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


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.

In Violence Zizek points to some questions which again got me thinking about the always persistent notions in Christianity that we have a task to convert the whole society to Christ, meaning that all should become part of the church. He writes:

What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is? What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous “there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks”) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other “particularistic” religions, there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto ”All men are brothers,” however, also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men.

My reflection at this stage does not concern the questions whether this is a legitimate interpretation of Paul, but rather the quote serve to open up questions concerning evangelical universalism.

A distinctive marker of Christianity is the ways in which it created categories for interpreting the act of entering into the faith community which opened up this faith community to all, regardless of culture or background. Obviously Paul’s thoughts was important in this process. I usually describe this to my confirmation classes by saying that the crime that the followers of Jesus, those called Christians, committed against the Jews was to open up the Jewish faith to everyone – they made it too easy to become a Jew. Gone where the days of circumcision, which made it literally painful to become a member once you were an adult (and obviously opened up possibilities for woman to become part of the faith community).

Again similar categories were created within the protestant Reformation, sola gratia, sola fidei. But again the critique from Zizek is applicable, because if membership is sola gratia, but the sola fidei is still a prerequisite, it puts a question mark either on the choice of faith, or on the non-believer. Either you don’t have a choice, or else you’re choice against that which is assumed is open to everyone open possibilities for the most brutal forms of exclusion (and the history of the church is ample examples of this).

However, this is not the only interpretations possible. In an article titled How my mind has changed. Mission and the alternative community*, David Bosch describes his own project from the years 1972-1982 as

What I have attempted to do— not very successfully, I am afraid, judging by the reaction, particularly in the Afrikaans Reformed Churches! — was to build on and develop further the intrinsic similarities that I believe exist between Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiologies.

He unpacks this by explaining that

The more identifiably separate and unique the church is as a community of believers (Anabaptism) the greater significance it has for the world (Calvinism).

Whether this is what Bosch intended or not, I’m not yet completely sure about, but on a very simplistic level this assumes that church and world can never become the same, that the church should always be but a part of a broader community, and not identifiable as the community**, always smaller than the community, smaller than the world. The experimental garden. The place where things are possible which would not be considered in the world.

How then is this significance for the world to manifest when this community is truly unique?

I suggest that we need a deeper exploration of the idea of public dialogue.

If our own place is understood as part of a broader dialogue, and our contribution to the world and transformation of the world (mission) is found in our uniqueness, it opens up possibilities that this world can contain a place for others. Exactly as a Christian, I can create an openness which recognize the voices of others within this public dialogue, contributing to the positive evolution of society. However, I do this only from a position of faith, of a firm conviction that also the way of the church, in its uniqueness, has significance for the world.

Maybe, in this post-secular world, this could even be done without condescension. Not only could we recognize that certain distinctly different worldviews are siblings of our own (be it the monotheistic faiths, or secularism), but the growing recognition of the important role which for example eastern religions need to play in our time (think of conversations on ecology) also open up the idea of a dialogue where the other need not be defeated, but where uniquely different views are needed in the ongoing dialogue concerning what Christians would call the kingdom of God (that which is the dream of how things could be in this world).

And the church then? Well, we would need to discover and live our distinctness as the community which over the past 2000 years reflected on the tradition which grew out of the life and words of Jesus. For the sake of society we need to contribute from our uniqueness as church.

* Bosch, D. J. 1982. “How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community”, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 41 (December), pp. 6–10.

** My guess is that chapter 13 of Transforming Mission, and the 1993 chapter in The Good News of the Kingdom: MissionTheology in the Third Millennium titled God’s Reigh and the Rulers of this World both open up the possibility that different church traditions might be appropriate at different times and places. This might open up the possibility of interpreting Bosch in such a way that at times a complete identification between church and community is possible, but as a rule I believe you don’t find this idea in Bosch.

The joke goes: Marx, Engels, and Lenin areasked whether they would prefer to have a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers, “A wife!” while Engels, more of a bonvivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says, ‘I’d like to have both!” Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind his austere revolutionary image? No-he explains: “So that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife … ” “And then, what do you do?” “I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!” – Zizek, Violence, p8

This apparently was Lenin’s advice to young people asking him what they should do. This is also what Zizek suggest we do in our context of being bombarded with images of violence. And this, I suggest, is the advice those calling for change in South Africa need to hear.

In various ways we seem to be forced into facing two false choices (and sometimes only one false choice), into choosing immediately, while the complexity of what we face in actuality require that we learn, learn and learn.

One of my favorite examples I found in my undergraduate years*. In true undergraduate fashion (sadly lost upon many undergraduates) I occupied my time thinking about the critique which can be delivered onto the status quo: both within theology and society. Being a verbal thinking and possibly somewhat overconfident, I would at times even spend time on the preposterous activity of attempting to formulate these questions in the presence of those of senior years.

This would lead to the usual critical reactions, pointing to the problems in my young argument, educating the youth into the finer arts of political correctness etc (all of these lessons which has some form of value). But at times these questions would actually hit a nerve, question an element which all would know really is problematic within the status quo. Fighting from the corner, one strategy under such circumstances would be to force the young undergraduate into a false choice:

In very blatant fashion the conversation partner would simply state that before criticism of the reigning status quo might be delivered, an alternative should be put onto the table. Until the alternative choice was fully conceived and tested, criticism of the status quo should be left unsaid. But this very strategy actually points to the fact that not only the young undergraduate, but also the conversation partner need a third option: learn, learn, and learn. Using this strategy admits to the complexities that exist, and the fact that the options on the table isn’t sufficient in solving the problems. Neither the status quo, nor the quick alternative, seem to be viable options. Pushing for acceptance of the status quo through use of this kind of argument is not only a form of violence by those holding the dominant position, but also admitting that the current state of affairs is not sustainable.

Again, this calls both voices in the conversation, not just the one delivering the critique, to a third position: learn, learn, and learn. I believe this is the position we need in South Africa today, the element missing from our public conversations: those who commit to Lenin’s advice.

*This didn’t stop after my undergraduate years

I’m losing my humanity

October 15, 2010

Zizek says: “This is what you must be conscious of, that when you fight for your position, you at the same time fight for the universal frame of how your position will be perceived within this universal frame. This is for me, as every good feminist will tell you, the greatness of modern feminism. It’s not just we women want more. It’s we women want to redefine the very universality of what it means to be human. This is for me this modern notion of political struggle” – Marcus Pound

And we have to add that this is the case in every place where a dominant position which has become normalized (meaning that it is never in the position of being studies, being discussed, but always the position from which studies, discussions, and I dare say jokes, are being done) is being challenged.

Writing from a white, male, Afrikaner position, I am only too aware of how easy those in the normalized and/or dominant position translate the quest for liberation into a quest for “getting more stuff”. This, however, is an easy copout, a way of the easily identifiable examples which can be thrown into the face of those who are in the normalized position, without losing the privileged position of being “the most human”.

If we assume that the rich white male European (or is it American nowadays) position is the normal position of what it means to be “human”, and that all struggles are simply about the redistribution of  “stuff”, we miss the deep critique against the assumption of normality which woman, homosexuals, black and coloured, African (yes, I differentiate between black and African), previously colonized, voices bring onto the table. More than stuff, and more than simply another perspective which is but a variation on the normalized position (working from the idea that whatever the normalized group says is mostly universalizable, and others can simply change a few details to fit their views). It is a radical challenge against the normalized position, taking it from the throne of normality, challenging not merely the stuff, not merely a few details, but redefining what it means to be human.

And me, the white Afrikaner male? I can only find my own humanity if it is redefined by the voices which challenge my normality. To do this I would need to go through the hell of giving up this narrow perception of being human which I hold to. Lose my humanity so that I can truly find it. Die in order to live.

Let me begin with a brief introduction to the notion of the so-called “big other” as the symbolic substance of being, as it were the symbolic space within which we human beings dwell. People usually think about symbolic rules regulating social interaction, but I think it is much more productive to focus on another aspect of what Lacan calls the “big other”. The intricate cobweb of unwritten implicit rules. Their never explicitly stated, if you state them explicitly you even usually commit some kind of crime or violation. This is what always interest me, how what holds communities together are not explicit rules but the unwritten rules which are even prohibited to announce publicly.

Now you will say that I’m exaggerating here. No I’m not. Imagine even the most totalitarian communities imaginable. The Stalinist regime. The real old one from the 30’s. You would say but there everything was clear, no unwritten rules. Oh, their were.

Imagine a session of the central committee where someone stands up and starts to criticize Stalin. Now, everyone knows this was prohibited. But that’s the catch. Imagine someone else standing up and saying: “But listen, are you crazy? Don’t you know that it’s prohibited to criticize comrade Stalin?” I claim the second one would be arrested earlier than the first one. Because although everybody knew that it’s prohibited to criticize Stalin, this prohibition itself was prohibited. The appearance had to be unconditionally maintained that it is allowed to criticize Stalin, but simply why criticize him since he’s so good.

My point it that the appearance of a free choice had to be sustained.

This is the introduction of a talk by Slavjok Zizek that can be downloaded from the Slought foundation website.

Imagine someone standing up and saying: “Black people will not be allowed in our churches. And definitely not on our church boards“. This person would be immediately shunned. But it would seem that it’s prohibited to actively create inter-racial churches in most places. It may never be said. It is even more wrong to state this prohibition than the prohibition itself. And when the observations which support the theory that there is an unwritten rule against inter-racial churches is pointed to, the appearance must be unconditionally maintained that this congregation is open to begin an inter-racial church, but simply why force this when no one wants this/it’s not really central to the gospel/it’s not about race but about culture or language/whatever reasons are given to why “the most segregated hour of Christian America [or South Africa] is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” to quote Martin Luther King Jr.

I belief a similar argument can be made for poor people in rich Christian communities. Therefore we will never say that they are not allowed, since stating this rule is against the rules, but everyone would work together to keep the community basically rich, and no one would dare to openly attempt to change this.

Is it possible that what determines how the Christian community work is not the written rules of shared confession, faith, mission or community, but some form of unwritten rules which underlies the ideology? If this is true, then these unwritten rules need to be understood, deconstructed, and challenged for change to happen within these communities. Someone would need to publicly state the rule which is not allowed to be stated.

Anyhow, your thoughts would be appreciated…