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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.

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Entries in South Africa (32)

Thursday
Dec172015

#ZumaMustFall - the strength of democracy and the weakness of whiteness

South African social media has been abuzz with another catchy hashtag this week - #ZumaMustFall.

Thousands of South Africans reacted to President Jacob Zuma's shock announcement that he had axed a (relatively) trusted and responsible finance minister, Nhanhla Nene, and replaced him with a completely unknown small town mayor with no suitable experience or qualification for the post, other than patronage and loyalty to the President and his corrupt cronies (David van Rooyen).

It would seem from media reports that Mr Zuma decided to axe Mr Nene since he (Mr Nene) had refused to allow the treasury to approve a shady deal to replace Airbus planes for the beleaguered national airline carrier South African Airways (SAA). There is widespread speculation (including pictures and reports from persons close to the President) saying that Mr Zuma is involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with the chairwoman of SAA, Dudu Myeni (who has been shown to be inept in her position and suggested to be corrupt - the deal in question seems run through with irregularities in the tender process, shady suppliers and middlemen getting payouts and financial kickbacks). It would seem that Ms Myeni allowed a contract with Airbus to expire by mistake (or through carelessness) with massive economic consequences for the national fiscus. When Nene said the nation would not pay for her mistake and it seems that Mr Zuma lost his cool and fired Mr Nene.

The repercussion of this decision - in a week where South Africa's economic rating was downgraded to just above Junk Status - was severe. Within hours the Rand fell to its lowest rate against the Dollar, Pound and Euro, since the early 1990's (over R22 to the pound, almost R16 to the Dollar and close to R17 to the Euro). The banking sector lost billions of Rands in value (as did other shares) as the currency was rapidly devalued. I read yesterday that Barclays Bank is now looking to sell it shares in ABSA bank in South Africa as a result. It is sure to have further direct and severe economic consequences. As with all such events the rich will loose value, but the poor will suffer most.

The reaction to Mr Zuma's clearly irrational and politically motivated decision was so sudden and strong that within a number of hours it seems he was engaged by political parties, business leaders and the labour movements - by the end of the weekend he had overturned his decision and appointed a previous minister of finance Mr Pravin Gordhan. Three ministers of finance in a single week. That must be a new record?

The Rand is now slowly recovering to its levels before this debacle (which was already a low value as investors have lost confidence in the South African economy, economic governance, labour unrest, and the openly corrupt national and business leadership).

Public sentiment - at least among those who control the media and have access to social media (which is still largely white, brown and black elites and the middle classes) was clear: #ZumaMustFall

The question is, whether the removal of Jacob Zuma is really a solution to the current social, political and economic crisis in South Africa?

I am always a little cautious of placing so much hope on dealing with an individual person. What is clear is that Mr Zuma is not solely to blame for the woes of South Africa. He clearly has support within the governing ANC party, so they should share some of the blame (and so should the population who keeps them power by their votes - which includes me). Moreover, the reality is that the challenges that we face in South Africa are not only political problems, they are social and economic in nature. Racial enmity, intolerance, ongoing racism and of course the massive challenges of poverty and economic inequality are huge concerns. In this regard the powerful and the privileged must share the blame for our current problems.

Craig Stewart spoke at the United Against Corruption public march in the Company Gardens in Cape Town yesterday. He made a very valid and important point:

Mr Zuma had used his privilege and power for personal gain and corruption. We have continually called for him to 'pay back the money' (R250 million used to upgrade his private home). 

White South Africans (who hold both power and privilige as a result of Apartheid) continue to use their privilege and economic power to enrich themselves - Stewart said it was time for these elites to find ways of 'paying back the money' for the common good of all South Africans.

I think his analysis is very helpful. Indeed, we will not solve South Africa's current problems only be removing a corrupt political leader. We need to take responsibility for our part in it.

White South Africans will have to be courageous in finding ways to redistribute their privilege, power and wealth among all of South Africa's citizens. I wonder if we will have the courage to support a movement #WhitePriviligeMustFall - or whether those who hold power and privilege can only see it and address it in others?

Indeed, as Tshepo Lephakga, a friend and colleague from UNISA points out - the majority of the South African population are not immediately and directly impacted by fluctuations in currency exchange - the present discontent is a problem for the priviliged (who are predominatnly white). Most of the black South African poor suffer the slow violence of poverty every day - the value of the Rand will only impact their lives further down the line. Those who are most vocal are the ones who currently have wealth and fear loosing it. Here is Tshepo's post:

 

Are people touched by the decisions made by JZ or the reactions of the global capital to the decisions made by JZ?I...

Posted by Tshepo Lephakga on Sunday, 13 December 2015

 

You can listen to Stewart's speech at the bottom of this post.

The further insight that shaped my thinking so far is that from Prof Steven Friedman the prominent political analyst.

Prof Friedman offered a very helpful insight, namely that in a very significant manner these recent events showed that perhaps Mr Zuma and his cronies are not as powerful as they thought they were. When they make irresponsible and bad decisions that have such visible negative effects democracy still functions - Mr Zuma was forced to undo his decision. Friedman further points out that what this shows is that there are (among the many factions in the ANC) clear fault lines between the rural political leaders and the urban political leaders. Friedman feels that it is far more important to have robust systems that can engage corruption and irresponsibility, than simply personalising politics (as is happening in the #ZumaMustFall movement) in the hope that removing one person will solve all of our problems. There still seems to be some power in our democratic system, as this last week's events showed. This is hopeful. We need to work to protect these freedoms.

So, this has been a tumultuous week!

I am thankful that the people of South Africa are finding their voice - the #FeesMustFall and the #ZumaMustFall movements (although very different) have shown that the general populace are finding ways of expressing their discontent with leaders (who should be servants) who are only out to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

It has also helped me to understand much more clearly that the vocal minority do not represent the daily concerns of the majority - this does not mean that the concerns of this vocal grouping are not valid, but merely that we need a more nuanced solution to the problem. That solution will involve not only addressing the corrupt other, but also addressing the privileged self.

Here is Craig Stewart's speech - I encourage you to watch it. It is very helpful.

 

Craig Stewart (Director of The Warehouse.org.za) stood in front of hundreds of protesters today and gave the most inspiring, challenging and godly address I have ever personally heard someone share at a public rally. Thank you Craig for being a brave and faithful leader who with Liesl, Zach, Eliza and Vivian Stewart are inspiring and leading us forwards and Miles Giljam (@unitedagainstcorruption) for his leadership in uniting the church and citizens to stand up and call for justice and a new leadership to achieve it #ZumaMustFall #SouthAfricaMustRise #TheChurchMustSpeak

Posted by Annie Kirke on Wednesday, 16 December 2015

 

Here is Steven Friedman's post:

 

Thwarted attack reins in the ANC’s rural baronsby Steven Friedman, 17 December 2015, 05:48 SOMETIMES, failing to...

Posted by Steven Friedman on Wednesday, 16 December 2015

 

 

Tuesday
Oct062015

#ChurchesUnitedAgainstCorruption - #UAC @SAChurchesUnite why it matters

A week ago (30 September 2015) thousands of Christians gathered in cities across South Africa to show their discontent with increasing corruption in government and business in South Africa. It was beautiful to see women and men from a wide variety of denominations and theological traditions uniting to show that they are not afraid to act against persons who use prominence or power in politics or economics for personal and unjust gains. I was pleased to participate in the gathering in Cape Town, and know of friends who participated in Durban and Johannesburg gatherings.

Of course there are various forms of corruption - persons who pay bribes, and persons who solicit them, so that deals can be done. These drive up the costs of products and services, meaning that less can be done for the common good.  Fewer schools can be built, fewer hospitals staffed, fewer meals dispensed, fewer persons brought to justice, fewer crimes are solved, fewer communities are safe, and it is the poor and the powerless who suffer first, and who suffer most.

Someone asked me whether marches like this matter. Of course on some level they don't. In truth, nobody will admit to being 'for corruption', even the most corrupt have a public rhetoric against corruption - it is what they need to retain the trust and inactivity of those who allow them to remain in office, or conduct corrupt business.

On the other hand events like this are of critical importance. They matter because we cannot be silent in the midst of injustice.  Events such as these matter because we are showing that more and more sectors of South African society are impatient with the injustices and inequalities that are upheld by corrupt persons and corrupt practices.  Events such as these matter because they show that we have a moral conscience, and that people from different religious groupings, and different traditions, can stand together.  They matter because they show that we are not powerless or voiceless.  They matter because they show that we are citizens who are engaged.

So, I would encourage you to act. Recognise that you have a right, even a responsibility, to speak out when things are wrong. Call those who abuse their office or position in business for unjust means to account. Remind elected officials that they are civil servants of the people, not civil masters. Remind businesses and business people that we, the consumers, are the ones who hold the wealth that allows them to operate, and if they will not do so for the common good we can exercise our right to choose someone or something else.

If you are a follower of Jesus it is important to remember that submission to his Lordship has political, economic and social consequences.  What we believe must change how we live - and it should always be for the common good. This is the way of the servant King. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, the church does not have a social ethic, it is a social ethic - we are to become what we believe, our story, our witness, our worship, is to reflect what we believe and what we hope for.

I would like to invite you to visit the Churches United Against Corruption website, or consider joining the campaign Unashamedly Ethical.

Wednesday
Jul152015

Back in Holland - Radboud University, Nijmegen 2015

On the 30th of June 2015 I boarded an Emirates flight for Dubai, heading to Schipol airport in Amsterdam.  From there I caught the train out to the beautiful Dutch city of Nijmegen (where I have been for the past two weeks to work on the completion of my 2nd PhD).

Of course I brought Doris my Brompton with me from Cape Town in the same way that I always travel with this amazing little bicycle - safely wrapped in the Brompton cover, clamps removed, draped with my clothes over the bike cover, and socks and shoes, and toiletries in packets packed around the spaces in the frame. I put a folded towel over the front fold, and a scarf or some socks or such over the left folding pedal. hen all of that goes into the Brompton B Bag.  At the airport I get them to wrap the B Bag in plastic to protect it.  My T Bag (that fits on the front luggage rack of the Brompton) becomes my hand luggage with my laptop and a few other bits and bobs in it.  Once the bike has been checked in for the flight I put the T bag on the luggage trolley and have a rolling hand luggage bag.  It is all quite convenient!  Here is a picture of Doris the Brompton, all wrapped up, with my T Bag on the train platform at Schipol airport waiting to catch a train to Nijmegen.

So, as mentioned already, the reason that I have been coming to Nijmegen for the past three years is to work on a second PhD.  I was very fortunate to receive a European Union 'Sandwich' scholarship for study at Radboud University, which is one of the world's top research Universities (in the top 100).  If you scroll through my previous Nijmegen / Radboud posts you will see that I am doing an interdisciplinary study on the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation between black and white South Africans.  I am using a particular approach to reading the Biblical text (particularly Matthew 18.15-35) in a process called intercultural Bible reading and then applying two theoretical lenses to understand what happens in that process.  The two theories are social identity theory (particularly intergroup contact theory) and Ken Wilber's Integral AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels) to 'map' the reader responses to the reading of the text.

I am pleased to say that I have the end of this project in sight! I handed in a very large portion of my study as a first draft.  I am busy working with the empirical (qualitative) data that I gained from the research participants in structured interviews and focus group meetings.  The findings are fascinating! I hope to be able to give Churches, communities, and even private and public organisations, some new insights into mechanisms that can help to bridge racial, cultural, and class distinctions.  The intention is to facilitate greater social cohesion and harmony between painfully separated groups (such as black and white persons in the post-Apartheid South African context).  Here is a picture of some of the commentaries that I have been reading to get to grips with the theological nuance, texture and depth of the Biblical text we used in our intercultural Bible reading process. It was quite hilarious to see the librarian's face when I walked out of the library with 17 books in my Brompton T Bag, unfolded my bike, hooked up the bag to the luggage mount and rode off into the distance!

I have been using a piece of software to work with my empirical data - I'm sure that anyone who works with empirical data in a qualitative manner will know ATLAS.ti?  It is all new to me! My goodness, but it is a very powerful software package that allows me to load my interviews, transcripts of the focus group meetings, documents, reports etc., into the software and then draw quotations, trends, networked relationships, hierarchies, nested meanings etc., from the data.  Based on those outputs I then test my theories in a deductive manner to see what worked and what didn't, why it worked or didn't, and can then hypothesise what may be useful for others, and what can be done to augment or correct the variance on my theory for my context.  As you know I am a committed Apple Mac user! For some years now I have only used Macs - I tried working on the little Lenovo Windows 8.1 tablet that I have from work, but my goodness, it just never seems to work! It hangs, quits the software, the touch screen stops working, the keyboard stops working... I am afraid that I can't work with it.  So, I have been learning how to use ATLAS.ti on my old 2011 Macbook Air!  Here is a picture of my Lenovo in the Radboud University Library next to the Erasmus Building.  

This is a beautiful space to work! For the first week that I was here it was SO hot, in fact the warmest they have had since they started recording temperature.  On the Saturday when I went to watch the first stage of the Tour de France (the individual time trial in Utrecht!) it was over 40 degrees! Unbelievable.  The weather has been much milder since, with three days of rain this week.  That makes for great productivity on my Thesis since I can't really do much riding in the rain (or at least I don't feel like doing much riding in the rain!)

The Tour de France in Utrecht was an experience of a lifetime.  I caught an early train from Nijmegen to Utrecth, the train was packed with cyclists and cycling fans.  Of course I had Doris my Brompton with me and we found a little space to sit, once at the station I unfolded and rode down to the time trial route which for some part ran along the beautiful canals and bridges of Utrech.  I stood around and watched some of the riders warming up and riding past, but the sun was SO HOT that it was almost unbearable!  So I decided to retreat to a shady spot on the other side of the canal and watch the action sitting on a grass bank, with an ice cold beer.  It was magnificent.  Certainly a memory that I will cherish for a long time!

Here are one or two more images from that special day.  I had a dinner appointment with some other post doctoral students and one of our Professors that evening, so I didn't stay for the whole afternoon.  I came back to Nijmegen and watched the 'big guns' ride the stage on TV and got ready to cycle to the dinner appointment.

And here's Doris on the canal bank.

This weekend I will be going to Munster to visit some colleagues who are there on sabbatical - Robert and Julie. I love that city as well.  It is just so beautiful, and of course it is a cycling city!

For now it is back to work. I am pleased to say that there are a number of other South African academics here in Nijmegen. This has made my stay so fun and not as lonely. We have eaten together a few times, done a great cycle out on the Ooij Polder, and even did a Zotero Master Class to share our 'jedi secrets' for citation management!  Here are a few guys in my flat learning how to sync their references and attachments from their computers to their iPads or iPhones using PaperShip.

Well, now it is back to work for me.  I am doing my best to get as close to a full first draft done before I head back to Stellenbosch at the end of this month.  Once I get home my teaching load is quite heavy, and I have a few post graduate students who want to hand in their theses this year as well, so I will be very busy with teaching, supervision and research.

Below are two last pictures of Nijmegen - on of the 1944 town square and beautiful old buildings, and another of the Nijmegen bridge which was the historical site of the Nazi defeat (depicted in the movie 'A bridge too far').


As always, I would appreciate your prayers for my family back home.  I miss them so much, and as Liam gets older he feels my absence so acutely!  Thankfully Courtney has been busy with Church and social activities.  Megie, my darling wife, has been holding the fort with work, kids, her studies and home! I am so thankful for her.  Please also pray that I make significant headway with my studies and do work that is not only academically valuable, but that can make a contribution towards the common good in South Africa.

Friday
May222015

Bram Fischer on white privilege (still true 50 years later!)

What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred.
SACP. “Letter sent by Bram Fischer to his Counsel in February 1965 when he went underground, and read to the court My goodness! This was written in 1965 and it is still as true for South Africa today (and particularly for me as a white South African) as it was 50 years ago! I spent the morning with Bram Fischer’s daughter and a group of concerned citizens at an AHA (Authentic Hopeful Action) meeting to strategize for a better future for South Africans and South Africa coordinated by my friend Paul Verryn. We must find a way to move forward with change for the common good of all South Africans! How is it possible not to act when we live in a nation where 20 million people go to bed hungry at night?
Wednesday
May062015

What hope is there for South Africa? A public theological reflection on the role of the church as a bearer of hope for the future

I discovered today that an article I had written some time ago had been published and made available to the public from the Theological Journal, HTS.

The details for the article are:

Title:  What hope is there for South Africa? A public theological reflection on the role of the church as a bearer of hope for the future

Please follow this link to download a copy from the Journal website: http://www.hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/view/2814 

Abstract:

What hope is there for South Africa? What role can the church play as a bearer of hope in South Africa? This article seeks to address these important questions. Firstly, it problematises the contemporary notion of hope in South Africa by showing that it is a complex theological and social concept. Next, a nuanced understanding of hope is presented by adopting a public theological methodology that brings dominant theological perspectives on eschatological hope into dialogue with the most recent statistics about the quality of life in South Africa from 1994, 2004 and 2014. The article proposes that the complexity of Christian hope necessitates an understanding of the present reality that is held in dynamic tension with the desired future – namely a present-futurist eschatology. Finally the article shows that from this vantage point the church, in its various forms and understandings, is able to be a bearer of Christian hope that can contribute towards shaping a better future for South Africa.

Reference:

 

Forster, Dion A. “What Hope Is There for South Africa? A Public Theological Reflection on the Role of the Church as a Bearer of Hope for the Future.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, Original Research: P.G.R. de Villiers Dedication, 71, no. 1 (2015): 1–10.

 

 

If you have a chance (and the stamina!) to read it I would appreciate feedback and comments.  There is an itneresting set of statistical data on living conditions in South Africa.

 

Tuesday
May052015

Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Beyers Naude's life

Today the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University celebrates the 100th anniversary of Beyers Naude's life - a courageous witness to justice, reconciliation, hope and God's Kingdom on earth.

Pictured here (L-R) areDr Horst Kleinschmidt, Prof Denise Ackermann, Prof John de Gruchy, Dr Murray Coetzee who are all friends and researchers in the Beyers Naude Center.

The meeting was opened with a reading from Isaiah 32.1-8, and 15-20. A deep challenge for our current context.

Here is the text:

"See, a king will reign in righteousness
and rulers will rule with justice.
Each man will be like a shelter from the wind
and a refuge from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.
Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed,
and the ears of those who hear will listen.
The mind of the rash will know and understand,
and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.
No longer will the fool be called noble
nor the scoundrel be highly respected.
For the fool speaks folly,
his mind is busy with evil:
He practices ungodliness
and spreads error concerning the Lord;
the hungry he leaves empty
and from the thirsty he withholds water.
The scoundrel’s methods are wicked,
he makes up evil schemes
to destroy the poor with lies,
even when the plea of the needy is just.
But the noble man makes noble plans,
and by noble deeds he stands." ...

"till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
Justice will dwell in the desert
and righteousness live in the fertile field.
The fruit of righteousness will be peace;
the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest.
Though hail flattens the forest
and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
sowing your seed by every stream,
and letting your cattle and donkeys range free".

Prof Nico Koopman encouraged us to be inspired by Oom Bey's life to become "faithful disciples and active citizens" for the sake of the healing and transformation of our nation.

Tuesday
Apr072015

Choose a different way (together) - On Rwanda and reconciliation

In my morning devotion today I read about the start of the genocide in Rwanda on 7 April 1994 (just 20 days before South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994).
Here is the summary of those events from “Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals”:
‘On April 7, 1994, a civil war broke out in Rwanda as Hutu extremists began brutally killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Over the next one hundred days, nearly a million people were killed in the worst occurrence of genocide since the Holocaust. An estimated 75 percent of the Tutsis living in Rwanda were murdered.’
The following story is told from after the genocide:
‘When Cardinal Roger Etchegary visited Rwanda on behalf of the pope in 1994, he asked the assembled church leaders, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” One leader answered, “Yes, it is.”’
How sad! Two things were clear in Rwanda. First, this genocide was an ethnic crime - the violence was motivated by hatred and distrust among people of different ethnicities and cultures. Second, however, is that 98% of Rwandans (perpetrators and victims) were Christian. How could that be? That followers of the Prince of Peace could hate one another so much? How could it be that those who live by the way of truth could be so easily misled about their sisters and brothers?
We must choose a different way. We must choose a way of peace and reconciliation. We cannot choose against our fellow humans. By choosing for one another we choose for the common good.
Pray for us in South Africa. We too are a largely Christian nation in which people choose against each other. Here is another quote from “Common Prayer”:
'Charles Péguy said, “We must be saved together. We cannot go to God alone; else he would ask, ‘Where are the others?’ ”’

Tuesday
Mar312015

The reality of South Africa's economic crisis, and what you can do about it

The most recent Institute for Futures Research report (Stellenbosch University) shows that South Africa is a nation in deep economic crisis.  Sadly, it is predicted that unless we act decisively and courageously we will continue to face economic challenges and decline.

Here are a few of the facts:

We have accepted that we will operate with a deficit budget (our expenses exceed our national income and will stay that way), we have low productivity and high labour costs (a 2% increase in productivity of labour, and an average of 10% increase in wages). We rely on foreign investment to fuel our economy since our internal economic base is too small to keep the economy growing.  However, there are too few people in South Africa to pay the bills, which means that debt is increasing (the household debt to disposable income ratio averages at 80%!) This will become worse as fuel prices increase, electricity prices increase and farming shrinks. At the same time we have become hostile to foreigners and paint a picture of a corrupt, volatile and uncompetitive economy - which means that foreign investors are fewer and fewer. The "upshot is a continuous erosion of the domestic and international competitiveness of South African produced goods and services" (Andre Roux in Strategy Insights Report: Economic, IFR, Vol 23 No 03 Mar 2015). 

It doesn't have to be this way!  

We can stand together and deal with poverty, inequality and corruption.  It takes a choice that is sustained through our collective action.

What we need in South Africa is a commitment to the common good of all, a commitment to active citizenship that holds the citizens to account, and will not allow either government or big business to steal from us.  That is part of the good news - we are a democracy that still has the right to exercise our democratic freedom.  We can, and should, use those rights to hold our political and economic leaders to account.

South Africans deserve it, and so does South Africa.  We are a nation with such great promise in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Let's hold hope high and work for the good of all.

I choose to act.  I will act for the common good.  I will work for reconciliation.  I will work for justice. I will not be silent.

Friday
Feb132015

John de Gruchy devotion on Authentic, Hopeful, Action (AHA) in South Africa

Please find a devotion delivered by Professor John de Gruchy (extraordinary Professory of Systematic Theology at the University of Stellenbosch) on Thursday 12 February 2015.

To find out more about the AHA movement please follow this link.

AHA

James 2:14-18

"Faith without works is dead!"

Pessimists say that the cup is half empty; and optimists, that it is half full.  Some people are pessimists by nature.  For them the world, the Hermanus town council, and the church are hopelessly falling apart, South Africa is going to the dogs (don't ask me what dogs have to do with it!), the government is totally corrupt,  people always let you down, young people have no discipline, tomorrow is going to be worse than today -- even when they hear good news they automatically add a negative comment, "yes, but!".  Optimists also seem to be optimists by nature.  South Africa is getting better, the dogs don't bite and snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them, people are always so nice, young people are a pleasure, and what a great day it is today despite the heat and south-easter, it could be worse.  It is easy to understand why people are pessimists, especially in circumstances such as we see every day on TV.   "It is," Bonhoeffer wrote shortly before his arrest, "more sensible to be pessimistic, disappointments are left behind, and one can face people unembarrassed.  Hence, the clever frown upon optimism."  But then he goes on to praise optimism because it is:

a power of life, a power of hope when others resign, a power to hold our heads high when all seems to come to naught, a power to tolerate setbacks, a power that never abandons the future to the opponent but lays claim to it, 

Pessimists may keep our feet on the ground but optimists keep hope alive.  But perhaps it would be best if we were all realists who accepted the way things are, for good or ill, and then got off our butts to make things better, neither bemoaning nor turning a blind eye to what is wrong or bad.  In the end, does it really matter if the glass is half empty or half full ?  What matters is whether we are going to do what needs to be done to fill the cup to the brim.  If we are not working to make the world a better place, things will get worse whether we are pessimists or optimists.

There were plenty of prophets of doom in the Old Testament.  The difference between a true prophet and false one was that whereas the true prophet told the political and religious leaders how bad things were and they had better change their ways, the false prophets always said things were just fine, "peace, peace, when there was no peace."  But the true prophets were actually being realists.  They were not just saying how bad things were, they were calling on people to change, to change their attitudes, change their hearts and minds, and start doing things differently.  The same was true of Jesus,  Jesus laid it on the line when speaking truth to power, when castigating the religious hypocrites of his day, and the corrupt rulers in the Temple and the Palaces of Jerusalem and Tiberias.  He did not have much faith in their willingness to change.  But he saw possibilities for healing and change in seemingly hopeless situation.  He saw the good in people rejected as irreligious, isolated because they had contagious diseases, shunned because they were tax-collectors and prostitutes, or simply ignored because they were poor.  He did not give up on them.  He exuded the power of life, and  hope.

The apostle James was clearly a realist.  He knew about the great gulf between wealth and poverty in his day but decided to do something about it.  To those who said they believed in God but did nothing to help the poor he retorted "faith without works is dead" and went on to say "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith."  Sparklekid Theo likewise tells us "Just get on with it!"  Yes, politicians are corrupt, the power outages are unacceptable, the conditions in the township are bad, but let's get on and do something to make life better for everyone.  That attitude releases the power of life and hope.  And there are many such good news stories being told today around South Africa that demonstrate this in big or small ways.  Listen to one from the kindergarten across the road from Volmoed:

January 2015 kicked off with great excitement and a school filled with 38 little children, some more happy than others to join our school.  Our classes bursting at their seams with small little faces eager to embark on this new exciting path of their lives.  From our 38 students 4 are from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, a number from farms in the area and then a host of children from Zwelihle.  Two of our 3 teachers will continue their education this year via Klein Karoo and I am so excited to see how quickly they are developing, not only in their teaching abilities but also in their confidence.

Immediately after the conference held in Stellenbosch last September to celebrate my 75th birthday, a group of participants got together and decided to do something about poverty in South Africa.  They called the project AHA! which stands for "Authentic, Hopeful Action."  They were realists who  did not simply want to talk about change but to act in ways that made a real difference to the lives of the poor.  I was not at that meeting, but I was made the Patron of AHA.  This means that even though  my "shelf-life" is coming to an end I can cajole people into doing things that might make a difference in the lives of poor people.   

The AHA website has many practical suggestions that could make a difference, some of them we could all do without too much effort.  For example if you don't already, you can give R 5 to the garage attendant whenever your car is filled.  This won't fundamentally alter the material conditions in poor communities, but if each garage attendant at Engen down the road got R5 from  five people a day, he or she would earn at least a R100 extra per week.  Multiply that by 10 garage attendants and that would mean a R 1000 would find its way into the life of the township!  And then multiply it across the country at every filing station! 

The list of possibilities whereby we can help make a difference to the lives of other people through authentic, hopeful action is endless if only we put our minds to it and get on with it.   At the very least we could go onto the AHA webpage, or talk to Theo over coffee,  to find out what even those of us whose shelf-life is short can do.  This is surely better than talking ourselves into a state of despair about the state of the nation!  Whether congenitally pessimists or optimists, let us be realists.  Poverty is a crime against humanity, especially in a country where there is so much wealth. We don't need a AHA moment or movement to tell us.  But we do need to act authentically and hopefully, and maybe.  some help to know what we can do, to show by our works what our faith means.  Instead of saying AMEN or ALLELUIA today, let  us all shout  "AHA!" 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 12 February 2015

Saturday
Dec202014

Are 'whites' South Africa's problem?

 A good friend of mine, Sanda Fata, posted a quote on his timeline last week that caused me to reflect and think very deeply. I respect Sanda and so trust his perspective. Here is the status that Sanda posted:


Most white South Africans don't want to be part of South Africa, but all they want is huge stake of South Africa (Nkosivumile Gola) uvuthiwe mntanam.
The statement above touches on two very sensitive issues, namely the massive issue of inequality between South Africa's citizens, and of course the painful and ongoing issue of race politics.

 

I am convinced that the issue at stake in South Africa is not a race issue (race classification and the empowerment of one race and denigration of another is the cause of our problems, and so it cannot be our solution). As I prayed, and thought about this issue I wrote the following response to Sanda.

Comrade Sanda Fata - thanks for sharing this. It caused me to think deeply. I agree with part of the statement of Comrade Nkosivumile Gola. Indeed there are certain South Africans who want a larger stake of the nation at the expense of others, and I am afraid that in large measure they are white South Africans. However, I think that it is a mistake to tie the struggle for emancipation and transformation to race. It is a mistake because it is wrong and so in the long run it will be futile. We cannot base our struggle on something that people cannot choose or change. The core of the issue here is not whiteness, it is something more powerful, something about which people can make choices and can actually choose to change. Apartheid ideology did its best to problematise blackness. We can see how wrong that was. I contend that it is a mistake to judge persons based on something they did not choose and cannot change. So, what should we do? In my view our struggle should be a class struggle. There are South Africans of a certain class that subjugate others through their choices, their consumption of resources, their desire for power and wealth at all costs, their denial of human dignity (and so also human rights). These South Africans are white, but they are also brown and black. It is their choices around class that are problematic (hence I contend that a class struggle is necessary, and not a race struggle). A class struggle emerges when there are competing social and economic interests between people in society (such as access to health care, education, dignified work, a living wage, the right to flourish). These choices can be changed by the classes who hold wealth and power, and so I feel we need to spend our energy, time, and creativity addressing the class issue rather than the race issue. History has shown that race struggles are based on prejudice (about something that people cannot choose or change) and so they never succeed. Persons who appeal only to race do so because it is very easy to blame the 'other' who is different from ourselves, but it is a mistake since there are poor whites, poor brown people, as well as wealthy black people, powerful black people etc., I would encourage you to look at this great book by my friend Joerg Rieger We hope to have him visit South Africa again soon: Rieger, Joerg ed. 2013 Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan http://www.amazon.com/Religion-Theology-Class-Engagements-Approaches/dp/113735142X

At the core of my argument is that South Africans need one another. Our diversity is a gift. I am convinced that we need each other in order to forge a better future for all, we cannot attempt to make things better by once again polarising persons along the lines of race. Moreover, I am convinced that social and economic issues are central to the struggle that we face in South Africa today - indeed, suffering is still almost entirely a reality among our black sisters and brothers. However, it is not their race which causes this suffering, it is our economic and political choices. Inequality is a class issue, not a race issue.

I would love to hear your perspective.

Wednesday
Sep102014

Was Nelson Mandela a Christian? Was he a member of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa?

In an earlier post I mentioned a research paper that I had worked on entitled "Mandela and the Methodists:  Faith, fact or fallacy?"  This paper was published at the beginning of this month in the academic journal Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae (40th Anniversary special edition).  You can find out more about the journal here.

The paper was originally delivered as the closing plenary address at the Theological Society of South Africa, and today I presented it at the International conference on Religion and Media at Faculdades EST in Brazil. I still am not at liberty to make the full text of the paper available.  However, here are my slides from today's presentation.

 

So, was Nelson Mandela a Methodist?  Indeed, he self-identified as a member of the Church, and my interviews with Bishops and ministers of the denomination confirmed that he was a loyal member of the Church.  See this quote from Presiding Bishop Zipho Siwa:

Madiba remained a committed Methodist throughout his life. As a church, we hail the qualities that confirmed him as a true son of Methodism - a life of faith in God lived in service to others.
Bishop Zipho Siwa

Here are Mr Mandela's own thoughts on the matter (just one quote of many from his writings, speeches and letters that I found).

The values I was taught at these institutions have
served me well throughout my life.  These values were strengthened during our years of incarceration when this church cared for us. Not only did you send chaplains to encourage us, but you also assisted us materially within your means. You helped our families at a time when we could not help them ourselves…  I cannot over-emphasise the role that the Methodist Church has played in my own life 

 Nelson Mandela

Was he a Christian?  I would conclude that he was an African Christian Humanist.  The paper describes the full detail of what that means.  However, here are some reasons why I believe this to be true.  The following list of descriptors of Christian Humanism come for John de Gruchy:

  • Christian humanism is inclusive. “Being human” names our primary identity.
  • Christian humanism affirms dignity and responsibility.
  • Christian humanism is open to insight into our common human condition wherever it is to be found.
  • Christian humanism claims that the love of God is inseparable from the love of others.
  • Christian humanism heralds a justice that transcends material and sectional well-being.
  • Christian humanism insists that goodness, truth, and beauty are inseparable.

 

Mr Mandela mentions in many speeches and his own writings (see for example his address to the Methodist conferences in 1994 and again in 1998, and of course his autobiography 'A long walk to freedom' (particularly the sections on his early life)) that he was deeply formed by two primary communities.  First and most prominent was the African traditional (Xhosa) world view (which I cannot discuss in detail here).  Second was the Christian faith and the institutions of the Christian Church.  These shaped his identity in a profound way.  There is little doubt that like all persons his faith identity shifted and changed at different stages in his life.  Moreover, it would be dishonest to say that he was a Christian in the simple sense that this phrase is used in popular theology.  But, he identified with the Christian faith and with the church.

The important point is to ask, of which “church” was Nelson Mandela a member?

We have already concluded that Nelson Mandela was a member of the MCSA (Methodist Church of Southern Africa). However, of which aspect or expression of church within the MCSA was he a member? The real question is what do we mean by the expression “church”? Dirkie Smit suggests (1) that there are three general forms of being “the church”. I shall briefly present these below.

The local congregation

For many Christians this is most likely to be their primary perspective of the church, a localised community of Christians, organised around regular common worship. Philander points out that this is the physical place, and social group, that people often think of when they answer the question of where they “go to church”, or what church they are members of. Certainly from what we have already established Nelson Mandela was a member of this form of church in his early life (up to 1958). However, we could not say that he remained a member of a local congregation in the years that followed that. As has already been suggested this would simply not have been possible, considering his imprisonment, and later public profile.

The institutional, denominational and ecumenical Church

Smit further points out that for many people the term “church” refers primarily to the organisational or institutional structures. When some people hear the word “church” they may think of the confessional community that they are a part of (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox or Methodist). Philander notes that often this expression of church is what people would point to in answer to the question “what does the church say about unemployment in South Africa”. It could also refer to collective groupings such as Evangelical Christians, or even more formal groupings such as ecumenical bodies (like the World Council of Churches, or the World Communion of Reformed Churches). From what was discussed above one could conclude that Nelson Mandela held his strongest link to this understanding of church – he was a member of a denomination. This type of understanding of the church is often the point at which members engage with issues of social concern and engage policy. Mandela certainly sought to identify with, and engage, the MCSA as a denomination (as was clearly shown in the 1994 and 1998 addresses he delivered to the Methodist Conference).

The church as believers, salt and light in the world

Smit points out that the third way in which people think of the church, is as individual believers who are salt and light in the world, each involved in living out their faith on a daily basis in their own particular ways. This is a very important way in which the church can participate in being an agent and bearer of hope in society. In reading Nelson Mandela’s speeches and writings one can credibly maintain that he saw himself as a person of faith who lived out his particular understanding of his task in the world in this manner. He often refers, as was shown above, to the fact that he “formed” for his work in early life (both through African culture and the ministry of the church).

Here are the references to the articles pointed to above:

1. Dirk Smit presented a more nuanced perspective on the Church sighting six variation forms, “gestaltes”, in Dirk J. Smit, “Oor Die Kerk as ’N Unieke Samelewingsverband,” Tydskrif Vir Geesteswetenskappe 2, no. 36 (1996): 119–29.

 2. Dirk J. Smit, Essays in Public Theology: Collected Essays 1 (AFRICAN SUN MeDIA, 2007), 61–68.

 

Tuesday
Jun102014

Rev Dr Mvume Dandala on the Church as the hope for South Africa in the next decades

This year, 2014, marks 20 years since the dawn of participative democracy in South Africa.  There is little doubt that 1994 heralded the dawning of a new era in South Africa. We are better off in so many ways - all of our citizens have equal status before the law. We have made positive gains in health care for all, education for all, and in general South Africans have a higher life expectancy and even have better economic prospects.  See the OECD Better Life Index report for more details [1].

The reality is, however, that even though we are doing better, we are not nearly where we should be as a nation.  We have some serious problems - HIV and TB continue to have a huge impact on the average South African.  Moreover, South Africa has the highest GINI coefficient (we have the highest rate of inequality between the rich and the poor) in the world.  This means that unemployemt remains a problem, crime is difficult to manage and the majority of South Africans are still living in poverty [2].

All of this is compounded by ongoing human rights abuses and continuing corruption in government and the private sector.

My paper on Thursday will discuss these issues in detail using some of the most recent statistics from early 2014.

I will, however, also focus on the role of the Church in addressing these economic, social and political issues. South Africa remains a largely religious society, if the Church is doing its work we should be engaging the moral character of our citizens, and positively engaging issues justice.  I will post my talk once it has been delivered and published.

Dr Dandala did an excellent plenary talk this morning.  He spoke very strongly about the African nature and character that is required of the Church in South African society.  His talk was an acceptable challenge.  I recorded it and got his permission to post it here.

You can download Rev Dr Mvume Dandala's talk at the Stellenbosch University, Ekklesia / Beyers Naude Winter School on 10 June 2014 here (45MB MP3).

If you use or distribute the talk would you mind please referencing Dr Dandala and linking back here to www.dionforster.com?

_____

[1] OECD, OECD Economic Surveys: South Africa 2013 (OECD Publishing, 2013); OECD, How’s Life? 2013, How’s Life? (OECD Publishing, 2013), 17–31, http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/economics/how-s-life-2013_9789264201392-en#page1.

[2] Please see the World Bank report on global inequality here:  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI South Africa has a GINI coefficient of 63.1, which was the highest in the world at the time of the report in 2009.