Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"no such things"?

The aunt of a friend of ours works as a cook for a household of Roman Catholic priests and brothers. According to the traditional Catholic custom, she prepared fish for the men one Friday. After the meal, an elderly father of European extraction who has just retired on the compound offered the cook some leftovers.

"No, thank you, I don't eat fish," she said.

"How can you not like fish?" the father retorted, his anger rising. "Jesus served the disciples fish. It was very important to the early Christians."

Later, another brother who is friendly with our friend and her aunt briefed them on the elderly father's subsequent fumings. The father is now seeking to have the cook fired on the basis that the brothers must only employ Catholics, those who will respect cherished traditions such as consuming fish on Fridays. The father had one further grievance.

In the course of his tirade concerning the fish, he noticed that the woman wears a bracelet on her wrist. "She is a witchdoctor," he told the brother.

The woman later confided in her niece, "I am not a witchdoctor. But once I was very sick and I had to wear this bracelet to show honor to the ancestors in order to get better. I was healed and so I wear this. But I still pray to Jesus."

Our friend later reported her aunt's rationale to the brother, who in turn, relayed it to the elderly father.

"There are no such things."

Period. Such was the father's take on the spiritual forces which have a real effect on the life of this Xhosa woman. And there are many others who experience the same.

"There are no such things" does not constitute a missionary response to the concerns of health and prosperity in the hearts and minds of African brothers and sisters.

If not that, then what might a faithful missionary response be? I offer the following to inform a pastoral response and engender sensitivity among those who've committed to walking among African brothers and sisters.

1. The Christian theology of creation and redemption--the invisible Spirit giving birth to, "taking on", visible flesh--blesses the things of creation as channels through which humans can be healed. According to this criterion, there is no reason to elevate one method employing the things of creation over another. In terms of their constitution as types of "flesh", there is no difference between a capsule of ibuprofen, for example, and a bracelet thought to possess healing properties. The efficacy of each is a thing determined by the testimony of the respective human communities in which each is utilized.

2. On the other hand, being blessed or imbued with power--as the things of creation are--is not the same thing as Power itself. Creation as a power or as a diffusion of powers is merely derivative; it is dead apart from the God who gives it life. As a result, the traditional healer's bracelet and the western doctor's drugs are not necessarily equal. Rather, the lasting efficacy of each is dependent on the spirit in which each is given and received.

3. Spirit, or power, in biblical context, is not morally neutral or void. The Spirit who created the world did so out of love, joy, and peace. Powers derivative of the Creator Spirit have strayed from his love, joy, and peace. As a result, humans are both ill and must exercise caution when confronted by the array of powers, some of ill-will, which make themselves available for our "healing". This can include both modern and traditional practitioners.

4. The only way humans can be sure of our ultimate healing is in the name of Jesus, which is to say, far less a matter of words--a verbal formula--than a Spirit of love, joy, and peace. This potentially rules out both the western doctor--judged by the fruits of his/her spirit--and the traditional healer--judged both by the fruits of his/her spirit and by the prohibition that binds God's people from trusting in any other ancestor/human brother or sister, accessed via the traditional healer, than "the prophet whom God has raised up/appointed from among us" (Deut 18). For Christians--be they African or western--that prophet is Jesus Christ. Quite literally has he been raised, for the sake of all flesh.


Monday, October 13, 2008

of cows and boys

One of our understandings that has been challenged working here in South Africa is the meaning of poverty. We see very clear cut examples of suffering that are not hard to define. But there are so many other instances, particularly in the rural areas, where the line is very indistinct. We know people who, by the numbers, would be defined as poor. And yet they are living full and healthy lives. They work hard and have enough, even if just barely. And there is a beauty to a simple rural life that cannot be enumerated.
Two weeks ago we decided to use our day off to follow a sign that we had seen indicating that there was a waterfall somewhere in that direction.
We turned off the road and followed a nice tar road for 11 km. We had to ask someone how to bypass some construction that had the road totally blocked off. But we got around and this time there was actually a sign telling us where to turn off the road. This path ran out and we only had to drive across country for a few metres to get on another track that wound up a mountain and back down into a stunning valley surrounding a fabulous waterfall. We parked at some little huts and signed the guest book for the man who spends all day there with very little company. We hiked up to the top of the waterfall which featured a series of pools and mini-waterfalls.
As we approached we saw cows and boys, the age-old combination in this area. The boys were running and swimming and jumping. While they played, the cows ate and rested. At the end of the day, the boys will take them home but in the meantime the time is theirs as long as the cows are safe. It is exactly the boyhood that Mandela describes in his autobiography, almost as untouched by the outside world. We greeted the boys and were met with very little response besides them lining up on the rocks to watch us. Eventually a few scattered to return to play but the rest stayed in their lineup. We swam and played a little bit (feeling like we were on Baywatch) and then left as we were getting hungry and had not brought enough food to share.
The waterfall was gorgeous, the water fresh and cold, the day clear and hot. We had been a little blip of interest in these boys' day but when we left, they returned to their age-old routine. Are they poor? Probably they are by the numbers. But their daily play place is a holiday destination for us. What we take time off to enjoy is their everyday existence. Would they give up this kind of freedom in order to make enough money to be able to take time off to visit this waterfall? I don't know.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

greater things than these

I met a man the other day who, in the process of introducing himself to me, eventually got around to speaking of his highly-successful, professional daughter who had passed away from AIDS in 2000.

"We have such things in the 'New' South Africa," he commented.

He continued, "This is not the freedom for which I went to jail [in the days of apartheid]."

He had one further comment. "Still, I will never leave the ANC [African National Congress, the current ruling party and the party of struggle against apartheid ]."

At the moment I am also reading Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog, an account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the author's own coverage of it (the TRC was set up by the ANC government in the mid-late nineties as an attempt to heal the wounds of the past by giving voice to those whose stories of loss had been suppressed). I am at a point now where the author is recounting how the ANC counseled individual members not to apply for amnesty for abuses they had committed in retaliation for apartheid, even though personal amnesty was the only kind of amnesty the TRC would hear. Rather, a certain ANC leader had told the author that the ANC would apply for "collective amnesty"--not even an option according to the TRC. The ANC was pursuing this course of action in order that individual members might have one another's back, shielding one another from the shame of disclosing participation in abuses, however retaliatory or "defensible" in light of a supposed "just war". Such a stance, then, in effect, amounted to a continuation of suppression of stories for "innocent" victims caught in the midst of violent acts--the very thing the ANC had hoped to ameliorate in creating the TRC. The author reports that the ANC had thus chosen party unity over truth, or party unity over the overall healing of the country--for all its citizens, regardless of party.

At the time, the Commission chair, Archbishop Tutu, was incensed by the ANC course for the very reason relayed above. In the events of the last two weeks, with the forced resignation of national President Thabo Mbeki by his political rivals, led by current ANC president Jacob Zuma, Tutu declared that "the way of retaliation leads to a banana republic." Obviously, he interpreted the ousting of Mbeki as payback for Mbeki's alleged meddling in the revelation of evidence upon which to try and convict Zuma--a threat to Mbeki's power atop the ANC and country--on charges of corruption.

In my limited understanding, Tutu was/is right. Though it seems highly likely, despite Mbeki's ardent denials, that he and/or his political allies overstepped the bounds of power in building a case against Zuma, the Zuma camp's return in kind is to be condemned. At some point, retaliation must stop. Or as the title of one of the archbishop's books puts it, there is no future without forgiveness, without the willingness not to do as others have done to you.

In the end, Mbeki attributed his own step-down to party loyalty.

"I have always been a loyal son of the ANC, and I remain so today." Since the ANC leadership had called him--or forced as may be the case--to resign the presidency of the country, Mbeki would fall obediently in line. Although the "willing" stepping-down of a politician on the African continent is to be applauded wherever such a thing may occur, I still find pause in Mbeki's reasoning: loyalty to party.

For those who participated in the struggle against apartheid and indeed colonialism throughout the continent, a brotherhood, a party, was formed that can never be broken. Loyalty to fellow strugglers is the highest good (on the other hand, is it not then ironic that one ANC member, Mbeki, appeared so embarrassingly desperate to keep another ANC member, Zuma, down--if in fact they are truly brothers--or are other conflicting loyalties also at play here?). Such loyalty is also why Mbeki was willing to stand by Mugabe in Zimbabwe despite every reason to denounce the character of his rule.

"Still, I will never leave the ANC." Still, even though the party should fail, forfeiting its moral integrity, I will remain loyal. So some say.

Never were Jesus' words about willing to lose one's life in order to save it more true than for institutions, parties, collectives, as well, of course, as for individuals. For institutions die hard. But eventually they will die, despite every last-ditch effort. Only those who remain within the life of the one who gave up his every earthly hope for the establishment of God's kingdom on earth for the sake of preserving his own moral integrity, will live. Only institutions who do so--who are willing to forfeit a cherished name or structure or way of operating--will live. And even then, that living will be in another form, even as the moral continuity--that which enabled it to face death in the first place--remains into the new.

So it is with our risen Lord. We recognize him for his moral integrity, symbolized by the visible scars of crucifixion, the willingness to die in love for enemies rather than vanquish them in the pursuit of justice, yet perceive that he is new, something more than he was before God intervened to raise him from the dead. We see the Jesus who transcends earthly bounds, who "passes through walls while the doors are locked", in order to lead us to "even greater things."

Things greater than party. Or nation. Or a mission agency. Perhaps even than the church. Or at least the church as it commonly proceeds.