Wednesday, May 29, 2013

real presence

I believe in paying attention to patterns and repetitions.  When teaching the Bible, I tell our students to look for them in the text; in life, when two or more events of a similar nature pop up without warning, I take notice.

Recently, South Africa mourned the sudden loss of Vuyo Mbuli, one of its most popular television and radio personalities.  In the tribute of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, "Vuyo Mbuli was a constantly reassuring presence on our television screens over two tumultuous decades", perhaps something like the voice of a free and democratic South Africa trying to recover from its long night of apartheid.  At the same time, I found myself riveted by reader comments--usually a worthless lot of discouragement and negativity--addended to internet news releases about the passing of longtime Kansas City Royals' Radio broadcaster Fred White.  For me, White's voice, like the internet readers whose own loving memories of listening to Royals' baseball so nearly matched my own, was the record of the highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, wins and losses, of a midwestern American ball club and an adolescent boy whose heart it had captured.  For me, the Royals very nearly lived, came alive through, became really present, by the voices of White and broadcast partner Denny Mathews.

As some voices bridge space, others bridge time.  On her work with victims and perpetrators of heinous crimes during apartheid, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has spoken of the way in which the narration of past traumatic experiences makes them present.  When giving voice to their experiences of trauma, Gobodo-Madikizela has observed that victims often unconsciously move back and forth from the past to the present tense.  She observed of one woman's story that "the event seemed so vivid to me that it was as if it were happening in the moment" (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2003: 89)  The speaking of the past made it real in the present.

Similarly, at the heart of Christian worship is a recollection of trauma, a memory of suffering, that through word and spirit collapses the distance between past and present and here and there.  "The
Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:23-24).  The memory begins, in the words of Paul to the Corinthians or any person who commemorates the event for others, in the past--"betrayed", "took", "had given thanks", "broke", "said"--but suddenly--"This is my body"--slips into the present.  As the victim's narration made the past real in the present for Gobodo-Madikizela, so the church's remembrance in word and spirit makes present the betrayed one who gave his life "for us."

Christian worship at its best, like the spontaneous passion or "reassuring presence" of a broadcaster bringing to life events his audience cannot see, makes real the presence of the one who loved us and gave himself for us.  If God therefore presents himself through our worship, it is particularly incumbent upon those whose task it is to speak for others to be truly attentive to reality as it unfolds.


Gobodo-Madikizela's reflections can be read in her book, A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness (Claremont, South Africa: David Philip, 2003), especially pp. 88ff.        

Monday, May 13, 2013

learnings from perspectives on the African past

Back during Holy Week, the preacher at one of the evening services relayed an insight that I found interesting on the subject of the relationship between the past and the present in his particular African culture.  The first point of interest for me were the subjects this man and his friends were themselves interested in.  The man spoke of a question his friend used to ask, "Why was it that Jesus was born in the Middle East and not in South Africa?"  It was not the type of question I had ever asked myself with regard to my own point of origin.  Indeed, I had never assumed that Jesus could have been born in what is now known as North America.  Yet, with regard to his own home, the man's friend needed to know why God chose Palestine and not Africa?

The preacher's own answer to his friend's question had to do with the idea that the Jews had an advantage over the preacher's own African culture due to the former's belief in the one God.  "All we knew here were our grandfathers," the preacher said, referring to the spiritual place of authority occupied by the ancestors in traditional religion.  The preacher's logic seemed to be that Jesus, being the fulfilment of the revelation of the one God in history, could only appear to those who were prepared to receive him.  By faith in the God of Israel, so it seems, the Jews were more ready for God's great act of self-disclosure in Christ than were, in this case, inhabitants of southern Africa.  Jesus had first to fulfil the faith of those to whom he came before the faith could be taken to others.

The preacher's perspective on his African past would seem to fly in the face of much African scholarship that insists that the pre-Christian peoples of Africa did worship the one God.  Far from the man's statement that "we only knew our grandfathers" is the premise that Africans always knew of the one God and worshipped God through the ancestors.  Of course, the positions are not mutually exclusive.  Some insist that though God was known, God was too other, holy, or distant to be approached without the mediation of the ancestors. Consequently, because descendants went "directly" to the realm of the spirit only through their ancestors, one might say that only "our grandfathers" were known even without denying the presence of the one God beyond.  Perhaps in practice only "our grandfathers" were known while in theory also God was known.  Nevertheless, in the preacher's perspective, whatever knowing of God in comparison to the ancestors was so partial as to disqualify his forefathers from seeing the birth of the historical Jesus within their culture.

The man's comments, then, privilege the Jews in salvation history.  I have sometimes encountered an assumption in Christian missiology that the traditional cultures of the world are in the place of the first-century Jews in relation to the Christ, as though Christ comes "to fulfil the law and the prophets" of every culture as much as he claimed to do so for Israel (Mt 5:17).  The logical progression of such thinking is that Jesus might have, in terms of the question of the preacher's friend, as easily have come to Africa as to Palestine.  Moreover, such thinking betrays a Christian ambiguity about the place of the Old Testament, for if every culture can receive Jesus directly, then the Old Testament may be an expendable source of gospel proclamation.  In the latent logic of the aforementioned African lay preacher, however, no necessary choice exists between Jesus the fulfilment of every culture and Jesus the fulfilment of Israel.  If the story of Jesus is the story of Israel fulfilled, then the law and the prophets are part and parcel of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Jesus who speaks to every particularity comes with his own particularity.  To know Jesus is, to a very significant degree, to know his story.

Nevertheless, the conviction that the story of Israel is one with the gospel of Jesus does not mean that the two are identical.  Christians believe that Jesus is the Lord of the story, so that the story holds together in him.  The Old Testament shapes a distinctively Christian way of life only in relation to Christ, so that the particular ways in which Jesus took up the law and the prophets (as recorded in the New Testament gospels) give special direction for Christian faithfulness in every culture.  In seeing how Christ fit and did not fit the expectations of his culture, Christians learn how they should and should not fit the expectations of their own cultures.  For that work of discerning the ways of faithfulness, Christians need Christ with his story.  Christ with his story, the story of Israel fulfilled, is the necessary precursor to a deep implantation of the faith that pleases God in every culture.