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A blue afternoon (book review)

20 May 2017

Blue AfternoonBlue Afternoon by William Boyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read with some odd flaws, and I learnt quite a lot that I didn’t know before.

Kay Fischer, a Los Angeles architect, is accosted by a man who claims to be her father. When things go wrong in her architecture practice she allows herself to be persuaded to travel with him to Europe in search of a lost love. He was originally from the Philippines, and so much of the story takes place there.

I suppose one thing that appealed to me about it is that it was a family history mystery, with elements of a whodunit police-procedural mystery as well, and partly a love story, and partly a historical novel including the history of surgery, powered flight, police procedures and the Philippino-American War.

I knew a little of the first two (surgery and powered flight) but nothing of the Philippino-American War or the Spanish-American War which preceded it. For years and years I have heard how the British were inventors of concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer War, but in this book I discovered that the Americans used them too in the contemporary Philippino-American War, and that the American atrocities in the Philippines matched those of the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen in the Second World War. In that sense it was quite an educational read as well.

There were also some niggling errors, perhaps because I’m still a language pedant. I would expect an American architect from Los Angeles to use American English terms, but she uses terms that sound unlikely: she speaks of luggage, not baggage; sweets, not candy; trams, not streetcars, and on one occasion uses lift rather than elevator. And the pioneering aircraft, dubbed by its builder an “aeromobile” for want of a better term is called a “plane” a couple of sentences later, which sounds rather incongruous.

But all-in-all it’s a very good read.

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Unburdening the Captors

19 May 2017

Yesterday the South African Council of Churches (SACC) held a press conference to release the report of its “Unburdening Panel”.

Unburdening, Uncapturing: SACC and SACP take leadership while ANC dithers | Daily Maverick:

,,,for the first time since the height of apartheid, the church is intervening to take on “a government that has lost its moral legitimacy”. The SACP, meanwhile, is convening “progressive forces” in the country for a national imbizo that could set the agenda for the big political conferences coming up…

The heads of all the churches that are members of the SACC have agreed to issue a pastoral letter across all congregations about the report on the Unburdening Panel. This will guide preaching, discussions and prayer in churches across South Africa. It is an unprecedented move in post-apartheid South Africa and it is happening now because the church leaders believe that government has lost its “moral barometer”.

This could be a “game changer”, as journalists like to say.

The last time I saw such a game-changer instigated by Christians in Southern Africa was in 1971, when the leaders of the Lutheran Churches in Namibia issued a pastoral letter to be read in all their churches saying that they agreed with the World Court that South Africa’s rule over Namibia was illegitimate and illegal. The South African government were gobsmacked.

For years the South African government had been saying to other denominations, like Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics, “Why can’t you be like the Lutherans? They aren’t political, they just get on with preaching the gospel.” That it came from such an unexpected quarter and also that the Lutheran churches together were the biggest in South West Africa (as the South African government liked to call Namibia in those days) caused them to sit up and take notice. The Prime Minister of South Africa, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, travelled to Namibia for a special meeting with Lutheran leaders, and tried to cow them with the bombast he usually used with recalcitrant church leaders, and it didn’t work. They stood up to him and answered him right back.

And it made a difference.

The World Court decision, and the Lutheran endorsement of it, suddenly made black people walk tall in the streets of Windhoek. The National Party idol, like Nebuchadnezzar’s, did not need to be worshipped any more. In fact it had feet of clay. Even later back-tracking by Bishop Leonhardt Auala of the Evangelical Lutheran OvamboKavango Church could not stop the momentum for change.

We didn’t have TV back in those days, but the SACC conference yesterday was broadcast live on eNCA, and you can see it here.

Ten years ago there was a movement for Moral Regeneration in South Africa. It was government sponsored and government initiated and the man who was put in charge of it was Jacob Zuma, who about that time was described by a High Court as having a “generally corrupt” relationship with a businessman who was jailed for fraud, but released around the time that Jacob Zuma became president.

There were attempts made to get civil society to buy into this Moral Regeneration thing, based on ubuntu, but the most they seemed to achieve were to produce a list of shared moral values that were so vague as to be meaningless, and again, after Jacob Zuma became president, we heard no more of moral regeneration. I’ve said more about moral regeneration and ubuntu here and here.

This Unburdening Panel set up by the SACC seems to be a step in the direction of a real moral regeneration, rather than the phony government-initiated one. It was pointed out that it is pastoral, not inquisitorial. To judge from the questions asked by the media, it seems that it is difficult for the media to understand this. As someone once put it, the media just don’t “get” religion.

They kept asking questions to try to get the church leaders to say that Jacob Zuma was corrupt.

But such questions are, quite literally, satanic.

The word “satan” means “accuser” or “prosecutor”, and the journalists’ questions were aimed at getting church leaders not merely to accuse Zuma, but to judge him and find him guilty. And that is a satanic temptation, the temptation to judge and condemn. Jesus said “Judge not that ye be not judged.”

SACC Unburdening Panel

The SACC leaders resisted the temptation. The most that they would say was that the jury is still out, and they might have added that they are not the jury. The purpose was not to investigate, much less to prosecute. The purpose was pastoral, to help those who were troubled in their conscience to unburden themselves.

But while Christian leaders should not be accusers of their brethren (Rev 12:10) they should give pastoral care to those who are troubled in conscience, and point out what kinds of behaviour are sinful and need repentance, and in the course of this unburdening a lot of corrupt behaviour has been revealed. Church leaders should not be pointing fingers to say who is wrong, but they can and should say what is wrong. It is the behaviour rather than persons, that is to be judged. And they have found plenty of evidence of bad behaviour in the highest circles of government.

For this to have any effect, for the promised pastoral letters to be sent out and actually read in churches, there needs to be a lot of awareness of what is happening, and so I’ll do what I usually try to avoid doing — ask people who read this to “like” and share it on Facebook, to tweet and retweet on Twitter and other social media (you’ll find buttons for doing this at the bottom of this post), and to do the same with other articles you find on the subject, and if you have a blog, write about it and link to other articles, including this one, if you like.

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The Chapel of the Thorn

11 May 2017

The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic PoemThe Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem by Charles Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An early play by Charles Williams, long thought to have been lost, and edited and prepared for publication by Sørina Higgins, who has also written a comprehensive introduction. There is also a preface by Grevel Lundop who has written a biography of Charles Williams, Charles Williams:the Third Inkling.

I began reading it two years ago, and began with the introductory material, which I think was a mistake. The book was mislaid in a reorganisation of our bookshelves, and so when I rediscovered it I began again, but this time reading the play itself, and saving the commentary for afterwards. And I’m glad I did, because the play speaks for itself, and it is perhaps better to read it without too many preconceptions.

It is set in an unnamed country, which has recently been evangelised by Christian missionaries, but pagan ideas have not been forgotten. The action of the play takes place at a crossroads, in front of a chapel which has a relic of a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. Beyond the chapel is a cliff, and below the cliff can be heard the waves breaking.

The crossroads is also symbolic of the four social groups or forces represented in the play. One road leads to a new monastery, whose abbot and prior want the relic for the monastery. Another leads to a seaside village, whose parish church the chapel is. They earn their living by fishing and farming, and find life hard. The villagers are also aware that the chapel is the burial place of their semi-divine folk hero, Druhild. Two roads lead to the capital, the secular city, the seat of secular power. One road is rough and winding and follows the coast, the other is smooth and direct.

The priest of the chapel wants to keep the relic there, but the abbot of the monastery enlists the secular power of the king to help him seize it. The villagers are in two minds, and at one point are inclined to support Joachim, the local priest. The drama plays out between characters representing these four forces..

The play was written about 1912, and only published a century later, I don’t know if it has been performed since it was published, but it would be quite easy to perform, or could even be done as a simple play reading.

The explanatory material (which takes up more space than the play itself) is useful. Sørina Higgins compares it with Charles William’s other work, and gives information on his personal background, which is useful in helping to understand the play, though I don’t always agree with her conclusions. I’ve noted some of these disagreements in a comment below. I haven’t included it here in the main body of the post because it may contain spoilers.

Because of its setting, in a place where Christian missionaries were still active, and people were between Christianity and paganism, I found it useful as a missiologist, and if I were teaching missiology to live students (most of my previous teaching was by distance education) I might incorporate a reading of it in my course, as it raises many missiological issues, and could provoke useful discussions.

I might ad that more than 50 years ago our church youth group wanted to have a play reading, and I asked a monk if he could recommend a play, and he recommended The House of the Octopus, one of Charles Williams’s later plays. I suspect that if The Chapel of the Thorn had not been “lost” at that time, he might have recommended that instead.


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What is an Evangelical?

5 May 2017

What is an Evangelical?

This is a question that has bothered me for a long time, but especially since 1999 when an outfit called The Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance assiduously and very intolerantly tried to propagate scare stories that “Evangelicals”, disappointed that the world had not ended in the year 2000, would set off bombs in public places to show their displeasure that the Almighty had failed to oblige.

More recently I reviewed Fr Andrew Stephen Damick’s book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, in which he described a number of religious groups and viewpoints, and evaluated them from an Orthodox point of view. Nothing wrong with that, but I thought that his chapter on Evangelicalism and Revivalism was the weakest in the book, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his having come from an Evangelical background himself.

And most recently I read this article, and thought perhaps it is time to try to counter some of the media (and other) spin on Evangelicalism. The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society – The New York Times:

Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.

That innocuous phrase — “biblical worldview” or “Christian worldview” — is everywhere in the evangelical world.

I’m by no means a fundi on Evangelicalism. I’m not an Evangelical, but an Orthodox Christian, though I do believe that the Orthodox Christian faith is evangelical. But I can claim to have some knowledge, first from having been steered in the direction of having a Christian worldview by an Evangelical school teacher, and secondly from having majored in Church History.

The word “Evangelical” means “pertaining to the Gospel”, and has quite a wide range of meanings. but when used as a noun, rather than an adjective, it refers to those who stress the importance of faith as more than assent to a set of propositions, but rather personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. In order to understand this, one needs to be aware of the circumstances in which it arose. Following the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and the Wars of Religion of the 17th, Protestantism, in most of the countries where it flourished, settled down to a rather dull doctrinal orthodoxy. The churches were afflicted by formalism, and the most important thing was not to rock the boat.

Dissatisfaction with this took the form of Pietism in central Europe, which in turn influenced the Methodist movement in Britain in the early 18th century, which was led by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, and these and others, like Jonathan Edwards, preached a similar message in North America. As I noted in my review of Fr Andrew Damick’s book, he himself calls for something like this when he says:

I am not suggesting a Churchless “Christianity,” but rather warning against a Christless “Church.” Just as there is no Christianity without the Church, there is also no Church without Christ. If I cannot detect Jesus Christ—in all His warmth, personality (if we can use such a word), and transformative love—in someone’s speaking about the Church, then I have reason to doubt whether I should heed him.

Yet he compares Evangelicalism with Gnosticism, but can what he says above be seen as Gnosticism? Is the Orthodox teaching on Theosis based on Gnosticism? When the priest asks a catechumen “Do you unite yourself to Christ?”, is that Gnosticism? Even the common phrase heard among Evangelicals, about the need to “accept Christ as your personal Saviour”, though it is not found, in that form, in the Holy Scriptures or in the writings of the Church Fathers, means substantially the same thing as “Do you unite yourself to Christ?”

As a friend of mine once put it:

Moses has received the ten commandments. God confronts the people with his will. Note that he does not say `The Sabbath day is to be kept holy’, but `Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day’; not `Adultery is not to be committed’, but `Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ God does not hide his identity or that of his audience behind a screen of impersonal passives, like our constitutions and statutes. He rises up against his servant and identifies him by addressing him as `Thou’. If you accept the ten commandments, you are not accepting one code of principles among many, you are not acquiescing in a general disapproval of murder; primarily you are committing yourself to a God who has a purpose and a judgment and who reveals that purpose to his people, part of which purpose is that you should not deny your neighbour’s God-given permission to live. Accepting the ten commandments is an act of faith in the living God, not of approval of an ideal way of life. They are not man’s idea of what God wants; they are God’s own word, addressed to man, second person singular.

And similarly the priest in addressing the catechumen does not say “Do you think union with Christ is a good idea?” He says, “Dost thou unite thyself to Christ?” second person singular. It is personal.

Note that the phrase used by Evangelicals is “do you accept Christ as your personal Saviour” and it is similarly using the second person singular. What they do not say is “do you accept Christ as your individual Saviour”, though perhaps nowadays many Evangelicals might interpret in that way.

But this is the origin and the essence of Evangelicalism, and that should not be forgotten when one examines later developments.

One development of Evangelicalism is, as I suggested above4, to interpret “personal” as “individual”. Evangelicalism developed alongside the Enlightenment in Western Europe, and the Enlightenment promoted individualism, and this affected Evangelicalism to some extent. So, in the 19th century some evangelicals regarded this personal relationship with Christ as the most important thing, or even the only thing. For such Evangelicals the church was of lesser importance, and so they were referred to in England, at any rate, as “Low Church”. In their ecclesiology they came to see the church as a collection of saved individuals, like a heap of stones, rather than as a finished building, with each stone going to make up the whole.

The essence of being a Christian thus came to be seen as “making a decision for Christ”, and those who had come to make such a decision were said to be “born again”. But in the Orthodox Church, the decision “I have joined myself to Christ” is followed by Holy Baptism and Chrismation as the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”. This is being “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), and “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). So in being released from the power of the devil (exorcism), renouncing the devil, accepting Christ as King and God, being baptised in water and sealed with the Holy Spirit, one is transferred from the authority of darkness to the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col 1:13)  The theological term for this is “baptismal regeneration”, whereas the truncated Evangelical version is called “decisional regeneration”. And “regeneration” means being born again. So Orthodox Christians who are baptised and chrismated are born again Christians.

Not all Evangelicals have taught decisional regeneration, and Calvinists, especially, have rejected it. It is worth noting that in Germany at least, a distinction has sometimes been made between Lutherans, who were Evangelical, and Calvinists, who were Reformed, so that being Evangelical is one thing, and being Reformed is another. This was not universal, however, because in Prussia (north-eastern Germany) there was a state-sponsored union of Lutheran and Calvinist churches, which was called the Evangelical Church.

John Wesley

But when there is a revival, where the church is trapped in a dead formalism, there is also resistance. John and Charles Wesley, in their preaching of revival, were priests of the Church of England, and Charles Wesley never left it. But the formal church clung to its formalism and resisted revival. Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, told John Wesley “the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” Enthusiasm of any kind was taboo.

That kind of attitude was common in Protestant churches in Western Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Any manifestation of the Holy Spirit must be seen as extraordinary and irregular and some form of charlatanry, and so in many ways Evangelicalism was forced out of the “mainstream” churches. But not in every instance. some Evangelicals remained in the Church of England, and, though they took a “Low Church” attitude, did not think that one could dispense with the church entirely. They became quite influential in movements for social reform, and especially the abolition of the slave trade. One group of Evangelicals in particular, known as the Clapham Sect, though they were generally politically conservative, nevertheless brought about several social reforms.

What is the Orthodox Church’s attitude to “extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost”?

It has never sought to suppress such things, as did 17th-18th century Protestantism, though of course pretending to them is not acceptable. Such things have always been around. The Orthodox  Church does not believe that maverick Lone Ranger Christians can manifest genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit, but such things are found within the Church, and are exercised under Church discipline. There have always been clairvoyant spiritual elders. And sometimes such things have been found outside the Church as in Acts 10:47, for example when Orthodox missionaries went to Alaska, and found that the shamans had prophesied their coming, and had seen angels who revealed such things to them.

Those Evangelicals who left “mainstream” churches and formed new denominations often adopted new distinctive doctrines and ecclesiology, so the variety of Christians called “Evangelical” increased, and they became known for different things, and to be contrasted with different things. So there were Evangelicals as opposed to Reformed; Evangelicals as opposed to Fundamentalists; Evangelicals as opposed to Ecumenicals, and Evangelicals as opposed to charismatics.

Evangelical missionaries went to many different parts of the world in the 19th century, and their emphasis was generally on “saving souls” rather than planting churches. But this was not universal. One group of Anglican Evangelicals called their missionary society the Church Missionary Society. This led to a peculiar Anglican joke: the “High Church” missionary society was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The joke was “The SPG is the Church Missionary Society, and the CMS is the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.” If you get the joke, you’re on your way to grasping the basics of Evangelicalism.

One of the problems with the view of “decisional regeneration” is how do you know? How do you know if someone has really decided to follow Christ, or is just pretending to? When I was a student there was a beggar who used to follow people around the streets and his hard-luck story was always that he had made a decision for Christ a couple of weeks ago, and needed money to get back home to a distant town. I heard him tell the same story several times over the next three years.

So the decision-making process tended to become fixed and formalised in different ways in different branches of Evangelicalism. It became a cultural trait, and then a tradition, and then a decision that does not follow the pattern is not counted as genuine. In some it took the form of the “altar call” — “every eye closed, every head bowed, if you accept Jesus raise your hand… I see your hand, and yours…will those who raised their hands please come forward.”

The problem here is what sociologists call “routinisation of charisma” –once “making a decision for Christ” becomes a routine act, following an expected pattern, it can become just as dead as the churches when the Evangelical revival first started.

In the East African revival in the mid-20th century those who were “saved” during the revival became known as “balokole”, and soon the balokole were seeing themselves as different from and separate from other Christians. They would go to different churches, and if the preaching was not Evangelical enough by their standards they would interrupt the preacher saying, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This could be a wake-up call for moribund churches, but it could also very easily become self-rightousness on the part of the balokole, and where do you draw the line?

And so I return to the article I cited at the beginning, The Evangelical roots of the post-Truth society. And I ask how “Evangelical” are those roots really? Could one not equally well speak of The post-Truth roots of the media’s perception of Evangelicals? That was certainly the case with the perception of Evangelicals that the Ontario Center for Religious Tolerance was trying to create back in 1999.

And how many so-called Evangelicals have gone such a long way from their roots that what they are practising is a syncretistic mixture of Moneytheism, ethnic nationalism and perhaps a few other things, with a very thin veneer of a formal acceptance of Christianity — the very kind of society that the Evangelical revival reacted against in the first place?


Identity, culture shock and class distinctions

4 May 2017

Fifty years ago today I was celebrating Ascension Day in England, at St Chad’s College in Durham, where was a student, studying for a post-graduate diploma in theology. St Chad’s College was (and still is) a constituent college of Durham University, though it is no longer recognised (as it was then) as a suitable college for preparing people for ordination in the Church of England. I had been in England for 16 months, and at St Chad’s for 7 (my first few months in England I had spend driving buses in London). I was about to make my first visit to Scotland, where my mother was visiting her cousin Willie Hannan, in Glasgow. He was Labour MP for Maryhill.

My diary entry is written in almost stream-of-consciousness style, so I’ll post it and then make some comments. I wonder how much has changed, and how much is the same as it was 50 years ago. Back then there were student protests because of proposals from the Labour government of Harold Wilson to raise university fees for overseas students (like me) . Brit students paid virtually nothing — they were subsidised by local authority grants, so a fair proportion of working-class students could make it to university. Now I think British students cry #feesmustfall just like students in other countries. Perhaps Maggie Thatcher was responsible for that.

Thursday 5 May 1966, Ascension Day

High Mass at 7:00, with “Hail thee, festival day”, a Canaanite fertility song. I wrote to Dave Short, from whom I had a letter. He was born in Durham 23 years ago. Told him what I thought of his home town. I hate England. I hate its class distinction, which is so elusive and so ubiquitous. “So-and-so has a chip on his shoulder”, “I wouldn’t mind going to Southwark Diocese, but Mervyn Stockwood is the bishop”. “Why?” I ask. Why had he got a chip on his shoulder? How had he demonstrated it? What have you got against Mervyn Stockwood? And no answer is given. An embarrassed silence, and the subject is changed. You either know or you don’t. If you know, you are one of us, and if you don’t, no one is going to tell you. I bought a record, “They’re coming to take me away, ha ha”. I played it, and Pawsey said it was sick, but I like it. At 11:00 I went to Prin’s thingy on the gospels, and returned and played the record again, with Hoots there, and he laughed, especially at the second side which is the same thing backwards. At about 3:00 we had coffee, and Hugh says he can’t stand “They’re coming to take me away”, and Hoots doesn’t want it either. He’s the great bolshie non-conformist Hoots says it will drive him mad, O hell will it. So I put on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which also drives him mad cause he only likes pops, but Hugh and I like it. And all the songs I like these days I see are concerned with loss of identity, the sort of I’m not sure who I am songs or I’m not him songs, like “It ain’t me babe”, or “I’m a boy”, or escapist songs like “I guess I should have stayed in bed” or “They’re coming to take me away”, and even Snoopy is the fantasy of a dog being a World War I pilot, as mine at 11 to 15 years old was being a World War II pilot. But it’s like St Chad’s itself, or the church having no sense of corporate identity or common purpose. We are all isolated, or perhaps just I am but no, Crauf is too really; we can’t communicate on a deeper level. Our psychological process is the same, but our values are different. He mourns the coming of equality, I mourn that it is not coming. Cousin Willie Hannan phoned after supper, saying Mum is flying up to Glasgow tomorrow, and I say I’ll try to go too. He says they had a good natter yesterday and all. So I asked Brang and he agreed. Frank Cranmer and Hoots came to coffee with me. Frank, of working-class origin, escapes the pressure by his fixation on academic tat. He wants his long sleeves, his fancy hood, and then he will be happy, but is that any substitute for treating people as human beings? Chris Cornwell talks of “yobs” in tones of great contempt. Pete Farrow learned to play croquet when he came to Chads. His father is a butcher. He says he’s working class, and to the others he can play croquet like an Anglicised kaffir, and he hasn’t got a chip on his shoulder like John Wickstead. Hoots and I argued about Daniel, he said it was composed in praise of Jonathan Maccabaeus, and I saying that it was political propaganda against Antiochus Epiphanes.

Some explanatory notes:

Hail thee festival day was an Ascension Day hymn, but rather than dealing with the theology of the Ascension, it wittered on about the northern hemisphere climate. Being from the “Global South”, I resented what I saw as northern hemisphere imperialism, hence the reference to it as a Canaanite fertility song. .

Lo, the fair beauty of earth,
from the death of the winter arising,
every good gift of the year
now with its Master returns.

Daily the loveliness grows,
adorned with the glory of blossom;
heaven her gates unbars,
flinging her increase of light.

Dave Short was an old school friend of mine who had been born in Durham, but had grown up in South Africa.

I had spent the previous day mostly in the company of a couple of Tories, and became acutely aware that they spoke in a kind of code among themselves.

There was (and still is) something similar in South Africa, though in South Africa the class distinctions are also complicated by race distinctions, hence the reference to “Anglicised kaffir”. “Kaffir” was (and to some extent still is) a term of contempt used by some white people in South Africa to refer to black people, just as the term “yob” was a term of contempt used by English people to refer to someone of a lower class than themselves. Working class people were tolerated in English universities, provided that they “fitted in” and distanced themselves from their working-class origins. If they didn’t fit  in, they had “a chip on their shoulders”.

St Chad’s College students c1967, with chips on shoulders

So in South Africa, black students were allowed into white English-speaking universities (until the government stopped it by the Extension of University Education Act of 1959) and were tolerated provided that they “fitted in”. That this is still a problem in South Africa is shown by talk of the need for decolonising tertiary education.

A few years later, in 1973, a conference was held in Durban on mission and evangelism, which was largely organised by white people. I wasn’t allowed to attend, being banned at the time, but I did sneak in to a couple of the events that were open to the public, and I asked a black Anglican priest I knew how it was going, and his response was , “They are skinning us, and trying to make us white.” Black people were accepted at the conference, but only on white terms, hence the reference to “Anglicised kaffir” to describe the similar process in English universities. The culture shock was that I was used to it in South Africa, but hadn’t expected to find it in Britain, the country of the mother of parliaments and the pioneer of democracy.

And there is the question of identity.

Part of my culture shock was finding that, in a supposedly Christian college like St Chad’s, people did not see their primary identity as being Christian, but rather in terms of class. It was class that made you who you were.

In South Africa it was race. But in South Africa there was also a difference before and after 1961, when South Africa became a republic. From the official government point of view, black people were “die swart gevaar” (the black peril) — they were out there, an undifferentiated mass. But there were distinctions among white people, Afrikaans and English. Once the Afrikaans people achieved dominance among the whites, then the aim became “white unity”, to withstand the black peril. And the attitude to black people then became “divide and rule”. So tribalism was no longer encouraged among whites, but it was emphasised among blacks. Ethnicity became all important, whether you were Xhosa or Zulu or Sotho or Tswana, and you must have a “homeland”. So there was an important switch in 1961: before then, tribalism was emphasised among whites, largely ignored among blacks. Afterwards, tribalism was encouraged among blacks, discouraged among whites. For whites, whiteness became the supreme value.

And that was when I began to see my identity primarily in Christian terms. I don’t think I was alone in this, it was a sort of Zeitgeist. Groups like the Christian Institute began circulating Bible study materials that emphasised II Cor 5:16-17 — if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature. Though we formerly judged people by standards of the flesh (whether one was black or white, English or Afrikaans, Zulu or Tswana), we now did so no longer.

Of course the government did not like this, and put more pressure on white people to see whiteness as the most important thing about them, and many did, but many also resisted and this culminated in the issue of A Message to the People of South Africa in which the main point was that we are saved by grace and not by race.

But this sense of a Christian identity seemed to be almost entirely lacking in an English theological college, and the fleshly distinctions of class seemed to be more important.

And now, in South Africa, there are some who seem to be trying to herd white people back into the kraal, or laager, of whiteness, and make them conscious that their whiteness is the most important thing about them, and I think, as Bob Dylan sang back in the 1960s, “Oh no, no no, no, I’ve been through this movie before,”

And so I wonder how much has changed in fifty years, and whether it has changed for the better, or the worse.

Tales from Dystopia XXI: Capitalism and alcoholism

1 May 2017

One of the notable features of life in post-apartheid South Africa is the way the Christian churches seemed to drop the ball after 1994. Before 1994 many Christian groups were quite vocal in their critique of apartheid, and in analysing the ills of society. Once the first democratic elections were over, however, they seemed (with a few exceptions) to breathe a collective sigh of relief, sit back and take the attitude that the government should get on with fixing things. After all, the government was now a democratically-elected one.

Perhaps this contributed to the government’s losing its moral compass, and the government seemed to become aware of it before most of the Christian bodies, and the Moral Regeneration movement was a government initiative, though even that has now been forgotten.

Now there is talk of “white monopoly capitalism” and “radical economic transformation”, which I think is more smoke and mirrors, but perhaps that, and some aspects of Christian blindness, can be illustrated by some more tales from the apartheid dystopia.

If I name names, it is not to blame particular people (I think the people named are probably dead by now, and anyway they are no more to blame than many others) but rather to show that this took place in concrete history.

In 1980 I attended a consultation called by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) at Hammanskraal. It was ostensibly called to evaluate the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism, but it didn’t do that at all.

I was in a group that was discussing racism in the church, and one member of the group, Ben Ngidi, of the Congregational Church, called for a Black Confessing Church. He said it was necessary because blacks responded to the gospel from a position of poverty and oppression, while whites did so from a position of power and privilege. I thought that this was something of an oversimplification, because here we were, a bunch of mainly middle-class mainly clergy, and that black middle-class church leaders were probably not in a better position to respond from a position of poverty and oppression than white middle-class leaders. I was trying to point out that we needed to look at class as well as race.

I gave an example of a black Christian business man whose behaviour could be seen to be oppressive, and everyone in the group sought to justify it. One member of the group, Maredi Choeu, himself a businessman, said, “Perhaps he gives bursaries.”

The example I gave had to do with Nondweni, a resettlement area in Zululand.

In South Africa white people built towns and established businesses, but complained about the shortage of labour. They induced black people to settle close to the towns (but not in them) in places called “locations” or “townships” to provide the labour needed. So there was established a pattern of a white bourgeoisie and a black working class.

When apartheid came in 1948, however, the Nationalist government thought the “locations” were too close to the towns, so they established a different pattern. They built large rural “towns” further away from the white towns, so that the “labour” would commute long distances by bus, train or taxi. But these “towns” where people settled were unnatural. They were urban residential areas in rural areas. There was no industry, no employment. When they were established, and people were forcibly moved to them there were no public buildings at all. There were no shops, no schools, no churches, no clinics. Such places were the product of ethnic cleansing, and most of the people who lived there were unemployed, because there was no work nearby, and as it was an urban area, people could not keep cattle, sheep or goats, which normally fed people in rural areas.

Nondweni was such a place.

And the first public building in Nondweni was a bottle store (liquor store). It was owned by a Christian businessman, Gideon Mdlalose.

The Mthonjaneni Deanery of the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, of which I was then a member, was aware of this, and it was discussed at a deanery conference. In many of the resettlement areas where black people were forced to move the first public building that was erected was a bottle store, so that the unemployed could squander what little money they had on booze, and the businessmen who owned the bottle stores, whether they were black or white, were making private profit out of public misery.

The Deanery Conference, after discussing this, proposed a very cautious and diplomatically-worded motion on this to be presented to the Diocesan Synod, to the effect that the synod requested the KwaZulu government to be very careful about granting liquor licences in places of high unemployment. The resolution named no names, pointed no fingers at anyone. It did not mention Nondweni specifically, because there were many such places.

The problem, of course, was that the liquor trade was lucrative. KwaZulu was then a “homeland” controlled by an army of (white) civil servants from the central (Nationalist controlled) government in Pretoria, many of whom taught everything they knew about corruption to their black underlings (yes, blaming corruption on apartheid is not entirely wide of the mark).

We debated all this in the Deanery Conference. We could propose blustery resolutions condemning such abuses “in the strongest possible terms” (without, of course, actually using such terms), but we felt that that might make us feel good and self-righteous, but would not actually change anything. So we sent the diplomatically-worded motion to the diocesan office to be included in the synod agenda.

The people at the diocesan office, when they received the motion, decided that it was marvellous, and decided they were going to make it the central focus of the whole synod. The only trouble was, they got it spectacularly wrong.

They hired a film on alcoholism, and were going to get some social worker or someone to speak about alcoholism. And when it came up for discussion at the synod, the clergy, in particular, got up one after another to speak and denounce drinking as a sin. Only one (who was one of the very few white clergy) got up to point out that it was not drinking, but drunkenness that was a sin.

But the sin that the motion was aimed at was not drinking, or even drunkenness, but the sin of economic
exploitation, and one of the chief sinners actually got up and confessed his sin — Gideon Mdlalose himself got up and confessed that the first public building in Nondweni was a bottle store, and that he was the owner of that bottle store, and that terrible things happen there, but if it wasn’t there people would just go to buy their liquor at Nqutu, or if that was closed, they would go to Dundee. But the point of the motion was that hardened drinkers might well do that, but the young children would not. I read Nehemiah 5:7-13 to the synod. Does that not have something to say to all of us, black and white, about “radical economic transformation”?

And it was that example that I put before Maredi Choeu and others at Hammanskraal.

Yes, there is a problem with white monopoly capital. But there is also a problem with Indian monopoly capital, represented by the Guptas. The problem is not with the colour of the capital, but with monopoly capital itself. The ones who are concerned about the colour of the capital are themselves the bourgeoisie. So talking about “white” monopoly capital is something of a smokescreen.

But it is the other problem concerns me more — that a motion to a church synod about capitalism should be transformed into one about alcoholism. By doing so, the church was essentially blaming the victim. Yes, if people did not drink, there would be no business opportunity for a bottle store. But the business opportunity arose because of an unjust political system which removed people from their homes and dumped them in the veld where there were no churches, schools, clinics, sports clubs and above all no work — what else was there to do but drink?

And yes, if a Christian businessman had had scruples about establishing a bottle store in a place like Nondweni, a non-Christian businessman would have even fewer scruples about doing so. Gideon Mdlalose was not a bad man, and I’m not trying to get at him. In fact he was one of the most perceptive people at the synod, because he was one of the few, outside the Mthonjaneni Deanery, who could see what the motion before the synod was really about. It was about capitalism, not alcoholism. It was not about the failings of the flesh of flesh and blood alcoholics, but about the world powers (kosmokratores) of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:10-12).

And the problem persists in our day. We still fail to see the wood for the trees. It is not the racial epithets we put in front of monopoly capitalism, it is monopoly capitalism itself, and the value system that serves it, that we need to be aware of.


This is part of a series of blog posts on Tales from Dystopia — memories of the apartheid years in South Africa

Three popes and a patriarch

30 April 2017

A unique occasion ignored by the media — how often do you see three popes and a patriarch gathered together at the same place?

Someone posted this picture last night on Facebook, with no caption, no comment. I expected to see some news item about it, perhaps with a better picture, but if there’s been one I haven’t seen it

Pope Theodoros II. Pope Francis I, Pope Tawhedros II, Patriarch Bartholomew

The three popes represent three different streams of Christianity that have been separated for hundreds of years, so seeing them all together in one place is quite something.

Here’s some historical background:

Some time in the first century St Mark arrived in Alexandria as a missionary for the then-new Christian faith. Alexandria had a large Jewish population then, and so he probably started among them. After his death Mark was succeeded as Bishop of Alexandria by Ananias (AD 61-82), Abilius (83-95), and so on. The historical record is sketchy, but the church grew among the Greeks and Romans and the native Egyptians. The Greeks had conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great, and ruled it for several hundred years (the Ptolemy dynasty), and they had in turn been conquered by the Romans.

By the end of the second century the Holy Scriptures and liturgical texts were being translated into at least three vernacular languages, and the church had grown so much that more bishops were needed. It was about then that the bishops of Alexandria began using the title “Pope”, since theirs was the senior bishopric.

Within the next hundred years or so, almost the entire Egyptian population was Christian. They had abandoned the religion of their ancestors (that of the Pharaohs) and become Christian. Many of the Greek and Roman population remained pagan, however. Over the next century (250-350) the monastic movement arose in the Egyptian deserts, and soon spread throughout the Christian world.

In AD 451, however, at the Council of Chalcedon, there was a split. There was a dispute over the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. The council said one thing, and Pope Dioscurus of Alexandria said another. The council deposed Pope Dioscurus, and he was replaced by Proterius, who accepted the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. The next Pope, Timothy, did not accept the decisions of the council, however, and for the next century the two parties, Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian, fought to have their candidate elected as Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria.

In about 550, a century after the Council of Chalcedon, there was a final split, and since then there have been two Popes and Patriarchs of Alexandria — a Chalcedonian one and a non-Chalcedonian one. The Chalcedonian one remained in communion with the other churches that had accepted the Council of Chalcedon — Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem being the main ones, and it is referred to as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The non-Chalcedonian one is referred to as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. So after Dioscurus, there are two separate lists of Popes and Patriarchs of Alexandria.

In the 7th century Egypt was conquered by the Muslim Arabs. They favoured the Coptic Pope, because the Greek one was in communion with the Patriarch of Constantiniople, which was then the capital of the Roman Empire, which had ruled Egypt until the Arabs conquered it (not quite, there was also a brief Persian interlude). But all Christians in Egypt, no matter which Pope they supported, became second-class citizens under Muslim Arab rule.

The Greek Orthodox Pope of Alexandria remained in communion with Rome (whose bishops had by now also assumed the title of Pope) until the 11th century, when there was a dispute between Rome and Constantinople, which led to a breach of communion between them. The breach was not healed, and eventually the churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem sided with Constantinople, and were no longer in communion with Rome.

So the appearance of three popes and a patriarch together is something the like of which has probably not been seen since AD 550, if at all.

Incidentally, the English version of the name of both popes of Alexandria is Theodore, and both are Theodore II.