Craig Bailie questions whether the Church in South Africa is appropriately engaged in the necessary conversations surrounding issues of social justice. In the first of a 3-part series he calls on Christians to become ‘sacred spaces’ of conversation. — See Part 2 and Part 3.
Three recent, provocative and reinforcing events helped motivate the writing of this article. In a sense, this article is a continuation of the same dialogue initiated at these three separate events. This is a dialogue, which, I believe Jesus calls all South African Christians to enter into, in this space and time, but which I believe many of us have and continue to deny the opportunity.
By “reinforcing”, I mean these events encouraged and reaffirmed in me, an already-existing and developing sense of the need for action, in and by the Christian Church in South Africa. This piece exists as a general call for action, but even before this, it serves as a plea for South Africa’s local church congregations to engage in a particular kind of action, to become increasingly sacred spaces of conversation.
Siyakhula: ‘Embracing a New Normal’
In May, I attended a three-day workshop with the above title. The Siyakhula workshop was organised and hosted by Stellenbosch University’s Transformation Office in partnership with the university’s Equality Unit, the Disability Unit, and Human Resources. The workshop, still on offer, is aimed at university staff with the purpose of encouraging change in, and understanding of, aspects of the university’s institutional culture.
Themes and concepts that were uncovered and discussed included “modern racism”, “internalised oppression”, “ableism”, “rape culture”’, “decolonisation”’ and “gender identity”, among others. These themes, chosen in and for the Stellenbosch University context, are reflective of realities elsewhere in the country and in the world.
For the Christian, this commonality between a South African university campus and spaces found elsewhere in the world has its origin in a common human nature. Beyond this faith-based explanation and from a socio-politico-economic perspective, globalisation also explains the common realities that have come to characterise different parts of the world.
I cannot claim to have been in support of all that was said or the tacit “agreements” that were, on occasion made between members of the audience and the facilitators at the Siyakhula workshop. I can say, however, that I was and remain thankful for the opportunity to have been involved in the discussion.
Refined thinking, strengthened faith
Ultimately, the workshop refined my thinking and strengthened my faith. Gaps in my own knowledge on social justice issues together with my inability to articulate some of my religious beliefs in relation to these issues were exposed. In short, the experience was one of growth and served as a catalyst for further reflective thought, study and conversation.
While the type of conversations held during the workshop will inevitably continue on the Stellenbosch University campus, in other spaces of South African higher education and beyond the academe, I am of the belief that these discussions have yet to commence in many parts of the Christian Church and certainly the Church in South Africa.
As Christians, we often fail to allow sacredness in the spaces that we occupy. This is because we ourselves are not living and behaving sacredly. We are not living according to the intended purpose for which God created us, and for which Christ died. We often fail, for a number of possible reasons, to allow the presence of the Holy Spirit to abide in us. We fail to allow the sanctification that comes with abiding in Christ.
On the other hand, sacredness also fails to manifest in spaces, precisely because Christians fail to occupy those spaces; choosing instead to keep a safe distance; choosing instead to maintain an inward as opposed to an outward focus.
I would argue therefore, that the entry of Christians into spaces like the Siyakhula workshop should be a biblical, and by implication, a standard practice for the Christian. These spaces provide an opportunity to learn from and share with those who, although perhaps holding a different worldview, also carry a desire to see justice done. Conversely and more importantly, Christians must create these same spaces within and across local congregations, inviting inside those who remain outside of the Church.
Two things inform my concern over what I perceive to be inaction, or more specifically, an absence of healthy conversation within the South African Church on issues of social justice.
The first of these is my personal and more recent experience of local church. This is not only the local church as it meets on Sundays, but also the local church that moves beyond the traditional Sunday service and into the broader public space. This broader public space includes social media. It is here that I see on display the denial, arrogance and ignorance of professing Christians in South Africa, in relation to issues of social justice, but particularly issues of race.
At the commencement of the Siyakhula workshop, the chief facilitator called upon participants to view the workshop as a sacred space. I interpreted this as a call for a space in which we share our experiences and views openly, honestly and respectfully; where we seek to understand before being understood; where we expect to be confronted with awkwardness, emotion and hurt; and above all, where we grow in concern for the well-being of the other. Based on my limited experience, and in the context of social justice issues, this sacred space is often absent within the Church.