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.

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A number of Lonmin posts have made it into my drafts. But I struggle to press the “publish” button.

I’ve spent some time re-reading parts of my dissertation handed in earlier this year, which focused on public responses to violence (or rather, to a very specific subset of this genre), and it stops my from pressing that “publish” button even more.

There is no shortage of attempts at finding the “true perpetrators” of this horrific event. Unions. SAPD. Sriking miners. Mining bosses. However, there is a sense in which it is just too easy to find a scapegoat. The comparisons to Sharpeville, although undoubtedly problematic, is a reminder that we have to take a broad historic view in interpreting the event. The London-listed company, an employer responding to the death of its employees from thousands of miles away, a reminder that this horrific local event cannot be disconnected from a global interpretation.

When writing on this last year, two aspects which I (following others more knowledgeable) considered key to understanding violent crime  (and for the moment I’ll refrain from commenting on which part of the event should be considered as “crime”, and simply insist that we focus on violence in general) in South Africa was the culture of violence established over decades, a culture tied specifically to the mining industry in South Africa, and the effect of economic inequality on violence. I summarized it in the following words:

Although final answers to why South Africa has such a high level of violent crime is difficult, no coherent explanation can be given without recognising that it is not a post-apartheid phenomenon. We have to connect it to a long history of violence in South Africa. South Africa has been exceptionally violent throughout its history of colonialism and apartheid. Extensive (often foreign) military power was utilised in the control of indigenous groups and the use of the police as an excessively violent force during apartheid is well documented. Urban violence connected to gang culture can be seen from the late 19th century around mining cities (particularly Johannesburg), with pass laws, migrant labour and the criminalisation of black labourers creating a constant flow trough prisons, many times the place where a violent culture was strengthened rather than defused, contributing to a culture of urban violence. Although developing later and to a smaller extent than in Johannesburg, a gang culture and a growing culture of violence also developed in other mining towns along with migrant labour and the cycling of African and Coloured males through prisons. […]

The history of colonialism and apartheid further affects the continuing problem of violence and crime through the peculiar levels of economic inequality in South Africa. It has been recognised internationally that economic inequality (rather than merely poverty) leads to higher levels of violence and crime. While this might at times be attributed to the fact that crime is a more effective road to generating income than the legal route of participating in the economic sphere, or at times the only possible option available to someone, this does not provide a sufficient explanation, since much of the violence and crime in South Africa do not lead to any economic gains. Rather, the psychosocial effects on the excluded individual and group, such as feelings of exclusion, resentment and anger, can sometimes translate into violence.

(p64-65)

This is not sufficient, but sets the tone against which I would want to start thinking through the events of the past week.

This event must result in a thorough analysis of violence in South Africa, both historically and geographically broad, forcing us to go beyond finding a scapegoat to crucify. Our scapegoats tend to merely continue the stereotypical analysis which reflect the South African public discourse, with the choice of blaming unions or police or striking miners or multi-national companies seldom coming as a surprise.

Yes, many moments around Marikana contributed to this horrific event, many small signals found in the bodily movements of strikers and police, many split-second decisions. But the event was in the making for decades. It is an event resulting more from decisions made slowly, at times when its implications might not have been clear, and decisions made unconsciously, the implications of which we have to take note of in hindsight. While police, lawyers and courts will slowly work through the event in the months and years to come, and while this is indeed necessary, the ethical challenge facing us lies in insisting that such a focused analysis cannot provide us with a way forward. We have to take on the broader challenge of transforming the South African culture of violence and exclusionary economic systems (or whatever the other insights is that we come to when doing our analysis as broad and as deep as possible) which provide the background against which specific incidents erupts.

Zizek:

If there is a unifying thesis that runs through the bric-a-brac of reflections on violence that follow, it is that a similar paradox holds true for violence. At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance. This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious-and extensively studied-cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.

Violence, p1

Bosch:

Third, there is the matter of violence. Support for violence is intrinsic to Marxism. Without condoning the violence of the status quo and Christians’ blessing of it (which is actually the bigger problem), one has to express concern about the support for revolutionary violence (which is actually the lesser problem, since it is really a response to the violence of the system) in some branches of liberation theology.

Transforming Mission, p441

They reflect on different aspects. But a common thread is an important reminder: the violence of the status quo is the bigger problem. I’m convinced we’ll achieve more if our public discourse tackle the issue of economic exclusion and inequality, inhumane living conditions and deep racism, elements of what I would consider to constitute the violence of the status quo today, almost inevitable by-products of the smooth functioning of our economic system. Violence, also in it’s “subjective” forms, is a serious problem facing South Africa. Yet the vigor with which we are tackling this issue might just be deflecting attention from the violence of the status quo, the violence that keep the the privileged the privileged, and the poor the poor. Creating the impression that the “real problem” is individual acts of violence associated with what is considered criminal, while this should be read symptom of a bigger problem of violence.

In what is quite common arguments to be found within the white church environment in South Africa, both the Belhar confession as well as the Kairos document is rejected because it “supports liberation theology, and therefore violence”. In an act of total hypocrisy white South Africans would make the claim of rejecting violence in toto, and therefore withdraw from supporting these so-called implicit justifications of violence. By describing this as an act of total hypocrisy I do not wish to claim that the non-violent position is impossible, but rather that we need to be skeptical of simple rejections of blatant violent acts by the oppressed.

As in many other cases, rereading Bosch might help us in our quest. On the issue of violence in liberation theology he writes

Third, there is the matter of violence. Support for violende is intrinsic to Marxism. Without condoning the violence of the status quo and Christians’ blessing of it (which is actually the bigger problem), one has to express concern about the support for revolutionary violence (which is actually the lesser problem, since it is really a response to the violence of the system) in some branches of liberation theology.

Transforming Mission, p441

It might be the most obvious insight ever, but we have developed an extensive set of tools to not face it: opposition to violence is primarily an opposition to the violence of the status quo. Any opposition to violence which condones the violence of the status quo is not an opposition to violence at all, but become just another hidden attempt at keeping the violence of the privileged in place. In herein obviously the total hypocrisy of white South Africans: the opposition to the support for revolutionary violence is an important Christian stance, but without an even stronger rejection and opposition to the violence of the status quo it becomes a hypocritical act.

However, the matter of violence contain a third aspect (and obviously many more, but at least this one I believe need to be lifted out). Apart from the revolutionary violence, the planned use of violence to call in a change in how the world is structured, there is the violence of the oppressed when the situation become unbearable. Is this not what Žižek call divine violence?

Divine violence should thus be conceived as divine in the precise sense of the old Latin motto vox populi, vox dei: not in the perverse sense of “we are doing it as mere instruments of the People’s Will,” but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of sovereign decision. It is adecision (to kill, to risk or lose one’s own life) made in absolute solitude, with no cover in the big Other. If it is extra-moral, it is not “immoral,” it does not give the agent licence just to kill with some kind of angelic innocence.When those outside the structured social field strike “blindly,” demanding and enacting immediate justice/vengeance, this is divine violence. Recall, a decade or so ago, the panic in Rio de Janeiro when crowds descended from the favelas into the rich part of the city and started looting and burning supermarkets. This was indeed divine violence … They were like biblical locusts, the divine punishment for men’s sinful ways.

Violence. Six sideways Reflections, p202

Is this then not the even bigger evil: that our rejection of the violence of the revolutionary without an even stronger opposition, and active dismantling of, the violence of the status quo, cause us to out of hand reject the violence of the oppressed. Those moments when those outside the structured social field strike “blindly,”. This we then describe as “criminal”*.

Is the true opposition to violence, and the truly theological stance, not inherently a focus on the violence of the status quo. Analyzing. Making public. Challenging. Not propagating the violent overthrow of the status quo, but recognizing that the appropriate response to both the revolutionary violence, as well as the divine violence of those outside the structured social field, is again a focus on the violence of the status quo.

* I don’t equate criminal violence with what Žižek call divine violence. Our response to criminal violence is something different. I simply point out that we use the description “criminal” broadly for all violence which challenge the status quo of the democracy.

I’ve been involved with the Centre for Public Theology at the University of Pretoria for the past number of years now. We just finished a conference titles: Violence in the Democratic South Africa: A Challenge to Theology and the Churches.

The papers were brilliant. And the vibe was not that of a typical academic conference where ideas were merely “interesting”, but a very strong drive to be involved to change what is happening existed, and grew stronger as the extend of the problem became clearer over the three days.

My own paper was on the effect of whiteness in my own church’s public discourse concerning violence. It’s still a research project in progress, but what was presented at the conference can be found here.

All the papers we have so far (more are still coming) can be downloaded here. They are still to be finished up for publications in the coming months. Some in academic journals, and we most, if not all, in a book (hopefully). Still a lot of work for those who were involved.

It’s not the first movie to play around with the dangers of  virtual worlds, and probably not the last. But some serious questions will have to be considered in the coming years concerning social networks and virtual worlds. Gamer portrays a world, 25 years in the future, where a social network is created in which you play another person. A virtual world, but it’s not virtual and not virtual people. The poor in society can sell themselves, their brains get wired up, and then someone can pay to play their bodies. The user sits behind his computer and play someone else.

This “society”, is portrayed by the film as a place where users guide the “bodies” to create a place of sexual experimentation. Maybe taken to an extreme, but it does show something of what happens when an anonymous world is taken where no responsibility needs to be taken.

A game is then created, where you can control a death-row inmate in a first person shooter game… to death (for the inmate). A literal game, a virtual game. People really die, but this while being played by kids.

The film opens up questions on virtuality and reality, and although not doing it very good, it does point to some of the dangers of what may happen to morals when actions are viewed as just virtual. Death and sex become mere virtual experiences.

Although I don’t agree with the general rating from RVA Magazine, it’s critique needs to be taken seriously:

It is a film that demonstrably hates its primary audience. It is a film that tries to criticize the commercialization of violence, even though it itself is commercialized violence.

I wonder about a film that criticizes virtualized violence, and then create a film of 95 minutes, of which a large part goes into just another violent scene: virtual violence.

I’ll give it 2/5 at best, but would consider it worthwhile to stimulate a few conversations.

the mugging

January 27, 2009

Just found a twitter message from Jake Belder sent 12 days ago which reminded me about “the mugging”. So, here’s the official eye-witness release, but first, some background:

A mugging: Similar to being pick-pocketed in that you also loose the contents of your pockets, especially cellphone and money, with the exception that it’s not very good pickpocketers, so they need to ask you for the contents. Since the owner of the content is usually not very keen on handing it over, some form of persuasion is usually used, in most cases this being a knife, although instances of other weapons have also been documented.

South Africa: Well, let’s just say that police are swamped, and we have a lot of muggings, and to get hold of the muggers (similar to a bugger) is quite difficult.

theology: the question I’m wrestling with: How do I think theologically about the mugging?

Now, the story:

Was fixing my info at the department water and electricity in the inner city of Pretoria, stopped in Du Toit street. I had this two car guards who offered to watch my car, and to put money into the parking meter should the traffic cop come around (I didn’t have any coins with me, forgot about the fact that the inner city has parking meters). I told them to leave it, and went my way. 15 Minutes later I was back, and was told that they had to put in R2 for parking, because the traffic officer was coming to check the cars. Knowing hoe this works I went to the meter, and told him that it wasn’t true, since the meter didn’t show anything. I got into the car, and on closing my door, realised that I was in trouble…

The door wouldn’t close, the two guys was keeping it open, and putting a knife against me, asking for wallet and cellphone. I’ve decided long ago that if ever I get into this situation, I’ll simply hand it over, it’s not worth playing with your life and health. They took my phone and cash, threw back the wallet and ID, and told me to drive. All this happened in broad daylight, in a busy street, but this simply stood over the car door, and nobody noticed, or did anything. So I drove.

The story could continue with my experience of the South African Police Service, which was both positive and negative, but I’d rather stop the story here to do something else. How do we reflect theologically on this? How do we react as Christians to this? This is a few of my thoughts.

  • Violence can never acceptable. I find myself comfortable with the theology of David Bosch, talking about the church as an alternative community, standing in the tradition of third way theologies. What these kids did was wrong, and should be fought, but in an alternative community kind of way.
  • But that’s just it, this was kids. About 17 years of age. Obviously scared of what they were doing. They grew up in a world condoning violence, in our movies, where the violent is many times the hero, in our societies, where violence is acceptable, in South Africa, where we have become quite desensitized to violent crimes.
  • They are part of an oppressed system, which is popping out in ways where the oppressed (read, the poor) are oppressing (trough violent behavior) the oppressor (read, those who keep the system which keep the poor poor in place). Did I deserve what happened? Maybe, maybe not. But I gain from the system which keep the poor poor, even though I try to fight it. I can’t help but also symbolize this.
  • Still violence is wrong, and should be fought. Still other grew up in similar circumstances and chose a different path.
  • So what do we do? We change the world for kids who grow up, we make it a place that doesn’t cultivate kids like these.

Oh, and we remember that it’s not a race issue! No matter what they thought when mugging a white man, I can’t blame it on blame it on black people as a group.

That is some random thoughts. I realised that we still have a lot of thinking to do regarding violence.