one of the most complex questions facing us, but just imagine a congregation where this is at heart (and I’m thinking now of congregations which traditionally would award affluent lifestyles, since this is the context I know).
What would happen if we just took one of these and just did it? What would you add as very basic ideas which the local congregation, any local congregation, might engage in which is both ordinary and radical?
December 10, 2010
I spent the weekend down in Pietermaritzburg with the steering committee of ANiSA, visioning what the role of ANiSA might be in South Africa today. Coming from the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed church environment (a context to which I declared my love in one of the sessions, admittedly in similar fashion to which Ani Difranco declare love to her country), I found the conversations source of hope. The crowd was diverse in race, language, church background (gender however is a question which I would hope to see more diversity in future). We came with very different theological backgrounds, but with a willingness to consider radical possibilities, and a strong commitment to justice and peace.
The day was spent drafting a kind of vision statement, through discussion of one-word concepts which might be used to tell something of the values of this network. The discussions opened up an amazing richness which I hope can continue to flow into the broader theological discussion in South Africa. The best meetings I’ve had in the church all contained two aspects, both which I found at ANiSA as well: deep theological debate, and lots of laughter. With out the deep debate, we end up simply stating some kind of common denominator, which contributes nothing, and changes no one. Without laughter we take ourselves too seriously, and we are no longer able to change. We had the intense debate, but with a lightness which opened up everyone (that’s how it felt at least) to the possibility that I may be changed through these discussions.
Probably the concept which stimulated the most conversation was “simplicity”. Our various reactions convinced us that this concept, contested as it is, is of the utmost importance to our context today, although we acknowledge the complexity with the term.
For myself, I think the double-bind we experience is that the fact that we find ourselves in South Africa, with its poverty and economic inequality, vast riches and extreme poverty, calls us to seriously discuss what the simple lifestyle would mean. However, exactly because this is the context we find ourselves in, we acknowledge that it is almost impossible to state with clarity what simplicity and simple living would look like. When we call for simplicity, for simple living, it is not yet a call which is defined in the detail of what the exact implication would be, but a very strong value, calling us to take this conversation very seriously, and work through the questions which the South African context births.
The call towards simplicity may never be just another way of romanticizing poverty in some spiritual way. The poor is not those who are living lives of simplicity. Simplicity require that we have access to that which we need to simply live, it is not a blind call to “simply own less and less, simply have access to less and less”. I’d describe the call to simplicity as a deeply prophetic call. Prophetic in the old-school sense of pointing out that: “this way of inequality and over-consumption for a few is not just, not sustainable. If we continue down this road it will lead to our death! It will create violence! Therefore we need to turn from our greedy ways”. It is a critical voice to those of us in positions of power and privilege to rethink our participation in the global economic and ecological systems, as well as in the local relations with those whom we should call neighbours. As such simplicity must be more than just an individual private choice, but must be a public outcry, a systemic suggestion for a better world.
In a way I’d therefore say that simplicity is a choice. It is a choice which some do not have, and others choose not to make. It is the choice which those who have it should make, so that those who do not have access to the choice of living in simplicity can be made room for. Still, we don’t have an answer to what this life would look like in hard financial terms. However, this acknowledgement of the complexity of the question may never become just another way of postponing the critical question facing us.