Good Friday Sermon
2021 04 02 Alan Storey
South Africa is an extremely violent country. This was confirmed on Friday by Police Minister Bheki Cele. He reported that between October – December 2020 the number of people murdered had increased by 6.6% and the number of people raped had increased by 1.5%. This means that 4,124 people were murdered (2,481 people were murdered in public places and 1,643 people were killed at the home of the victim or of the perpetrator) and 12,218 people were raped, of which more than 4,900 took place at the home of the victim or the home of the rapist. All this in only 3 months!
South Africa is an extremely violent country. This was confirmed on Thursday by The Children’s Institute that launched the South African Child Gauge 2020.
The report describes the deteriorating nutritional status of children as “the slow violence of malnutrition”. The “slow violence” is “hidden” within the permanent negative outcomes that include, stunted growth, a compromised immune system and reduced cognitive ability. This will be a contributing factor in whether a child starting Grade 1 actually completes Grade 12. (On Friday the Matric pass rate for 2020 was announced as 98.07% – yet what is hidden within that percentage is that it only about 50% of the total number of learners who entered Grade 1 twelve years ago.)
South Africa is an extremely violent country. There is the explicit violence and the hidden violence. They are linked. The explicit is underpinned by the hidden. To address the explicit, the hidden must be uncovered, brought into the light and acknowledged if it is to be healed. Yet the explicit violence mentioned by the Police Minister is often the only violence actually recognised as violence. This is the violence one most commonly thinks of when we hear the words “South Africa is an extremely violent country”. As a result, according to the Police Minister, the solution is for the “the police to dig deep and put the shoulder to the wheel”. Yet the hidden violence of one’s human dignity being denied as a result of not having the very basics to live on, runs deeper and is far more extensive than any increased police beat.
Millions of people in South Africa literally live in a permanent state of violence. Of violation. A violation that is not seen or recognised as a violation. As Parker Palmer insightfully says: “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” One way to interpret what he is saying is that explicit violence will result from hidden violence not being validated.
Therefore, the first step to reducing violence in South Africa is to recognise the hidden violence. This is the violence that must come first into our minds when we hear “South Africa is an extremely violent society”. This is the crime that we must first consider when we speak of South Africa as a crime ridden society. This is the primary crime.
I refer you to a paper by Prof. Anthony Collins on violence. In my mind one the most helpful and insightful papers on violence in South Africa.
Within this paper he decides to turn things on its head and ask the question: How to create a violent society. Sadly, you will see that South Africa ticks all the boxes to create a violent society.
To reduce and end violence is our work. This is the work Jesus calls us into. This includes both the hidden and the explicit violence. This violence resides both within us and around us. It therefore includes work within our hearts as well as work on the streets and in the institutions that shape our lives. Our approach is always confessional. Meaning, that we start by asking ourselves where we are part of the problem. To the extent that we can be truthful in this, is the extent to which we can ultimately be set free and in doing so bring change within and beyond ourselves.
Ultimately the work Jesus calls us to in reducing and ending violence, is a work of celebration. The celebration of the sacredness of all Life.
We will explore this further this Sunday at 10am. The zoom link is available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bonus: Interview with Prof. Julian May, from the Centre of Excellence in Food Security.
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.
This week’s reading focus for our CMM Chat on Sunday is Genesis 16 and Genesis 21:1-21. It is the harrowing story of Hagar. I invite you to read and re-read this 2-part story.
One of the things we are often reminded about at CMM is how important it is to understand the context of a scripture to understand its meaning. This includes the social, economic and political context of the time as well as the theological context. It also includes being aware of the context of the story within the Scriptures. We noted how important this is to do when we reflected on John 14 a few weeks ago and how it related to the context of Jesus’ last supper and Peter’s bold statement of faithfulness in John 13. All this holds true if we are to understand the stories of scripture more deeply, but this week I would like to ask you to do exactly the opposite.
This week I invite you to divorce the story of Genesis 16 and 21 from the scriptures entirely. Read it simply as a short story in and of itself. I believe that this approach will help us to read the story more honestly.
For it seems to me that some stories within scripture escape a truthful reading precisely because they are located in scripture. What I mean by this is that because they are in scripture, we approach them with a pre-understanding or interpretation that directs our final understanding or interpretation. This pre-understanding causes us to focus on certain aspects of the story while ignoring others. As a result, we raise certain questions and not others. We give certain characters the benefit of the doubt while we come down hard on others. We may brush over some people’s pain and anguish because we are caught up in the bigger story at play. Put simply, we sometimes apply an “end justifies the means” approach to our reading. This is most clearly seen with the dominant interpretation of the crucifixion itself. The bloody horror on Mount Golgotha is sanitised by our pre-understanding / interpretation of the larger story that “God is saving the world”. And if God is busy saving the world then any piece in the salvation puzzle, no matter how gruesome and no matter what ethical questions it raises about the Divine, are unquestioningly accepted for the sake of the final salvation puzzle to be completed. So, questions like what kind of God needs a human sacrifice to save the world are simply not asked.
This sacrificing of the single puzzle piece for the sake of the whole puzzle is what I think often happens with the story of Hagar. Hagar’s horrific treatment by Sarah, Abraham and even God (according to the narrator’s take on God) is ignored or even justified for the sake of the larger puzzle of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham.
Therefore, I propose we look at the two Hagar pieces of the puzzle, Genesis 16 and 21, on their own. I hope that our sharpened focus will provoke new questions to be asked and emotions to be felt. The ultimate hope is that Hagar will be honoured.
Hagar’s story is a painfully relevant scripture for us to be grappling with at this time. It intersects our own context on multiple fronts: This Sunday is Father’s Day and who can forget the Sunday school song: Father Abraham had many sons…? Abraham as a father of Ishmael and Isaac demand our critique. What does it mean to hold Abraham up as the epitome of faithfulness (Read Hebrews 11:8-18) in the light of his role with Hagar? The patriarchy of Abraham’s times demand we critique the patriarchy of our own times. In recent days we have had a renewed reminder of the horror of violence by men against women and how it continues unceasingly across our land. This intersects with Hagar’s horror. Furthermore, Hagar’s ignored rape anticipates the ignored rape of women through the centuries.
We will discuss together these intersections between this ancient text (short story) and our context on Sunday. I look forward to connecting with you all. If you would like the Zoom Link for the 11h11 CMM Chat please email email@example.com
This evening Bishop Yvette Moses will be delivering her Synod Address live via: Capemethodist Facebook page from 7pm.
Tomorrow the Synod will meet (be it a smaller version) online to complete all essential Synod work. This is going to be a challenge under the circumstances but hopefully we will be able to get everything done.
See you Sunday.
This Sunday at 11:11 we will reflect together on the story of Hagar. For this reason I’ve added Genesis 16 to be read first and in conjunction with Genesis 21:1-21 for the fuller story.
I invite you to read Hagar’s story as for the first time. Try and set aside all previous interpretations. Be aware of your feelings as well as the questions that arise for you. One question to ask is: what would Jesus feel and say about Hagar’s story? And furthermore, where is Jesus in the story? How does this story relate to the horror of gender-based violence today?
The scripture readings for this Sunday are:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the Zoom link.
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.
As a human race, in our unaware state driven by a fear of being separate from Love, we organise ourselves around power. This plays out on a societal level with the combination of power and bias creating the violent oppression of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia and so on. The effects of living with this oppression are far reaching, many of which cannot even be discerned because the dynamic is so familiar, it seems real and true. The extent to which people question that reality and choose to live a different one, is generally the extent to which they are isolated, rejected, resisted, shunned, blamed, maimed or killed.
Other systems of oppression we live in today are perhaps quite subtle, feeling like the norm of our day and age—materialism, consumerism, capitalism… where the currency used to stay in the in group is performance, drivenness, social media presence, greed, attention and a pursuit of more, bigger, better, faster and newer.
Most of us are seduced in one way or another daily, and are not even aware of it. Red push notifications from the apps on a phone, designed to grab your attention and keep you coming back for more; marketing and advertising convincing you of a need you didn’t know you had, and the resultant answer to that need which is something you didn’t know existed; Netflix series episodes rolling from one into the next before you’ve had time to press stop.
Further still are the daily oppressive beliefs we have of what makes us worthy of love and belonging, whether that be our looks, our ability to succeed or produce, the number of people who like us or praise us, our need to be perfect or to stand out… Not only do we face oppressive systems on the outside with their deathly effects, we hand our personal power over to some violent value judgment that leaves us in a place of anxiety, shame, anger, despair or depression.
At the same time, there is another Way in this world, a way that comes from a different place, from Love, a belief of Oneness. It is a voice of permission. Permission to Be. Be exactly who you are. In the words of one who is speaking Truth to systems of oppression in our day, Brenè Brown, “Imperfect and enough”.
What does permission look like for each of us today? Permission to question a system, protocol or expectation of us from outside ourselves, or become curious about the voice of the critic within that leaves us with a sense of unworthiness. Permission to feel all our feelings, to be different, to not conform, to have boundaries, to pull aside into stillness, silence, solitude. Permission to connect with a different Way, to connect with non-violent teachers such as nature, children, animals, art, dance, music. Permission to take a break from the intensity of social media and news, or hurtful, burdening or unhelpful conversations. Permission to acknowledge our needs, get to know them, express them, and put time, effort, and resources into meeting them. Give permission to the different parts of ourselves that are looking for expression, acceptance and love to be witnessed.
When we know the freedom, joy and life that that permission produces in us, we will be compelled, enCOURAGEd to work for it for those around us who are struggling to see or access a reality outside of the system. Because we are One, my freedom and well-being is inextricably linked to the freedom and well-being of all.
May we grow more and more confident in the Power of Love.
The pain of this past week is beyond words to describe … yet words are all we have … and with them we must resist the temptation to be silenced when fear grips us by the throat.
We live with war-zone-levels of violence in this country on a daily basis. Violence, or in the very least, news of violence assaults us daily – yet this past week felt like a ferocious flood that just kept on rising and rising – pushing past our usual defenses leaving us afraid that we will all drown. Drown in blood and grief and anger. Every time we thought the tide of blood couldn’t rise any higher … it did.
And these violences (plural) themselves are the consequence of deep systemic-source-violences. The violences of patriarchy and racism. The violences of dispossession and oppression and exclusion and the further violences that flow from these violences, like poverty and hunger and unemployment. And tragically the people who suffer the most from the systemic-source-violences are the very people most likely to suffer the violence that we witnessed this week.
All these violences make us a deeply traumatised society. I am convinced that almost all of us live with PTSD. PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – yet in our context I think it should also stand for PRESENT Traumatic Stress Disorder because the reasons for our trauma are constant – as one reason passes, another instantly takes its place. To live with Present TSD is abnormal. To live in a society that inscribes Present TSD is abnormal. So if we find ourselves acting in ways that might otherwise be deemed abnormal, this is in fact normal.
So if you are feeling constantly overwhelmed – it is normal. If you are feeling anxious and edgy – it is normal. If you are feeling exhausted with constant fatigue – it is normal. If you can’t sleep – it is normal. If all you want to do is sleep – it is normal. If you can’t focus or concentrate – it is normal. If you have outbursts of strong emotions – it is normal. If you feel numb – it is normal. If you feel you can’t be around large crowds of people or around men – it is normal. All this is normal for a traumatised person to experience. What is important is that we feel what we feel without judgement, guilt and self-condemnation. Feelings are not good or bad – they just are and they long for full acknowledgement.
My hope is that if any of this resonates with you that you will find at least one other person to connect with to speak about what you are feeling. (And if someone decides to speak to any of us – that we will commit to listen without judgement or the need to give advice, and hold what is shared with love.)
In these days I have found myself returning to Clarissa Pinkola Estés, “Letter to a Young Activist during Troubled Times.” Especially these words:
…Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. … The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires … causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these, to be fierce and to show mercy toward others – both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do. (Please go to http://mavenproductions.com for the full letter.)