Praatjie deur Retief Muller by US Fakulteit Teologie Hoop-vieringe.
Human dignity, Missiology, and the intercultural encounter in Southern Africa
Background and Context
How can a ‘white’ person conduct intercultural research that serves the promotion of human dignity in contemporary South Africa? This is an important background question for me because it relates to my own prior research into African indigenous Christianity, but also because of the media storm unleashed last year regarding the so-called ‘whiteness’ debate – featuring various opinions about how to cope with white guilt and/or shame – in which the academics Samantha Vice and Anton Van Niekerk became household names (particularly the latter after he was assaulted by a right-wing extremist in his office here at Stellenbosch University). Vice, however, had set the ball in motion already in 2010 with the publication of an academic article, ‘How do I Live in this Strange Place’ in the Journal of Social Philosophy.
Although Vice had politics in mind when she recommended silence, humility and introspection to South African whites, we know from history that everything here has always been political including religion. In the interest of public theology, as Will Storrar recently reminded us in a lecture on a related theme, this is also how it should be when faithful to the gospel. Problems occur when the political dimension is denied or otherwise camouflaged in religious ethics.
South Africa is a mixed bag of people, languages and cultures. Our troubled history is directly related to this fact. One could say that apartheid was partly the result of the refusal by some to acknowledge the inevitability of diversity in this land. Now that democracy has been achieved, greater degrees of tolerance and acceptance of our country’s diversities are officially in place. However, nothing is ever fixed in time and space. The past is a different country. The future is unknown. We are pilgrims in search of a promised land. Although ‘promised land’ is a contentious term filled with its own history of injustice and oppression, for South Africans there has emerged a credible vision of a promised land. This vision which promotes human dignity as shared humanity is Archbishop Tutu’s Rainbow Nation. I think this is an important vision, but one that we should place in a ‘realising eschatological’ perspective, thereby acknowledging that the vision in all its fullness has not yet been achieved. The fact that we are now a democracy with majority rule under a wonderful constitution does not mean that all is well as has become increasingly evident with the persistence of interracial tensions, instances of xenophobic violence, and so on. Therefore, what role, if any, can whites play in this sort of situation without trampling on human dignity as shared humanity? If we want to place this in a more global perspective, then a related question might be, what sort of role, if any, can westerners play in the affairs of contemporary Africa? But I will stick to South Africa, because in a sense our country is like a laboratory for the world in terms of interracial and/or intercultural relationships.
My thesis: Whites cannot serve the promotion of human dignity in intercultural encounters in South Africa, unless such engagement is accompanied by a kind of ‘conversion’ or internal transformation as a result of which a greater sense of human dignity as shared humanity takes root, with liberating consequences for all participants in the encounter. This theme has both historical and theological dimensions. I will consider it by analysing the ambiguous relationship between ideas about race and mission in Afrikaner history. On the one hand, 19-20th century Afrikaner missionaries and supporters of mission dedicated their lives and their funds to people not belonging to their inner group, which given the socio-historical context is really quite remarkable. On the other hand, the Dutch Reformed Church evidently used its mission policy to promote racial segregation to the extent that many scholars have traced back the roots of apartheid to early Afrikaner religiosity. Therefore, in spite of the many individual sacrifices made in the name of mission, the ideology behind it was certainly not aimed at the promotion of human dignity as shared humanity.
However, in missiology we deal with the concept of Missio Dei (the mission of God). This concept has many meanings and implications, but one aspect that I want to highlight here is the way in which the self-sending God can create surprising turns of event, and change people in spite of themselves to embrace both the fullness of the gospel and humanity. It seems to me that the cross-cultural context of the mission field must have provided an ideal space for missionaries to be challenged in terms of the operating ideologies of their sending churches.
Therefore, I will consider the intercultural encounter as a potential ‘space’ of transformation. There are some documented examples of missionaries (and missiologists) who experienced a new understanding of shared humanity through their cross-cultural endeavours. In some cases their whole lives were set in a new direction as a result. Even Beyers Naudé, although not a missionary himself, was affected by a number of intercultural encounters in his life and ministry, which apparently played a role in his own transformation. Other missionaries, pastors, and theologians, on the other hand, experienced nothing of the sort.
In Afrikaner culture we have had what is known as a laager mentality. This refers to a kind of group thinking that developed in the face of perceived threats from the outside. It undoubtedly played a role in the rise of Afrikaner nationalism in the 20th century. Therefore, my question is under what conditions might the cross-cultural situation in which missionaries worked have contributed towards breaking the mould of the laager mentality in their own thinking and behaviour? Under what sorts of conditions was it unable to serve this purpose?
To summarise: Missionaries went to other places and among peoples of other cultures usually with the intent to ‘convert’ those people to Christianity. I want to focus on the racial and/or cultural ideas that Afrikaner missionaries took with them, and I am particularly interested in how some of the missionaries themselves as a result of their experience might have been ‘converted’ to a new understanding of the gospel they thought they were preaching, including possibly new understandings of shared humanity.
To put it even more briefly: What happened to Afrikaner civil religion when tested by intercultural encounters?
The reason for making such a historical enquiry is that it has important implications for the present. As mentioned above we find ourselves inevitably and increasingly in an intercultural context in contemporary South Africa. Even closer to the bone, we have the process of church reunification between the Dutch Reformed Church and the Uniting Reformed Church. Much of the resistance from the side of white Afrikaners to both the Belhar Confession and church reunification can be hung at the door of the persistence of a heretical anthropology, which refuses to acknowledge human dignity as shared humanity. For members of the DRC to become wholeheartedly and enthusiastically part of this process, it may be necessary for many to undergo a ‘conversion’ away from Afrikaner civil religion and towards a wider conception of God and humanity. If this sounds a little drastic perhaps, please take the time to watch the recent video produced for the Mail & Guardian entitled ‘The Parable of Two Churches.’ http://mg.co.za/multimedia/2012-04-04-the-parable-of-two-churches/low
It is no coincidence that an era of increased national integration in post-apartheid South Africa precipitated a period of profound identity crisis within the Dutch Reformed Church. It will be misleading to attribute the dramatic drop in membership (20 000 officially in the last year) simply to worldwide processes of secularisation affecting all Western and westernised societies to varying degrees. For the DRC something more fundamental is at issue. It used to provide a civil religion to people whose lives were deeply embedded and invested in the system of apartheid. With the latter abolished the former has not only become devoid of any meaning in the new changing context, but actually exposed as a fallen idol.
Of course, many insiders do not see things this way. For them their church should stay the way it was, even if, and perhaps actually because, surrounding structures had fallen away. The ones who left the DRC cite various reasons, on the other hand. For some the church had simply become an unnecessary waste of time, an encumbrance to the living out of self-styled spirituality. Others have become members of alternative church formations, and then there is the apparent mushrooming of atheisms of varying hue among Afrikaners, often accompanied by deep anger and resentment towards their former Christian affiliations. I have to wonder to what extent this post-apartheid Afrikaner unbelief might in some cases be a very peculiar kind of atheism. Is this perhaps partly or even primarily a reaction against the god/idol of Afrikaner nationalism? In other words, are some versions of professed Afrikaner atheism in reality the rejection of a local spirit, which is understandably yet regrettably misidentified as the universal Spirit? When people say that they are rejecting God and religion, are they properly aware of how contextually embedded these issues are? Afrikaner nationalism and the accompanying civil religion were so pervasive of all Afrikanerdom that such misidentification of local thought patterns with universal ideas would have been almost inevitable, continuing to affect both those who long for the old ways and those who now reject the totality of the tradition.
Whatever the case, I think part of the reason for resistance to change and transformation in contemporary society, particularly in church circles, from the side of whites is attributable to the inability and/or unwillingness to renege on Afrikaner civil religion. Yet for the purposes of faithfulness to the gospel, church unity, and ultimately in the interest of nation-building such a course of action seems to me to be a basic requirement.
Let me briefly describe the term civil religion. Expounded in the 1960’s by the American sociologist Robert Bellah it describes how a society, in Bellah’s case the USA, tends to sacralise their national symbols, holidays, monuments, etc. to the extent that it approximates the kind of ritualization we more typically expect to find in actual religions. This concept of civil religion was subsequently convincingly applied by Dunbar Moodie among others to Afrikaner society. This is where I take my cue from. Of particular concern is furthermore the hybridisation between civil religion and Christian Protestantism, especially in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church.
This is the point where missiology re-enters the picture. The concept of Christian mission should be totally redefined from the perspective of whites in general and Afrikaners in particular. In fact, most Christians in South Africa irrespective of race or ethnicity could probably benefit from a redefined conception of mission. The trouble is that many Christians are still stuck in the 19th-early 20th century paradigm of mission as an ‘us versus them’ kind of activity of winning over converts, reserved for specialists who go by the designation of missionary. However, this understanding is ignorant of an important development in the theology of mission that has become widely accepted among mission scholars since the late 20th century, which defines the church as ‘missionary by its very nature.’ The implication is that mission should permeate every aspect of church life. The ‘mission field’ is not out there somewhere, but in our midst.
In reference to the above-mentioned Afrikaner civil-religion, I want to suggest that the mission field is not merely in our midst but actually within our own religiosity. Of course, this may be a frightening proposition. The kind of Calvinism that many Afrikaners were steeped in from an early age is the kind that emphasises doctrines like Election and Predestination. It emphasises rationalism and abhors the emotionalism of religious enthusiasm. It is therefore suspicious of dramatic, and even less dramatic, conversion experiences. But if it is true as I suggest it to be that the mission field is now within then we are in need of a conversion experience that will lead us away from the crumbling prison walls of ethno-religiosity and into the green pastures and flowing waters of inclusive Christianity.
Missiology with the aid of a process known in the phenomenology or religions as ‘methodological conversion’ can play a significant role in this situation. ‘Methodological conversion’ on one level describes the ideal process whereby a researcher engaged in qualitative ethnographical work enters the world of the community under study and for all practical purposes becomes fully conversant in their worldview and way of life. In terms of research the ideal is not for the scholar to become an actual ‘convert’ of course. However, I think this process can be utilised by people who are actually looking for a way to effectively and authentically convert from one way of looking at the world, humanity, and God into another way of understanding these same issues.
Lessons from both the theoretical exposition of ‘methodological conversion’ and the historical narratives of missionaries and other figures who experienced their own internal pilgrimages of faith with respect to human dignity as shared humanity, are the kinds of lessons that I think will be very useful for overcoming what sometimes seem like the invisible yet insurmountable walls that divide various sectors of our country and especially our Christian community. Whenever the URC and the DRC are finally reunified as one, I would find it not inappropriate if the new name of the church could resemble that of the old NG Sendingkerk. Correctly understood the Christian church should always be a church in mission.
 Intercultural in this context is perhaps interchangeable with inter-ethnic or interracial. Culture, race, ethnicity all have contested semantic histories, because they have all suffered from essentialisms in the past – the pseudo-scientific ascription of eternal or fixed characteristics. I prefer culture, because it still seems the least problematic of the three terms.