South African pastor and bishop Peter Storey said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.”
- from Common Prayer: A liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (14 July)
This beautiful quote from my mentor, and former Bishop, ties in with what I tried to convey in this video 'Losing my religion in Basel'.
In this blog I travel by bike and train from Nijmegen in Holland to Basel in Switzerland. The purpose of the journey was to speak at the 12th international Bonhoeffer Conference.
My paper was on Bonhoeffer and Mandela: A conversation on Christian humanism and Christian witness.
The point of my paper is to make the argument that a political anthropology with very little faith conviction (like Mandela held) could not solve some of the complex challenges that the world (and South Africa in particular) faces. What is needed is a deeper, more significant change of persons to become truly human, and to relate to others as truly human - a condition that can only be brought about by ontological participation in the true humanity and divinity of Christ, as Bonhoeffer suggested. Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by Patristic Eucharistic Christology - the concept of theosis suggests that God becomes human (in Christ) so that we can become more like God (or take on the character of God's nature) by participation in Christ. Thus, true humanity is to become like the true human - Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer, characterised this true human as 'a man for others'.
However, in relation to the quote above and this video, I also reflected on the role of civil religion in South Africa. Civil religion is a form of 'belief' in which our hopes, aspirations, and even faith, are placed in the nation state. North Korea has a very particular and overt form of civil religion. The United States also has a form of civil religion that can be witnessed in things such as the phrase 'God bless America', and the symbol of the nations flag which is displayed in religious buildings like Churches, or the phrase 'In God we trust' on the coinage. Robert Belah has suggested that Americans often are not sure of the distinctive elements of their faith (i.e., if they are Christian that their salvation comes through Christ, that their belief is in a tri-une God etc.) rather they have a vague notion of belief in something that transcends them, and often it is a civic belief - a belief in the 'saving power' of their collective national identity. Patriotism replaces religious conviction, even to the point of the ultimate human sacrifice, namely, the willingness to offer up their lives for the sake of the nation.
In this video I suggest that South Africa was not immune to this civil religion. At the start of the new South African democracy there was such hope and optimism in the new South Africa. Nelson Mandela was naively regarded as a ‘Messiah’ that would lead the people to salvation. Desmond Tutu, was regarded as the high priest of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ who gave religious credence to the new hopes and beliefs of the people. The South African constitution was held in awe by many as a type of sacred ‘text' for transformation that gave the guidelines and inspiration for our new humanity. Whereas the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) served as a ‘liturgical moment’ for this civil religion - many hoped that this moment would usher in, or inaugurate, true and lasting change.
Sadly, such misguided belief gives over our responsibility and the possibility for true and significant change to historical persons, events and processes that cannot realise it. I suggest that this idolatry is a form of civil religion that we would be wise to leave behind. The political dispensation of the Nation and civil society cannot truly transform and renew citizens and society. Indeed, neither can 'religion' as a social construction. What I contend is that we need active citizens who are renewed in heart and mind, and who work sacrificially, tirelessly and in the character of the true human - Jesus Christ - for the renewal of humanity and society.
It is not that the state and the political dispenstation are unimportant, they are. However, they are not be 'believed' in. These structures are there to protect our rights and freedoms. Our true humanity, our dignity, our life - these all stem from the source of all life and life, Jesus Christ. Our character is formed by being part of the new community that is made possible by the true person. Thus, the Church as the body of Christ (not the institution) is the people among whom we live out, and learn, what it means to be truly human for the sake of humanity and creation.
I'd love to hear your take on this!