I hate this country in which one’s race is the single most significant determinant of one’s fluency in funeral songs

Because Death is racist and blackness requires being prepared for him in and out of season

 

I hate this country where rain means different things to different people

How some can celebrate the filling of the dams, while others’ homes, belongings and belonging get washed away

 

I hate this country where nothing makes any sense

Where people talk about a housing crisis, while multi-million rand mansions stand unoccupied for most months of the year

 

I hate this country that too often feels like a knotted mess that cannot be undone

Because the oppressor/oppressed dynamics are so entangled within our beings that in the process of untangling it feels impossible not to lose pieces of ourselves

 

I hate this country that means vastly different things to different people

Simultaneously occupying lists of the best places to live in the world, and the most dangerous places to live in the world

 

I hate this country that is so two-faced in its reception of people into its borders

Welcoming some with open arms, while perpetually making others feel like the unwanted stepchildren who don’t belong

 

I hate this country that doesn’t even bother to hide its idolatry of capital

Where money can buy you education, healthcare, dignity, and even humanity, but if you can’t afford it you can forget about it

 

I hate this country that doesn’t even bother to hide its racism

Where white peoples’ right to play golf is prioritised over black peoples’ rights to health, food, housing and sanitation

 

I hate this country where having a vagina far too often represents a death sentence

And penises are weaponised to maintain the oppression of womxn and children

 

I hate this country where the church is just as dangerous a space for womxn as anywhere else

And theology is twisted to uphold the strongholds of patriarchy and violence

 

I hate this country where proximity to whiteness is proxy for the amount of attention one’s murder is given

And the brutal violence experienced daily by so many is deemed unworthy of outcry

 

I hate this country that is too often the stuff of nightmares

Where you can become as woke as you like, but there is no waking from this mess

Is the Church Decolonisable?

What can help us answer that question, is to consider another: was there ever an ‘uncolonised’ church, or has the church simply historically been a tool for colonisation?

If there was such a thing as a pre-colonial church, or a church untouched by colonisation, then perhaps there is a possibility of decolonising society’s current expression of it. If, however, the church, since its inception, has been imagined as a tool for colonisation/control/domination/social reproduction, then the idea of decolonising it does not even make sense. Such a church is incongruent with a decolonial imagination.

Here perhaps we need to do some work of separating the institutional church that emerged as the dominant and enforced religion of Constantine’s Rome, from the church that we see in the biblical book of Acts that began in a particular context as a gathering of people seeking to be neighbours to each other as they followed and expressed the calling and spirituality of Jesus in the world*.

Once we separate these two expressions of ‘church’, perhaps we can conclude that the institutional church is inherently colonial, and perhaps therefore ‘un-decolonisable’. Maybe even irredeemable.

However, in this separation we see that there was a pre-colonial expression of church that looked like community and life on the margins of society. Church that looked like a space of intersection, where diverse communities could create home together. A space of radical challenge to the idea of individual ownership, as people came together and shared their belongings so that everyone would have what they needed. Such an expression of church is inherently anti-colonial. It does not need to be decolonised or redeemed, but perhaps remembered and recovered.

Those of us who today find ourselves seeking to be neighbours to each other in a world that is too often explicitly un-neighbourly, and to follow and express the spirituality of Jesus in society, need to develop an imagination for such radical spaces of inclusion, belonging and generosity that challenge the status quo on every level.

With regards to the church, colonialism and capitalism have done what they do best: taken an idea that is revolutionary in its very nature, turned it against its origin, and  popularised it into something that will promote the dominant narratives and ideology and in so doing, uphold the status quo. This tactic repurposes and domesticates radical ideas to fit within conservative frameworks, in a way that can act to mask its deeper intentions. If you have been socialised into such a framework — specifically when it comes to the church — the work of untangling is complex, and at times feels like losing parts of yourself and your faith.

In the complexity of this journey I think it is helpful that we have an expression to look back on and draw from within the biblical text. The question is are we able to put that context in conversation with out own, to explore what might be being asked of us today, as we try to live faithfully to the call of Love?  Are we able to recover the radical Christian imagination?

 

* In reality this boundary line is not so straightforward or black and white as I have made it out to be. I understand and recognise that there are beautiful and liberatory and important and communal signs of life even within the church as an institution. I also recognise that regarding the institutional church as a unit is often unhelpful as there are so many expressions within it, but I thought it was necessary for the purposes of this post. There is much space for nuance to be considered and teased out.

That Day…

We fight not for the sake of fighting, but for that day when fighting is no longer required
Because the darkness has finally been swallowed up by light

In that day our fighting shall turn to dancing as we twirl to songs of celebration
Our attention will shift from destruction to creation, because all that had needed to fall will have fallen

And perhaps on day one we will wake up confused, unsure of who we are outside of the calling to loosen the chains of injustice
But on that day there will be an abundance of grace, and space for us to find our feet, time no longer a slave driver but a gift

On that day we will learn to find ourselves and each other outside of a world woven of suffering
We will learn to make art, jokes and conversation that depend not on pain
We will learn to create beauty from beauty

And while that day will not be tomorrow, nor even perhaps the tomorrow of many years to come
At least part of our work must be to train our eyes to see it
For if we can just glimpse it, our fight is not futile, but the gateway under construction between this world and that

Home

What’s in a room?

Well, this one’s big and blue, filled with cushioned chairs placed in long, neat rows

Stairs leading up to a stage flooded with light, bright and orange

It’s a room*

But on closer inspection, I notice white marks pitted into the blue carpet where the black legs of chairs once stood

Those scars stark reminders of the parallels in our history

Only the black legs of the removed belonged not to chairs but people, with skins too dark to remain within the parts of the country undergoing a violent lightening process

And so, like the chairs, they were moved somewhere out of view and only the scars remained

And they make me think of the way that history erases some and highlights others

And I think of the erasure of people like me

A whole generation that could have been, but were deemed illegal through the immorality act

A people neither fully black, nor fully white*, but pieces of each that find themselves fighting it out, awkwardly figuring out how to reside side by side within their hosts

Within me

I am an amalgamation of contradictions that have only recently truly learned to make peace with one another, and acknowledge each other’s value

Because diversity always increases complexity, and maybe it’s the multiplicity of layers of sometimes opposing identities

That makes it difficult for me to see the world in black and white

Instead I find myself teetering in between, taking my cues from the shades of grey, stutteringly finding a way to walk the line of uncertainty

Often wishing for the simplicity enjoyed by those who find themselves firmly planted on one side of an issue

Unquestionably certain that their eyes see things right, and that those on the other side see things wrong

But my eyes do not work that way, my vision is more blurred, but well trained to see what’s underneath the surface

A gift that at times feels like a curse, forcing me to abide in this uncomfortable in between

A nomad, my only home nestled within my rib cage

For I am at once both oppressor and oppressed, coloniser and colonised

Somehow disenfranchised within my own being

Birthed on African soil, but whisked away soon after to the land of Queen Elizabeth

Only to return in 1995, once the legal aspects of apartheid had died

Yet the spirit managed to survive

And so did I, by denying the aspects of myself that were aligned with what society deemed as black, while embracing the sides they thought of as white

And so, as he had done externally in the years prior, the coloniser in me was victorious once more

Inciting the worst kind of violence- that which is done against oneself

And the journey of picking up the broken shards, and piecing them back together, has been hard, but important

Because wholeness is my inheritance

And my wholeness is the world’s inheritance

For they will not benefit from a me at odds with myself

And I intend for my life to be a gift- one inevitably layered with complexity, mystery, uncertainty, but also the light, wonder, and hope, that anyone finding themselves along that confusing spectrum of grey, can hold onto

And find themselves

Home

 

* This poem was written in and found inspiration from a big blue hall, hence the beginning…

*I recognise that ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ are constructs

*This poem is really meant to be spoken rather than written, but…

 

 

Let Justice Roll

*A present day rewriting of Amos

 

My people

Those called after my name

Those created in my image

Whose origins and stories I have known intimately

And been intricately involved in

Those I knit together with love and intention

And led with cords of kindness

Whose names I have engraved into my very skin

For whom I paved the way out of oppression

And broke the chains of slavery

My people

 

How quickly you have forgotten these paths we have travelled

How quickly your memory has unravelled this shared history

How swiftly you have reduced me to a God of apathy

Neutral in the face of injustice

Do you not know me at all?

 

For you perfect your religion like it’s a play, getting on your knees to pray, memorising your sermon lines, finding flawless harmonies to enhance your worship sets

Yet off stage, you underpay your employees, and justify harsh inequality with your gospel of prosperity, silencing my prophets who proclaim liberation.

The sound of your worship is deafening when combined with the cries of the labourers that you have underpaid

The smell of your incense offered at the temple is unbearable when mixed with the teargas used to protect your privilege

Your offerings are a mockery when they have been gained through the pain and exploitation of others

Your sisters and brothers

 

Their bones cry out from the ground

The bones of the landless, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the oppressed

The bones of my people cry out from the ground

 

And even this ground cries out for the waters of justice to flow

For the water it has known has been the sweat of those who have toiled it as their own while never getting to own even a slice

Their cries and groans the lullabies it has grown accustomed to

Yes, the land knows them well

They are one and the same

Their tears have watered its barren plains

Their blood has stained its soils red

It has become the bed of their final slumber

Home to countless of their fallen numbers

The land continues to swallow them whole

 

How long will you stand by as it swallows them whole

Into its ravenous cracks that echo the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor

In spasm under the weight of injustice, creation groans

The land cries out for living waters to flow

This drought will not be remedied through trickle-down charity

 

Your last remaining hope is to seek me and live

The God who brought you up out of Egypt

Seek me and live

The God who leads you into places of rest

Seek me and live

The God who is all-seeing and all-feeling

Seek me and live

The God who believes there is nothing that is not worth redeeming

Seek me and live

The God who loves deeply those you disdain

Seek me and live

The God who stands on the side of the marginalised

Seek me and live

The God who tears down temples and flips over tables

Seek me and live

The God who proclaims liberty to the captives

Seek me and live

The God who is good news to the poor

Seek me and live

 

That justice may roll down like mighty waters

And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

 

 

Untitled

God,

I sometimes wonder about that promise that you made to humanity, after the great flood. That you would never again erase the vast majority of humankind from the earth. How many times have you looked down at the state of things and rued that day, regretted those words? How many times, over and over again, would humanity have been near wiped out if it hadn’t been for that uttered promise? A person of your word, going back on that was never an option. There are no take-backs with you. But how many times have you wished?

How many times, when seeing the strong mete out pain and destruction on the weak? How many times, when seeing the oppressors indifferent in their violent subjugation of the oppressed? How many times, as you struggle to recognise your image within us, as we become less and less human?

And how long will it all continue this way? Is this simply our destiny that we cannot get away from no matter how hard we try? Some fatal flaw in our DNA that keeps us in this struggle for power, which leaves no one the winner? Will there ever be liberation for all, or is that just a pipe dream?

 

Selah.

 

And then there is Jesus. And he comes down to earth, giving up his power, to be like us. And in his time here, even with all his God-ness, he never replicates the oppressor-oppressed dynamics. Even as one who holds the knowledge of all things, he never colonises with that knowledge. In his careful questions, he enacts a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, the knowledge emerging from within those to whom he speaks. In his gentle weaving of stories, he creates space for listeners to interact with his words in a way that makes sense to them. In his non-prescriptive teachings, he displays such a deep love for freedom that he refuses to control people even in getting them there.

And then he allows himself to be murdered, so committed to freedom that he refuses to control what people believe about him, even though that would have been well within his realm of power. He dies, fully taking on the identity of the oppressed, the cross his lynching tree.

And when he comes back to life, he does it in a world that is still not perfect. Where the oppressors still walk free, and the crosses are not yet empty. But when he comes back to life, he is no longer ‘the oppressed’ but victor, overcomer. He is the sign that even in a world that continues to not be perfect, a world in which we must still fight for all to be liberated, we do not have to wear the cloak that we have worn. The one that has been handed to us, or the one we have given to ourselves. Jesus means that amongst chains we can be free. And in the same way that his final freedom represents freedom to us, so our liberation is itself liberating.

In the midst of the struggle for freedom, we are free.

A luta continua.

The Narratives We Weave

I had the privilege of attending a workshop this month run by Jarrod Mckenna on Contemplative Activism. It  sparked in me a lot of thinking about the narratives that we take on as individuals, communities, and societies, and how these narratives form us. A story uncritically told, is a story we end up re-enacting.

The workshop began with a study of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. This was a story continually told and retold by the Babylonians in ancient times. It involves a pre-earth reality, containing multiple gods constantly vying for authority, using violence and coercive power to get what they desire. Eventually in the story, the earth comes into being through the brutal murder of the matriarchal deity, and humans are created to become slaves for the gods. In a society where the position of king was synonymous with absolute and oppressive power, and the common person existed simply to serve the king’s wishes, the story made perfect sense, even to the point that when human sacrifices were required for the annual re-enactments of the Enuma Elish story, people willingly complied.

In the workshop, this story was then compared with the Lion King’s famous song, the Circle of Life. For the lion- who incidentally is the ‘narrator’ of this particular story- this circle of life concept poses no great threat. He is the top of the food chain after all. But for the gazelle, it promises a violent and undignified end. Yet because this is the only narrative being told, it is uncritically absorbed by hearers and tellers alike, and when something is spun as ‘the norm’ or even as necessary for the sustaining of life, discussions about good or evil are discounted before they have even been brought up. The thought of say, a gazelle speaking out against an ‘unjust’ system where she always gets cast as prey, would simply be considered absurd by a society firmly under the spell of ‘that’s just the way it is’. When a narrative becomes dominant, when it settles in the minds of its inhabitants as the norm, those served by it, and even those most oppressed by it, often comply and play their predestined roles accordingly.

When I look at the church, I see that we have created our own versions of Enuma Elish, our own versions of the Circle of Life, that keep the powers firmly in their place and absolve us from our responsibility to follow Jesus’ example of disrupting the systems of oppression. I think of the prosperity gospel, whether preached in its full unapologetic form, or the more subtle ways that it is perpetuated through our rhetoric that equates wealth with blessing, and thus poverty with a curse. I think of how we are taught through societal narratives, but also through those of the church, that wealth and good fortune are seen as rewards directly connected to our hard work, our good choices, or our being ‘good Christians’. And by implication, poverty or bad fortune are somehow the fault of the person they are acted upon, and thus we absolve ourselves of all responsibility. And through this, the string of Ubuntu, by which we are connected to all other human beings, is cut, and we are reduced to lives of individualism. I think also of the uncritical narrative around the concept of God’s sovereignty, through which we allow ourselves to attribute everything we see around us, be it ‘good or evil’, to the will and plan of the almighty God. And therefore, the disruption of it is almost frowned upon.

And these narratives and the many others we buy into and propagate, like the circle of life are self-perpetuating. They allow those on top to remain safe and smug within their supposedly self-made bubbles of comfort, in vehement denial of any responsibility for the conditions outside. And they back those on the bottom into a tight corner, convincing them that their prison is of their own making, and that their salvation lies in their patient unquestioning acceptance of their inhumane conditions.

And it is in the perpetuation of these narratives that religion becomes the opiate of the masses which we swallow unquestioningly, willingly adding our strength to the upholding of the status quo. The same status quo that God’s story tirelessly seeks to disrupt, over and over and over again.

For in the Genesis creation story, the earth is birthed out of unconditional love and community. Creation is seen as good. Human beings are created not as slaves, but as individuals with agency and creativity, made in the very image of God. And then, to shatter any illusion of the continued existence of Babylonian dynamics or hierarchies, God, who has all the means to hang out at the top of the food chain forever, attributing the world’s suffering to the circle of life, chooses instead to be born into and live in the world as a human being, finally giving up his own life for the liberation of all. And so the lion becomes the lamb, putting a spanner in the works of the circle of life.

There is a new narrative, and it is radical and subversive and surprising and shocking and offensive and refreshing and liberating. Its name is Jesus and we get to be part of it.