Category Archives: Social Justice

There has got to be a better way?

“There has got to be a better way for wealthy churches to partner with churches that are in deprived communities. You know a number of years ago I heard an African-American gentleman who is the head of a ministry that is in a deprived community and he was speaking to the leadership of a very white very wealthy church and this African-American leader said to this very wealthy church that was supporting his ministry I need to confess something to you. I’ve been lying to you for the last ten years. Because you folks want to send short-term teams into my church and into my community and I make up stuff for you to do. I’ve had you paint the walls of my office so many times that the paint is starting to chip off and you folks go out into the community and you do all kinds of crazy things that I spend weeks mopping up after you because of the chaos you’ve created and I keep on telling you that I want you to do this stuff because quite frankly I need your financial support.”

Watch the rest of this challenging video clip from Brian Fikkert below.

Brian is the co-author of the book When Helping Hurts. You can download a free e-book version here.

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The Geography of Power and Privilege

First pile of books plundered from library

First pile of books plundered from library

This is the year I have finally started my Masters in Missiology (the study of missions or the study of “what the heck are we meant to be doing and how should we do it” as I prefer) through the University of Stellenbosch. I have harboured a deep desire to study further for many years but due to time, finances and circumstances this has never been an option. Until now… so due to a happy confluence of circumstances (Sovereignty if you will) I am able to dedicate a significant portion of my time to academic study of the next two years.

Although these things are notoriously fickle at the hands of supervisors and further reading here is my first attempt at articulating the area I hope to look at in my research.

“The effects of the apartheid system continue to affect the mission and the life of the church in Cape Town. In particular the long-term structures around which our city was re-engineered through the group areas act continues to entrench the division of races and economics in our city. The flow of power and of privilege very much follows the geographical contours of inequality in our city. The church has had a chequered history with these divisions at times supporting it, at times opposing it but mostly a quiet acquiescence through the development of a parallel structure of power and geography that mirrored, upheld or even enhanced the division of race and power. The post 1994 changes have mostly not brought about any significant changes in the geography of privilege and power. The evangelical church, by nature conservative lags behind entrenching often unwittingly the now traditional structures of power that so divide our city. What can the church do? Or perhaps more significantly what will the church do? Will we meekly wait for the city and the world to slowly and grudgingly change (if indeed we can even truly see our city redeemed) or will we act in spite of what we see, will we become a people of hope, willing ourselves to run counter cultural to the well established lines of privilege and prestige in our city. How can the church be a movement of hope in overcoming the geography of power that shapes and moulds our city still today?”

The Silence of Cheap Grace

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“If we communicate only that part of the gospel which corresponds to people’s “felt needs” and “personal problems” (‘Are you lonely? Do you feel that you have failed? Do you need a friend? Then come to Jesus!’), while remaining silent on their relationship to their fellow men, on racism, exploitation and blatant injustice, we do not proclaim the gospel. This is the quintessence of what Bonhoeffer has called ‘cheap grace’. After all, ‘(God) is especially moved to wrath when his own people engage in such practices. It makes them disgusting in His sight, an offence to His nostrils; and in the face of this evil-doing He cannot stand their religious posturing. He cannot bear to hear their prayers; hates their festivals; is weary of their hypocritical sacrificings; views their faithful attendance at His house with loathing, as nothing more than an uncouth trampling of its precincts: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly”‘

David Bosch: Witness to the World p206

Photo Credit: joybot via Photopin

Why I don’t get a free pass on white priviledge

origin_14918918396Ok, so no one really, actually gets a free pass on white privilege but many of us lighter skinned individuals have the privilege of having a tremendous social media fueled debate on the reality and validity of white privilege or the lack thereof. Pick a side. Get all heated up over which ever side you pick and then go back to engaging in our actual life either more or less socially aware than before.

But Ferguson changed all that for me. I don’t know why that event in particular was different from all the other similar events in the US. Or why it was different to every other racist event or attitude so prevalent in my home city of Cape Town.  But something about a young black man gunned down while walking home with his friends hit home for me.

That could be my son…

I would never want to have a free pass on fighting white privilege but until recently it has always been a choice for me. Yes one fuelled by core beliefs, by my faith and my friendships. A choice that I have willingly and intentionally made, but one, I could recant  and stick my head in the sand of denialism again if I chose to do so.

But I no longer have a choice. Mike Brown could be my son.

I have two sons… and as most of us know two black men are just one short of a gang.

Two black men are going to mug you

Two black men are likely thugs or rapists

Two black men are casing the joint

No one cares what colour your parents are

No one cares if you are adopted or not

No one cares what your home language is

No one cares if you are educated or not

No one cares what your father does

Two black men plus one are a gang

White privilege means ladies will hold their handbags tighter when my sons walk down the street. They will probably smile and greet me.

White privilege means law enforcement vehicles will do the slow drive past them on their way to visit their grandparents. They may quite possibly be questioned as what they are doing in the area.

White privilege means my sons could be imprisoned because like every other 18-year-old they have a smart mouth and a big attitude.

My son could be shot because he is eighteen and arrogant

No matter how smart, talented or hard-working he is, he will always be thought to be a token or a quota just because he has more melanin than me.

For those who would wrongly claim the cultural high ground with ill-informed statements like “but black men are more likely to commit crimes” or “black men are more likely to carry guns.”

Lets be straight, no one will ask my sons about their upbringing or their cultural environment. No one will look the other way because my sons have white parents or speak good English. They will judged and convicted by the colour of their skin!

I don’t get a free pass on white privilege. I no longer get a choice whether to engage or not with the intellectual discussions of power and privilege.

My son could be Mike Brown!

Disclaimer: This is not all that can or should be said on white privilege, Ferguson or racial reconciliation, it is just one personal reflection among many. You may also want to read “What I would love my white friends to hear”

Photo Credit: Mike Licht via Photo Pin

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

origin_7979114341American soul and jazz poet,  Gil Scott-Heron,  once famously wrote during the black power movement of the 1960’s and 70’s that  “the revolution would not be televised.”

There would be no theme song sung by famous singers. The main parts would not be played by famous and beautiful white actors and actresses. There will be no corporate sponsors , highlights on the eleven o’clock news or commercial breaks. There would be no time to stay home,  get high, get entertained or tune out for a while, because the revolution will not be televised.  The revolution will not be televised because the television is controlled by those in power. The revolution will not be televised because it would interfere with the drugged on comfort entertainment culture more concerned with what will happen in the latest TV show than with fighting the injustices of the day. The happenings of those TV shows will no longer be “so damned relevant” “because black people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day.”

Scott-Heron’s point was that the thing that was going to change people and change communities was not something that would ever be able to be captured on television. If you stay home you will miss the revolution.

And yet I find myself wanted to say something similar to the church of my day.  We are living in a world that is used to everything being “televised.”  But hear me most clearly the revolution will not be tweeted, liked, pinned, blogged, hyperlinked or instagrammed. The revolution will not be found on your church webpage. It will not be forwarded by tweets or likes. It cannot be watched on YouTube or blogged about. You will not be able to get the app or season one off your friend’s hard drive. Please allow me to reiterate, the revolution will not be televised.

Using the word revolution may seem like cheap sensationalism (do you get any other kind?) and I was loath to use it at first. But the more I thought about it, the more apt it seemed. Jesus did come to bring about revolution. He came to overthrow the world order. To wrest back and to invade the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God. He came to overthrow the ruler of the air, to tie up the strongman and to win the decisive victory against Satan.

But it would not be the bloody, anti-Roman revolution that his disciples expected. The Jesus revolution would be more far-reaching, insidious and long-lasting than any mere political conquest could be. The Kingdom of Jesus is the Kingdom of the King who lays down his power, gives up his rights, who loves extravagantly and who forgives scandalously. This is not the revolution that is primarily concerned with swapping the features of the powerful at the top of the pile. It is the bottom-up, inside-out, upside-down revolution of the Kingdom of God. It’s greatest weapon is love and it’s greatest warriors are the weak, the forgotten, the broken and the lost. The revolution will not be a battle for power but a fight to serve.

This revolution will not be televised but everywhere it seems the church is fighting for the airwaves. Slicker websites, more likes, tweeting pastors, blogging elders. We are clambering to be heard, to have our brand recognized, to be invited to the table, to have our stories told and our cause legitimized. The revolution cannot be televised. Ideas and concepts about revolution can be branded and downloaded but the revolution can never and will never be televised. You cannot watch the revolution from your seat at the Sunday show.  You cannot subscribe to the podcast of the professional revolutioneers.

The revolution is happening all around you but you have to look in all the wrong places. The revolution came from Nazareth and what good can possibly come from there? The revolution may not be educated, clean or articulate. The revolution is found in every Christian who sticks their flag in the cracked concrete of the inner city or dusty street of the township and says there is a new king who is invading here today. They fight the good fight with shared meals, kind words, laughter, inclusion of the outsider, forgiveness, mercy, grace and justice. They will tell of a different story, a better story, a story of hope and of glory. They will tell this story with words, with hugs, with food and with football in the streets.

As a church we are in danger of being more concerned with the appearance of the Kingdom than with the Kingdom itself. We are fooling ourselves into believing we can watch, download, tweet, blog, pin or like the revolution. We are obsessed with the appearances of revolution and the trappings of appearance. But the revolution will not be televised, it must be lived, experienced, caught up in, participated in, sacrificed for. Anything less is simply the delusion of those who like the idea of changing the world rather than actually changing the world and being changed ourselves in the process.

It is my prayer that finally we will get out the building, shake our neighbours hand, get to know someone who is different to us, play with the kids in the street, buy a homeless guy a cup of coffee and go looking for signs of Christ at work in the unplugged, unphotoshopped, untweeted or liked world of the ordinary. Perhaps then all these other things will no longer be “so damned relevant” because Christian people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day.

Photo credit: Yvonsita via  Photopin CC

When Justice is Silent

South Africa, it feel like, is often on the brink of another violent protest.  The poor and the marginalized are frustrated. Their voice is not being heard. They are being ignored. As a result they resort to violence or vandalism in order to get a hearing.  Most often it works. Even if it is only to get the politicians to argue about whose fault it is.   This same philosophical dilemma was debated in the 1960’s between the older ANC members and the young firebrands like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.  In South Africa, we celebrate the results of their decision to engage in the armed struggle.  The ends it seems have justified the means.  I suspect among Christians this may be something of another elephant in the room.

When you are not being heard through the normal channels, do you do whatever it takes to get those with the power to listen?  And if these actions gain you a hearing or a victory are these actions then made righteous because of the favourable outcome?

I get it! On purely rational or even emotional grounds these arguments resonate with me. But the biblical reaction, I suspect, is something altogether different.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), for instance, Jesus clearly says, that our righteous acts alone are not enough to make us just in the eyes of the law. It is not enough that we do good deeds we must also desire to do that good.   It is not enough to not murder someone rather we must love them, even our enemies. It is not enough not to commit adultery rather we must be pure in heart. True righteousness, are righteous acts fuelled by righteous desires. Neither grudging righteous acts nor unrighteous acts in order to achieve righteous goals fit the criteria for true biblical righteousness.

Jesus’ words in Mark 7:14-23 make it clear that anger, pride and violence come from the unrighteous desires of our heart. Our actions are the overflow of our heart. If our actions are evil that is because our motives and desires are evil. Unrighteous actions cannot come from a heart that is righteous or which desires righteous outcomes. If the means to bring about the result are unrighteous then the result cannot be righteous. Even if the outcome is the desired outcome or the outcome benefits people – it cannot be regarded by God as righteousness.

A robust belief in the sovereignty of God confronts us with the reality that it is not all up to us. In other words Christians cannot partake in this type of thinking that believes that if we do not stand up for ourselves and make ourselves heard then no one will do it on our behalf. Or which says we must force them to listen to us, because if we do not do it then no one will.

So what do we do, when we are not being heard? When everything within us cries out for us to force ourselves to be heard? Do we “sell our soul” to commit injustice in order to fight injustice?

No, we go to the one who sees the injustice. To the one who always hears, always sees and always listens. We fall on our knees before our Heavenly Father, crying out for mercy, for justice and in repentance for our own hearts filled with violence and evil desires.

We petition the one who has all the power to soften the hearts of those in power, to calm the restless spirits of those who would resort to violence. We pray that we may persevere to do what is right even when it feels foolish and powerless. We trust that God sees, God hears, God acts and He will do what is right.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  Will we trust God’s unseen hand at work today in the midst of chaos and uncertainty?

Too often, when the pressure is on, our theology is revealed, and it is revealed to be man-centred and not God centred. We are found to be those who trust in the immediacy of the hand of man rather than the seemingly hidden hand of God.

All true theology is cross-shaped. The cross demonstrates once and for all that God takes injustice seriously.  At the cross God has dealt decisively with injustice.  Wicked and unjust acts do not escape punishment. And not only the institutional or systemic injustice against which we protest but also the self-centred injustice that lurks within our own hearts.

The paradox of the cross is that whilst God takes injustice seriously, he is also the one who, in mercy, lays down his own life, in order to redeem us from the consequences of our sin. At the cross we see justice and mercy hand in hand.

It is the cross which must drive all our thoughts and actions against injustice. Work hard against injustice, cry out for change, lay down your finances, your time, your comforts and your preferences in order to bring about change. Get involved in change in your community. But fight to remember that a fight for justice must always come from a heart that knows and extends mercy. Mercy not only to those who are victims but also to those who are the perpetrators. That is the scandal of grace.  Grace offers humanity, forgiveness and love to those who would dehumanise, humiliate and oppress.

When we remember the cross we are compelled to cry out, not only for the victims but the oppressors also. We must ask ourselves what does it mean to bless, to serve and to love, not only the victims but the oppressors too. We cannot dehumanise, demonise or hate those who are as much the recipients of Jesus grace and mercy as those whose needs we feel. The way of the cross is a mystery, a paradox, an unnatural, uncomfortable, irrational way of following Jesus who holds grace and mercy together as he builds his Kingdom of peace, healing, justice, mercy and forgiveness.

 

A Morning in Prison

I spent the best part of one Wednesday morning trying to get into prison!

A friend had been arrested on drug possession and I had been trying to confirm her whereabouts for weeks.  Arrest and imprisonment are a fairly normal feature of life for her friends and family.  “She’s probably in Pollsmoor” was the rather cursory, not very concerned answer to my inquiry. I still had no definite answer when I arrived at the metal gates of Pollsmoor’s visitors centre.

Finding information about a possible inmate over the phone had also proven impossible. “Oh no, they never answer the phone.”  A lady visiting her husband in maximum security told me as we waited.  After a few vaguely directional pointing gestures I had found myself seated on the hard wooden benches of the visitors waiting area.  Rather than conduct a study of the faded lime green government issue wall paint I managed to strike up some conversations with the (mostly) ladies waiting with me.  Most of them it seemed were there to visit their husbands, brothers or sons on numerous drug related charges.

I could not help but notice the irony when the same lady who told me the prison officials never answer their phone, laughingly told me that after her husband was arrested she did not speak to him for six months.  She refused to take his phone calls or come visit. “Hy het al die neighbours gecall, en vir hulle gevra om met my to praat.  Maar ek will nie.” (He called all the neighbours and asked them to talk to me. But I didn’t want to)

Finally I managed to flag down a willing prison official, who sent me back the way I had come, using the obligatory vague hand gestures and mumbled directions.  The lady at the computer quickly located my friend, gave me a white scrap of paper with something illegible on it and sent me back to the hard wooden benches in the waiting area.  I made further conversation with the ladies waiting there. They knew all too well how the prison system worked.  “This is the kind of thing you don’t want to know about,” the first lady told me.  She reassured me that I should not have to wait too long.  They on the other hand could possibly wait another three or four hours before they got in.

She had come with a friend whose husband and two sons were all imprisoned at Pollsmoor. Another lady told me her husband was caught with 75 Mandrax tablets in his possession. The judge set bail at R50 000.  “Where am I supposed to come up with that kind of money?” she asked me.

The ladies tire of me and begin talking among themselves. “They all become so lovable when they are in jail.” they say, “But as soon as they are outside it is all the same k*k as before.”

“Except when you come visit, they all complain about the food you bring them,” “But I told him Pollsmoor is not a bladdy holiday.” a third lady speak up  “Lyk die soos a restaurant vir jou?” (Does this look like a restaurant to you?)

They were soon moved to another waiting station.

I bought a coke and stared out the window at the Constantiaberg mountains, struck by the contrast between the drab and oppressive environment of the prison and the breath-taking beauty of the Cape mountains.  I imagined the prisoners tortured by the beauty they were forced to endure every day knowing that for them it was off limits.  I knew it was not only the bars of the prison that kept them away.

“Female” an abrasive voice rouses me from my contemplations.  I swung around desperately seeking the disembodied voice that I was no longer convinced I had in fact heard. I frantically scuttled around; worried that after all this time I might miss my turn.  A few minutes later I managed to locate the body to go with the voice.  The voice having failed to secure an instantaneous response had understandably decided to resume her coffee drinking duties. She gave me that look of disdain that only underpaid government officials and Shoprite cashiers can give you, took my scrap of paper and told me to wait.

A few minutes later we were walking along the prison complex roads on our way to the female prison.  Pollsmoor actually consists of four prisons in one complex (Maximum Security, Awaiting Trial, Female and Juvenile prisons).  I was the only visitor for the female prison at this time.  As we walked along another warden joined her colleague. As I listened in I managed to catch up on all the prison gossip. Romance, it would seem, is not dead in khaki uniforms. Overtime pay, however, is slightly less forthcoming.

As we arrived at our destination I was directed with the usual vague hand gesture and the formless instruction “There.”  After waiting “there” for about 20 minutes I was noticed and wordlessly interrogated, with a sharp raised eyebrow gesture, as to my intent at a female prison. I managed to fumble my scrap of paper out of my pocket and stammer out my friend’s name. The warder enthusiastically (ok I made that part up) consulted a rather large printed out list and informed me she was not there.  I tentatively suggested that perhaps the list was incorrect as it contrasted with the computer records.

I assumed the crash position!

Cue another one of those underpaid government worker stares reserved for those who would dare disturb crucial research into the longevity of government issue chairs. I hastily scribbled my friends name on the piece of paper shoved below my nose.  As the warder moved off to eagerly correct the problem (ok I made that bit up too) of my missing friend, I resumed my long running study of the face brick wall.  A few other researchers present were also too deep in study to engage in much conversation.

At this point a large, scary looking white guy arrives.  The first white person I have seen this morning.  He likes to talk and he is here to bail someone out. A 19-year-old girl arrested on drug charges.  Large-scaring-looking-white-guy (LGLWG) finds it necessary to mention that she is a pretty white girl. The police captain who arrested her, it turns out is a friend of LSLWG’s mother and rather than see her sit in jail, the captain has decided to pay her bail on condition she goes to stay with LSLWG and his mom.  I could not help wondering if this had anything to do with her being a “pretty white girl”?

I am somewhat less than surprised to discover that LSLWG has himself spent some time as a guest of the state…. more than once…  “Nothing major” he shrugs, “just some GBH charges.” I decided that today I would be nice.  “The longest time I spent here,” LSLWG opens up, “was about four months, in awaiting trial.  Ja, and when my case finally got to court, it was thrown out the same day, because the oke who laid a charge never even bothered to show up.  Four months, hey boet.” I was very sympathetic to his pain but I decided not to risk a hug.

As it turns out there is a somewhat unusual philanthropic side to LSLWG’s world.  His girlfriend who runs a “massage parlour” has “rescued” a number of girls from Pollsmoor and given them a second chance and a place to stay. “They earn good money,” he admits.   I catch the assumption that earning good money and staying out of jail is the equivalent of a second chance. Perhaps for many it is all the second chance they can imagine.  I wish I could tell these girls that there is so much more that could be imagined than this. “Can’t your girlfriend find a place for this young girl” another lady asks. “I don’t want to get involved,” LSLWG says.

Eventually they have managed to locate my friend and I get in to see her.  We talk through the glass, just like in the movies, except we don’t have those funky old school telephones. Perhaps you only get those in Maximum Security?  She tells me what she thinks I want to hear.  I tell her we love her and care for her.  She cries when we talk about her children.  She promises me she is going to sort her life out this time. I, sadly, have low expectations and big prayers. “It is almost lunchtime,” she says. I get the hint.  I pray with her.  It took me almost three hours to get in for a 15-minute visit.

I have to rush; I am late for lunch with a friend. No phones allowed when you enter the prison. You feel the isolation once you are inside the prison.  Not even a simple phone call to let a friend know you are running late.  I imagined how isolated the man whose wife refused to speak to him felt. Although LSLWG assured me that he gets calls every night from friends on the inside asking him to send them air time or Shoprite vouchers.  “You will be surprised at how much money there is in here,” he told us with that knowing look.

Now I sit staring at the screen waiting for that final flow of words that lets me know my piece has ended. But there is nothing. I have no great lessons, no moral injunctions, no clever analogies.  I simply spent one extra-ordinary morning experiencing the cycle of ordinary life for thousands of families, thousands of wives, mothers, fathers, children and grandfathers across our beautiful, broken city.

And where is the church at large in all of this I wonder?  Busy, Silent, Sorry, Scared, Apathetic…