Peter's Blog

The Invisible Reality

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Yesterday, Friday, was another long and engaged day, which we finished with a Last Supper of the whole group together. Some of our compadres from South Africa were leaving us today to return home. It has been a wonderfully enriching experience for us all that this shared time together has been a cultural mix. The insight and experience from those who are engaged day in and day out with life and ministry (in different forms) in South Africa has been a beautiful gift for those of us from the UK. In some small way I hope we have also been able to share our own experience of faith in a meaningful way. Mostly, though, those of us in the UK have been listening and learning.

Friday morning involved a visit to the University and to the School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics in which we met with members of the Ujamaa Centre (a similar concept to ubuntu, but from a Kenyan context). The work going on in and through the centre is pioneering as they explore the interface between theology and the outworking of that theology in communities (the praxis). They are grappling with a range of subjects and groups, including gender-based violence, the colonial imposition of traditions of patriarchy and power dynamics, and inclusion of the LGBTI community. 

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It was empowering to hear the women theologians and practitioners describe their work, from the research they have done to the ways in which they are then utilising that information to guide their thinking and acting. Of course, this means courses for students, as a part of the University, but also other pieces of work with direct links back to communities. An example of that is the "Tamar Campaign". I had just written some bible notes about the story of Tamar and her rape (2 Samuel 13) a couple of days before leaving for South Africa so my ears immediately pricked up when I heard it mentioned. The Tamar campaign is a way of helping to encourage and resource church leaders to talk about gender-based violence in their own communities, recognising the important part that church leaders play in those communities.

Always, and this has been a recurring theme through the week here, there is a sense of how to encourage, celebrate, and enable 'agency' amongst those who are part of such training, but also amongst those living in vulnerable and yet deeply witnessing communities. This is in opposition to the ways in which the State often seeks to dehumanise groups of people, something we see in the UK too, of course. For instance, the young families living in the commune we visited the day before are, even in their fragile situation, displaying extraordinary agency. They are taking control of their own lives and futures even when those in power are trying to evict them, to deny them, to ignore their needs. They are confronting the power of Empire in their own small way. Without glorifying their actions, nonetheless it is a sacrificial living, echoing the sacrifical confrontation of Empire by Jesus. And some have paid with their lives for living in this way.

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Later in the afternoon we visited the botanical gardens in Pietermaritzburg, which were beautiful, though of course a remnant of colonisation... Fiona, one of the group from the UK, had found a bench in the park from which she sat enjoying the view. On the bench was the inscription: "The Invisible Reality".

What a powerful statement that is. It resonated with many of us. It perfectly encapsulates what we have been forced to see this week: the reality that is otherwise invisible to us. The lives of those living on the very edges of society, right in the space that challenges our conceptions of what is 'acceptable' and 'normal'. You could drive past a community such as the one we visited yesterday and not pay a second glance. It was just a few corrugated tin shacks and vegetable patches on either side of a valley with a stream winding through its heart. Yet in that community, risky and dangerous and edgy though it is, we also found God at work, in the commitment, in the relationships, in the laughter, in the honesty. Each person knew they had dignity amongst each other, even when the State (and sometimes their neighbours) sought to deny it. And that agency bore witness to love more than any sermon could. The invisible reality amongst us, if we stop, if we see, if we listen.

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While we were out and about we could not help but be impressed by the beautiful blossom (it is Spring here) of the Jacarandas trees. Gloriously hopeful amidst the struggle. [But, later found out that these are not indigenous trees and are very invasive a species which are not allowed to be planted any longer.]

Contextual Bible Study

While we were at the Ujamaa Centre we also discussed the "Stolen Bible" - how the Scriptures have been stolen from the people. Gatekeepers such as ministers like me, theologians, so-called guardians of the faith, create walls around the Scriptures, providing their interpretations of the Bible as the one true interpretation. By doing so, they can cut the Scriptures off from being a living witness to God at work in a community - speaking into specific situations and needs to bring hope.

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The centre uses Contextual Bible Study (CBS) as a means to overcome that great theft from the people. What does this mean? It means engaging with the Scripture and letting it speak beyond the spoken or written word to bring God and hope alive. Sometimes communities ask for a session of CBS to help them through a particular challenge. One example of this was a community that had been affected by flooding, seeing the terrible damaging effects of water. The Ujamaa Centre provided a CBS using Ezekiel 47:1-12 to explore their relationship with water. This would usually take a day to run through. We gave it a go in a very condensed form, breaking into groups to explore the text, unpacking how it spoke to us of water, of life, of abundance. We relished it, of course, delving into the text and seeking new insights from the groups and letting our interpretations of that text shape our reflections on some of the stories we have heard across these past few days. It was a small glimpse into the power of Scripture still to inspire, if we let it.

Of course, even when using CBS there is always the danger of pre-judging the needs and guiding the conversation, and thus creating a power imbalance. It is a critique all leaders of any kind of bible study would do well to remember. 

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Church Land Programme

Our final official stop was to the offices of Church Land Programme (CLP) who have been our brilliant hosts this week. Graham Philpott talked us through the fascinating history of the organisation. It began as a response to the question over what would happen to the large amount of land in the possession of church denominations as South Africa moved into the post-Apartheid era. When so many people in the country were landless, what kind of witness was it for churches to be holding huge portfolios of land? So the CLP became a mediator in transactions that moved land from church ownership to ownership by the people. And such it did for a number of years. Only those who were running the organisation, Graham included, started to ask some deep questions as the realisation began to dawn that what they were increasingly doing was facilitating the transfer of land from the hands of wealthy churches into the hands of people who had little intention of using it to benefit those who were landless.

The board of CLP engaged in a period of self-criticism and reflection which ultimately led them to shift what their core focus was away from land transactions to working with communities who were seeking to resist being dominated by others. This was a big decision for a group that is supported by financial donors for whom a transition in purpose could have jeopardised the support they were willing to afford. It is highly commendable and speaks of a deep humility and authenticity in the board to make this move.

The process they use for thie work they do now  they refer to as 'animation' - in the sense of 'bringing to life'. They predominantly work with groups of poor people in situations of seeming powerlessness - those who are landless, those denied access to the basic needs for life, those who are victims of patriarchy and other abusive situations. Part of their work is triying to link these people into other groups such as some of those we have visited this week. It has been inspiring to see the work of these 'animators' as they describe the process of walking alongside people in their struggle, building trust, listening to their issues, and helping people find routes to their own solutions for the complex problems they face. Note that CLP do not provide the solutions. They are not purveyors of ready-made programmes or pre-packaged solutions. Instead they work to animate the people with whom they are engaged to seek a way forward on the journey for themselves.

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The practice of animation includes listening, dialogue, making connections, understanding, people taking action for themselves, reflection and learning, and material support. There is an excellent summary of this practice here. The component parts of this all build up a way to follow the simple guide of SEE, JUDGE, and ACT that has also been our guide for this week. I have not, however, seen this put into such good and effective practice as I have here. It really is inspirational.

Listening to Graham speak about the shift in priorities and focus for CLP I noted well his emphasis on what they do WITH people and not FOR people. It is such an important distinction. One of the quite a few things within the Church of Scotland that I am rather uneasy about at the moment is the adoption of the Five Marks of Mission (you can find them here if you scroll down the page a wee bit), I understand them, I get why folks find them appealing, but they grate with me because they are framed in a way that talks about what the church does TO people and the world. This is even worse than FOR. It is a model with worrying overtones of domination.

There is a movement amongst some, I sense, for reviving a powerful church that acts to change the world to its own ends. I fear it is doomed to failure. For this is not how God chooses to work. God incarnate in Jesus did not come to dominate but rather to walk beside. Jesus animated fisherfolk, tax collectors, zealots and myriad others to become the disrupters of the dominant ideology of Empire and control. I fear that many parts of the church, and the Church of Sccotland is far from immune, are once again succumbing to the lure of power that cosying up to the powerful brings and adopting the practices of Empire. Faith Action Plans and Deliverables and so on... Like God operates according to five year business cycles. It is laughable when you take a step back from the weeds of trying to implement all this busy-ness.

This adoption of the ways of Empire, of market ideology, of ecclesial capitalism are about maintaing the power of an institution, not about a living witness to the God who preferences the poor and dispossessed, the oppressed and the abused. We see this in frightening forms with the rise of dominionist theology in the USA and the Seven Mountain Mandate and the adoption of these frameworks in a grim merging of church and politics in the current Republican party.

One of the many, many things that has been so obvious during this week has been the need for listening, communication, understanding, action, and reflection in the decisions we make for the future and the need for a cycle of this that continues to iterate as we grow together. To do that we need space and time. That is in short supply at the moment. 

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In the evening some of us (thank you, Fiona, for finding this on the menu!) could not resist trying a dessert which had a distinctly Scottish twist: deep fried Lindt chocolate balls. All I can say is that the collective oohs and aahs as we cut into them were not left wanting! Something for the locally chipper, I think.

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Delving Deep

After the Last Supper, we returned to the Ascott Inn where we are staying in Pietermaritzburg and, as has been the pattern of most evenings, some of us lingered around the terrace to enjoy a drink and conversation. After much laughter and silliness, the therapeutic value of which should never be underestimated, we delved deep. I was in the company of four of our South African fellow travellers. This was an utterly fascinating exploration of the current situation in South Africa. I was humbled and privileged to sit in their presence and listen to their discussion, not wanting to ask too many daft laddie questions. Throughout the week there has been an undercurrent of lament and sorrow amongst those with whom the journey has been shared and amongst many we have meet along the way. It is a sorrow that what could have been at the moment when the apartheid regime finally collapsed under the wieght of its injustice never came to pass. The hopes and dreams of so many who had been dominated by the Apartheid Empire were only realised in terms of gaining the vote. The other promises failed to appear in a healthy and sustainable manner.

The result is growing inequality, whole groups of people forced into the situation of informal settlements in order to survive with no safety nets, rampant corruption, and a sense that the country has lost its way. Any comparisons to the current situation in the UK are entirely coincidental... In amongst that, the Church has also lost its way. While some parts of the Church were completely complicit in apartheid, many other parts had a powerful focus and urgent prophetic voice to counter the domination of the Apartheid Empire. With that gone, so the Church lost its focus and sense of purpose amidst the deepening struggles of those at the bottom of society.

As ever, market-driven ideology destroys community and a sense of neighbourliness amidst the lure of consumerism and the desire for more, more, more for me, me, me!

I cannot do justice here to a wide-ranging discussion of many hours. What I took away from it, however, is that there are some wonderfully thoughtful people who are doing their very best to think how they, in their own small parts, can make a difference through their accompaniment with others, through challenging the systems around them, and through a vital disruptive energy to create something different.

My prayers are with them in the continuing struggle.

At every gathering we have been to during the week, there is always a rallying cry amongst everyone present. It originates in the resistance movement against apartheid. The leader cries,, "Amandla!" which means "Power" and everyone responds "Ngawethu!" meaning "to us". POWER TO US!

This post is too long already! I will end these reflections on yesterday here, writing now late on Saturday when everyone else has gone to bed.

Oh, one last thing, when I got back into the bedroom late on the day before we leave to head home guess what I found in my bedroom?




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Just in time to take it back home again...