Almost a week ago I was schooled by my African brothers and sisters on the topic of nonviolence and social justice. I attended a conference put on by a local non profit that works with churches in Cape Town, serving and assisting them in their response to poverty, injustice and division. There has been a two week contemplative activism workshop running at the larger umbrella organization I am volunteering in, but I could not take two weeks off of work, so I decided I would just come to the public event. There were people from YWAM (the organization my project is associated with), from local churches, from the community, etc. It was diverse, and subversive, challenging and gut wrenching, enlightening and humbling. We discussed power, and what nonviolent resistance looks like in the face of the powers that be. This post is a way for me to process all the rich and thought provoking stories I encountered.
Jesus is introduced to us as the stranger, the other, the xenos in Greek, which is where we get the word xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Jesus was also crucified, a horrible, gruesome, embarrassing death, that left his followers, or students if you will, despondent. They thought the Messiah would bring about a political revolution, overthrowing the oppressive Roman empire and restoring Israel. But instead, their “revolutionary” leader was murdered, a victim of capital punishment and left no visible political revolution in his wake. Instead, that revolution, that freedom from exile and oppression came about in the form of Jesus embodying and teaching the world what it means to be fully human, to be an Image Bearer, to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. The life of Jesus revealed that God is not some far off deity to be appeased, on the contrary, God, the Divine, the animating force of love in the world is present in us and in all creation. The ordinary, which perhaps is indeed the extraordinary, all bears witness to the oceanic oneness and interconnectedness of all things.
The night the workshop ended was the first time I have picked up my Bible in probably a year and half. For my whole life, the Bible had been taught to me literally. I was told in essence that God told people the exact words to write, thus why we can call it a “God breathed text”. In fact, the certainty in which I was taught to read the text made it seem as if God had a hand, and “he” (I won’t get started on how the use of “he” when talking about God bothers me) dropped these texts into the laps of prophets and there we have it, the Bible! I have witnessed the Bible be used to justify and inform the most un-Christ like ideas and actions. I have heard a lifetime of sermons that told me this was the only way to interpret what this verse was saying. I was angry that the Bible is in fact this beautiful story of redemption, reconciliation and love, but I, and I would venture to say many Christians, were so tainted with the legalistic and moral codes of individualistic, “soul winning” Christianity, that we never interacted with the narrative in such a way.
It has been eighteen months of deconstructing all things I believed was an incredibly painful and simultaneously life giving process. And while I have started to reconstruct a few things, this workshop was the challenge and hope I needed to salvage my faith, especially in the Bible. Introduced to me was a new way of reading Scripture, one in which we read the text with the lens of Jesus’s proximity to pain. He was right in there, living amongst the suffering of the world. Power and money tell us that the more we have, the farther away we can be from that suffering, as we move into areas and houses with high walls and gated neighborhoods far away from the reminders of physical and systemic violence, often perpetuated by “Christians” we see on the streets of our own nation. If our gospel doesn’t call us into the pain, the suffering, the solidarity, the fight for justice, then perhaps it is no gospel at all, and certainly not the gospel of Jesus. I have been so disheartened by Christians who think their “job” is to “convert” people so they can have a “ticket to heaven.” NO! What a limited and frankly violent view of the gospel! If the good news of Jesus, that he came to proclaim to the poor, the prisoners, the prostitutes, etc is reduced to a “soul winning” scheme, then we have missed the point. Jesus showed us that we can have Heaven, now! We are co creators, co laborers, co conspirators in work of justice and equality. We are like mirrors reflecting the glory of God (which as St. Irenaeus would say, is (wo)man fully alive). We are a part of the grand restoration project. Now that is good news! But this good news requires much of us. It requires that we die daily to the False Self, the to comforts that keep us from engaging with injustice, and to the powers and principalities that exist. I think this is why Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God, because rarely do the rich want to admit how much they benefit from a system that affords them the privilege of so much at the expense of many. Rarely do the rich want to challenge the systems that allow them to stay rich. Rarely do the rich want to move closer, more intimately into the face of suffering. In fact, one of my African sisters proclaimed at the workshop that “attacking white people’s pockets is the way to bring about change.” YOH! That about knocked me off my chair.
In my attempt at reconstructing my faith, I realized I was asking the wrong kinds of questions, those that were dualistic and individualistic in nature. But when we see Jesus for who Jesus really is and what he revealed to humanity, a whole new set of questions emerge To quote Rainer Maria Rilke, questions that we must “not seek the answers [to now], which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Those questions we are invited to live, for instance, what does it look like to be a disciple of Jesus, are illuminated in what Jesus preached in the context of his society and what he imagined for the world, which I believe are precisely the questions that mainstream, evangelical, Western Christianity has lost (speaking from my own experience).
In John 14:9, Jesus that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And when we see Jesus in the Bible, he is among the poor, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the refugees (in fact he was one), the sick, the marginalized, etc. Jesus was and is where we would least expect God to be and in many ways that is the same today. Friends with theology degrees or those who know more than me, please enlighten me if this understanding is wrong (this is what the journey is all about!) but I would venture to say that when we see the marginalized, we see Jesus, and thus we see God and the heart of God, and if that doesn’t flip our theology on its head then I don’t know what will! The table is extended, there is room for all, especially those we do expect to be there.
When I say I ascribe to a philosophy and life of nonviolent resistance to the powers and principalities that be, it is not just a nice statement about my being in the world. No, on the contrary that is a very weighty statement that requires much responsibility. It means that, as my friends of color have pointed out, I have to resist the violent SYSTEMS too. Those being, especially economic, social and political. Thus, nonviolence doesn’t just require me to show up in protest of unjust action, it requires daily denial of the privilege that my white, American, middle class, straight, Christian, able bodied status has afforded me. This plays out in many ways, namely in the way I am perceived, monetarily and in the power I hold in most circumstances.
It is funny that those we Christians label (perhaps one of the most dangerous acts we can participate in) as Atheist, Muslim, evil, sinful, Buddhist, other, etc, are the ones who seem to be seeking the Kingdom more than those who call themselves disciples of Jesus. Namely, this was revealed in the 2016 presidential election, and in subsequent events. It is fascinating how in my experience, the most vocal advocates of justice and equality are those are not “Christian.” Again, those at the table are the ones we least expect. The state of the Church in American, and the Western world deeply saddens me and simultaneously invigorates me. Hearing the stories and perspectives from Christians in very marginalized communities reminded me of why I want to be a student of Jesus. Not the student of white washed, colonizer Jesus, but a student of the subversive, contemplative, fully human and fully divine Jesus.
In an attempt to bring this very long and scattered reflection to a close, I want to add that these are just a weeks ponderings on a lifelong journey of nonviolent activism and resistance. If there is one thing I have learned recently, it is that certainty is death. I must learn to hold all things with an open hand. Like all things, I am constantly evolving, so perhaps in another week, month or year, I will look back at these ideas and laugh, like I do with most things I write. But these are my honest words that I believe with my whole heart in this moment. I would like to end this in the way we ended our time together at the workshop, in lament. We sang a song, “Senzeni Na,” which is Xhosa and Zulu song we could equate to the American protest song “We Shall Overcome.” Senzeni Na means, “what have we done” and as it was described to me, this song was sang as the Xhosa and Zulu people buried their dead during apartheid, knowing full and well that as the song ended, they would again be attacked, oppressed and killed by the violent apartheid regime operating in their communities. And what had they done? Their only crime was being black, as one version of the song puts it. And as I sang along, I was overcome by grief, and the words “what have we done” became my words. I lamented for what has and has not been done in the name of God, the climate of my nation and at the current state of our world. Where is the ubuntu? Where is the love? Where is the peace? But gathered in this community of lament, none of whom I knew, but was intrinsically connected too, there was tangible hope. In the face of sorrow and injustice, we too had faith that we shall overcome.