Compassion and Complicity

Chaplains always walk a fine line between the pastoral care of distressed people and the risk of making the intolerable, tolerable. It is an experience that runs deep in the history of chaplaincy. The workhouse chaplain and the workhouse master were designed to operate as ‘good cop, bad cop’. One the stern disciplinarian; the other the ‘friend of the poor’. Perceptive critique of this relationship arrived at the jarring description of the chaplain as the Sunday gaoler.

More recently – the early 1990s – an NHS CEO was feeling somewhat anxious about selling the concept of greater autonomy to a largely left-wing audience. As one of the first implementers of the new ‘Trusts’, the CEO imagined that there could be popular opposition to anything that might smack of gradual privatisation. So he asked the medical director and the chaplain to sit on either side of him on the platform. Not only that, but he was keen to see the medic in a white coat and the chaplain in a clerical collar. Armed with the presence of medical authority and religious support, the CEO judged that this would help lessen the opposition.

In a similar way during the organ retention crisis it was often left to chaplains to engage with parents and conduct the ‘reunitings’ – when newly discovered remains were buried alongside the original casket. Around the country special religious services were held to mark the experiences of loss which these circumstances had made more complex. I was involved with the one at Leeds Minster and preached the sermon. After the service one relative said that he felt better about the sermon than he had when he attended a similar event in the south of England. On that occasion the local bishop had preached and, when the relative saw him after the service, he asked the bishop: ‘So when’s the NHS going to give you your thirty pieces of silver?’ The relative thought the bishop had done everything possible to defend the institution – but done nothing to express solidarity for the grieving families.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu’s reflection emphasises the need to ensure that pastoral concern is matched with prophetic witness. It is better to stop the circumstances that lead to suffering rather than focus exclusively on saving those already drowning. Many well-meaning people baulk at the political involvement that requires injustice to be challenged – but in doing so risk participating in propping up systems that are fundamentally pernicious.

In meeting with members of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch I learned about the ‘Day of Courageous Conversations’. This took place in 2015 when the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, The Most Reverend Dr Thabo Makgoba, hosted representatives of the South African mining sector, civil society and faith communities to discuss the future of the mining industry. The aim was to see a way forward for sustainable mining that limited its damage to local communities.

The Most Reverend Dr Thabo Makgoba

One possible outcome of these conversations (which are continuing) might be the allocation of chaplains to the mines. Given that mining is undoubtedly at the sharp end of capitalism, not to mention environmental harm, chaplaincy in this context will be daunting. The balance between spiritual sticking plasters, and challenging unjust and injurious practices, will be extremely challenging. Perhaps, if chaplaincy is provided in this industry, there need to be clear and anonymous ways in which chaplains can reflect back to senior church leadership the concerns they identify. This could in turn enable and resource prophetic witness which would allow pastoral care to continue while moral questions are raised and pressed forward. Only time will tell if this is an ethical and faithful way in which to balance the need for compassion with the risk of complicity.

If any chaplain ever feels that there are no tensions between the organisation they serve and the people they pastor, this is probably the clearest warning that something is wrong in their ministry. Chaplaincy will always be at the messy interface of personal experience and institutional power. In the midst of all the distortions this creates, the chaplain’s calling is to stand by and for the things that belong to the Kingdom.

Theology at the Edge

For many years I have been fascinated by theology at the edge. In hospitals and care homes, ITUs and delivery suites, I have been with those experiencing some of the hardest moments which life can bring. It has long been my belief that these are the places from which theology should be written. They are the boundary moments, the liminal spaces, in which our lives are defined and transformed. Once, when I was asked to bless a suite of operating theatres due to ‘concerns’, I agreed to do it only on the basis that I met and spoke with the whole staff team. While there was spiritual significance in what I was doing for some, for others there was the recognition that these are extraordinary places in society. To do what happens in an operating theatre just a few yard away would get you arrested. These are important, sacred, and atypical spaces. Not only are lives changed on the operating table, but far beyond the hospital lives are altered by the recovery or loss of the person undergoing surgery. Blessing these kinds of places is giving expression to the seriousness of the events they contain and enable.

In his critique of empire Allan Boesak writes about ‘a theology at the edge’. Unsurprisingly, Boesak is not describing the kind of edge which I refer to above, but the place where theology is driven when we join the struggle against injustice. There is a double sense here about what it means to be at the edge. It is where theology is pushed when people ask Kingdom questions about the absence of justice in their lives and the lives of others. But it is also used in the sense that this is cutting edge theology – the sharp place in our world where theology is far more than an abstract academic discussion.

“We are speaking of a certain expression of theology, a prophetic theology, the theology that responded to the struggle in South Africa with prophetic truth and faithfulness, standing as the oppressed and with the oppressed in our struggles against oppression in colonial times and during the reign of apartheid, and now in global struggles against the devastating reach of imperial powers and their underlings everywhere”.

Boesak, A. A. (2017). Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters: Prophetic Critique on Empire: Resistance, Justice, and the Power of the Hopeful Sizwe–A Transatlantic Conversation. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Chicago.

Perhaps these two edges are not quite so far apart as they seem at first sight. The access and use of health services is also bound up with issues of justice, not least in the fact that the poor in society are more likely to access health care, and more often, than wealthier individuals. Medicine sits within the economic framework of capitalism which shapes and directs investment in new drugs and therapies. Minor conditions in the West leverage a disproportionate influence in the search for cures compared with far more serious conditions which are found most frequently in the developing world. As Nicholas Freudenburg has argued, at the very least, the various incarnations of capitalism need to be explored in order for people to understand the relationships and consequences of the economic realities which shape our lives.

In a theology at the edge Boesak issues a bold challenge to locate our understanding of God in the places – and with the people -who are on the margins. These edge places are simulataneously at the cutting edge of tough and creative transformation. How we engage and support theology that is with and for the oppressed is perhaps the next question. In the UK there is some evidence of churches responding to this kind of call, even if they are few and far between. For example, it can be seen in the work of Barrett and Harley in their title Being Interrupted. Perhaps before we can make any greater progress, we need to interrupt the smooth narratives of our theologies and allow new voices to shape the conversation about how we go forward in order to enable the Kingdom of God to break into our lives and disrupt the smooth running of oppressive structures.

Better Answers

Our visit to Cape Town created a palpable mix of emotions, thoughts, and insights. Encountering a world that is similar to and, simultaneously, different from the context of the UK can be a rich experience. From township Sunday worship conducted in Xhosa to the vistas from Table Mountain, including that distant icon of the horrors of apartheid: Robben Island.

Amongst all this I took the opportunity to meet colleagues at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch. In its own way, Stellenbosch is a very different emblem of apartheid. Its colonial era buildings communicate the purpose, wealth, privilege and power that enabled European-style institutions to rise in South Africa, and in so many other parts of the world. It was here that the nightmare of apartheid was conceived and developed.

Stellenbosch University has inextricable ties to the formulation of Apartheid Ideology and the formalisation of Afrikaans as academic language, and was thus central to the cultivation of Afrikaner Nationalism in the 20th century.

Stellenbosch University website

Thankfully a great deal has changed at Stellenbosch in recent years. In meeting members of the Faculty we were able to hear about the various initiatives and projects where theology is contributing to the Church’s work – and more widely. For example, this includes a key role in the ‘Courageous Conversations’ work that has brought together the parties involved in mining to address the working conditions and injustices faced by workers in the industry.

Canon Desmond Lambrecht, chaplain to the University, was kind enough to follow up our encounter at Stellenbosch with a visit while the group I was travelling with spent some days at the Volmoed Retreat centre. In our further discussions about chaplaincy Desmond gave me a copy of a book written by Allan Boesak: Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters (2017). This prophetic critique of Empire provides an excellent analysis of the persisting struggles and waves of nonviolent revolution across the globe. Boesak argues that this is evidence that we are not living in a post-racial and post-apartheid world, and that the Church has a critical role to play as a prophetic voice – a role Boesak finds it is failing to embrace.

A central plank of Boesak’s argument is found in the words of Pope Frances, when the Pontiff castigated the ‘globalisation of indifference’. A situation where we get excited about the latest digital device to enter the market while remaining comfortably numb to the egregious disparities of wealth and opportunity that are tolerated within a system of established injustice. In the West we travel on corridors which conveniently separate us from the sights and sounds of this economic apartheid. Standing outside a township church two weeks ago we became aware of how low and how loud the jets were as they came into land at Cape Town International airport. Silent forces continue to locate the poor in the places where others have no intention of living – and where the unaffordability and impracticality of double glazing mean that the sound and intrusion of the exhaust fumes of wealth are ever present.

Part of this indifference lies in our acceptance of poor answers to the challenges we face. Only in an economic system where relationships, communities and individuals are given little intrinsic value is it possible to operate the commercialism we take for granted. More than take for granted: comply with and perpetuate. It would be inhumane and illogical to conclude that there are no better answers than those we appear to accept as inevitable. For example, if the Church is comfortable with this status quo it means that its commission to preach the Kingdom of God is being abandoned. The Lord’s Prayer would need to be revised. Of all institutions, the Church cannot accede to the idea that there are no better answers for human society and creation.