Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Truce of God 3: “Illusions of Peace”

The "illusions of peace" Williams speaks of concern peace either as escape from engagement with the other, or as an equilibrium which fears real engagement lest war break out. The former is typified in the hippie movement of the sixties; the latter by the nuclear detente ensured by the Cold War. In both cases the casualty is language, which ceases to be communication woven into genuine human exchange (where those involved give and receive, thereby opening and expanding their horizons) and becomes slogan. When pursuing peace becomes repetition of catchphrases (“All we are saying, is give peace a chance”) or bureaucratic doublespeak ("destroying the village in order to save it"), discourse has shut down. We live in “unreality”, which for Williams means to live in privacy, in an “impregnable castle of cliche and repetition” (53).

The legacy of lost discourse remains with us in a post-Cold War world, perhaps captured in a common mistake my students make when they write "pacifism" as "passive-ism". Peace means maintaining the status quo, refusing to act with a decisiveness that challenges the grain of society, or that places the self at risk. And so Williams writes of “a miserable link between militarized politics, consumer society, the corruption and decline of the arts, and the cheapening and trivializing of language—in politics, journalism, advertising, and worship.” (55)

Against peace as "intensified withdrawal", Williams offers a surprising counter: the cloister. Not the romanticized cloister of popular fiction and singing nuns, but rather the cloister that “abandons privacy for a solitude which forces people to confront their fear and evasiveness and so equips them for involvement by a stripping down of the will.… having shed the impulses to self-protection and self-gratification which limit and distort its horizon.” (63) Williams recounts a story from Dom Hubert van Zeller: “a North Welsh convent where the garden gate had at some point in its chequered career been reversed—so that the side facing inwards now read ‘Private’ in large letters. The cloister was being warned to keep its distance from the privacy of the world.” (63) The point is that the world is a place of “isolated existence, fear of facing the cost of decision and involvement—haunted by the fantasy of ‘peace’.

The church faces its own temptations to withdrawal. Even the self-consciously prophetic church, can become “an impregnable castle” when its social engagement manifests a fondness for generalized denunciations”, launching missives from a comfortable distance (64). It will take distance from the world, but from “the tight huddle of fear, where people cling together to feed each other’s fantasies”, from “the decayed and corrupting language of self-justifying and self-perpetuating cliques”, and from “the manipulations and distortions of a self incapable of opening up to others.” (64)

Returning to the cloister, the three classic monastic practices: solitude, silence, and contemplation are necessary to create space for new patterns of community, speech, and action (65). This is indeed a kind of death, but one that “redraws the boundaries” of what a genuinely human life is: a life conformed to the pattern revealed in Jesus (65).

I’m put in mind of two rather extreme figures: Paul Tillich, who once said that the best thing the church of his day [1950s America] could do would be to renounce speech for a time, and Sting, who penned the immortal lines
poets, priests and politicians / have words to thank for their positions / words that scream for your submission / no-one’s jamming their transmission / when their eloquence escapes you / their logic ties you up and rapes you / da do do do, de da da da / is all I want to say to you.
OK, so repeating nonsense syllables to the powers that be is not exactly responsible protest politics, and the line
[words] are only cheques I’ve left unsigned / from the banks of chaos in my mind
is a little two nihlistic for my tastes. (Williams has an interesting paragraph in which he, via Thomas Merton, speculates on the pervasiveness of “speaking in tongues” amongst conservatives at times of social crisis that may well echo Sting’s sentiments here (54–55).) What is one to do “when language takes a holiday”? Perhaps silence is better than speaking. And silence can be its own eloquent protest—I’m thinking of the refusal of Bishop Barnabas Legkanyane at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997—interrupting discourses that are so “word heavy” that they risk falling into the kind of ideology Williams warns against.

Silence as a way of non-violent protest, and as clearing space for the renewal of discourse, is an interesting idea. What kind of liturgical shape would such silence take? How would we worship without words? And what then would be the shape of "the peace of Christ" that we'd exchange? For that, we have to wait for the next chapter, entitled "Not as the World Gives."

The Truce of God 2: “The Truce of God”

“The truce of God” was instituted by the Cluny monastery in medieval times. It sought to restrict the fighting amongst Christians to three days per week. Sound ridiculous? Well, that’s the point: Christians taking communion and then turning and fighting each other is ridiculous (25). “When King Henry II refused to give the kiss of peace at Mass to Thomas Beckett, he was a better theologian than he knew. He recognized that giving the kiss would not only suggest he was at peace with Thomas (which he was not), but would also commit him to seeking peace (which he did not want to do).” (26)

The suspension of hostilities is something that goes beyond governing Christians’ relations with Christians, however. For the call of God is extended to all humanity, and thus the church doesn’t know where its ultimate boundaries will lie. “The Church proclaims that there is one human destiny and that is found in relation to one focal figure, Jesus; but also that what this human destiny means cannot be worked out without ‘communion’, a relation of costly and profound involvement with each other and receiving from each other.” (27) Hence the church lives to unsettle [by its very nature], living in “creative dissatisfaction” as “a compelling symbol of a humanity able to live by sharing and by loving, reverent mutual attention” (29). And hence the church, as sacrament of common human destiny, is catholic. “It strives to show and interpret and share the gifts of one person or group or nation, offering them to all; and to each, it offers the resources of all.” (31) The church represents that future “given coherence by Jesus, in which each human partner in communion has a distinct and unrepeatable gift to share, and cannot therefore be ignored or discounted.” (39)

It is this which opposes, in political policy, any situation of “balance of terror”, that “the welfare of some may rightly be secured by the dispensability of others.” (38) Williams develops this by looking at the price paid by the world (especially Africa and Latin America, for the “peace” brought to the West through nuclear détente, the MADness of mutually assured destruction. The sixties and seventies should have been the decades of development and responsible government for newly de-colonized Africa, for instance. Instead, Africa became a site where the conflict of East and West was displaced in endless, bloody local conflicts (37).

How does the church bear witness to this future? Through [a good Williams word] “attentiveness”, [be]holding the other in contemplation. This is a theologically rooted and ethically directed contemplation. Contemplation is what is owed to God, and to other creatures: to God “because he is inexhaustibly what he is, resisting capture and analysis, always more, always further” (39); to creatures [which bear witness to God] which take us beyond the power of the ego to control through “rendering”, and which cannot be reduced to “our plans, projects and expectations” (39). That which is not reducible to human control bears witness to the Transcendent.

But contemplation is also God’s way with creation. “Creation is there because of the limitless capacity of God for contemplation—allowing the other to be, and engaging with the other, shaping a common story of God and the world, a shared ‘drama’.” (40) But God does not engage with creation out of need, for God’s love (contemplation) is his nature. And what for God “is nature, for us is destiny, vocation.” We are the image of God the creator, in time, while at the same time we have to grow into this image by living in a creation which “delights and assaults” us in its mystery, and by living in “a world of persons in which we can be invited to love by finding ourselves the objects of love, where we learn contemplative attention as we ourselves are attended to.” (41)

We can, however, also deny creatureliness in “a struggle to remake the world around [the] self”, to refuse the network of mutually supporting relationships (42). Beyond this stands “the privacy of Satan”, “diabolic detachment” (43), and at the limit “the Luciferian impulse to destroy reality for my sake” (42)—or suicide. This satanic “freedom” is actually bondage [a freedom to violate]. God’s freedom “is seen in the creation of bonds and networks of sharing, making a world which he wills, in Jesus and in his Church, to be engaged.” (43) To learn this kind of freedom and to refuse the other requires “the patience of attentive love.” (43)

This is quite a powerful chapter. It reminds me of what attracts me most to Williams: his ability to take essentially Augustinian themes [e.g. the complex relation between contemplatio, caritas and eros] and to present them in [nearly?] un-Platonized ways, but ways also profound for understand the church and the world. He also refuses recourse to political pragmatism or Niebuhrian realism [and if ever there was a case to prove that Reinhold Niebuhr misreads Augustine, it’s in this chapter], choosing instead to interpret the world in the light of its destiny in Christ. “Nuclear peace” [the peace of Mutually Assured Destruction] is wrong because it violates our destiny given in Christ, and makes impossible the kind of life the church is called to bear witness to.

I think one can also read the struggles of the Anglican communion here, as Christians particularly from the global South anathematize their brothers and sisters from the global North, and vice versa. In his response to our Anglican “wars of religion” Williams’ strategy has been to try to do two things [arguably neither particularly well]: (1) hold the different parts of the church together, compelling them to listen to each other (because the catholic vision says each has a gift that the other needs); (2) acknowledge the giftedness of all individual members of the church, especially those silenced (gays in particular). He's been accused of "selling out the cause" by liberals in not pushing through the progressive agenda he championed in the 1990s. I don't think this criticism is fair. His critics also complain that (2) is being sacrificed for the sake of (1). And in this criticism they’re not wrong, in my opinion. Learning “the patience of attentive love” is a [life]long and excruciating [and note well the etymology of that word!] at times difficult process. Is it also exclusionary? Can we learn "the patience of attentive love" in a covenant where an inner, conservative circle is separated from an outer, liberal circle?

That’s the question we can only answer in hindsight as a communion. Living in media res can be a bummer.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Truce of God 1: Fears and Fantasies

This is the first in a series of summary reflections on Rowan Williams' classic The Truce of God. This work was originally written as The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book, 1983 (when Robert Runcie held the See), and was revised in 2005 during +Rowan's early tenure. I'm essentially posting my own notes on each chapter, along with reflections on how the book seems fresh and relevant now, and for the church in South Africa.

The book begins with myriad examples of pop culture's obsession with the “monster” which unleashes violence and chaos on an otherwise innocent world. This monster can take many forms. So we have nature being itself, and humans tempting it (e.g. Jaws), and nature being out-of-control and invading human space (e.g. King Kong). And we have humans: sometimes in the grips of the supernatural (e.g. The Exorcist) or otherwise out-of-control or irrational (e.g. terrorists--both in the news and in the movies), and other times victims of their own technological creativity.

Williams extrapolates from all this the idea that "we" (and he means "we in the west") feel or fear ourselves deeply bereft of agency. We sense we are passive victims of our own power (you just had to go into that water, didn't you?), and that the world "outside" has responded to our power with threat—threat which has forced us against our better nature [because we really do see ourselves as basically peaceful and good] to arm ourselves to the teeth. As Williams comments, “… we are deeply determined to imagine violence as something whose origins lie outside ourselves, so that we can maintain some belief in our innocence. But the price of this is a real uneasiness and confusion about what we can and cannot do, about the nature of our power and freedom.” (Williams:17–18) Hence our fear... and our security gates, razor wire, and "Pasop!" signs.

Behind our fear lies what Williams terms a “sickness of the spirit”. The Gospel diagnoses such sickness, and gives hope through the possibility of repentance and conversion, which means “retriev[ing] the vision of one’s own responsibility, and [learning] to look with critical openness at one’s life and the shared life of society” (Williams:21). The embodiment of this possibility is the church: “the rationale of the Church’s life is irreducibly a matter of showing the results of an act of divine reconciliation in terms of a distinctive kind of community.” (Williams:23) Of course, the church fails at this, and “its own internal life is regularly the site of bitter and divisive conflict”, while “its interventions in the public square … are readily characterized (and written off) as both abstract and amateur.” (Williams:23) But since the existence of the church is itself a challenge to “fatalism and false claims to power”, so Williams will undertake in the rest of the book to show why this is, and what it asks of believers (Williams:24).

I think 'sickness of the spirit' is a good diagnosis of the passivity I've observed (and listened to) amongst many South Africans. Granting some significant exceptions, whites have yet to come to see their responsibility for the past. In a strange way, the mirror of their fears is the "bling culture" they disparage among the new elite (and the bulletproof Mercedes' that whisk the President to and from state occasions in high speed, "blue light" convoys). All the while they can see the legacy of apartheid continue to ring the suburbs with shacks. What you hear from whites is a deep sense of powerlessness in opulence (economist Sampie Terreblanche at a conference here in Stellenbosch a couple of weeks argued that things have never been better for white South Africans economically, and that they have benefited enormously from the settlement of 1990-94).

I think the churches here (but not only here) have failed to embody the kind of community that challenges fatalism. In a society where still most people seem to live in what theologian Dirkie Smit once called "different symbolic universes", the church is called to provide the means to encounter others in truth--even if that truth is disturbing. Or as another theologian, Nico Koopman, said a couple of days ago, the church should be a space where “proximity” to the other challenges reigning social constructions. Alas the churches I've visited during this trip (black and white) remain monolithic in terms of class or colour. So how does one "re-boot" the church?

The challenge to genuine encounter with the other is more than simply an intellectual call. I feel the paradox in myself: I occupy a place not untypical of whites here, safely ensconced behind a security gate in a flat with a wonderful view of the mountains. Yet with all that, I experience a greater sense of anxiety than I do in living in Edmonton (you just had to go out last night, didn't you?). This is a sick society, and I also am sick. What remedy will Williams offer?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Prayer and Politics

In his new book, The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward gives an interesting reflection on prayer and politics. A bit of background first. There are two important things about the church for Ward: (1) it is deeply implicated (“hardwired into”) in the world. “Whatever action the church undertakes, whatever proclamations it makes, is located in the world’s time and spaces, its histories, its societies, its cultures, its languages, and its ideologies.” (24) (2) It participates in the trinitarian life of God, “in God’s own self-expression, rooted in the economy of God’s grace toward creation.” (276) It is this participation, rather than its conformity to an institutional "type", that makes it what it is.

Both these assumption make prayer the most profoundly political act. Our implicatedness means that in prayer we lay before God “all the concerns and connections we have with the contemporary world.... All these events [of the world] pass through us and change us. And as we dwell in Christ and Christ in us, then they pass through Christ also.” Far from an escape, prayer is “deep inhabitation of the world, its flesh and its spirit, that stirs a contemplation and a reading of the signs of the times that is more than we can ever apprehend or appreciate.” Prayer is “the Urgrund of Christian discipleship; we live and act as transistors for the transformation of the world through Christ.” (281–282)

But prayer mediates the other way as well. As Maximus the Confessor wrote, we should listen to our yearning in prayer, which is a “reaching out of our desire for communion with Christ.” For in this yearning, we hear the yearning of the church, the body of Christ across space and time, and “the yearning in the heart of Christ to heal and transform.” This yearning will make us restless with the status quo. But the fact that we remain implicated in the world will also remind us that we too will be subject to the judgement that signals transformation (282).

In all this, prayer is the “primordial participation” in the Kingdom yet to come, and the action that flows from prayer is “the condition of the possibility of ... hope.” (283)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hauerwas on Politics

I would have thought that by now the charges of "sectarianism" levelled against Stanley Hauerwas would have abated, especially in light of his recent work. But I keep hearing the charge, especially from "public theologians"--including those with whom I'm spending the first six months of 2010. Hauerwas, they say, wants to disengage the church from the public for the sake of preserving the church's holiness. This would be to "sell-out" the project of the new South Africa which churches struggled to make possible.

But the recent collaborations between Hauerwas and Romand Coles (Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian) and Jean Vanier ("Living Gently in a Violent World") should put the "sectarian withdrawal" accusation to rest for good. Hauerwas is not talking about faithfulness as being "apolitical" or "unconcerned" about social transformation. Rather, he wants to talk about the kind of politics that Christians and those "others" who know that liberalism is incapable of forming robust political subjects can honestly collaborate on.

Here's a wonderful quote from Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary:
“If I have a basic conviction, it is that people matter. Politics names for me the practices required for the formation of a people in the virtues necessary for conversations and conflicts to take place if goods in common are to be discovered. These goods are not abstract but draw on the stories of failures and successes that make a people recognizable to one another. Vulnerability must be at the heart of such a politics just to the extent that living well requires readiness to learn from the stranger. I should like to think that vulnerability is at the heart of what it means to be Christians, because through worship we are trained to have our lives distrupted by that strangest of strangers—God.” (112)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Africa Towards Hope and Dignity"

This was the theme of the keynote of Rev. Dr. André Karamaga, General Secretary of the All African Council of Churches on June 25. Karamaga, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda, suggested that this theme could fruitfully be explored by taking account of the possibilities represented by the churches of the continent. Indeed, the development of Christianity in post-colonial African shows interesting (and sometimes fraught) relations with movements of democratization.

But who are the churches of Africa? Karamaga identified six distinct "types" of churches on the continent. The oldest churches, the Ethiopian and Coptic orthodox, represent continuity with the very beginnings of Christianity, and extend across the north. Africa is so closely identified with missionary activity that it's helpful to remember that by the fourth century 20 percent of all Christians in the world were African. [I need not remind my faithful readers that the greatest theologian in the history of the church was a fourth century African bishop... and a catholic]. The stereotypical African Christianity comes onto the scene in the 19th century in the churches established by converted slaves who, on emancipation, returned to Africa and shared their faith in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and of course Liberia. This is a form of Christianity with great indebtedness to African American slave religion. A third type of African Christianity is that brought by European settlers during the 19th and 20th centuries. [When I studied under John de Gruchy and Charles Villa-Vicencio, the term used was "settler Christianity", and its ideal was to transplant the church hymns and worship styles, architecture, doctrine and so forth that had been grown in Europe onto African soil. However, as Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible demonstrates, nothing remains purely European on African soil, and so distinctively African Anglicanisms, Presbyterianisms, and even Catholicisms flourish throughout the continent.]

The fourth type of church, like the third, has the activity of Europeans at its origins. The missionary churches, however, were geared toward translating rather than transplanting the Gospel. I can't talk about how generally true this is on the continent, but in South Africa the third and fourth types (e.g. settler and mission Presbyterians) merged into unified denominations during the 20th century. The African Initiated Churches (AICs) differ from the mission churches in their refusal of European forms of Christianity. While it wouldn't be fair to say that this fifth type represents innovation where the others don't. However, it's clear that the AICs represent a form of Christianity that demonstrates a far greater continuity with African than it does with European cosmology, spirituality, and cultural life. Prior to the advent of the sixth type, the AICs were by far the fastest growing churches in southern Africa. But they're being supplanted now by the Pentecostals.

It's become a truism to say that Christianity is growing explosively throughout Africa, especially the last two types. But what Karamaga wanted to draw attention to was the cooperative and collaborative relations among churches, and the way ecumenism is analogous to the African (political) Union. Indeed, the AACC was formed in Kampala in 1963, a month before the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and represented the tremendous optimism of the day. Sadly, the energies of the movement were wasted early in identity issues vis-a-vis Europeans. "Africans could be creative and innovative Christians (just like Europeans)" and "Africa is not new to the Judeo-Christian traditions" were two not uncommon refrains. The development of an African theology didn't require breaking radically with African religiosity and culture (the ancestors of African Christians were also monotheists). Even as archaeologists were identifying the origin of human life as being African, it seemed like African Christians were struggling to understand how "the first could now be last."

And yet, he continued, there's no question that Africa's post-colonial history was something of a miracle. From the first meeting of the Pan African Congress in England in 1945 to the last African state to gain independence from the control of Europeans (South Africa in 1994) was a mere 50 years. The churches had been independent much longer. That's only looking at one dimension of the African situation, of course. When the AACC met in Maputo in 2008, it could celebrate the centre of gravity of Christianity moving to Africa. But while the church was preaching "fullness of life," it was only seeing "fullness of misery."

For Karamaga, the credibility of the Christian message is at stake in all this. The Christian gospel is a proclamation of peace--wholeness--in a broken and violent world. That there has been much proclamation but little peace is a theological problem. Specifically, he named four challenges to peace in Africa: (1) the ongoing problem of ethnicity, especially the way blood ties are more primary than common Christian identity; (2) the ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, especially the way fighting in the name of God invariably reduces God to an idol; (3) disputes over access to land and economic justice; and (4) disease, particularly HIV/Aids. Karamaga suggested that the key to addressing the last three lay in attending to the first: that African solidarity required a repudiation of the national churches inherited from European missionaries. Links to the wider ecumenical community through the World Council of Churches helps in this. The challenge is to move from many churches to one body of Christ bearing witness in the struggle for life.

A couple of critical questions followed the presentation. The first concerned Karamaga's failure to speak to the question of how churches can aid governments in transition, a crucial problem in contemporary Africa as the transfer of power rarely proceeds without incident or violence. His reply pointed first to the "physician, heal thyself" problem, that is, that churches experience the same problems. But churches have also played important roles not only in democratization movements (Malawi and South Africa are well-known examples) but in reminding newly elected governments of their commitments (in Africa, it's not a problem to get people to sign agreements; it's a problem to ensure they keep them).

The second question concerned gender, and here Karamaga's answer was more terse. "I am a convert" to the awareness of gender struggles, he said. Speaking from the perspective of his own church, half of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda are women. While there is a long way to go on the continent with regard to women's rights, the programs of the AACC offer an encouraging beginning.

Overall I was impressed by Karamaga, and thought that the link between African ecumenism and intra-African collaboration worth thinking further about. But I was especially honoured to be sitting in a room listening as African brothers and sisters shared, sometimes with pain, the hopes and struggles of this continent that so desparately--in spite of its over-evangelisation--the good news.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"An Economics of Enough"

This was the title of Denise Ackermann's keynote at the Theological Society of South Africa meeting on June 25. Ackermann is a well-respected South African Anglican feminist theologian, founding member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, and mentor to many of my friends. I have to be honest, though. When I saw the title of her lecture I immediately thought, "well, I've heard 'more than enough' on this particular topic. And surely Ackermann's 'preaching to the choir' at this kind of event." But in the end I thought what she said was very refreshing coming from a distinguished theologian with impeccable liberationist credentials. Moreover, it was good to hear this in a South African context, especially since she didn't take the typical route of much public theology in allowing secular sociology to set the agenda for the church. To this end, I she made good use of three of my favourite 'post-secular' theologians: the contemporaries Bill Cavanaugh and Charles Mathewes, and their mentor the classical St. Augustine (yes, Augustine is 'post-secular'--or at least 'post-secularist').

Ackermann began by stating the obvious: South Africa is a place of great contradictions. While it spents a high proportion of its GDP on social welfare, South Africa still displays one of the worst GINI coefficients (the gap between the richest and the poorest) in the developed world. Born in the hope of revolutionary redistribution, the New South Africa soon took its place firmly within the modern world in its reliance on the market as a generator of revenue. The best way to address inequalities was to join the global marketplace. And yet the marketplace benefits only those at the top of the 'GINI pool'.

"The market created modernity." This was a key statement for Ackermann to make, for it names the problem at its root. It implies that modernity, its values, its institutions all spring from and give nourishment back to to the market. And just as modernity represented the suspension of teleology (the idea that there's a proper, given destiny for creation), so the free market has no substantive concept of the good. In other words, what's "good" is that we freely choose... whatever we happen to desire. Things only have meaning insofar as they serve as attainable objects of our desire. Paradoxically, Ackermann suggested, we're told we have free choices, but our choices are actually limited, shaped by market forces. Multinationals have the power to move our desire toward whatever products they have to offer. (Don't believe anyone who says "we're just giving the people what they want". If you need more encouragement, watch this documentary.)

The mantra of capitalism is that "a rising tide lifts all boats." But beyond the fact that not all humans even have boats, it's simply not possible to maximize human flourishing by maximizing profit. Even more radically, Ackermann continued, when all value becomes a matter of exchange, "what I can get for something," it becomes impossible to live as God's image. Our lives, our selves, our identities fragment as we come to indwell different niche consumer worlds, each customized ad infinitum.

I could hear strong Augustinian overtones in Ackermann's words. Common space and a true public requires a different kind of freedom: a true freedom in which I am free not merely of constraints to the exercise of my will in attaining the object of my desire, but in which I am free for the other, and for God as tout autre. Biblical freedom, in other words, cannot be understood apart from responsibility for my neighbour.

Ackermann then turned to globalization, one of the great hype words of our time. It's a word, she thinks, almost "magic" in its seeming ability to conjure benefit for the world. Magic... and illusory. For the assymetry of globalization means that it's primarily the global north (and, I would add, elites in the global south) that cast the spell, and consequently are the beneficiaries of the result. In fact, what the majority of the world sees is "a casualization of labour" and "the feminization of poverty." Globalization needs to be demythologized, and Ackermann made a start here.

Now of course Ackermann knew she's treading on familiar theological ground here. After all, globalization and Christianity cannot be separated. The Gospel embraces all nations; it's scope is "all the world". Here she invoked that other favourite theologian of mine: Bill Cavanaugh. Globalization is a parody of the Christian eucharist, where Christ is the concrete universal whose presence is fully available in each locality where his Body gathers. Globalization's is a false catholicity which seeks to efface the particularity of the local by evacuating it of meaning and turning it into a consumer product in the playgrounds of the global north.

OK, so I added a bit of flavour to that last point. But I think it deserves underscoring. Someone suggested recently that a good example of globalization as false universality is the food court at your local shopping mall. Here you've got the world at your disposal, and you can mix and match at will. An Indian main course and a Thai dessert? You can do that within the collapsed space of the food court. But the cost is that all cuisines (and the cultures they represent) are hollowed out and reduced to different versions of the same thing: a consumer product. It's the culinary version of channel surfing or net-browsing. But no more real. Sorry to break the news fellas, but Taco Bell is only a simulacra of "Mexican food." But I digress.

Spirituality is liable to the same "marketization," said Ackermann. In fact, consumer spirituality is "self-centred, immature... a form of religious tourism." It can never be satisfied because it doesn't seek a true Other outside the self. Consumer spirituality (what Reg Bibby calls "religion a-la-carte") is not the same as the quest for God classical theologians have described, a quest that requires discipline of the self and the shaping of desire God-ward. The highest human desire is the desire for God (here she summarizes Augustine's dictum "one is as one loves"). But this desire for God cannot be separated from the desire for the Reign of God. In other words, authentic spirituality thirsts for the justice that characterizes God's presence.

"Can we make a difference?" Ackermann asked. [I was disappointed here, because "can we make a difference?" seems the wrong question to ask. Saints are not those who tried to make a difference; rather, they are those who strove to be faithful where they were, trusting that God could make something of their obedience. I often find with my students that they're so passionate about "making a difference" that they end up paralyzed--or cynical--when they realize how the principalities and powers organize the world. However, once again I digress.] Her pithy saying from the Dali Lama, "if you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito," indicated however that if there's a "difference" to be made, it will be on the order of a subversion, of covert tactic, not overt strategy.

We have to move beyond simplistic rhetoric in order to understand what "enough" means. But even more: we have to learn from those who don't have enough how to live in reliance on God, all the while without romanticizing poverty. A tall order indeed.

But we start with ourselves and our own implication in the running of the market. The first keyword is discernment. Being attentive to the inner promptings of the Spirit which move us toward God and God's reign will help us see the falsehood of desire's manipulation by the market. So again, the starting point is spirituality (in the full-bodied, traditioned sense, I think she'd say). The second move is resistance--resistance especially to the fatalism that says "the world is thus." This resistance (and here I was completely with her) means spawning those subversive acts that make us long for the reign of God. Thirdly, such a spirituality that issues in resistance means nothing other than continual conversion.

Ackermann concluded by concretizing these three words with seven points that point to a "sustainable community" modelled by the church:

  1. Self-examination of our own habits of consuming, and especially the way we interpret the world (where are we and what do we need to flourish).
  2. "Tactical choices" that can engage the market, for instance choosing "fair trade" products. However, we must be careful as "green consumerism" is a growing niche in the market.
  3. Developing a "theology of work," and resisting labour practices that exploit. Integral to this is an ecclesiological understanding that understands collective task but not at the expense of the giftedness of each person.
  4. Sharing with the needy as developing out of the principle of solidarity. In so doing, we make God visible.
  5. Nurturing a sacramental imagination. This means going beyond simple criticism of consumption to address the way we see and interpret the world.
  6. Theologians that speak in understandable terms. [What? Don't we always?]
  7. The Eucharist as core Christian resource. [I wish she'd used different words, though. "Resource" is far too pragmatic. The Eucharist is not a means to an end; it's the end itself. We're made for communion, and Eucharist names our telos, our proper destiny as being consumed into God. I think in what follows, however, she reflects this more catholic understanding]. Again she gestured toward Cavanaugh: our consumption of the Eucharist turns things inside-out as we become food for others.
Invoking Charles Mathewes (and Augustine), Ackermann stated in summary that we love the world in God by participation in God's love of the world. Here's the link between sacramental imagination and political practice. On the other side of the Eucharist, we see in a radically different way. She left us with a memorable image: the image of a poor man on a borrowed donkey as counter to global capitalism. That's where the reign of God begins. That's the example we're called to follow.

Steve de Gruchy made a very important observation in the discussion that followed. The market in and of itself is not the problem. Markets (and trade) can be good or bad. And the particular kind of market that's arisen in Africa (my example for this are the informal traders on the streets outside Claremont's Cavendish Square--a posh shopping mall in Cape Town's suburbs built on land appropriated from displaced "non-whites" during apartheid--who sell all kinds of "fake" brand-name goods) points to a version of the mosquito bite. Well, de Gruchy didn't refer to the Dali Lama quote, but I think it was implicit. This is an unusual but "stinging" undermining of the control of globalization by multinationals.

I certainly appreciated Denise Ackermann's talk--not because it said much that was new, but because it represented a robust theological engagement of the shape of our modern world that actually put ecclesiology and sacramentality at the centre.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A "Communal Wafer"?

That's how one popular culture expert on CBC Radio described the funeral of Michael Joseph Jackson. One of the throng watching the proceedings in a Toronto plaza claimed, "Only Michael could bring the world together." Many agreed with this sentiment, perhaps best expressed in the Anthem "We are the World" sung at the climax of Jackson's memorial service yesterday. Yet others cynically disparaged the shirking of its responsibility by the global media, claiming that there were far more important things happening in the world (for a sample, see Michael Trapido's catalogue here), and that the memorializing of "the king of pop" was better left to the dedicated entertainment channels--a distinction increasingly anachronistic in today's world. Indeed, the "event" of MJ's memorial service becoming a mass-mediated site of global communion invites some theological reflection, and I can't resist the temptation.

I grew up with MJ's music, and can remember him with "The Jackson 5" on the Ed Sullivan Show as a 12 year old, as the front man of "The Jacksons" as a teen in the disco years, and of course the transcendent pop genius of his solo careerin the 1980s. I especially remember sneaking into the room in Bible College where they kept the recording machines for Homeletics class (we weren't allowed TVs in our rooms) with some of the other guys. The contraband tape was not porn, but the extended video of "Thriller." It was one of the first videos I'd ever seen, though I'd never, indeed no one had ever, seen anything like it. We watched it again and again, mesmerized by MJ's ability to narrate, to colour narrative with a range of emotions, with his body. (If you haven't seen it, go. Watch it. Now). The day of his memorial service I downloaded about 40 songs from his extensive catalogue, and remembered.

The iconic music can't be easily separated from the iconic man. Nor should we try, even though the arc of his life (that included Thriller) could not have been plotted easily in that Bible College room. And Jackson's life, especially in the past decade, if nothing else has had an air of carnival about it. The seclusion punctuated by brief and sometimes bizarre public appearances, the media frenzy around child-abuse allegations, and the theme-park attempts to recapture lost childhood were the marks of someone for whom the limelight was both toxic and invigorating. And the memorials to that life, near and far, while celebrating the music did so with an air of carnival. There was a troupe of Newfoundlanders, for instance, who had made a video performing the dance moves from Thriller in St. John's by the harbour. And outside the Staples Center, as one reporter averred, it was indeed a circus. People dressed as Michael moonwalked as others bought T-shirts and special commemorative hot dogs. Elephants joined the funeral procession (well, actually they'd arrived the night before as part of a real circus), featuring a gold-plated casket covered in red roses.

But inside was a different story. There was an air of dignity, solemnity, and reverence. And that venue was transformed into a church by the performances which included not only pop music, but hymn, speech, and procession. Perhaps there was ambiguity in the singing of "soon and very soon, we are going to see the King" as the casket was brought in. But the meaning was soon shifted from the "king of pop" to the King of Kings; the sentiment no-one dared challenge was that Michael was already in the presence of that King. But the slippage was not entirely resolved. Speaker after speaker sought to remove ambiguity from the "circus life" of Jackson, displacing it onto the mass media. Rev. Al Sharpton, addressing the Jackson children, opined: "Wasn't nothin' strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with." [I have to confess that while the addresses of MLK's children were deeply moving in this regard, Marlon's farewell at the end and Paris Michael's coda alike tear-wrenching, I found the "America at its best" speech by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee nauseatingly self-serving and transparently partisan.] Even "behind the wall," the myth-making continued as the king of pop was transformed Saint Michael the Martyr.

Of course, this was too much for some--witness the diatribe of another politician, Peter King. Indeed, that Jackson himself was and is a site of struggle has continued to be evident through the coverage of his death. This was addressed not only in moral questions about the goodness of his actions, but in the very nature of Jackson's ambiguous racial identity. While one African American fan spoke of how his dictum "it doesn't matter if you're black or white" empowered her as a public person, Jamie Foxx claimed Jackson as "one of ours... that we shared with the world." Paradoxically, the same body could be a site of both non-racialism and Black pride. While Foxx is right in saying that Jackson's was music rooted in Motown, soul, and gospel, it's also true that Jackson's was perhaps the last and best true "popular" music, a music that transcends barriers of race, class, and religion.

I don't want to add interpretive excess to what is already an event of excess, but I think Jackson's struggle--the disappearing nose, the bleached skin, the straight hair, the ageless and strangely asexual appearance of his latter years--can be read as a struggle to embody a genuine catholicity (which we might define theologically as "a wholeness that brings wholeness") which draws all particularities into itself. Certainly the desire of his fans which coursed through MJ's body--and body of work--for a "we" that makes up humanity can only be realized in another body: the broken, disfigured, and Jewish body of Jesus Christ.

I'm arguing that "We are the World"--with its symbols of cross, cresent, and Star of David morphing into each other like so many consumer choices in a global shopping mall--must give way to "the world in a wafer." For the Eucharist, writes William Cavanaugh, gathers all times, all places, all particularities together in a way mass culture can only parody. For Cavanaugh, the eucharistic gathering is not a virtual gathering mediated electronically, but a real gathering in and through the real presence of the triune God in each locality. Such a gathering does not efface difference, cosmetically removing the marks of particularity ("difference," in Kenneth Surin's phrase, "as mere difference"), but affirms it. This affirmation of difference doesn't thereby invoke identity wars, for in Christ's body dividing walls (Jew-Gentile; male-female; slave-free; black-white; young-old) are broken down. And we see, experience, participate in this performance of the Body of Christ not through twittering comments to a web site in cyberspace, but by sharing real bread and wine under trees in the African veld, inside the tin shacks of a township, surrounded by the cold stone of a cathedral, or any other space "where two or three gather" in Jesus' name. This is a performance that brings us close in memory to the origins of the people of God in God's covenant, and in anticipation to the consummation of history.

In the performance of the Eucharist--and in extending that performance into works of mercy and justice--we share in the sufferings of the body of Christ around the world, and await the time--indeed participate in the time--of global healing of God's world.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Update on Dandala
I fear this expresses a growing view among COPE supporters, and I'm sad for the Bishop who deserves better than to be "ditched."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

John de Gruchy: A Christian Humanism

The opening keynote of the Joint Religious Societies’ Conference at Stellenbosch University (left) was given by my doctoral supervisor, Prof. John de Gruchy. John was co-founder of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town, founding editor of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, and an internationally respected Bonhoeffer scholar. He’s written more books than I can count, one or two of which I was privileged to work on as a research assistant. The latter include Christianity and Democracy: Theology for a Just World Order (Cambridge, 1995) and Christianity and the Modernisation of South Africa (UNISA, 2009). His most recent work is on Christian humanism: On Being Human (Fortress, 2007).

It’s exciting to have been able to keep up academic contact with John de Gruchy in the ten years since completing my PhD. I’m currently involved in a research project of he’s leading called “Transforming Traditions,” which situates moments in the history of Christianity within the debates on social transformation in South Africa. It was this project that formed his point of departure for the address.

Tradition, de Gruchy began, is both outside us and given to us. Tradition shapes our Christian identity. But tradition is also dynamic, and constantly rediscovering itself. The new always grows out of the old; tradition constantly quests after new wineskins. This is an outworking of the Johannine idea that the Spirit is guide into truth. Tradition—and traditions—grow organically in continuity with the past. But they are also contested in the present, and especially contested within the church. De Gruchy signalled toward Alisdair MacIntyre’s idea of traditions as “continuities of conflict.” Christians are participants in historic debates.

But we also negotiate the boundaries of tradition by engaging those outside the broad Christian tradition as conversation partners. These might include academic critics of Christianity (Nietzsche comes especially to mind). But theology is not simply a dialogue within the academy, nor is it a conversation about written texts alone. The locus for theological reflection and Christian conversation is—as it has always been—the contemporary world.

Theology, de Gruchy continued, is faith in action. South African theology has a catholic, or universal scope, but also speaks from a particular context. So it attends to the word, “today.” What does it mean to be a believer, to practice Christian faith, now? The two seminal theological statements produced by South African theologians during the anti-apartheid struggle were the Belhar Confession and the Kairos Document (both of which, I might add, have had considerable international influence. The Kairos Document led in 1989 to “The Road to Damascus,” a call for repentance from theologians in the poverty-stricken global South to wealthy Christians in the North. Recently, the Reformed Church of America has moved to adopt Belhar as one of its confessions, while the Christian Reformed Church is beginning to debate whether to follow suit.). These signalled a contextual theology which reflected on Christian faith by social location (black, feminist, African) as well as by received tradition (Catholic, Reformed, Pentecostal). South African feminist, Black, and African theologies are now part of the great stream of Christian tradition—which means that they cannot be kept “artificially” alive. They are now also part of the contestation of tradition, and are subject to the dangers of conservatism. So the theological task is to discern what de Gruchy calls their “transforming trajectories” for the present situation.

While this idea of “transforming traditions” sounds like a new theological strategy, it’s actually very old. St. Paul retrieved Abrahamic faith in a way Abraham would likely not have recognized. And were Paul able to read what Luther would write about his doctrine of justification, he’d probably have found it strange indeed. Faithfulness in one generation can turn reactionary in another. The norm is always the transforming power of the Gospel which opens human life to its divine calling in each particular, historical time.

But we shouldn’t think that change itself is good. As also implied above, change can be good—or bad. When Christians think of change, we understand it as metanoia, of becoming something other, but also closer to God. So as Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, metanoia meant “sharing God’s sufferings in the world. Thus one becomes a human being, a Christian.” The prayer and action which shapes Christian activity in the world takes eschatological vision—which always goes beyond what is possible—into account. But Christians, along with their secular interlocutors, can find common ground for action in penultimate matters. These penultimate matters point to the ultimate transformation, the final metanoia for which Christians hope.

So then a question presents itself: what is the transforming trajectory that can inform theological thinking in South Africa today? And how can that trajectory faciliate the kind of collaborative action—and mutual criticism—around penultimate concerns Bonhoeffer talked about? For de Gruchy, it’s the Biblical tradition of wisdom as tied to the late Renaissance idea of a Christian humanism. Such a tradition has the merit, de Gruchy thinks, of speaking in terms of “unchangeable truths which provide common ground for a common humanity” (in the words of the South African poet, Antjie Krog).

What is humanism? Classically understood, humanism is the study of texts—that “return to the sources” which provided the foundation of the 16th century Protestant and Catholic Reformations. But de Gruchy sees a broader scope for humanism, embracing church, society, and academy. (Readers who hear echoes of David Tracy’s Analogical Imagination would be correct. Indeed, de Gruchy indicated a conscious, though not uncritical, debt to Tracy’s 1981 formulation of the “three publics” of theology.) The core of Christian humanism, and what differentiates it from its “secular” counterpart, is its attendance to the tragic, as well as its claim that the knowledge of humanity is bound up with the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ—words taken from that first, great Protestant humanist, John Calvin. Thus Christian humanism is also, I think de Gruchy would say, a Christological humanism. Jesus reveals God and humanity to us. On the other hand, however, God is only understood as related to humanity in Jesus Christ. Here is a reiteration of Karl Barth’s classic statement in The Humanity of God. Indeed, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Calvin name for de Gruchy three exemplars of the Christian humanist tradition. (In a conversation we had prior to his talk, de Gruchy suggested that Rowan Williams would be a worthy addition to that list. I think this is especially the case with regard to what follows.).

But what of the tragic? De Gruchy invokes the recent work of Terry Eagleton—the Marxian literary critic—in this regard. “Tragic humanism” contrasts “liberal humanism,” for Eagleton. The liberal myth, present in the polemics of “Ditchkins” (i.e. “new atheist” prophets Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), claims that by getting rid of “religion” humans will finally be able to flourish. This is mistaken, as is every other humanism that substitutes something else (the candidates are legion: capitalism, socialism, America) for “religion” in its formulation. No. Tragic humanism insists that self-dispossession is integral to being human. And religion at its best, writes Eagleton, provides precisely this. What we have, interposes the theologian de Gruchy, is not secularist utopias, but the Christian doctrine of hope. In this doctrine, the future is both beyond, and present in anticipatory ways within, history. Thus even the tragic has its limits. And the name of those limits, I would add (and I’m sure de Gruchy would agree), is “the reign of God.”

So de Gruchy’s own “transforming traditions” project is the idea of “Christian humanism.” And he’s presiding over a meeting of secular, African, and Christian humanists at Stellenbosch next month. It promises to be an exciting encounter.

De Gruchy closed his address with six affirmations toward a new, Christian humanism. I list them in conclusion:

1. Christian humanism is inclusive. “Being human” names our primary identity.

2. Christian humanism affirms dignity and responsibility.

3. Christian humanism is open to insight into our common human condition wherever it is to be found.

4. Christian humanism claims that the love of God is inseparable from the love of others.

5. Christian humanism heralds a justice that transcends material and sectional well-being.

6. Christian humanism insists that goodness, truth, and beauty are inseparable.

My own view of Christian humanism is quite positive, as long as it retains the Christological centre de Gruchy suggests. In fact, I would want to make that even stronger, referencing Christology not to a generic human nature (as Chalcedon might be accused) but to Jesus the Jew. I think Bonhoeffer is indeed a good model here. Only this way can the church resist a vague, liberal "universal values" talk (which I think is also the problem with tying humanism to the Biblical wisdom tradition, especially inasmuch as that tradition tends to structure legitimation).

The church is called, first and foremost, to embody its humanity precisely in terms of its baptismal confession: that the new humanity is given in Jesus Christ, and that any attempt to subject it to sectionalism, ethnicism, classism (or any other "ism") is fundamentally at odds with the Gospel. As the twentieth century tragedies of [Christian] apartheid and the holocaust made clear, that's a lesson Christians have yet to learn. De Gruchy's challenge is thus deeply important.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rowan Williams on "Refuge"

In light of the postings on Central Methodist, I thought this reflection might be appropriate:

Friday, June 19, 2009

“We are Dying”

J.L. Zwane Memorial Church has Aids.

This Presbyterian congregation runs a series of impressive programmes reaching out to members of the Guguletu community striken or affected by this pandemic. The pandemic has reached staggering proportions in South Africa’s townships, with Guguletu itself having an HIV-positive rate of 29 percent (

But J.L. Zwane is not interested in statistics; it provides refuge for suffering bodies. Every Sunday during worship there is an Aids presentation, where a member of the church will address the congregation. As Mandisa approached the front of the church on the Sunday we visited, the congregation sang “Never, never give up”—echoing the words embossed on a wall of the sanctuary. Diagnosed in 2001, she didn’t expect to live three years, much less eight. Marginalized by family members, she came to "the Aids church" (as J.L. Zwane is popularly, if not notoriously, known). There she received a warm welcome, medical care, and support from one of the groups established for that purpose. The anti-retrovitrals she’s taking allow her and her three children (all HIV-negative, praise God!) to live a relatively normal life. However, there was a poignancy to Mandisa’s story: her brother—who openly mocked her when she went public with her diagnosis—is himself HIV-positive (actually diagnosed in 1998), and gravely ill.

Calling the church to a reponsible and caring practice is deeply unpopular. Aids remains a silent killer. But the stigma associated with it is nearly as destructive as the disease itself. According to J.L. Zwane’s minister, Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile, pastors who dare talk about the issue run the risk of losing their jobs. And having pastors ministering for short amounts of time doesn’t allow the development of a ministry in which space can be created for the discussion of sexuality. It’s a cruel catch-22.

Rev. Xapile himself knows the deadly disease only too well, having lost five family members to Aids.

The Centre has a number of programmes that promote responsible behaviour, and take care of those who have fallen victim to the disease, both directly and indirectly. Each Sunday, public health volunteers come to the church and offer a clinic for those who cannot afford health care (which, with an unemployment rate of 70 percent, is the vast majority of Guguletu’s population). The Centre itself expresses healing in its physical representations, featuring a number of striking works of art on its walls. All this has come about through Rev. Xapile’s vision, a partnership with Stellenbosch University, and the support of overseas donors.

But what was especially challenging was the way the church itself supports grassroots initiatives, including the work of two exceptional women we were privileged to meet.

Priscilla (right) is an elderly woman who has opened her small home to twelve--soon to be fifteen--Aids orphans. When an HIV-positive parent becomes ill, they receive support from the grandparents—most of whom are on a fixed income; when the parents fall to the disease, the children live with the grandparents. Rev. Xapile told our group that there are children in Guguletu who are now being cared for by their third grandparent, the others having died. The children are sometimes simply abandoned, and so Priscilla has taken some of them in.

Nancy, who herself has a sixteen year-old severely handicapped daughter, is taking care of twelve abandoned children who are physically and developmentally challenged.

The public support structures are simply inadequate in Guguletu to meet these kinds of needs. The J.L. Zwane church has organized itself into zones. And members in each track the needs of their community, and initiatives like Priscilla’s and Nancy’s. The church then distributes food parcels to them. A network thus extends through the body of Christ, linking such small spaces where the kingdom of God has taken root.

We ought not romanticize—despite this good work, the challenge remains enormous. Rev. Xapile put it baldly during one of our discussions: “we are dying.” Not they, but we. Aids affects the church as Christ’s suffering body. “By his wounds, we are healed,” said Isaiah. And so as the church suffers with those bearing the social, as well as the physical, effects of the disease, it imparts the healing of Jesus Christ—one face, one body at a time.

Mark’s gospel tells the story of an unnamed women who had been suffering from “an issue of blood” for twelve years (Mark 5:25-34). She came, incognito, to Jesus—pressing her way through the crowd hoping to touch the hem of his garment. This woman’s plight has particular resonance for women in rural South Africa, where menstruation may exclude someone from contact with men, even in church. Reflecting on the way the text is read among the Amawoti of KwaZulu, Beverley Haddad and Maleka Sebeko write:
The women of Amawoti immediately identified with the woman with the hemorrhage in the text. Discussion followed concerning this woman’s situation. However, the woman with the hemorrhage had no name, no relationship, and was known by her illness (v.25). Her situation defined both her name and her personhood. There was speculation as to what might have happened had the woman not revealed herself to Jesus (v.33). The readers felt that Jesus had made it possible by his attitude. He had not regarded the woman as unclean and had affirmed her by healing her (v.29). It was also acknowledged, however, that the woman herself had shown courage and inner strength by taking the initiative. In spite of her circumstances, there was a recognition that she had never given up hope throughout the twelve years. Through the encounter the woman was given the ‘right to talk to Jesus.’ (1)
Contact with the woman would have made Jesus ritually unclean. However, what happens is not that the woman’s uncleanness is passed to him, but his healing power flows from him to her. This story takes on new significance in the context of the “uncleanness” of HIV-Aids. The unnamed come fearfully but courageously to J.L. Zwane, “the Aids church”. But rather than experiencing condemnation by the pure, they participate in the healing present in Jesus Christ.

The lesson of J.L. Zwane Memorial Church is that the body of Jesus Christ has Aids. We who are in communion with J.L. Zwane—which means all Christians who share the Eucharist—also have Aids.

Think about it. Then find a way to act in solidarity.


1. Malika Sibeko and Beverly Haddad, “Reading the Bible With’ Women in Poor and Marginalized Communities in South Africa,” Semeia 78. Reading the Bible as Women: Perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld and Sharon H. Ringe (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 87.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mvume Dandala: A Christian In Office

Without question, Mvume Dandala has been one of the most widely respected church leaders in South Africa's recent past. A Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church from 1996 to 2003, and most recently General Secretary of the All Africa Council of Churches, Dandala is best known outside the church for mediating an end to the violence between ANC and Inkatha supporters in Johannesburg's hostels. He is known to be a man of integrity, and of deep holiness.

But this was in a previous phase of his life. As the political culture of South Africa degenerated into cronyism and corruption, a section of ANC members saw an opportunity to break away from the ruling party to form The Congress of the People (COPE). And they approached Dandala to lead the party into the most recent election.

For many, this would have been an immediate career-defining move, and a high promotion. But not for Dandala. The request resulted in a time of soul-searching, prayer, and discernment. He had always agreed with Archbishop Desmond Tutu that the place of a pastor was outside partisan politics--at least in a "normal" situation. And Dandala has always had “a pastor’s heart.” But South Africa was descending into abnormality--at least in terms of its professed democratic vision. So Dandala asked to be released from his position as pastor, effectively laying aside his clerical collar, in order to bear witness as a politician.

As he spoke to our group, I could hear the struggle in his voice. The questions he faced were stark. How could he, a well-respected Bishop, expose himself to abuse as a politician? Would the give-and-take of parliamentary debate, and the often-unsavoury nature of partisanship--corrupt him. But the alternative, in his view, was to perpetuate the idea that party politics was "unholy"--a significant issue given his Methodist theology. Even this calling must be sanctified. So he agreed--and agreed to suspend his credentials with the church. But he remains a Christian fulfilling what he and his spiritual advisors considers a redeployment by God.

But he also had a message for the church from his “new” location. Pastors need to engage in “political education”: shaping members as citizens aware of their responsibilities. They should remain non-partisan, but at the same time passionately informed about the political process.

Dandala’s talk raised a number of important issues for our discussion group (and others who joined us), and had us arguing rather loudly--to the point of being asked to “quiet down” as we were disturbing the sleep of our fellows! Here were some of the issues raised:

1. What is the nature of citizenship for Christians? Are Christians citizens of one city (the New Jerusalem)? Or two?

2. If party political involvement is entered into, what are the norms that govern such involvement for Christians? Is creation, cross, or resurrection most determinative?

3. Should the church always and necessarily understand itself as neutral in its activity during the world? Should it understand this neutrality as “a-political”? “Pre-political”? “Post-political”? “Differently political”? When Mvume Dandala decided to “enter politics”, and set aside his office in the church, what was he doing?

4. How should the teaching office of the church (Bishop) be employed with reference to #1? Is it additional to catechesis? Or part of it?

5. What should be the system of accountability of Christian political office-holders to the church? What are the implications of a president who professes to follow Jesus disobeying his Bishop (George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq comes to mind)? What would the electorate think of a bishop excommunicating a President?

6. Can #5 be addressed positively (i.e. that there is a role for the church) without reinstituting Christendom?

7. Finally, a question asked by one of our members: what can Mvume Dandala do that Rev. Frank Chikane (who was both a pentecostal pastor and Director-General of Thabo Mbeki’s office) could not?

It’s possible to read Dandala’s decision as a form of kenosis, and perhaps even of embracing a form of suffering. And I do think his soul is in danger, given the recent cut-throat practices of South African parliamentarians. But Christians are sometimes called to dangerous and risky service. St. Augustine said that a Christian should not seek office, but neither should he [or she] refuse to serve when called upon. I remain unwilling to make a conclusion—which is probably just as well. But I do commit to keeping the former Rev. Mvume Dandala in my prayers.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

“Like Grass Through Cement”

There’s something uniquely South African about the aesthetic of many important public sites here, in which the materials of the old are used to construct the new. Take the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg (right), which our group visited last Friday. When the Justices discussed the site for the new Court in the mid-1990s, they decided on the old Braamfontein jail, in which the notorious Number Four detention centre stood as a scar on the landscape. In this disciplinary space, both heroic protesters—including Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela—and more conventional lawbreakers were incarcerated between 1902 and 1983.

The Court combines African traditional themes with the relics of past suffering. The foyer (below left) contains a large wall built from bricks of the old prison—including a concrete slab displaying the graffiti of the past and one of the old cell doors. Some 150,000 bricks from the old prison were used in building the court. But the foyer also has seats made of tree trunks, pointing to the African tradition of mediating disputes while sitting on stumps under a tree. In fact, the logo of the Court is an umbrella tree, under which can be seen figures representing the tradition of open and transparent judgement. This juxtaposition of ancient, old, and new confronts visitors to the Court from the outset.

The courtroom where hearings take place and judgments are announced is decorated with cowhide, representing the significance of cattle in African traditional society. A large South African flag made of thousands of tiny beads woven together stands to the right of the Justices’ seats. To the left is a window, about half a metre high, but extending for the length of the wall. The Justices can see only feet through that window, with no idea of race, class, or gender—an unusual invocation, I think, of John Rawls’ “veil of neutrality.” The court is open to all, and our group was greatly privileged to hear Deputy Justice Dikgang Mosenke (himself a former political prisoner who had spoken to us earlier in the day) deliver a judgement on a case reminding the Executive (the President) of its obligations to protect South Africans made vulnerable by the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.

But the most striking thing about the Court is the way it represents the pain, embodies the hopes, and celebrates the gifts of South Africans. Indeed, the space is part memorial, part judiciary, and part art gallery. Walking down the main hallway one sees lined along the walls diverse representations of South Africa’s creativity, a wonderful collection of iconic pieces assembled by Justice Albe Sachs, uniting themes of human rights and cultural diversity.
Perhaps the most moving of these is “The man who sang and the woman who kept silent”, by Judith Mason. Inspired by testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mason’s tryptich is centred by a complete dress made of blue plastic bags (right). It recalls an anti-Apartheid activist who was captured, stripped naked, tortured, and then marched out to a field to be executed. As she walked, she picked up a discarded shopping back and used it to cover her genitals. When she knelt over her grave, according to the testimony of her executioner, she asked to be permitted to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (a hymn entitled “God Bless Africa”—the anthem of the liberation movements). She was shot in the back of the head and buried. When the Commission recovered her remains, the plastic bag was still wrapped around her pelvis.

Mason wrote:
“Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, common-sensical, house-wifely thing to do, an ordinary act… At some level you shamed your capturers, and they did not compound their abuse of you by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hamba kahle. Umkhonto.”

+ + + + +

The same aesthetic is visible in the many “informal settlements” that dot the South African landscape—corrogated metal and cardboard shacks assembled on the outskirts and backyards of townships (left). Here, the very poor take the things cast off by the well-heeled, and use those materials to build dwellings. Old sheets of advertising, found behind some corporate warehouse, become colourful wallpaper. Bits of wire and discarded Coke cans are twisted into intricate sculptures which can be found for sale at the side of South Africa’s highways. While the “briocoleur” is fashionable intellectually in the West (or at least was), bricolage is alive and well here in the South. Indeed, bricolage here is a matter of survival.

Both the Constitutional Court and the random shacks remind me of a song by Bruce Cockburn. Written as an imaginative recollection of an uprising in Pinochet’s Chile in the mid-1980s, Cockburn juxtaposes imagery of “day flowering out of the night”, “shots ringing through smoke and gas”, and the bells of “first mass”.

Santiago Sunrise
See them marching home
See them rising like grass through cement
In the Santiago dawn

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“Like grass through cement”: that’s how the kingdom of God irrupts into the world. Even the Constitution itself—perhaps the most progressive in the world—is a matter of contestation, interpretation, and bricolage. While Romand Coles (citing Sheldon Wolen) argues that constitutions represent the "end" of the democratic struggle (Coles and Hauerwas: 139), the ossification of liberation, one can see the new continually irrupting through South Africa’s, “like grass through cement.” Anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff remind us that while South African has a Constitution instantiating the European ideal of the bounded, bureaucratic nation-state, it is situated within a contest of alternative sovereignties (traditional societies, chiefdoms, religious and other loyalties) which they identify as a “counter-politics” of the “Kingdom of Culture” (Comaroff and Comaroff:446). This is not simply between “citizens” and “subjects”, but within political persons who experience themselves as fractured between multiple sources for the construction of identity (447). The resolution of this tension is not happening in theory, but in the pragmatics of legal negotiation. Thus contextualized, the Court and the Constitution exist alongside “self-defined aggregates of persons [who] seek to open up possibilities for themselves, in pursuit of their passions, principles, ideals, interests.” These name ”a politics of everyday life” (448) where “the modernist sense of ideology gives way to ID-ology, the quest for a collective good, and sometimes goods, sanctioned by, and in the name of, a shared identity.” (447) Ideas of human rights—carefully defined within the Constitution but contested and renegotiated in everyday life become part of the symbolic “bricolage” making up the new South African identity. I think this is a sign of fragile, but real, hope.

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There’s a theological lesson here. After all, as Charles Mathewes reminds us, we live "during the world"—that time from the ascension of Christ to his second coming. The fact that South Africa decided not to start anew (contrast Washington D.C., which was built on an eradication, a levelling of space into which romanticized symbols of ancient Rome were imported) but using and reusing the material and symbolic resources of the old reminds us that we still live in media res. And "during the world", history is a site of contestation, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Yet we also see signs of a longing for a true novum, a true “new heavens and new earth”, in which our relations are governed by love, and our lives stretch forth to the God who fills all things. As long as South Africa remains in media res, there is hope.


Cockburn, Bruce. World of Wonders. True North Records TN-66, 1986.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Reflections on Liberalism, Policulturalism, and ID-Ology: Citizenship and Difference in South Africa.” Social Identities 9.4 (2003): 445–73.

Coles, Romand, and Stanley Hauerwas. Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary. Theopolitical Visions. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007.

Mathewes, Charles T. A Theology of Public Life. Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Enfolded in a Warm Blanket of Singing and Dancing

As we approached the township of Tembisa, the change in scenary was jarring. We’d passed the sprawling developments on the outskirts of Johannesburg, illustrated with bulletin boards praising progress and promising a glowing future life (the streets of “Egoli” paved with gold). But there was not much of that visible here. The same matchbox houses we saw in Soweto, with the occasional more luxurious dwelling, alongside shacks of corrugated metal built from the cast-offs of the elite.

Like other South African townships, Tembisa was built for Africans who had been “removed” from white areas in and around Johannesburg. Established as a township in 1957, Tembisa (from a Zulu word meaning “promise”) was one of the flashpoints of anti-apartheid “unrest” at the height of state repression. Also as in other townships, criminal gangs such as the notorious “Toasters” and “Section 12”, established themselves. But Tembisa is also a bustling area which as many as one million South Africans call home. Most of them are formally unemployed, though the “informal” sector is alive and well.

We pulled up beside the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (left), a smallish church building at a busy intersection (the noise of cars frantically hooting would form the counterpoint for our worship). The EPC is a small denomination, with historic ties to the Swiss missionaries that evangelized and educated Africans from the mid-nineteenth century. The pastor, Rev. Wilson Rambau, greeted us warmly outside. As we filed into the church, we found a simple sanctuary, with benches for pews, a communion table, and a pulpit. There was neither piano nor organ. A plaque behind the communion table bore greetings from the mayor of Hartford, Connecticut. We would later learn its significance.

We took our place in the choir seats and watched the congregation enter a few at a time. The church was not full during the service, though as Tinyiko Maluleke explained to us there had been a service the day before and consequently some would have stayed home.

The service began with a greeting—and a special welcome to our group. The first hymn was announced, and members paged through worn, dog-eared hymnals and service books. There were not enough for our group, and the service was in Tsonga and Shangaan (two of South Africa’s eleven official languages). But that didn’t seem matter. Strangely I found myself able to follow along quite well with the spirit of the worship.

And what spirit (or Spirit) there was! As the congregation raised their voices in that characteristic polyphonic, four part harmony, I felt myself enfolded as if wrapped in a warm blanket. There was a welcome familiarity. I was back in Africa, and Africa was holding out her arms. Soon the announcement of hymns became redundant, and people sang spontaneously—or so it seemed—in that wonderful African “call and response” way. Choir after choir got up to sing, and we soon learned that there was no need for accompaniment.

And then it was our turn. We’d rehearsed Amazing Grace the night before, and delivered a quite competent rendition, I thought, which was received appreciatively. The pastor called Bob Evans forward, who gave greetings on our behalf and explained the purpose of our visit to South Africa. He called on Rev. Christopher Byaruhanga, one of our members, to present our gift to the congregation—a beautiful batak cloth from his native Uganda. The response of the church leadership was deeply moving. An elder named Victor Nesangane came forward and promised that the church would take care of the cloth, and that if we returned in ten years time we would still find it in good condition. The significance of this should not be underestimated, given the xenophobia that had enveloped South Africa just a year ago. The fact that something from the other side of the Limpopo would have a permanent dwelling place amongst this people is deeply important.

But it was the response of the congregation that took us aback. They broke into song, left their seats, and danced up the aisle of the church toward the front. We found ourselves dancing too—and soon we joined the congregation circling the front of the church. It was quite a sight to see—all of us academics shaking our limbs and moving our feet in joy and praise!

Everything else followed in rapid succession. A sermon, prayers, and benediction. The service ended with the offering—people coming forward, dancing, as they placed their tithes in the baskets on the communion table. It was announced that a “small finger lunch” had been prepared for us—something neither we nor the sisters at the retreat house back in Johannesburg had known about. We could not, however, refuse. As it turned out, the “finger lunch” included massive bowls of potato, carrot, and bean salads, beets, and chicken pieces.

Actually, we should not have been surprised. For we’ve found nothing but generosity among the poor here. But this is an especially generous congregation. Let me return to that plaque behind the communion table. On one of his first visits to the EPC in Tembisa, members of the congregation expressed surprise to Bob that there were poor people in America. Bob, who is based in Connecticut, spoke to them about Hartford, the second poorest city in the U.S. The congregation immediately responded by taking a special collection “for the homeless of Hartford”. The grand sum of $35.00 was raised. Later, theological ethicist Donald Shriver would write, “I discovered the meaning of stewardship and commitment in Tembisa.”

We did too, that day. We learned a generosity not seen in the bureaucratic spaces of Parliament, nor the polished halls of the Constitutional Court. It was among God’s people, gathered in the name of Jesus, that we found—and I apologize for sounding romanticistic—a true wealth, the streets paved with gold anticipating the communion of the New Jerusalem. That city, unlike Egoli, has neither temples nor townships. For there, all gather to share the wealth of Yahweh.

That is the true "promise" of Tembisa.


Shriver Jr., D.W. 1992. “A night in Tembisa.” Christian Century 109, no. 18: 535. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 11, 2009).