A follow-on article about the Brackenfell High School violence by Alan Storey
published by the Daily Maverick on 16 November 2020.
This past week we witnessed ugly clashes outside Brackenfell High School. The violence ensued between parents / residents and the EFF. The EFF was protesting against alleged racism at the school after reports of a privately arranged masquerade ball / matric farewell attended by only white matric pupils. You can google to read all the allegations and counter allegations that make up the list of disputed facts.
I do believe however, that beneath the disputed facts, there lies truth that invites our reflection and action if we ever hope to live liberated lives in this country. I name four for you to consider:
The first truth: Racism is real
Regardless of whether the organised event was a masquerade ball or matric farewell. Regardless of whether the organised event was privately arranged, or not.
Regardless of whether the school knew anything about it, or not.
Regardless of whether the invitation was open to all, or not.
Regardless of whether the invitation was open to 100 pupils due to Covid-19 limits, or not.
If it is true that out of 254 students, the 42 learners who attended were all white, it is deeply troubling. Whether by exclusive invitation or not, this points to a fractured and divided community based on the colour of one’s skin. It boggles the mind to even think that after sharing 5 years of high school together, a group of students can get together in a homogenic racial group numbering 42 learners. This is true regardless of the reason for the grouping.
In our country and with our history it would be an act of profound delusion to suggest that this occurrence is a mere coincidence and not rooted in explicit or implicit racism. This is especially true for a previously white only school because even though the student body may have changed, the systems, staff and spirit of school may not have changed much at all.
For this reason, white people in particular are encouraged to walk humbly with a willingness to stop, listen, learn and grow. No different to how men are encouraged to walk humbly in relation to the reality of sexism.
The second truth: Denial delays healing
For the school to say that “it is not racist” is denialism. In this country the most truthful starting point is that racism is present, not absent. We may not want to be racist. Our rules and regulations on paper may not be racist. Our motto and value statement may even be written in rainbow ink, but still the reality of racism in our institutions is real more often than not. In other words, it is more honest to assume that racism exists within the institutions of our society, than not. This includes all institutions be they: education, religious, business, sport, entertainment, etc. The assumption that various levels of racism exist is not prejudicial. Rather it is honest and wise. This is, for example, no different to assuming that children from a broken-down marriage will have various levels of inner trauma. This is the logically responsible place to start. If there is no evidence of such trauma however, then we rejoice and welcome the exception, but knowing it is an exception.
Most importantly, what counts is not whether the governing body declares the school free of racism, but whether the black learners attending the school declare the school to be free of racism. Reality check: numerous accounts from black learners testify to just the opposite, namely that racism is real and so is the school’s denialism. The liberation and healing of the school will depend on how they wrestle with this truth. I can hear Jesus saying: “Truly if you want to save your school you will lose it, but if you are willing to give your school away to the truth, it will be given back to you stronger and more beautiful than ever”.
The third truth: Freedom to protest, protects freedom
The EFF are correct to highlight every instance of racism. We all need to be doing this. People may call them opportunists or worse, but people turn to them for a reason. People trust that the EFF will bring attention to their grievance of racism. We need to ask why other parties and institutions, including the church, do not have this reputation. At best the church may write a press statement condemning this or that racist act, but the shameful truth is we seldom put our feet on the ground in protest to stop racism in its tracks.
The right to protest is a fundamental human right. Our freedom depends on it. This is true regardless of who is protesting and for what. Therefore, people’s right to protest must be protected. This includes creative acts of non-violence that may even be disruptive, yet remain free of threat, intimidation and violence.
The fourth truth: Violence breaks down what it promises to build up
The moment protest becomes violent, it diminishes the human dignity of everyone involved – victim and perpetrator. It says, “our issue is more important than your life”. Violence also deflects from the essence of the issue being highlighted. It provides an excuse for people not to listen to the grievances and greater reason for people to stand in opposition. It provides an easy excuse for a violent retaliatory crack-down (violence begets violence). Further, anything that may be achieved through intimidation, threat and violence will forever have to rely on intimidation, threat and violence to be upheld. This is not sustainable. Therefore, violence sows the seed of its own destruction. Ultimately violence fails to create a peaceful and just future as it promises, for violence cannot chase out violence. For these reasons, threat, intimidation and violence will be the undoing of any who rely on such means. To put this another way: the moral arc of the universe bends away from violence.
The EFF’s modus operandi often includes threat, intimidation and violence yet, interestingly, it has within its own history examples of how futile this is as well as how fruitful non-violence is. For example, in April 2011 Julius Malema arrived at court surrounded by bodyguards sporting red ties and carrying semi-automatic rifles. It did him no good. It simply confirmed his loose-cannon status and justified the quest to silence and discipline him. Later that same year however, on the 28th October, Malema together with about 1000 followers walked from Johannesburg to Pretoria under the banner of economic freedom. It was a disciplined and peaceful protest and all the more powerful for being so. It sharply kept the focus on the issue of economic freedom. Despite being disruptive, this protest action instantaneously won Malema praise and renewed respect from even his harshest critics.
The violence from the residents / parents of Brackenfell was ugly, immature and self-defeating. Their violence exposed the truth of their character. Their violence added validity to the very allegations they so vehemently were in denial of. Any case they may have thought they had, eroded the second they landed the first punch and threw the first stone. That is what violence does. Violence robs the violent of any moral authority they may have had. While promising victory, violence seals defeat. While promising security, it makes one vulnerable. While promising to build up, it undermines. The parents’ violent behaviour now completely overshadows any other wrong (perceived or real) that they said they were resisting.
I invite you to re-read the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) that remind us that we cannot love God without loving our neighbour. And that our neighbour is of priceless worth and therefore we must be gentle, just, merciful and pure in our relationships, ruling out racism and violence forever.
June, 14 2020 The Sermon this week comes to us through the words of Rev. Victoria Safford, a minister in the Unitarian Church. They are words from 2005 but I believe them to be very connecting with our times. You decide if that is true for you. You may also want to see how the scripture readings for this week connect with her words. [Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7); Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)]
See you tomorrow at 11h11 for CMM Chat … “the holy occasion of hearing one another, of beholding one another.”
Psalm 116 begins:
1 I love the Lord, because the Lord has heard
my voice and my supplications.
2 Because the Lord inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on the Lord as long as I live.
Basically, the psalmist is saying: Wow I have been listened to!! Being heard is the basis for the psalmist’s love and lifelong commitment. What is so wondrous according to the psalmist, is that the All-Powerful One, who by rights does not have to listen to anyone, has indeed listened to this psalmist’s cry.
The Lord heard my cry, is no small claim. In fact, it is this very claim that sparked the liberation of the Hebrew slaves back in the day. Back then the dominant theology of Empire taught (as Empire theology always does) that God only spoke and listened to the king who then represented or incarnated God on earth. It was treason to suggest that God listened to anyone besides the king. In Exodus 3:7 we read the radical declaration from the lips of the Lord: “…I have heard their cry…”. Being heard by the Lord helped them to discover and trust their true identity. They were the Lord’s “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5) and not Pharaoh’s slave. On the basis of being heard by the Power above all other powers, the Hebrew slaves demand their freedom and are prepared to walk through oceans and deserts to get it.
The declaration that the All-Powerful One listens to the lowly and trodden upon, is one of the most radically subversive statements of the Scriptures. It is also the primary instruction for those in positions of power to imitate. Listen longest to the lowliest. In truth most of us practice just the opposite.
One of the reasons “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that our desire to listen seems to decrease in direct proportion to the increase of our power. Perhaps this is because listening and humility go hand in hand and if anything tests our humility it is power. After all, “why do I need to listen to you, if I have the power to just tell you what to do?” This is especially tempting when we are pressured and rushed or feeling vulnerable and afraid ourselves.
If power is not bridled by accountability, we can be almost certain that there will be abuse. The refusal to listen is the beginning of this abuse. It is to treat another as if they do not count. And if they don’t count, it raises the question why do they exist at all? From here it is a slippery slope to doing them further harm.
When institutions constantly cover for those among their ranks, right or wrong, then a culture of impunity soon saturates the structures of that institution which make the abuse of power by members of the institution not just possible but probable. We have witnessed this among the police and army, both here and abroad in recent weeks. We have also witnessed it within religious institutions who have covered up sexual abuse over many years. And in recent days we have heard again of how multiple forms of discrimination are routinely ignored and go unaddressed within elite schools. This occurs when institutions exist to protect and preserve themselves above all else. The moment an institution closes ranks to save itself in this way, it begins to die. And while dying it causes death. This is the public law of self-destruction that Jesus spoke of in personal terms: “If you want to save your life you will lose it.”
Conversely, to listen to another is to affirm their existence and honour their being. To listen is to help another discover and trust their true identity as precious. To listen is the beginning of the liberation journey.
Many are asking, what can we do? We can start by checking who we give our ear to. We can start by listening. We can start by listening to the cries of people, especially the people from the margins of society. And in these June days we are called to listen especially to young people. To listen without argument or the need to answer. To listen to feel and to learn for the sake of liberation.
Please email email@example.com if you want the link to Sunday’s chat.
Over the years I have repeatedly recommended Nan C. Merrill’s Psalms For Praying – An Invitation to Wholeness. Her rendition of all 150 Psalms is exquisitely beautiful. It is also imaginatively courageous. She writes as a jazz musician plays. Keeping true to the original and underlying score while improvising on the surface in ways that allow us to hear the original melody with renewed wonder and appreciation.
Merrill’s artistry carries the distinct influence of Jesus, who also did with words as a jazz artist does with strings and keys. Allowing Jesus’ baseline to influence her own, Merrill demilitarises the Psalms. The trumpet of vengeance is silenced. The hum of humility replaces the beat of triumphalism. The enemy that must be fought is no longer out there, but within. To be fought with forgiveness, not fists. The childish schoolboy boast: “My God is bigger and better and stronger than yours” is quietened by the mature realisation that God is always for all … ALWAYS FOR ALL.
This is clearly witnessed in Merrill’s rendition of Psalm 47 – one of the Psalms set for Ascension Day. A Psalm that traditionally shrieks of nationalism and conquest with the psalmist boasting about the Lord’s kingly power that “subdued peoples under us”, biblically entrenching an ‘us versus them’ that too many throughout the ages have blindly followed. Read Merrill’s account to hear what the Psalm sounds like when the performing artist is tuned into Jesus.
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Acclaim the Creator with
loud songs of joy!
For the Beloved of our hearts
the Most High over all the earth.
Love invites the people to
the nations to peace.
Love is our birthright, our heritage,
to be shared with all.
Let Love rise up to shouts of acclamation;
join in the cosmic celebration!
Sing praises to the Creator,
Sing praises to the Beloved,
For Love has created the universe,
let us dance to the flute
and the harp.
Love reigns over nations,
awaiting an answer to its call.
May the leaders of the nations
gather to bring peace and
justice to all.
For the earth belongs to Love,
Who yearns to see creation healed!
Sing praises to the Beloved!
©Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying
I remind you that the CMM Chat at 11h11 on Sunday will be a discussion with three healthcare practitioners from CMM who are directly involved in responding to Covid-19 on the ground in the Western Cape: René Goliath, Yvette Andrews and Ian Proudfoot. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to receive the link to the Sunday CMM Chat.
Look forward to seeing you then.
It was lovely to see so many of your faces on Thursday evening during our Zoom test / connect. It felt Easter-ish: Facial recognition resurrects relationships! To hear familiar voices and laughter is life-giving.
A group call with so many people can be quite chaotic. But as the angels say: “Be not afraid” for there is beauty in the chaos, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory. As we keep open to learning how to be with each other in this new way, let’s double up on patience, kindness and a sense of humour. When in doubt, breathe and smile. We are not all the same. What energises one, drains the next. As we are attentive to our different experiences, may we feel free to express our learnings, ideas and suggestions so that we all take responsibility for the space we share. The feedback, since Thursday has already been helpful. Thank you.
It would be rather entertaining (and concerning) were someone to get out of a swimming pool and walk on dry ground while continuing to wave breaststroke arms. In other words, a new medium invites a new way. Similarly, it is not possible nor wise to try and replicate the actual with the virtual. This means there are going to be some things we simply miss as they are irreplaceable because they are bound within a particular medium.
Learning what we miss can also be a gift. I have realised over the last few weeks that preaching is a particular medium that cannot (certainly not for me) be replicated by a podcast. I was always taught that true preaching is relational, but I have only now come to see that to be true. Missing the congregation has revealed this to me. If I am honest, podcasts feel kind of dead. (Please stop reading and take a moment to pray for the resurrection of dead podcasts … and a particular struggling podcaster.)
I have also missed liturgy, prayer, readings and song in their own right, but also in the way in which they support and stretch the sermon. Sunday services are more than the sum of their parts. A sermon is a thread, while Sunday services are a tapestry. I miss this greater sense of wholeness. The different voices from different perspectives addressing life as we know it from the uniqueness of our hearts, hands and voices.
In the light of all of this we are going to try something new this Sunday. At 11:11 we will have a conversation (on Zoom). The springboard for our conversation will be the Sunday readings and reflection. Please email Adrienne at email@example.com for the Zoom link if you would like to be part of this. We will stick to 50 minutes max (like therapy – except it will not be therapy!). In our quest to be a questioning community, this Sunday we will simply ask the question: “What questions arise for us from the readings and reflection?” Instead of brainstorming answers, we will brainstorm questions.
One of the concerns about all this online stuff is how exclusive and excluding it can be. It is dependent on having access to data and internet access as well as the technology in the first place. We know therefore that many at CMM are excluded from this form of gathering. This is a concern. I am not exactly sure what the answer is but would like us to be mindful of it. If you can help bridge the gap with those who you know from CMM who are not online, please do. Any suggestions?
On Thursday I shared a bit about the present state of the sanctuary (stripped bare) and the new opportunities it presents for us, especially in relation to a different form of seating that will allow greater flexibility for the use of the sanctuary and to make it more functional in the service of the community. This discussion is important not only regarding the historical nature of the building, but because it raises questions about who we are, and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.
Yet the challenge is, this window of opportunity coincides with restricted interaction and limited channels of communication. We would like as many people as possible to be part of these conversations. I therefore appeal to you, if you have thoughts and questions about this, please contact me. We want to make this journey together.
I am mindful that as a community we moved straight from housing refugees for 5 months to Covid-19 lockdown. In other words, from one challenge to another even greater challenge without time to process the first. This is not healthy. We have much to learn from the last 6-7 months as a community. We need to be deliberate about coming back to it when we are able to do so.
Lastly, a big thank you to those who continue to generously support the ministries of CMM as well as Stepping Stones Children’s Centre.