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

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!

Embracing Change…

I am not good with change. I get bored when things stay the same for too long. I take delight in innovation. I believe change is good for us. And yet I cannot say that I willingly embrace change.

So with rather significant changes in my work environment and a “big move” coming up at the end of this month (I hope to reveal more about this in future posts), I am feeling a little flustered these days and in need again (as always) of deeply connecting to the One who calls me His beloved child. One of my great allies in pursuing this connection is prolific author and humble priest, Henri Nouwen. I quote from his book, “Intimacy, Fecundity and Ecstacy”:

“For us to dare to live a life in which we continue to move out of the static places and take trusting steps in new directions – that is what faith is about. The Greek word for faith means to trust – to trust that the ground before you that you never walked on is safe ground, God’s ground, holy ground. 

Walk and don’t be afraid. Don’t want to have it all charted out for you. Let it happen. Let something new grow. That is the walk of faith – walking with the Lord, always walking away from the familiar places. “Leave your father, leave your mother, leave your brother, leave your sister. Follow me. I am the Lord of love.” And wherever there is love, fear will be wiped out. “Perfect love casts out all fear.”

You can go out and you will live. You will live eternally because Jesus is the Lord of life. That is the ecstasy. You can start participating in it every time you step out of your fear and out of the sameness. It doesn’t require big jumps, but simply small steps. 

Do you choose life? Or are you choosing death,that fearful place where you hang on to what you are most familiar with. Ecstatic living, real joy, is precisely connected with stepping onto unknown ground, trusting that you are in safe hands.”

What are you called to leave and step away from in small simple trusting steps in 2016? 

The Forgotten Act of Faith-filled, Imaginative Living

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A morning devotional I read recently prompted the reader to “switch off the car radio while driving, look around and notice where things are not the way they are supposed to be. Then pray and ask the Lord what He would want to become a reality there.” To see the situation with God’s eyes – imagining what it would be like if His dream for the earth became a reality. As I left home that morning, I expected that I would probably see what I have seen so many times before – homeless people scratching in other people’s refuse bags for food and stuff to salvage (that certainly isn’t the ways things are supposed to be) or pollution or potholes. But this particular morning and less than a minute after I left home, I saw it. I noticed: high walls, electrified fences. Many of them. Everywhere.

Homes and streets are supposed to be places were we dwell. Nowadays it has become places where we hide, turn in upon ourselves, while we desperately search for other places to dwell in such as shopping malls and coffee shops and restaurants. No longer do we dwell and spend time in the ‘hood serving and living with our neighbours, we try to make a life and find enjoyment by joining the anonymous masses running on the same treadmill that keeps the monstrous wheel of consumerism and individualism going.

I listened to a sermon by Walter Brueggeman recently where he challenged Christians to imagine what life could be like if we had to shape our lives according to our faith, and not according to our fears. He said that societal structures are set up in a way that reinforces fear. And people who are afraid have no energy. We fear danger, we fear not belonging, we fear not having, we fear not being secure, we fear “our stuff” to be taken away from us – and how has that shaped our lives? High walls, electric fences. Our homes and neighbourhoods now resemble our fears, not our faith.

I have a memory of driving through Phoenix, (a residential area close to our own and one of the largest Indian communities in South Africa) and looking at the fences around their homes. It was quite clear that the majority of these fences were erected some time after the homes were built. And I wondered what life was like in Phoenix before the walls, before the fences. I could imagine neighbours chatting to each other from their gardens, the smell of curries in the air, kids playing cricket across neighbouring lawns. I started imagining what my (lack-of-)community / neighbourhood could look like if the way we lived was shaped by our faith and not by our fears. If we could really dwell again in our neighbourhoods…

I have a dream. I dream of buying a simple house with a big fence and a huge open porch. And when we move in we will invite all our friends and all the neighbours to come to our “break-down-the-high-wall-and-take-down-the-electric-fence” party. And as it goes down we will shout, “Hurray!”. And we will give people sandwiches and we open our arms in embrace and tell them that they are welcome. People are hungry for welcome*. And we will invite them to pop in and have coffee with us on the porch as we dream together. I imagine living boldly amidst crime in a violent society and vulnerably and openly in culture urging us to keep ourselves private and separate. I imagine planting herb gardens where neighbours and friends can help themselves; vegetables and fruits for beggars. those who are hungry and yes, the monkeys too.

I imagine a city where kids are safe to walk to school or a friend’s house. Where people cycle to work with a smile and wave at each other (rather than rush to work in their racing cars and glare/swear at each other). I imagine communal vegetable gardens and green areas becoming well maintained and safe again packed with picnicking families, playing kids and runners alike.

Our own wellness is locked up in the peace and wellness of our city. Eugene Peterson says that there is an indissoluble connection between geography and spirituality.

Let us dream again about life. Let us live again by faith.

Isaiah 58:12 (ESV):
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Let us be repairers of what is broken. Let us be restorers of streets and neighbourhoods and cities.

Holy Spirit living breath of God
Breathe new life into our souls and the places we inhabit**
Give us dreams and imaginative visions.
Give us faith for what we cannot see.
Give us boldness to break down walls.
Give us wisdom in bringing restoration.
Amen.

*Phrase from Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl

**Phrase adapted from Keith and Christy Getty’s song, Holy Spirit