Last Sunday, congregants of Rivers Church in Sandton were divided over the issue of race. In a sermon entitled “Overcoming Abandonment”, senior pastor Andre Olivier based the service’s message on accepting help in times of loneliness and strife.
On the surface of things, it appeared like the typical address you’d hear at any pentecostal church. The use of a common form of adversity rendered into a religious obstacle, usually set up by the devil, to test one’s trust and faith in the Lord.
As a former attendee of Rivers Church, I’ll admit I’ve always admired how Pastor Olivier made the Bible accessible without watering down the weight of the written word. While my reasons for leaving coincided with a longstanding mistrust of religion, I wasn’t surprised to have received a text message from a family member who relayed, with a degree of disappointment and anger, the remarks made by Olivier.
For all his humility, charm and compassion as a man of God, I could never quite shake the feeling that Pastor Olivier was partial to the kind of prejudice I’d grown used to hearing at boozy braais or in queues at Woolworths. Without sounding too smug, I wasn’t at all shocked when said family member went on to write that Olivier, after having allegedly seen a black person on TV state that white people stole the land, proclaimed that the reason white people possessed land was because God had “favoured them”.
My lack of bemusement wasn’t down to any resentment towards Rivers Church or Pastor Olivier for that matter. It wasn’t to be explained using trendy populist rhetoric which demands a consistent and breathtaking suspicion of white people.
In fact, I find the treatment of Olivier’s very political use of the pulpit as a terrible anomaly obtuse and disingenuous. While people of faith have taken up the duty to spread the word of the God they serve; they’re still members of a society that is just as political as it is imperfect. Promising to abide by a divine standard of tolerance and acceptance doesn’t mean you’re incapable of practising the random biases which underpin so much of human interaction.
Given how much the church has always been a space for political conscientising, be it on the right or the left, it’d be foolish for any of us to think its purposes are solely religious. It goes without saying that I believe Pastor Olivier had a duty to ensure his black congregants felt welcome and safe in that service. I can confidently say that he failed on both of those counts. That loyal members of the church called in to Talk Radio 702 the next morning to express their dismay at his insensitive and tone-deaf comments speaks volumes about how much divisions in our country play out in arenas that we deem sacred.
For some 702 listeners to have accused Pastor Olivier of suggesting, at some stage, that black South Africans expect handouts reveals a wilful ignorance towards the millions who get up at the crack of dawn to work undignified jobs for a pittance. Many of us who attend Rivers Church have seen our elders wither away from scoliosis, arthritis and cancer after dedicating a lifetime to dangerous and debilitating labour.
It’s outrageous that we’re still entertaining this condescending speculation over black South Africans and their work ethic, especially when those harbouring such suspicions were most likely cared for and raised by hard-working and committed black women. Those expressing shock and offence were upset that their pastor refused to understand and accommodate the different journeys and histories of his diverse congregation. I think they were more entitled to those sentiments.
But seeing as churches have always been sites of political rearing, should we really be taken aback by Pastor Olivier’s comments? Religious leaders have long delivered an interpretation of the word which intersects with their own political leanings and sensibilities.
So in order for us to understand the rationale of a figure like Pastor Andre, we have to familiarise ourselves with the influential position of the Dutch Reformed Church during apartheid. To comprehend how a religious institution of that kind came to endorse a separatist doctrine, we have to look at the Voortrekker Monument which gives insight into how Afrikaner nationalism, combined with conservative Calvinism, shaped the identity of a community who believed they were God’s chosen people.
Likewise, to grasp why a sizeable portion of black congregants stood by Pastor Olivier, we have to examine how integral the church was to the psychological well-being of the oppressed majority. Irrespective of the denomination, you would have revelled in the freedom of not being harassed for a dompass. You were bound to feel the joy of not being called a boy or a girl but being referred to as mama, mme, ntate, or baba.
Though the barrel and Bible-carrying colonists didn’t arrive on the continent with our best intentions at heart, the church became a place which contributed to some of the earliest forms of black resistance. In Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social and Cultural History (David Philip), scholar Richard Elphick writes that Helen Joseph once said, “The Church turned its back on the ANC, the ANC never turned its back on the Church”. He goes on to quote the political scientist, Tom Lodge, who commented that the early days of the Defiance Campaign were accompanied by prayers, hymns and nightly church services. So while white-led churches may have been eerily silent on the plight of black South Africans during the Struggle, it didn’t result in black South Africans deserting Christianity en masse.
I think it’s important for us to acknowledge the extent to which race seeps into our daily lives, even in places we assume to be above human discord. Those who felt let down by Pastor Olivier aren’t asking for much. They’d like him to recognise the number of ways in which he’s benefited from not having to feel, let alone see, the brunt of inequality in our country.
Throughout the ages, the church has been responsible for steering the values of society. While that may no longer be the case, religious leaders like Andre Olivier have the duty to ensure their institutions don’t promote archaic beliefs that coddle the ignorance and privilege of the white South African elite. DM
Khanya Mtshali is a writer and journalist completing her MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at New York University. She has a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) (Hons) from the University of Edinburgh. In addition to cultural criticism, she writes short fiction and poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @UncleKhanya
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine