The truth beneath the facts

2020 11 16 Alan Storey: Daily Maverick 

A follow-on article about the Brackenfell High School violence by Alan Storey
published by the Daily Maverick on 16 November 2020.


Sunday’s Sermon:

2020 11 15 Alan Storey: Our addiction to growth is killing us.
[1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30]

 

Friends,

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.

Grace,
Alan

Slave Freedom Charter

Friends,

I invite you to read and reflect on Exodus 20:1-17

Before you read the reflection below, I encourage you to do your own wrestling with the text.

Paradoxically this is sometimes more difficult to do with those passages of scripture that are best known to us.  In this instance, the 10 Commandments.

If we wrestle faithfully we must not be surprised if we are wounded by the text and left with a Divinely defined limp as it was with Jacob of old. The hope is that we too will be able to re-see our enemy-Esau as family.

Remember the context is a people freshly freed from slavery. And context gives meaning.

Grace, Alan


Reflection: Exodus 20: 1-17

Think slavery: The cruel continuous brutality. The shackles and sjamboks. The beatings and killings. The constant hunger and everlasting exhaustion. The trauma of daily terror. Everything that is done is done to break your spirit and to erase your human dignity. Every effort is made to whip the dream of freedom out of you. Any attitude other than submission is smacked down to teach you a lesson, to set an example and to send a message: “I own you”. “Don’t ever think of rebellion.”

Think escape: The calculations. The planning. The praying. The risk. The courage. The tenacity. The stealth. The strength. The water rationing. The breath-holding. The knowing that death is certain if captured, and the knowing that to accept slavery is to die. Freedom or death!

Think freedom: The amazement. The wonder. The miracle. As miraculous as an ocean splitting in two forming a path of dry ground to walk through. The tears of joy. The speechless gratitude. The musical celebration. The deep breath of relief. The rest. The resolve: “Never, never and never again shall it be that we will be anyone’s slave”.

It is through this lens of slavery, escape and freedom that I invite you to reflect on the Ten Commandments, for it is within this context that they were originally carved. In other words their aim is specific rather than general.

Just as the South African Constitution of 1996 was written with the specific aim to prevent a return to Apartheid and discrimination of any kind, so the Ten Commandments were written with the specific aim to prevent a return to slavery and oppression of any kind. A freedom charter to be gratefully celebrated rather than a moralistic code to be fearfully obeyed.

I will now share a few thoughts on the first five Commandments using the lens of slavery, escape and freedom for you to consider:

The preamble [Exodus 20:2] is wondrously simple and profound, not unlike the incredible preamble to the South African Constitution that is a poetical summary of the Constitution’s purpose. In the case of the Ten Commandments it is all about freedom and the protection of human dignity – the exact opposite of dehumanising slavery. God listens to the cries of the oppressed [Exodus 3:7] and works liberation with them to end their oppression.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. This is not a general statement of belief that there is a God. It is specific to freedom from slavery. Nothing is to be put before the freedom and dignity of people. No system of domination of one over another is ever to be accepted. If our God (our ultimate belief or value system) is not first and foremost a listener and liberator of the oppressed then our worship of this god will lead us back into slavery. This calls us to check our God! Who does our God listen to? The oppressed or the powerful? The poor or the rich? The landless or the propertied? The marginalised or the privileged? Who do we pay most attention to? Who do we listen to? Who do we work with and to what end? Whose interest do we take to heart? Answering these questions will enlighten us to whether we have given our heart to the listening and liberating God, or not.
  2. Make no idol. This is not a general statement about statues and the like, made out of wood or stone, etc. but the specific instruction to make sure that everything we make or create serves the purpose of freedom. This is especially true of the systems we create. Economic systems. Health systems. Education systems. Religious systems. Legal systems. These systems take on a life of their own. And they are very powerful. They are meant to be at the service of human dignity and freedom but too often they are used to oppress some while securing privilege for others.
  3. Make no wrongful use of the name of God. This is not a general statement about swearing when we hit our thumb with a hammer. It is the specific instruction that we dare not name God incorrectly. By calling something godly when it is not. The old South African Constitution is an example of this. To suggest God is anything other than liberative is a wrongful use of God’s name.
  4. Keep Sabbath (Day, Year and Jubilee). The practice of Sabbath is to be grounded within every human system to ensure that every system contributes towards human dignity and freedom and ultimately safe-guard against returning to a form of slavery. Rest on the 7th Day and remember the Listening and Liberating God alone is to be honoured. Furthermore, a slave can never rest and therefore weekly rest is an act of resistance to slavery, especially if it is built into all human systems. It places limits on work and therefore exploitation. Let the soil rest every seven years. This too is an act of resistance to exploitative practices – for the exploitation of the soil goes hand in hand with the exploitation of people. The one inevitably leads to the other. Finally, practice Jubilee – in other words place a limit on inequality. Every 50 years push the reset button of the whole economy. Cancel debt, for debt is the first step in the direction of slavery. Redistribute wealth – so that those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little. The more equal a society is, the less likely slavery will take hold within that society.
  5. Honour your parents. Sadly, this instruction is predominantly understood in exactly the opposite way it was intended. In so doing the 3rd instruction about the wrongful use of God’s name is often broken. For instead of protecting the vulnerable it is used to silence, dominate and marginalise the vulnerable. Children, especially young children, are vulnerable. Abuse from some parents and elders is sadly a reality. Looking at this through the lens of slavery, escape and freedom, this is almost certainly not referring to the relationship between parents and their young children. If it were it would surely have been written the other way round: Parents honour your children, i.e. the powerful honour the vulnerable. Therefore, this instruction is directed at the middle aged child to honour her/his now vulnerable parents who are mature in age. In this reading the powerful are instructed to honour the vulnerable as opposed to forget and forsake.

I invite you to continue through commandments 6-10 employing the same lens of slavery, escape and freedom.

  1. No killing
  2. No adultery
  3. No stealing
  4. No false witnessing
  5. No coveting.

This week and next week’s lectionary reflections will form the content of our CMM Chat.

Our next CMM Chat will be on 7th October at 20h00.

Please email welcome@cmm.org.za closer to the time for the link.

Grace,
Alan

 

 

 

 

Listen!

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.”

 

Friends,

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 welcome@cmm.org.za if you want the link to Sunday’s chat.

Grace,
Alan

PS: From June 2018 in the States