Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 6

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We all have a theology. Whether we are aware of it or not, our ways of thinking about and understanding God shapes our relationships with other people and the world around us. Towards the end of the Justice Conference Day 1, we had the privilege of listening to a diverse panel of pastors and theologians speaking about theologies that have rooted or maintained injustice in the world. “Our theologies matter”, said Cobus van Wyngaard. In other words, it is very necessary for us to pay attention that what, why and how we believe. It is always easier in hindsight to identify problematic theologies, so there is an urgent need for us to look at our theologies right now with open hearts and minds, and ask ourselves, “In which ways do our beliefs and understanding of God, the church and the world sustain (or even construct) injustices?”

Here is a very brief, very much simplified, reflection on and summary of some of the highlights of this session (I have listed the contributors below – their contributions have been collated here so I am not able to reference them specifically and individually):

1. “Getaway” Theologies: Theologies are at risk to sustain and construct injustice when it grants us a way of escaping the pain and suffering of this world
– by promising us a ticket to heaven when we die;
– by allowing us disengage from the world around us, because of the hope of being raptured before the earth goes “up in flames”;
– or by telling us that we will never have to suffer;
– or if our theology permits us to think about God, construct beliefs about God and live these beliefs without ever having to engage at a deep level with and be challenged by those who are marginalised in our society.

2. “Immune” Theologies: Theologies are at risk to sustain and create injustice when we are not allowed or encouraged to engage critically with what we believe and how we live – here are some examples:
– when our theologies suppress our questions about the nature of God, who we consider to be the children of God, who we consider “worthy” of contributing to or disrupting our beliefs
– when we are not allowed or encouraged to question the “way things are” or the “what things are being done” (status quo) and how our theology relates to sustaining the status quo and why;
– when our theology do not permit us to question the ways in which it relates to our own self-preservation and the preservation of what we value, own and benefit from and how this may contribute to the exploitation and oppression of others in the world;
– if our theology does not move us toward open, honest and challenging conversations or a willingness to question, and even uproot, our views and assumptions or allows us to always be absolutely certain of everything.

3. “Cerebral” Theologies: Theologies are at risk to sustain or create injustice when we reduce christianity to mere “right thinking” with no implications for the way in which we live. If our theology allows us to just make a few “mental adjustments” without posing radical challenges to the way we live in this world, it may position us to contribute to the injustices of the world around us.

This is by no means a comprehensive summary of the session, so please engage with this post and let us know what you heard and how you have been inspired or challenged?

Facilitator: René August
Contributors:
Marlyn Faure
Nadine Bowers du Toit
Alexia Salvatierra
Nathan Mbuyazi
Legato Kobe
Cobus van Wyngaard

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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!

Stories about Giving

 

givingA few months ago, I heard a man say that if someone asks you for financial or material help, you have been placed on their path for a reason and need to render assistance. I can remember thinking to myself that he obviously had not spend a lot of time in poverty-stricken areas (like a eyes rolling emoji you know…gosh, how judgemental and self-righteous of me).

As you may know, our God has a sense of humour and quickly made me aware of my self-righteousness…I started recounting how often I rationalised not giving money to people. I have been “programmed” by people around me and the media I have consumed, “Don’t give money to beggars, they will just spend it on drugs or cigarettes.” Or “Don’t give something to a child on the street, it will just enable them to stay on the street for longer.” There may be some truth to this, but how in the world did I get to the point of thinking that I am actually the expert of people’s lives, being able to judge their character, their history and their story? (Shame on me emoji)

So I felt challenged to, for a period of time, give whatever is asked of me. I gave what I had regardless of when, where or who asked or the merit of what was being asked. I gave food, take-away foods, coins, a somewhat bigger amount to a single mom in need, taxi money, shelter money. I realised that the “experiment” was helping me become more patient and open to the humanity of people – in other words, my openness to give, has enabled me to see the humanity of the person asking something of me. (I think that when we give rather than withhold we experience the divine “flow” of God through us. Life flows when we give rather than withhold.)

One day I was having a conversation with a woman on the street, let’s call her Jo. She often asked me for coins, but I neglected spending time with her, so that time I stopped and talked to her. As we were talking and I was scratching in my wallet for coins, a man, let’s call him Bruce, came up and interrupted us. I have chatted to Bruce before. I knew that he sometimes acted a bit obnoxiously. So I asked him to hang on a second while I finish my conversation with Jo. He seemed a bit impatient and after I gave Jo some coins, he could not contain himself any longer and blurted, “I want to ask you something that is going to sound impossible, but with Jesus all things are possible!”. I said, “Yes Bruce, what do you want to ask me?” and he said, “I want your belt”. I laughed and asked why in the world he wanted my belt. He lifted up his shirt and showed us that his pants were falling down because he had lost so much weight and said that with the recent rains it got really wet and started sagging down even further (Jo’s eyes were as big as dinner plates at this point). So I said, “Of course you can have my belt Bruce!”. I took off my belt and gave it to him. This did not seem to have surprised him (maybe it was his faith!?) and he proceeded to put the belt on. Jo, on the other hand, could not believe what had happened. As I left the interaction, I chuckled thinking that our God certainly has a sense of humour.

In my thinking and praying about giving and generosity, I became aware of how often I considered myself “generous” without my giving actually reaching the point of being sacrificial. I realised (after a conversation with my clever friend Kayley) how many of us hardly ever give in a way that really costs us something. We live in a world that seats on the “heroes stage of generosity” the rich and famous who give enormous amounts of money without having to adjust their lifestyle or sacrifice anything of significance (or be transparent about the means in which they have acquired their wealth). We live in a world that has forgotten about the gogo who spend her whole pension on sustaining her grandkids or the daughter who lives in the city and sends money home every month, while her friends get to shop for clothes and buy cars. I know many people who give all the time – to their families, and people in their communities – not millions or even thousands, but relative to their income, hugely sacrificial amounts of money. Yet, the spotlight of honour for generosity never shines upon them. We live in a world where we expect others to be “as generous as we are” without realising that many of the people we are talking about are in fact way more generous than we have ever thought of being.

So, what is generosity? Despite the narratives of the world we live in, I am not convinced that generosity has much to do with the amount we are giving. Generosity is defined by the heart and the sacrifice involved in our giving.

Last week, a young boy living on the streets was standing outside a shop asking people to buy him items of food. I walked past him and stopped to make conversation. He asked me to buy him bread, milk and peanut butter. At that very moment a man handed him milk and bread without saying anything. So as per my “experiment”, I went into the store with the idea to get him a jar of peanut butter. Someone came into the shop telling me that the boy just told him that nobody has given him anything yet the whole day (even though he watched from the car as he was given the bread and milk).

I got the boy the peanut butter even though I knew he was lying and deceiving people. This was not the first time it had happened since I started the “experiment”. Giving with a cheerful heart when you know you are being deceived has been the most challenging giving I have had to do. Giving to the “undeserving” felt like a such an unwise thing to do. I was mocked and even scolded number of times for doing this during my “experiment”. How foolish I felt…

But it was this foolishness that defined Jesus’ giving, wasn’t it? He died for the sake of the world with no guarantees that we would be grateful, responsible stewards of what we received from him. Still he gave himself. Dorothy Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” And that is the foolish beauty of giving.

What I learned (so far) – Part 1: Beyond Walls

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I don’t know about you, but my understanding of how to respond to people who live on the streets, those who are begging, and taking showers in public spaces has for a long time been something along these lines: “Never give them money because then you just enable them to stay on the streets for longer and never get to the point of sorting out their lives” or “Never give them money, because they do not know how to spend money and will probably just buy drugs”. I have even heard and read advice like, “If they are trying to be a car guard or wash your car, do not give them money, this will just reinforce their presence and the fact that they are making a nuisance of themselves.”

Moving into and living in the city centre translates to daily contact with some of the almost 4000 homeless people making a living on the streets of Durban.* We stand in the same queues, share parks, pavements and public spaces and sit next to each other in church.

I can remember struggling when we first moved here with debilitating guilt about what we had the choice of eating every day and what we had access to in comparison with the people I encountered on the streets. But I knew I needed to act from a place of conviction and not guilt. Love, not shame or fear.

I decided to make a point of, at the very least, treating people living on the streets or in shelters as human beings. You would think that this would have been obvious (being a Christian for so many years and all), but how easy it is to justify our behaviour when we treat people as a nuisance, turn the other way, or ignore them when they call out to us. So, I decided, instead of turning the other way or allowing myself to get irritated, I will make eye contact, I will introduce myself and I will ask their names. I will touch them when appropriate, I will stand still and pay attention to what they are sharing with me. I will listen to their story and ask questions. I will place myself in their shoes. I will be honest in my response. This is what I have tried to do ever since. Sometimes I have done well and other times I have failed miserably.

Living on the streets, can be horrendously dehumanising.** Human beings are reduced to “threats”, “nuisances” or “commodities”. Relating to others can be reduced to defending, hustling, begging or fighting. The amazing thing is that when you treat people like human beings you awaken their humanity. You affirm their dignity. When you relate to “homeless” people in genuinely human ways, you discover that they are not simply a homogenous “horde”, but that they are Danielle, Barry, Anesh, Angie and Anele, diverse individuals, with life stories and emotions. You come to see a person and not simply a problem.

But I want to take this notion one step further:

A while ago, I heard Pete Rollins (in an interview with Rob Bell***) share this eye-opening remark:
“We put the “problems” in our society behind walls, or we cut them off. We think if we only get rid of certain people everything will be fine…We think if we go to the homeless, “I am good news to the homeless”, but what if they’re “good news” to us? Because they tell us that there is a problem in our social body that we are not looking at. So if we really want to be “converted” as a society, we have to go to the most oppressed people in our community, let them speak to us as prophets, showing us the problems that exist within our community so that we can be converted, transformed and society can improve.”

I believe that this is not only true on a societal level, but also an individual, personal level. In other words, when I treat a person living in the streets or in a shelter with dignity – as a human being – not only do I awaken our common humanity, but this presents me with the opportunity to regain my own humanity. The interaction humanises me too. We so often pride ourselves in “giving” to the poor or “reaching out” to the homeless (or any marginalised group for that matter), that we may be blind to the reality we, in fact, need their presence in our lives to help us relearn what it means to be human.

Those who have forgotten the poor, disabled and marginalised in their city, have forgotten what it means to be human.

In the face of a person who lives on the streets of our city, I am confronted with my own hidden greed, my own ignorance, the ways in which I have been justifying my feelings of superiority. I am confronted with the ways in which I have accepted being less of a human being and the ways in which I am dehumanising others around me – whether directly, by the way in which I relate to them, or indirectly, through my support of societal systems that are unjust or corrupt.

And in the face of Barry, Angie, Anesh, Anele, Danielle, I see God revealing my own hidden idolatries and calling me to be human again.

 

Notes:

*My friend Robyn sent me the final report regarding a very helpful study on homelessness that was conducted in Durban in February this year (Ikhaya Lami: Homelessness in Durban; Submitted to Safer Cities Unit, eThekwini Municipality, Submitted by: Human and Social Development Programme, HSRC, June 2016, Revised October 2016). The study debunked so many stereotypes and assumptions that we may have about people who live on the streets and shelters in our city. Inbox me and I will send it to you.

**“ From the study mentioned above: “…the participants’ accounts were replete with references to the desire of being treated like “human beings”. Seltser and Miller (1993, p. 93) assert “being homeless threatens the essential dignity of human beings, undermining or often destroying their ability to be seen, and to see themselves as worthwhile persons”. This disrespect and lack of dignity could very well be one of the key factors that contributed to the high rates of distress reported above. Amongst people who are homeless, Miller & Keys (2001) found that being treated with dignity contributed to an increase in self-worth and self-sufficiency and motivated their participants to exit homelessness. On the other hand, treatment without dignity was associated with symptoms of depression and feelings of anger and worthlessness.”

***This interview is part of a series of 4 podcasts (or Robcasts) that I highly recommend to anyone who is open to ask questions about who God is and how we think and talk about God

Everything has changed

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In February this year we moved from our spacious, secure three bedroom simplex in Durban North to a bachelors flat in the Durban City Centre. We made the move for many reasons but mainly because we felt the need to listen to and learn from people who are very different from us, and especially those who are marginalised by our society.

After the initial adjustment period, it felt that although much has changed, in many ways nothing had changed either… That feeling very quickly vanished into thin air! Looking back over this year, we both came to the point of no longer being able to deny the fact that EVERYTHING has changed…

We came to listen and learn… and our world has been turned upside down by what we have heard, seen and discovered. A conversion.

So as we near the end of 2016, I thought it might be a worthwhile pursuit to blog about some of our learnings and the “conversion” process – firstly, because I would love to hear your comments, questions, thoughts and feelings, and secondly, because I hope it may be helpful to you.

In the next couple of weeks I would like to share my experiences, what I have learned (so far) and discovered on issues like generosity, homelessness, the church in South Africa, violence, loving our country, and exclusion, diversity and reconciliation.

Please stay tuned! 🙂

A Story I Lived By…

My mom came home that day trembling and crying. At the time I was in primary school and she was working at the Free State Technicon (now known as CUT). She explained that she witnessed a mob of students viciously attacking another student in her office (both the mob and the victim were black students, this is important in the light of the rest of my post). They were jumping over desks and shouting as they were chasing the victim, and at one point the victim was so petrified of the mob that he lost control of his bladder. Hearing about the violence and humiliation she witnessed was, for me, a young white girl who had grown up in a very protected environment, similar to what psychologists would experience as vicarious traumatisation. Something changed inside of me and somehow, without my mom interpreting the event or making any judgments about the event, and without any conscious effort on my side, a belief was born in me on that day: “Groups of young black students are angry and dangerous. Better to stay away from them as much as possible.” 

The belief may seem illogical. Why was the belief shaped around the “mob” not shaped around the victim? Why was the narrative shaped around fear and not around sympathy for victims? I don’t really now the answer, but I do know that (without my parents ever saying anything of the sorts) I grew up somehow believing that black people are dangerous. It is just something that was there, without ever knowing where exactly the idea was birthed. And so shaping another belief in this direction was probably just a matter of following the same train of thought.

(I think many white South Africans live with this belief, whether we are aware of it or not – “Die Swart Gevaar” legacy of the Apartheid years still needing to be put to death…)

So this belief became a narrative, which in very subtle but powerful ways penetrated the way I lived my life: I went to university and because I studied undergrad in Afrikaans and found myself in smaller classes post grad, I had limited encounters with students of other race groups and never was exposed to groups of black students during my years at university. My only “exposure” to black groups of students was from mass media which portrayed black students to a very large extent in ways that confirmed my biased understanding.* Whenever there might have been information to the contrary, I am very sure that I would have not paid much attention to this because of the selective type of thinking known as confirmation bias.** So the narrative continued to exist…“Black groups of young people are dangerous. Avoid them. Have as little as possible to do with them…”

And so I fell in the trap of what Chimananda Aldichie calls, “The Danger of a Single Story”. I have blogged about this before, but she states that when we let a single story drive our defining perception of a certain person, group or situation it creates stereotypes and “the problem with stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story.” The consequence of believing such “single stories” about others “is that it robs people of their dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different, rather than how we are similar.”

I believed a single story about young black people. My belief robbed them of their dignity and humanity. My belief prevented me from responding to brokenness in our society with justice (which is love on a public platform). My belief enabled me to ignore or judge protests and strikes without really knowing or understanding what was going on.

By the grace of God, for the past 18 months, I have found myself in situations were I have been able to sit and listen to stories of young black people. These stories have moved me deeply and have done much to restore their humanity in my broken thinking. I have been privileged to build honest relationships with black young people who have taught me so much about life, about South Africa, about the brokenness of our country, about what it means to be human and Christian, that I would have never understood if I only held to the single story.

With all of this being said, and in the light of the current #feesmustfall protests in our country, can I urge you not to limit your beliefs about this movement to only “a dangerous mob of angry destructive students”? Can I challenge you to rehumanise the movement by understanding it’s complexity? Can I challenge you to not only consume mass media on the topic? Can I challenge you to build at least one deep and genuine relationship with a person who has been protesting…? You may just find that they are protesting for the liberation of all of our humanity. As Desmond Tutu said, “All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.”  

*Strange how mass media, even now, tells us very few stories of the many peaceful protests by groups of black young people in our country.

**Confirmation bias according to Wikipedia is: the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”