Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Post-apartheid Incarnational Theology

The phrase ‘post-apartheid incarnational theology’ sounds a bit fancy. But actually it’s really simple. It basically entails those who currently have lots of power and privilege giving it up in order to bring about reconciliation and equality. I see it consisting of five foundational values: (1) it is multi-racial and builds bridges across divides, (2) it has its own theological narrative, (3) it is rooted in place, (4) it is oriented around community, and (5) it embraces those at the margins. I shall look at each of these in turn.

1 Multi-racial and builds bridges across divides
This is significant, as it looks to address and level out the racial hierarchy so entrenched in South African culture. Rowan Williams states that the “incarnation…is the bridge between human and divine society, the revelation of how human community is rooted in the communal existence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, p.226) If, theologically speaking, the incarnation acts as a bridge between an otherwise insurmountable divide, the ‘knock on’ effects are obvious in a divided society, with inter-racial dialogue and genuine friendships key considerations. A post-apartheid incarnational theology must look at where bridges need to be built, and then set about building them. This might relate to race, space, faith, politics, gender, or any number of other strands of the fabric of society. Williams comments, “the Christian movement…is a missionary movement: that is, it works on the assumption that it has something to say that is communicable beyond its present boundaries and is humanly attractive or compelling across these boundaries.” (Williams, p.230) If boundaries represent opportunity, there is certainly no lack of opportunity in South Africa for bridges to be built.

2 Has its own theological narrative
This stands in contrast to Eurocentric (white-based) conceptions of race that consistently look to construct a mono-racial history. Every place has its own story, and that story is rooted in place. To position ourselves in a particular place and time mirrors God’s example. For example, in South African, coloureds were uniquely marginalized and so have a unique story that needs to be told without perpetuating racial categories set by apartheid. As this story is told, a coloured theology will emerge that stands apart from other experiences. How does this theology address coloured issues of ‘hybridity’, trauma of living amongst a growing gang presence, and disillusionment with a current democratic ‘freedom’ that arguably offers less opportunity than past political oppression? Coloured ‘placedness’ is a unique experience – so a theology of the displaced communities of the Cape Flats should aim to “comprehend the relationship between local theologies and the grand narratives of the Christian tradition” (James Cochrane, Circles of Dignity, p.162) neither neglecting as yet unheard stories and experiences, both individual and corporate, nor disregarding the bigger theological discourse to which it can contribute.

3 Rooted in place
There are three issues to which a rootedness in place responds. It acts as redemption to historic forced removals, it stands against the placenessness of globalization, and it does so right in the midst of the violent territoriality of gangsterism. This is an inherently relational view of place, for “places and people are irrevocably linked.” (John Inge, Theology of Place, p.130) The linking of place and people translates to ‘neighbourliness’ that follows the model of the incarnation as “the very best form of evangelization.” (Inge, p.136). Christians are responsible for demonstrating to the world the transformative effects of valuing place and community – “our ‘placement’ is much more important than is generally imagined. It is no mere backdrop to actions and thoughts. This needs to be part of the ‘unavoidable witness’ of the Christian community.” (Inge, p.137). A post-apartheid incarnational theology in the coloured Cape Flats will thus cultivate a celebration of place as a potent redemption of a segregated past, and in emphatic opposition to a globalised present.

4 Oriented around community.
Here, again, we see the negative combination of past forced removals and current neoliberal mindsets. The cultivation of community is essential for two reasons. First, to counter effects of displaced families during forced removals and the high incidence of absent fathers; second, as an alternative to governmental and non-governmental organisations that stress institutionalized professionalism at the expense of inter-personal relationship and thereby manifest the neoliberal mindset that results in powerlessness and dependency. Tony Samara advocates for small-scale, community based organizations, a “network of community insiders…crucial in building the kinds of relationships often absent between communities and police.” (Tony Samara, Cape Town After Apartheid, p.176). Christian engagement with place through the cultivation of community in areas of high crime, where young people join gangs in order to belong, “will not only therefore afford nourishment to the community itself, but will be a powerful prophetic action.” (Inge, xi.) In this way the shared identity, not individual activity, of those who faithfully tell and live the story of Jesus’ kingdom, will “contradict the exclusionary logic of democratic nation-states” (Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, p.137) , will welcome the ‘racial other’ and will contribute to turning fear into trust.

5 Embraces those at the margins
Ernst Conradie suggests a vital consideration for incarnational theology “entail[s] reflection on the art of cohabitation, of learning to live together with others in the same space.” (Ernst Conradie, ‘Towards a Theology of Place in South African Context’, p.15). Embracing those at the margins of society, the weakest and the last, can be a ‘sacred encounter’, transformative for both parties. Being amongst is more powerful than being for. This is to say; to deliberately place oneself amongst those on the racial, economic or geographic margins invites participation in the way that merely being sympathetic to does not – “really being somewhere means to be committed to a place rather than simply an observer.” (Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, p.12). This has obvious connotations for post-apartheid incarnational theology, because becoming a recognised part of a community and participating in communal life is in total contrast to, for example, a professional service-provider who merely works for a specific cause during office hours. The neoliberal state tends to see incarceration as the most effective solution for those living out the social effects of exclusion. However this is more of “an antidevelopment strategy” than anything else, serving to criminalizing the otherwise “politically invisible” (Samara, 177,186) coloured youth of the Cape Flats. If it is true that there is a “dynamic inter-relationship between a community and the general social scene” (Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p.59), then the health and prosperity of marginalized coloured communities directly affects the world city aspirations of Cape Town’s political elite, and “the long-term consequences of this abandonment [of those at the margins], barring radical interventions, are likely to be disastrous not only for the youth, whose situation is already dire, but also for society as a whole.” (Samara, p.187).

So where to from here? I would argue we need a wholesale paradigm shift in our thinking. “A vital aspect of a paradigm shift is the need for exemplars – people or groups who can model the new paradigm, challenge our presuppositions and draw us into the belief that the new paradigm might actually be possible…[showing], as the church is called to show, that Christianity is true by demonstrating what community would look like if the gospel were true.” (John Swinton, in Hauerwas and Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World, p.17-18).

Who’s up for being an exemplar?

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