Opinionista Jared Sacks 28 May 2013

Faith communities: ‘Uninterrupted conversations’, interrupted

On Friday 24 May, a collection of Christian faith-based communities and theologians came together to build a platform to “re-enter each other's contexts”. It was called “Uninterrupted Conversations by SA Ordinary People: a co-journey by faith communities”, and asked the question: “Why are we stuck in our old paradigms?” Ironically, though, midway through the day, the conversation was verbally disrupted and its doctrine challenged by a critical pastor from Khayelitsha.

The basic idea behind the coming together of various church communities and theological academics was to build a conversation. This dialogue was meant to try to address the polarisation of society, build social cohesion and build a new theological paradigm for the church.

“We need a new critical prophetic spirituality,” said Deon Kitching, from the Emmaus Centre. He told us not to succumb to new age theology, where one lives in our own little corner of a perfect faith that does not interact with others.

This coming together was to build a conversation across different types of theologies, between the white and the black church, between the self and the other. Building an inclusionary church was about conversation: about breaking bread and eating together across races. Doing these things together is supposed to teach us to understand one another and build a more inclusionary society and theology. In other words, build social cohesion.

Vernon Rainwater, from Northland Church in Orlando in the United States, talked about crossing boundaries in music as an example. He profiled an obscure crossing of boundaries between a white southern country singer named Brad Prisley and African American rap/pop artist named LL Cool J. Accidental Racist is ostensibly a song of challenging racial and cultural boundaries. Brad talks about the history of his people, about being both disgusted and proud of his heritage: “We’re still paying for mistakes/That a bunch of folks made long before we came”. (Sound familiar, Democratic Alliance? “Apartheid is over. Deal with it”).

For his part, LL says, “Let bygones be bygones” and even “I’m gonna thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me” (as if African Americans were passive beneficiaries of the fight against slavery). Not to mention: “If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag” (What? The former is a simple piece of headgear, the latter is a flag that represents slavery and racism).

It all sounds nice, certainly. In other words, through their duet, Vernon posited, we can all be hopeful. White and black people are talking to one another now, getting along by putting aside our differences and recognising our common humanity.

Later in the day, Leon Oosthuizen, who hosted the event at his Vredelust Church in Bellville, explained why it is so difficult for the privileged to hear the voices of the poor. Spiwo Xapile from the Presbyterian Church in Gugulethu extolled us to destigmatise black areas and black communities. The story of Jesus is about him crossing boundaries and challenging structures. We need to do that too.

Reflexive living. Crossing boundaries. Social cohesion. Sustainability. Complexity. These are some of the many in vogue phrases in ‘development’ which were preached throughout the day.

But where was the agency of the poor? Where was the “other” people spoke about always being excluded? They were in the kitchen cooking dinner for participants. They were working that Friday morning in factories across Cape Town. They were under bridges in Cape Town’s CBD or the the bush  in Marikana (Philippi East). They were not invited to “Uninterrupted Conversations”.

So it was left up to Xola Skosana from the Way of Life Church in Khayelitsha to challenge the boundaries and exclusions that were so evident.

Xola stood up holding a mirror to the rest of the audience: a collection of theologians and religious leaders positing that perhaps the theological framework itself is not, in fact, enabling. He posited his own history as a continuous disruption of that “disempowering framework”.

Reading into the writings of Paul, who had to claim his right to speak and self-identify as an Apostle, he noted that the gospel should enable and liberate us rather than shackle our minds. Like Paul, who argues for an enabling gospel, Xola attempted to deconstruct terms such as social cohesion. He considered a “theology of tension for the Black Church” which acknowledges the way it has borrowed its theology from Western readings of the scripture. Xola called for a “Hermeneutic of suspicion of the kind of gospel preached by both the white and the black church”. In other words, rather than thinking in terms of social cohesion, inclusion and reform of the church, Xola disrupted this space and the theological framework as a whole: he demanded an entirely new decolonised theology be constructed based on the tenants of black/liberation theology.

Popular websites such as the US-based Gawker have responded to Accidental Racist by remarking that it is little more than an attempt to exonerate racists like Mr Prisley, who proudly wears t-shirts sporting the pro-slavery Confederate flag. Leonard Pitts Jr remarked in a column for the Miami Herald that the song is dishonest and has “the emotional and intellectual depth of a fifth grader’s social studies essay”. In the name of social cohesion and dialogue, structural legacies of racism are being reinforced.

Sometimes, therefore, Xola claims it may be necessary to just be blunt and honest. Tension and even anger can be enabling and empowering where social cohesion can hide injustice. He remarked that he once paraphrased Paul during a land conference in which a group of white farmers were spouting off racist, anti-poor rhetoric. Paul in Galatians 1:9 had said about another Apostle, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” Likewise, Xola had told those farmers to “go to hell”.

What was the outcome of the day? Some conversations that barely scratched the surface of the inequality that permeates our society. Then, a temporary interruption, which sought to problematise this exclusive space and its disabling theological doctrine. Yet the effectiveness of Xola Skosana’s rupture of the status quo will at best be limited by the autocratic structure of the church.

Foundational change will only come when marginalised communities empower themselves to obstruct such exclusive conversations, thereby tipping the balance of power in their favour. Only then may we see a new democratic and enabling theological project being constructed from the bottom up. DM


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