“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”‘
Ok, 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”
My friend Brett has been running a series of Taboo Topics on his blog entitled “What I Would Like My White Friends To Hear.” You can read my contribution to that discussion here if you like. And make sure you don’t miss Brett’s new panel discussion series on race of which I have been asked to take part.
Anyway Brett sent me this blog post, on racial reconciliation in South Africa today for my thoughts. I really liked the post but also I decided to scribble down a few thoughts in response.
The writer acknowledges early on in the post that she is white and middle-class and cannot therefore speak from any other perspective and so this obviously colours some of the questions that are asked or assumed throughout the post. I am not convinced that race is the proverbial elephant in the room for anyone except white people. Only white people are pretending that it is not an issue and trying to press ahead in a mass disacknowledgement of our history and our past. Only white people are trying to pretend race is not an issue anymore because the whole long time of twenty years have passed. Only white people are now welcoming black people into “their spaces” and expecting black people to “be cool about.”
This is actually a well-written, honest and helpful article. But the underlying assumptions and expectations, which in fairness the author is kicking against, are not those of the majority of South Africans. There is no elephant in the room. There is no silent disacknowledgement. There is no pretence that twenty years is a long time. This is an article framed by the questions and assumptions of white South Africans and we can no longer expect to own the right to frame the conversation. We need to do precisely what the author is seeking to do, to listen, to learn, to practice humility, to be patient and to take a million ordinary, everyday steps towards understanding. We must throw out this obsession with it “already being twenty years” and instead acknowledge that there are no easy fixes and no immediate results. We must dig deep and look our past square in the eyes. And together we must travel through the pain to a new future that neither of us has yet seen.
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city that rose up out of the crust of the earth.
And it’s streets were paved with asphalt,
And a river of dirty water ran down along it’s curbs.
It was a city
And its people knew no hope.
They were chased and herded from place to place by the churning jaws of bulldozers.
They were closed up in the anonymous cubicles of great brick prisons called housing projects.
They were forced out of work by the fearsome machines and computers,
And by the sparseness of their learning.
They were torn into many pieces by the hostile angers of racial fears and guilt and prejudice.
Their workers were exploited.
Their children and teenagers had no parks to play in.
No pools to swim in,
No space in crowded rooms to learn in,
No hopes to dream in,
And the people knew no hope.
Their bosses underpaid them.
Their landlords overcharged them.
Their churches deserted them.
And all of life in the city seemed dark and wild, like a jungle,
A jungle lined with asphalt.
And the people sat in darkness
I had a dream,
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in neon-lighted darkness.
And I heard people talking.
And I looked at them.
Across their chests in large, golden letters-written by their own hands
Across their chests were written the words:
“I am a Christian.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said;
“How terrible…How terrible…How terrible.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said:
“That is no place to live,
But some of our people have wandered there,
And we must go and rescue them.
And we must go and gather them, like huddled sheep into a fold;
And we will call it a City Church.”
So they built their church.
And the people came,
And they walked past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying men who lined the city’s streets.
Year after year they walked past,
Wearing their signs: “I am a Christian.”
Then one day the people in the church said:
“This neighborhood is too bad for good Christians.
Let us go to the suburbs where God dwells, and build a church there.
And one by one they walked away, past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying people.
They walked fast.
And did not hear a voice that said:
“…the least of these…the least of these…”
And they walked by, and they went out, and they built a church.
The church was high and lifted up, and it even had a cross.
But the church was hollow,
And the people were hollow,
And their hearts were hard as the asphalt streets of the jungle.
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in bright and gaudy darkness.
And I saw more people with signs across their chest.
And they were Christians too.
And I heard them say:
“How terrible…how terrible…how terrible.
The city is filled with sinners:
To save sinners,
To save sinners.
But they are so unlike us,
But we are supposed to save them…
To save them,
To save them.”
And one person said:
“Can’t we save them without going where they are?”
And they worked to find a way to save and be safe at the same time.
Meanwhile, I saw them build a church,
And they called it a Mission,
A City Mission:
And all the children came by to see what this was.
And the city missionaries who had been sent to save them gathered them in.
So easy to work with children, they said,
And they are so safe, so safe.
And week after week they saved the children
(Saved them from getting in their parent’s way on Sunday morning).
And in the dream the City Missionaries looked like Pied Pipers, with their long row of children stretched out behind them,
And the parents wondered in Christianity was only for children.
And when the missionaries finally came to see them, and refused to sit in their broken chair, and kept looking at the plaster falling, and used a thousand words that had no meaning, and talked about rescuing them from hell while they were freezing in the apartment, and asked them if they were saved, and walked out into their shiny care, and drove off to their nice, safe neighborhood-
When that happened, the parents knew;
This version of Christianity had no light for their jungle.
Then, soon, the children saw too; it was all a children’s game;
And when they became old enough they got horns of their own,
And blew them high and loud,
And marched off sneering, swearing, into the darkness.
I had a dream,
And I saw the Christians in the dark city,
And I heard them say:
“We need a revival to save these kinds of people.”
And they rented the auditorium,
And they called in the expert revivalist,
And every night all the Christians came, and heard all the old, unintelligible, comfortable words, and sang all the old assuring songs, and went through all the old motions when the call was made.
Meanwhile, on the outside,
All the other people waited impatiently in the darkness for the Christians to come out, and let the basketball game begin.
I had a dream.
And I saw Christians with guilty consciences,
And I heard them say:
“What shall we do?
What shall we do?
What shall we do?
These people want to come to OUR church,
To OUR church.”
And someone said:
“Let’s build a church for THEM,
They like to be with each other anyway.”
And they started the church,
And the people walked in.
And for a while, as heads were bowed in prayer, they did not know.
But then, the prayers ended,
And they people looked up, and looked around,
And saw that every face was THEIR face,
And every color was THEIR color,
And they stood up, and shouted loudly within themselves:
“Let me out of this ghetto, this pious, guilt-built ghetto.”
And they walked out into the darkness,
And the darkness seemed darker than ever before,
And the good Christians looked, and said,
“These people just don’t appreciate what WE do for THEM.”
And just as the night seemed darkest, I had another dream.
I dreamed that I saw young people walking,
Walking into the heart of the city, into the depths of the darkness.
They had no signs, except their lives.
And they walked into the heart of the darkness and said:
“Let us live here, and work for light.”
They said, “Let us live here and help the rootless find a root for their lives.
Let us live here, and help the nameless find their names.”
They said, “Let us live here and walk with the jobless until they find work.
Let us live here, and sit in the landlord’s office until he gives more heat and charges less rent.”
They said, “Let us live here, and throw open the doors of this deserted church to all the people of every race and class;
Let us work with them to find the reconciliation God has brought.”
And they said, “Let us walk the asphalt streets with the young people, sharing their lives, learning their language, playing their sidewalk, backyard games, knowing the agonies of their isolation.”
And they said, “Let us live here, and minister to as many men as God gives us grace,
Let us live here,
And die here, with out brothers of the jungle,
Sharing their apartments and their plans.”
And the people saw them,
And someone asked who they were,
A few really knew
They had no signs
But someone said he thought they might be Christians,
And this was hard to believe, but the people smiled;
And a little light began to shine in the heart of the asphalt jungle.
Then in my dream I saw young people,
And I saw the young men and women
Those who worked in the city called Chicago,
And they were weary,
And the job was more than they could bear alone,
And I saw them turn, turn and look for help,
And I heard them call:
“Come and help us,
Come and share this joyful agony, joyful agony,
Come as brothers in the task,
Come and live and work with us,
Teachers for the crowded schools,
Doctors for the overflowing clinics,
Social workers for the fragmented families,
Nurses for the bulging wards,
Pastors for the yearning flocks,
Workers for the fighting gangs,
Christians who will come and live here,
Here in the heart of the darkness,
Who will live here and love here that a light might shine for all.
I heard them call,
And I saw the good Christians across the country,
And their answers tore out my heart.
Some said, “There isn’t enough money there.”
Some said, “It’s too bad there. I couldn’t raise children.”
Some said, “I’m going into foreign missions, where things don’t seem so dark.”
Some said, “The suburbs are so nice.”
Some said, “But I like it here on the farm.”
And one by one they turned their backs and began to walk away.
At this moment my dream was shattered by the sound of a great and mighty whisper, almost a pleading sound;
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am hungry in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am thirsty in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am a stranger in this asphalt jungle.”
And a voice said, “Come, help me, for I have been stripped naked, naked of all legal rights and protection of the law, simply because I am black in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for my heart is sick with hopelessness and fear in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, live with me in the prison of my segregated community, and we will break down the walls together.”
And the voices were many,
And the voice was one,
And the Christians knew whose Voice it was.
And they turned,
And their faces were etched with the agonies of decisions.
And the dream ended.
But the voice remains,
And the choice remain,
And the city still yearns for light.
And the King who lives with the least of his brothers and sisters in the asphalt jungle…
Yearns for us
HT to Nigel for posting this first.
It struck me once again this morning how idealistic much of our South African dialogue around transformation can be. On my way to a meeting I was listening to a radio debate (is that the sound of my street cred card being revoked?) around transformation of the judiciary.
The details of the debate were almost irrelevant; change the topic to another similar transformation issue, insert the appropriate terminology and you could have the same debate tomorrow.
Two particular responses stand out for me:
1. Force them to transform:
This is quite common among those who have been previously disadvantaged (to use the ridiculously convoluted politically correct term) who despite years of hard work and honest effort are still faced with the fact that white people control most of the wealth and economic opportunities in South Africa. If they will not change – then make them change! It is the government’s job to force them to share!
There are definitely days that I agree with this sentiment and there is much to commend it. But, besides the potential social fall-out of bitterness and division, this kind of transformation is shallow. It may transform the outward behaviour but it has not changed the heart. It may force a man to share but cannot make him want to share. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect resulting in deepened racial hatred and increased self-preservation. Compulsion may have the desired outward effect but even then rather than a spirit of giving and nation-building (to use another over-used phrase) it breeds as an unwanted side effect a focussing of energies, not on self-sacrifice and generosity, they rather on devising ways to “cheat the system” for “our” benefit.
2. It is the right thing to do:
This attitude goes something like this, people must change because it is the right thing to do. This might seem strange because I agree that it is the right thing to do. But why is it the right thing to do? Why in the world should a rich white man share his hard-earned (he did work hard for it albeit in a system that favoured him) material wealth or creative capital with a poor, ill-educated black woman who possibly does not even speak English? Why should he take from his children in order to give to another man’s children? Why would anyone disadvantage his own people in order to advantage another people?
Transformation only makes sense to me in the light of the gospel. The gospel story of Jesus, who though he is profoundly not like us, gives up all his heavenly privilege for us. Jesus who does not hoard his treasure but instead gives up his own body to rescue undeserving sinners. Jesus who lays down all the riches of heaven in order to bring all the riches of heaven to us. Jesus who not only lays down his rights but who takes up his enemies and adopts them into his family.
It is only as I follow this Jesus; as I stake my life on this gospel that I not only want to see change but I rejoice to share my resources with those not like me. The gospel transforms not just the outward behaviour but the heart. The gospel is far deeper and richer than much of what passes for transformation today. When the gospel is at work we no longer have to settle for only a superficial transformation but now a deep and beautiful transformation is at work. The gospel redefines “those like me” – it is not race or economics but together we may all stand as sons and daughters of the Most High God.
Gospel transformation is not glamorous or high-profile. It is less concerned with what the president or constitutional court are doing. They can only control the superficial acts of transformation but thousands of ordinary Christians following Jesus everyday in the simple, loving acts of brotherhood can slowly and in weakness begin to transform a community.
Some Practical Considerations:
We must never make the mistake of imagining that bringing people together simply means, hanging out under the same roof or in the same space, interspersed with some pleasantries. To be a church that truly is good news to Cape Town, that brings people together in a manner that can be described as “one new man”, will involve more than people of different cultures gathering in the same building once or twice a week. Even unbelievers do that regularly in restaurants, workplaces, sports events, malls or coffee shops (Matthew 6:46-47).
It will require something of us – a laying down of our lives, our cultural idols, our preferences, our way of doing things, in order to truly understand, love and serve our brothers and sisters. It will require us to eat together, spend time together, be in each others homes, with each others families, to pray together, study the Word together, engage on mission together.To learn to celebrate and enjoy the things which the other enjoys or celebrates. We will have to learn grace, mercy, self-sacrifice and open, honest-discourse if this is to happen. We cannot simply expect it to happen we must be intentional about it!
This will require:
a) Our hearts must want it, work for it, pursue it. In many ways the external actions are incidental to a changed heart that desperately wants to see the gospel reality that the divided walls have been destroyed embodied in the community of God’s people. Discussions of the externals in this forum become irrelevant then, all that counts is that we love our neighbour as ourselves – and follow wherever that takes us.
b) Perseverance: We cannot give up easily – this task is not for the faint-hearted, we will hurt, offend and misunderstand one another, together we must seek grace and forgiveness
c) Time: We must not be fooled into thinking that a couple of meetings in a week and suddenly we are having community. We must be prepared to “waste time” just hanging out with each other, laughing with each other, telling our stories and being together. In order for real community to be fostered, for us to really begin talking to one another we have to be spending time with one another.
Somehow out of the melting pot of hours and days and quick coffees and lazy braais and long walks there begins to emerge a “oneness”, an understanding of one another that is built on relationship. So that when we hit the hard cultural and racial issues we are dealing with these in the context of relationship. That is very different to trying to work that out with people who are functional strangers.
d) Space: The context in which this reconciliation must happen must be mutual – we must both enter each others worlds and experience, question and learn, know where we live, grew up, what we eat. Too much of this kind of community has happened on “white turf”. We must move it into the townships, Cape Flats and rural areas if we are to truly be “one new humanity”
e) Prayer: Only God can do this – left to our own devices we will fail. But we must pray for this with the passion and perseverance of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-5). Lord we will not stop until you work in and among us and make us these people together!
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The apostle Paul writing about relationships between the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2 has this to say:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (v14)
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (v14-16, 19-22 edited)
To believe the gospel is not simply to give mental assent to some rational truths that you agree with (it is certainly not less than this). To believe the gospel is to hear the word of declaration of the arrival of God’s King and his means of salvation and to join your life with His Story. It is the Great Story whose aim is the glory of God and whose plot is the restoration of true humanity.
When the gospel is at work among his people in South Africa we ought to see the church, in part and yet in significant ways, overcoming these issues. We ought to see churches bringing people of different races, cultures and socio-economic classes together in the gospel.
The desire of our nation, reflected in the talk of our politicians and thought leaders is for meaningful racial reconciliation. But for all that talk we have made little progress. We may work in the same buildings, ride the same trains or even attend the same churches but at the end of the day we go home to our own communities, by and large populated by “people like us”.
We may exchange small talk and pleasantries or even engage in rigorous professional or academic debate but what do we say when our guard is down and there are only people like us left? I am frequently shocked by other white people “taking me into their confidence” with the assumption that I too am like them and will concur with their frustrations and prejudices.
What of the church? If there is any place that racial reconciliation ought to be succeeding it is in the church. The gospel gives me reason to lay down my privilege, my grudges, my cultural distinctives, my personal preferences, my history and together stand at the foot of the cross amazed at the grace of Jesus. Jesus, who though he was so very different from us, became like us, in order to redeem us.
Jesus who died for us so that we might live, be forgiven and adopted into his family. Jesus whose resurrection life has broken out into the world breaking down the dividing wall of hostility (through his own body) and creating in himself one new man, thus bringing about the shalom (peace) of God. That would surely look and be good news to our divided and broken nation.
In Revelation 7:9-10 the Kingdom of God in it’s fullness is revealed as a heaving multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural people. And this united, restored humanity is directly linked to the gospel (v10).
“I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
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