Sentry Duty

Observation alters behaviour. This was a truth made with notable clarity and force by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in relation to prisons – but the effect is far wider. In the courtyard of the Slave Lodge in Cape Town there is a sentry box, re-sited from Fort Knokke (built in 1744). It was part of the infrastructure of military occupation that safeguarded colonial interests, not least those of the East India Company.

I can’t recall whether I’ve ever stood in a sentry box before. Spending some time walking around the box, and then standing inside, brought home to me the altered state that occupying the box brings. A soldier has the benefit of protection bought at the price of limited sight. Narrow slits afford some vantage, but these are inevitably narrow in perspective and focused on particular points of danger. Walking into the box demonstrated how much sound is altered in the small structure. Effectively the sentry’s perspective is limited and defined, while sound is muffled and becomes more distant. Simultaneously the guard is present in, and distanced from, the wider community.

The relationships which colonialism brings are invariably infantilising. The occupying powers ‘know best’ and inflict their religious, economic, military and political stamp on unwilling lands. Spending time with the people from The Warehouse in Cape Town reveals the lasting scars and consequences of a regime rooted in colonial attitudes. In a clear and autobiographical style, people shared with us their identities and histories, and explained how growing up in different decades in South Africa has affected their family relationships; education; type of work; place to live; and friendships.

It was encouraging to hear all this set within a framework of a theology that was natural to reference and practical in its insights. Equally, along with many other things, I found it disturbing to learn that at one point in its history the Dutch Reformed Church had decided that the common cup would not be shared between ethnic groups.

the discomfort of white members in sharing a cup during the offering of the sacraments led to the establishment of the coloured “daughter church” and later that of the black population, which came to be known as the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa.

Konzane, M. P. (2017). Mission calling in a congregation of the Dutch Reform Church of Africa in a transforming society: a case study in South Africa (Doctoral dissertation, North-West University (South-Africa)).

At the start and end of this first day in Cape Town we read Matthew 21. As our pilgrimage progressed I found resonance and connection with a detail towards the end of the passage, when the religious leaders say to Jesus: ‘Do you hear what these children are saying?’ The translation we are using says the leaders were ‘indignant’ when they asked this question. It is not uncommon for discriminatory language to belittle others by making a comparison to children, implying that some adults are less than they ought to be. Daughter churches? As we spoke about the decision to segregate the administration of Holy Communion it also led me to reflect on the common practice in many churches to exclude children from this sacrament. It may seen natural to some, but I wonder whether it is wise.

Inevitably, my first 48 hours in South Africa has raised questions about the mechanics of oppression; all the people caught up in its operation; and those bearing the brunt of its legacy. Where we stand shapes what we can see and how we can hear – and sometimes we all need to take the risk of stepping out of our box to engage with different perspectives. That, as much as anything else, should be our duty and our joy.

Wilful Ignorance

I’m sure that there will be a fancy word for it, but when our attention becomes invested in something, we often find that topic suddenly cropping up all over the place. I am about to go to South Africa and am becoming more and more aware of how entwined our histories have been. Not, I should add, by any sense of choice for the majority population of South Africa. On Friday afternoon, standing on a platform at Derby station, I suddenly noticed the plaque that heads this blog. A memorial with scores of names of the members of the Midland Railway Company’s staff who died ‘serving their country in the war in South Africa 1899-1902’.

The war was conducted, partly under the direction of lieutenant-general Kitchener, in a manner that was both new and terrifying. It gave to the world the concept of ‘Total War’, in which civilians were as much embroiled and harmed as combatants. It also saw the introduction of the kind of contained and controlled camps used to subjugate entire populations.

“This Total War strategy shattered the rural economy, leading to starvation and a humanitarian crisis. Displaced and captured civilians were taken to military managed refugee camps inside the military controlled zones. These camps became known first as refugee camps and then later as concentration camps and were established near towns, mines and railways sidings”.

Benneyworth, G. C. (2019). Traces and memory of African forced labour camps during the South African War (1899–1902). Traces, mémoires et mutations des camps de refugies. Investigations d’anthropologie prospective, 29-49.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the majority British perception of modern history begins in 1914. To stray back just a few years earlier, and look farther afield, brings a far less comfortable story of national conduct. Plaques like the memorial at Derby station are less common than those in memory of WWI and WWII, but they are more numerous than we might imagine.

“people conduct their daily affairs under the shadow of their own inevitable ignorance. People simply do not know everything about everything”.

Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 247-296). Academic Press.

Dunning is right that ignorance is a fact of life. We make choices about the things we wish to understand, while simultaneously recognising that in some cases we are ignorant of our ignorance. However, there are also topics about which we make a decision – at some level – to avert our eyes. To avoid things too dangerous for our implicit sense of how the world works, and our place within it. This is when prophets discomfort our security and demand that we see the truth of difficult things. They ‘scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ – something the proud will do anything to avoid. We are all proud.

I am looking forward to our time in South Africa, and to reunions with people we have met on their visits to the UK. Despite the histories of oppression and privilege, and the legacy of damage that is wired into the inequalities of society, human beings are not inevitably condemned to repeat the past. We should never be ignorant of what has made us who we are – or forgetful of how wealth is built on the misery of people we have othered. Thankfully, with great generosity and grace, I know that we are all interested in the future – and how the friendships and knowledge we share can lead to something more worthy, godly, life-giving and hopeful.

Jesus Stood

Many of us go with the flow and make sure we don’t stand out from the crowd. At least on most topics. There is a human urge to fit in, accompanied by a fear of separation from the mainstream and finding ourselves isolated. Of course there are also people who love to disagree with the herd: the contrarians. Hopefully, somewhere between these polarities, there are people who disagree when they see its necessity; not for the sake of disagreement alone.

One of the most memorable sermons I recall was preached at the University Church in Oxford, sometime around 1984. The preacher was Trevor Huddleston, and his text was about as short as you can get: ‘Jesus stood’. It comes from Mark 10:46 when Jesus and his disciples are on their way out of Jericho and blind Bartimaeus keeps calling out to him. Bartimaeus was not falling in with the crowd. People were telling him to shut up and behave, but he wouldn’t stop. Despite the swell of the crowd and the momentum to leave the city, Jesus stood. It conjures the imagine of the tide breaking upon a rock.

Huddleston spoke about the anti-apartheid movement and the challenge of speaking out in a society where the weight of social expectation was to keep quiet and behave. To collude with systems of oppression designed to privilege the few. Like Jesus leaving Jericho, we need to courage to hear the voices from the edge of the crowd: to stop, to listen and to act.

There is a lot of appeal in going with the crowd and not making a stand. In one of my favourite quotes from Murder in the Cathedral a tempter reminds Thomas of the venal rewards of compliance, saying: ‘the easy man lives to eat the best dinners’. Join the club; keep quiet; do what’s expected and never, never, rock the boat. Such behaviour can bring handsome prizes.

In the Passion Gospel we find Jesus ‘stood before Pilate’ (Matthew 27:11). This time he isn’t there because of a voice heard on the margins. His posture is an enforced sign of respect. By contrast, as we go on to hear a few verses later, power sits to pass judgement. All the robes and symbols of authority, and troops at command, are with Pilate. Jesus is alone. Yet, if there is no choice of posture, there is a choice to be silent. In the face of the choreography of power Jesus fails to conform to the etiquette of the room. He does not plead for his life. He does not give a rambling defence or seek to implicate others. Silence. In the few verses in which this is described it is possible to feel the authority of Pilate ebbing away.

In 2000 I visited Alison Wilding’s remarkable ‘Passion Project’ exhibited at the Dean Clough Gallery in Halifax. One of the larger pieces in the collection comes under the heading ‘Disposition’. It consists of a huge concrete disc towering over a black mat, which appears to grow wavy stalks (it can be seen here). Abstract art demands work from the viewer, even when set in an exhibition with an overall theme. What is going on here? There is a world of difference between the objects – in almost every sense. They appear only to be connected by a tension that lies between them. In a temporal sense Pilate should be the stone – ready to crush whatever pathetic resistance grows out of the Judean darkness. Spiritually, the disc hints at perfection and eternity. It is balanced and complete, requiring nothing from the sprawling stems that stretch upwards. This is a standoff and the stone will not be moved.

“At the heart of this episode of the Passion is both conflict and stand-off. There is a perplexing estrangement between both objects; the scale of one bears no relationship to the other, but the space separating them is tense and compelling. In the dynamic of the sculpture one part is continually brought into focus and deflected by the other”

Alison Wilding, ‘Contract’, exhibition catalogue, October 2000

Those who make this kind of stand seldom come off unscathed. Jesus knows this and he holds no particular hope of release or escape. The machinery of power will take its course and suffering lies ahead. It is beyond the imagination of this anxious and self-interested power that somehow, by battering and breaking this solitary young rabbi, an alternative power will be released into the world. A power that will enable anyone, no matter how poor or peripheral, to receive a dignity that cannot be removed. To become a child of the living God.