Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 5

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After months of dialogues and conversations about racial identities with Izwe Lethu and other dialogue platforms, of trying to understand a little more about what it is like living in a black body in our country today, I have a) not often been in contexts where I heard the stories of Indian and Coloured people; and b) wondered at times, given many other facets of identity, how urgent and important it still is for us to continue having discussions about racial identities?

Listening to my fellow-contributors at the Justice Conference session, “Navigating the Deep Waters of Identity” and witnessing the engagement of people in the audience, their emotive comments and questions (ranging from fear to uncertainty to anger) it became clear to me, once again, that we really still need to keep on listening to stories of people from different race groups.* I have found that as a white person it is so easy to think that I know or understand the reality of racial identities, when in fact, I hardly have any idea of what it feels like to live as a black, Indian or coloured person in our country today. I believe that God shapes us through these very stories to become people who respond to the challenges in our country with empathy, generosity and love (rather than fear, defensiveness, ignorance and hatred). And if there is one thing we will need to overcome the brokenness in our society, it will be deep empathy with one another.

An hour and a half was always going to be too short for a session on identity in South Africa, and much can be said in hindsight about the session, so check out the following links (I have unfortunately not been able to get hold of all the contributions to this session):
– For a great summary of quotes and notes from the session, check out Brett’s blog post (number 2 in a series of 3 that is well worth checking out!).
– Tristan Pringle shared an extract of his contribution (plus some thoughts and reflections on the session).
– Sam Mahlawe kindly sent me a full transcript of her contribution on navigating her identity as a black women in South Africa.
– Parusha Naidoo shared a thought-provoking piece, The Daily Commute.

(I shared my contribution in my previous blog post)

*I know that there are some who argue that we needn’t pay attention to the differences between race groups or racial identities and rather just focus on what unites us in Christ (by quoting Scriptures like Galatians 3:28 or 1 Corinthians 12:13). I hope to share how reading Miroslav Volf’s, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, have helped me understand how overlooking differences between us (even in an attempt to include and unite) can actually be an act of exclusion. Christ bringing us together does not mean erasing the differences between us so that we all become one “undifferentiated sameness”, but to erase the enmity that exists between us: “Unity…is not the result of “sacred violence” which obliterates the particularity of “bodies”, but a fruit of Christ’s self-sacrifice, which breaks down the enmity between them.” (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 47).

Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 4

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I was honoured to be one of the contributors at the “Navigating the Deep Waters of Identity” session of the Justice conference. I am busy preparing links to other contributions, notes and reflections about this session, but I have been asked a number of time to share my contribution. So here you go, but please know that these words are but a small part of a very important conversation and I look forward to share more with you later this week:

“The Academy award winning movie, “Moonlight”, presents a mesmerising look at how identity is shaped by our relationships and the stories that inhabit these relationships. In one of the central scenes of the movie, the young Little (main character) and Juan (a “father figure” type character) sit together on the beach in the moonlight. Juan shares the story of how, as he was running around as a young boy in the moonlight, a lady called out at him and said, “In moonlight black boys look blue…” She continued to say, “You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: Blue.” Little then asks Juan, “So, is your name Blue?” Juan laughs and says, “Nah…At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Some have said that identity is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves – stories about who we are, why we are and how we are; and the stories we tell ourselves about “others”. The stories we belief about ourselves, the stories we belief about “others” define our identities. And as Juan rightfully stated, we so easily fall into the trap of letting others determine or dictate who we are and who we become. We can be held captive by the stories we believe. Not only this, we can fall into the trap of defining the identity of others by very narrow or restricted, stereotypical, prejudiced stories and use these narratives to justify our exclusion of the person, the group or the community from our lives (for instance believing the story that we should ignore people who beg for money because it will just reinforce them making a public nuisance of themselves and how this leads us to justify looking the other way or crossing the road rather than facing the person begging on the street). We use these stories to deny certain human beings or groups the space in our lives to create their own story in us.

We need to pay attention and question the stories we have been told by our families, the media, our communities, our neighbourhood watch groups and the humour and jokes we share around the dinner table. We need to be curious about the stories of the “other”. We need to be willing to engage critically with these stories. We need to ask questions about who the main story tellers in our lives are and why we are giving them space to tell stories in and of our lives.

We so often accept stories without question, without realising how deceptive these stories can be. We need to understand how comfort and empire can numb us to this process. We need to understand how our historical and social context – and in particular our geographical context – our presence, where, how we are present – shape our stories.

I can share many stories about how my geographical context – where, how and why I lived in certain locations – have shaped the stories I believed about myself and others, but most recently (around 2015), my husband and I realised that as two Afrikaans-speaking professionals who have lived a very comfortable existence in suburbia all our lives, we have come to the point of realising that the reality of where we lived – our geographical positioning in this country – amongst other things, lead to the exclusion of so many other South Africans and their stories (and so also even some of our own stories) from our lives.

We lived with unquestioned stories, or built stories about people and contexts based on what we assumed we knew (but did not actually have a clue about!) Not knowing those we considered “the others”, not knowing our history well enough, not understanding what life is like for so many other people in our country and fearing “otherness” sustained our isolated, ignorant and comfortable little bubble of existence. Towards the end of 2015, we it became clear to us that God called us to interrupt this. So we moved from wealthy, spacious suburbia, into uncomfortable, crowded, vibrant CBD.

It is through this geographical move and subsequent authentic “encounters” with “the others” or the marginalised of society that we are slowly being liberated from the captivity of the stories that are perpetuating so much of the oppression we see in our world. Slowly the stories about ourselves and about people found rootedness in empathy, love and generosity, rather than blame, fear, competition and scarcity.

It was in attending a feesmustfall vigil that my fear for crowds of young black students made space for stories of courageous human beings and revealed to me the urgent need for justice in our educational system.
It was in touching “the homeless and the beggars” that the label “nuisance” was erased to make space for human beings navigating the complexities of their struggle and the trauma of their daily lives, and came to see how they are God’s voice ministering to me and prophesying to the church.
It was in encountering young people at an open, unstructured night of worship and lament that I heard stories of human beings hurting and not just being “rebellious”, that once again brought me face to face with the reality of my own stories of shame as an “Afrikaner”. We all left a little more human and a lot more certain of God’s redemptive love for us that night.

These are three stories amongst many. With each of these encounters I felt that I was becoming more human. With many of these encounters I realised the particular power that exists in being open and vulnerable. Being present with and listening to the stories of people whom we have not before had authentic encounters with brings us to slowly question, dismantle and rewrite the “us” and “them” narratives to stories about who we really are in relation to each other and who we can become together.

Jean Vanier says that our identity can be a fountain or a prison. It can keep us captive to a certain story about who we are and who others are, or it can be a fountain that brings life.
When we hold ourselves or others captive to stories, we oppress. Wrestling with identities in a way that brings life – like a fountain – means that we are participating in justice for us all.

Ruth Haley Barton wrote a prayer that resonated on a very deep level with my experience over the past year of living in the city. The poem begins with “Oh God, who I am now?” and ends with this phrase, “Help me find myself as I walk in others’ shoes.” I belief that when we faithfully wrestle with our complex multilayered identities it requires an act of self-giving. It requires vulnerability as we take off our own shoes – our own assumptions, our own points of view, and a courageous consistent presence, a faithfulness, a commitment and curiosity to step into and walk in the shoes of another. (Knowing that we put our own shoes back on we will not walk in the same way again.)

But how do we come to this place of willingness to be vulnerable? Where do we get the courage? What can move us from fear and isolation to courage and presence? How do we stay present to this place of authentic wrestling with our identities together…? Exactly where the poem by Ruth Haley Barton starts, “Oh God, who am I now”: a faithful working out of identities need to be situated in the presence of God’s story about us – we need to situate ourselves in the story of all stories – the story of how loved we are. We can only come to a place of liberating our identities in the presence of the most true story about us – this is the story that sets us free from the prisons we live in and the walls we can build.

Walter Brueggemann in one of his Prayers for Privileged People writes the following about this space before God,

“Do your mysterious, majestic God-ing
with our hearts
reclaim
renew
re-enlived
that we may leave your presence
transplanted,
transformed,
transposed,
become by your attentiveness who we
have not yet embraced,
open and receptive,
honest and undefensive,
unafraid and committed to obedience.”

In the presence of God – when we lean into God’s attentiveness (the attentiveness of his love) – we become open, receptive, honest, undefensive, unafraid. In this place our identities are shaped not only through understanding what is truth and deception, but our identities can transplanted, transformed, transposed. It becomes fountains and opens up a whole new realm of possibility in which we can imagine a whole new way of being human together…”

Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 3

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Apparently, in the days when the Dutch Reformed Church finally declared Apartheid a heresy – stating that any teaching supporting or defending this ideology would have to be regarded as heretical (in other words in conflict with the teaching of the Bible), the following question was asked of the moderator of the general synod, “What makes you so sure you are right about your interpretation of the Scriptures this time?”

Dr Coenie Burger, in a later speech admitted that, “The first mistake the DRC made was to think it could read and understand the Bible on its own.”

This was one of the stories René August shared at the deep dive session (navigated very intelligently and sensibly by René and Cobus (van Wyngaard), “Decolonising the text” and it highlighted so poignantly how reading Scripture in isolation is such a dangerous exercise – one that very often places at risk the marginalised in our society. When reading and interpreting our Christian text, the Bible, we need to ask questions such as,
“Who does our interpretation of the text serve?”
“Who benefits from reading the Scripture with this particular lens?”
“Does it validate our power and privilege or challenge it?”
“Does it serve our agendas or challenge it?”
(may I dare to add, “Does it validate our understanding of God or challenge it?”)
And there is no better way of revealing the answers to these questions than reading the text in community with a diversity of voices lead by the Spirit of God.

In other words, according to Rene and Cobus, decolonizing the text is a posture: A posture in which we commit ourselves to read our sacred text with others who are different from us – to say that, “In order for me to understand the depths of this sacred text, I need you – people who are different from me”. As we come to certain conclusions reading the Scripture with our particular lens (read more about this in my previous post), we hold these conclusions lightly and allow them to be in conversation with each other as we open ourselves to the Spirit to reveal, to remind and to teach us as we do this together.

I feel deeply challenged after this session to be more intentional about reading our text, our Bible, with people who are different from me. I have done this by reading interpretations of the text by a diversity of scholars and authors, but not as much in real life face-to-face conversational ways. A while ago I participated in a group lectio divina on Philippians 2 with people from one of our congregations. This was an incredibly moving experience for me personally, but I think we all (or most of us at least) left feeling challenged or enriched and touched by the Spirit of God.

How will you create space in your life to read the Bible with people who are different from you? Or perhaps if you have been doing this regularly, please share your ideas and experiences!

Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 2

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We often miss things that happen right in front of our eyes. Instead, we see only the thing we pay attention to. If you have the privilege of visiting game reserves, I am sure this kind of thing has happened to you. You are so focused on seeing the big rhino on the side of the road, that you miss the leopard quietly crossing the road right in front of you. The selective attention test is a good example of how – in paying attention to certain details – we may miss out on other things that are happening right in front of our eyes.

In the first plenary session of the Justice Conference“What does Jesus have to do with justice?”, René August made this thought-provoking statement, “What we see is not what we are looking at, but what we are looking with.”

We have to acknowledge that there is no objective or neutral position when we come to read the Bible or understand Jesus. Where we live, how we live, our personal history, our socio-political context, our educational background, amongst many other things, are “what we are looking with”. This colours our reading of the Bible and our understanding of Jesus.*

René encouraged us to remember that viewing Jesus with a particular lens and coming to certain conclusions does not necessarily have to nullify the understanding of Jesus reached by viewing his life through a different pair of lenses – rather we should allow these different ideas to converse with and challenge each other in order to deepen our understanding of Jesus. (It is no coincidence that the Bible includes four gospels – four lenses – about the life of Jesus).

Historically, in my church context, we have viewed the life of Jesus through many different lenses: the “son of the Father”, the “miracle worker”, “the forgiver of sins”, our “substitute on the cross”, the “victorious one”, but rarely have we paid attention to what is right in front of our eyes: Jesus was born into a highly politicised context as Messiah – a political term that means “liberator”. In today’s world, as René pointed out, the story could have read something like, “Jesus was born in a time of ISIS in Syria”. How would people living in Syria hear the story that a “liberator” has been born – someone who would bring good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed?

I would love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to engage with this post on Facebook or Twitter and include others in the conversation.

 
*One way in which this becomes really evident is how often our understanding of Jesus seems to be a bigger better version of ourselves – a super version of who we are and what we believe.

(If you missed Part 1 of this series, you can read it here)

Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 1

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I decided to write a series of notes and reflections about the Justice Conference (17-18 March 2017). The conference provided the space for fantastic conversations, here was so much depth to what the contributors shared and so many unforgettable thought-provoking moments, that I feel it would be selfish not to share this with friends and family who didn’t attend (and if you didn’t, you really missed out BIG time #justsaying…)

I was disappointed to be honest, by the absence of influential church leaders from Durban (where I live), but so encouraged to hear that there were influential leaders from other churches in other cities who have not always engaged with issues of justice.

These posts will also be a way for me to reflect on what I heard and experienced at the conference and invite the readers, including all the wise and smart people I met in Cape Town, to share their views and opinions.

If you have not yet heard about The Justice Conference, I encourage you to check out their website for more information and follow them on Facebook for other posts, video’s and media from the conference.

One further note for those who will be reading these posts. Craig Stewart, director of The Warehouse* in Cape Town, made such a good point during one of our sessions: We often and easily sense the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and lives when we feel good, happy and excited about something, but we also need to be attentive to the voice and guidance of the Spirit when we feel offended, uncomfortable and disoriented. So, I will ask you, if you read anything in my notes and reflections that leaves you feeling offended, uncomfortable and not as sure about everything as you used to be, keep an open heart and mind to what the Spirit is saying and leading you into in those moments.

 

*I am completely blown away by The Warehouse team members I had the privilege of meeting at the conference and the amazing ways in which they serve the church…so be sure to check out their website. I hope to write more about them in future posts!