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.

2 thoughts on “Better Answers

  1. The quiet anger both at the inequality of life chances jumps from your words. The fiercer anger at the church that seems far too often obsessed with the trivial needs to be felt and heard by every church leader and indeed by all who profess to follow Christ

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