Sunk by God. A meditation on Jonah 2

Sunk. By God.Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh and he answered me, from the belly of Sheol I cried out; you heard my voice!
For you threw me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods closed round me. All your waves and billows passed over me; then I thought, ‘I am banished from your sight; how shall I ever see your holy Temple again?’
The waters round me rose to my neck, the deep was closing round me, seaweed twining round my head.
To the roots of the mountains, I sank into the underworld, and its bars closed round me for ever. But you raised my life from the Pit, Yahweh my God!
When my soul was growing ever weaker, Yahweh, I remembered you, and my prayer reached you in your holy Temple.
Some abandon their faithful love by worshipping false gods, but I shall sacrifice to you with songs of praise. The vow I have made I shall fulfil! Salvation comes from Yahweh!
- New Jerusalem Bible

Is it an indictment of the sad state of my spirituality that I feel closer to God precisely when, it seems, he’s moved further away? It must be a function of illness that as the things of this earth grow strangely dim, prospects of heaven tend to brighten :-)

I’m better at listening to God lying down. As fever overtakes me, the situation is wrested from my grasp. I am, in the words of Christ, an ‘old’ man – stretching out my hands, being dressed and led by others. In extremis, in such a state of helplessness, I begin to covet the ministrations of God. Yes, Jesus, gather me. GATHER me under Your wings!

  • I cried to Yahweh – he answered me… I cried out – you heard my voice. A primal cry, like a baby’s. At the pathologist’s rooms, I wait while blood is taken from an infant who, naturally, objects violently. The mother enters with a hopeful smile, exits upset and careworn. But, she exits with her child in her arms. He hears my voice. And he answers.
  • you threw me… your waves and billows… banished from your sight… The cause of suffering is laid, unabashedly, at the feet of Yahweh. Jonah is sunk by God, not Satan – and he knows it. My illness is not the consequence of bad karma, misfortune, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Remember Joseph’s perspective: God intended it for good, namely “the saving of many lives.” There is good reason for my pneumonia. There is divine intentionality. It’s not, necessarily, even about me.
  • But… Oh, the buts of Scripture! Jesus: “You’ve heard it said; but I tell you…” Paul: “But now a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known.” The gospel according to Jonah is, “But you raised my life from the Pit” – articulated in prayer, remember, while the prophet is still down and out. What faith! “The prayer of a righteous person (i.e. offered in faith – James 5:15) is powerful and effective.” A faith-full but can lead to resurrection.
  • I remembered you… My faith is sometimes fickle, turning to God as a last resort. He knows this, and so often prods my memory. The communion meal; the reminding ministry of the Spirit. Church tradition is all about remembering. A robust spirituality learns to remember well.

the patriot

Vuyo Mbuli

In the aftermath of SABC anchor Vuyo Mbuli’s sudden passing, one of the legacy labels buzzing about the tribute-o-sphere is that of ‘patriot.’ President Zuma opined, “It is hard to think of a more patriotic and positive person than Vuyo.” Fair comment, but what does that actually mean?

Just a month or so after 9/11, I visited the US to see American flags fluttering from office windows and ‘In-God-we-Trust’ banners draped over the bridges. Clearly, these symbols of national identity became quite dear at a time of great insecurity. People who perhaps took their citizenship for granted were now reminding themselves (and their children) of what it meant to be American. This is a nation where the pulpits of many churches are literally over-shadowed by Old Glory, an observation rather shocking to my Separation of Church & State theology.

The terrorist threat to the US, and its pursuit of a foreign policy often at odds with the interests of other nations, have combined to assert a patriotism predicated on negative sentiment. By which I mean: tribalism. My family, my clan, my tribe against yours. It’s a win-lose mentality, an evolutionary logic in which only the strongest survive. Patriotism, as popularised by the Chuck Norris / Mel Gibson / Sylvester Stallone generation, assumes a radically selfish interpretation of what is right, good and noble – as long as I have the Stars ‘n Stripes on my shoulder, I’m acting in society’s best interest. The question is, of course: whose society?

True, since the 60s countless ‘Nam movies have explored the ethics of war – but usually by focusing on the personal difficulties of a veteran while giving short shrift to the sensitivities of the invaded nation. Might is still right, especially at Hollywood.

In South Africa, we can relate. Before 1994, a white patriot looked very different to his / her black counterpart. ANC freedom-fighters were terrorists; our boys on the border were heroes. At least, that’s what my teachers told me and what I heard from my fellow pupils, reliably informed by their parents. When a ‘reccie’ (reconnaissance commando) was caught behind enemy lines, he achieved legendary status. Ah, that’s a patriot! Doubtless, the soldiers of ‘Mkhonto we Sizwe’ and other armed wings enjoyed similar status.

Hindsight being 20/20, it is of course unfair to evaluate cultural heroes in a post-dated context. My goal here is not to debate the motives that drove our generals, but simply to question our interpretation of that loaded word: ‘patriot.’ Countless war memorials have enshrined those of our forebears who put king ‘n country before themselves at great sacrifice. We all have our Arlington cemeteries  our Blood River Monuments, our Yasukuni shrines. But do we have to die in a foreign invasion to be considered patriotic?

Vuyo Mbuli is rightly called a ‘patriot,’ not because he put the interests of a people singularly above those of other groups, but precisely because he treated all groups equally. There was something of the Madiba spirit in him. His patriotism was predicated positively, in unselfish ways. He was an ‘African patriot’ in the sense that he took pride in the achievements of all Africans, never at the expense of other ethnic groups. The way he exposed South Africa’s  frequent bouts of xenophobia is testimony to that.

It was, after all, at a rugby match in Bloemfontein that he died. Oh yes; he was a patriot. Sharp sharp, Vuyo. Very sharp indeed.

am I breeding a bum?

Few issues are as immediately emotive to parents of schoolchildren than the question of public / private education.

In South Africa, where distinctives of class are eroding those of race, the issue has become critical especially for the new middle class. Previously disadvantaged families who would sacrifice much to send their children to better government schools far from home can now, in many cases, afford to choose between good public and private alternatives.

Along with most parents, my wife and I have agonised over the numerous pros and cons – well set out in this candid piece: Are you breeding a Bum? Private vs Public School. In our own situation, our journey has involved several options: our sons began at an Afrikaans-speaking preschool on the West Rand, then moved to an excellent English-speaking government primary school in the Transkei. The tightly run ship in Mthatha taught us how important staff discipline and structure is for quality education, whether private or public.

Relocating to the KZN south coast, a bursary enabled our boys to attend a private college nearby. Smaller class size was great, and their acceptance into a group of friends allayed my anxiety about elitist tendencies. The downer for me, however, was the teaching quality. Salary levels were hardly competitive and the school battled to retain good teachers. (Though, as many parents discover, good salaries don’t necessarily translate into good teachers!) Furthermore, an opaque management system – sans PTA – just didn’t engender a sense of trust.

So, when the bursary was withdrawn a few years later, we were ready to explore a third option: home-schooling. The merits / demerits of this format have been discussed at length elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, in our experience, the ACE curriculum we went with had strengths (e.g. language) and weaknesses (e.g. science). A positive spin-off was that our sons grew closer together; a negative that the parent responsible is just that: he / she is FULLY responsible. Social interaction was also a genuine concern and, ultimately, the reason why we decided to send them back to school after one and two years respectively.

Our boys are now teens in a state high-school with a good tradition and high teaching standards. Unfortunately, sport leaves a lot to be desired – especially if one isn’t a rugby / cricket / hockey player. The management structure is authoritarian, though again we respect the need for a tightly run ship. But the teachers are experienced and, importantly, we believe our children are exposed to a fairly more-or-less accurate cross-section of South African society.

What might we conclude after this pretty varied experience? Here are a few observations:

  • kids are resilient. They make friends and acquaintances across class lines, suggesting that their parents may stress more on this issue than their children.
  • making it easy for them now doesn’t help setting them up for ‘life’ later on.
  • teachers are good (effective) or bad (boring) in both private and public sectors.
  • consider home-schooling. It can bring out the best and worst in you :-)
  • we tend to project our issues regarding education onto our children who could probably do a fair job anyway.

respect

Desmond Tutu’s depiction of post-apartheid South Africans as the ‘rainbow people of God’ was the inspired word-picture of 1994. I vividly remember him shouting to the massed crowds, “You are free! You are free!” The image was intoxicating, the colours of our new flag spilling into the ’95 Rugby World Cup and ’96 African Cup of Nations.

Now, nearly 20 years later, who still believes this? Are we really free? Are we a united people? Are we at peace? As Jeremy Cronin warned in 1999, actual reconciliation is a long way off:

Allowing ourselves to sink into a smug rainbowism will prove to be a terrible betrayal of the possibilities for real transformation, real reconciliation, and real national unity that are still at play in our contemporary South African reality.

While this fracture is painfully obvious in racial categories, it is at the level of gender where our mutual alienation has been most horribly exposed. The chronic abuse of female humans by male humans has revealed depths of societal depravity unreserved by any other species. The recent spate of casualties transcends race; victims are black, white, coloured – the constant adjective is male, the constant noun, violence.

In the rising mushroom cloud of our moral collapse the ethical issues of, for example, drug-abuse in sports, or of local government tenders, pale absolutely in comparison to this madness. For if laurels are the goal of the first vice and greed that of the second, we may yet see some evolutionary selfish logic. But to kill, maim, mutilate, rape or otherwise abuse our mothers, sisters and daughters defies biological reason. To war against the womb that bears you is worse than genocide – it is, by definition, suicide.

What is the root of such ignominy, such – let’s face it – misogyny? Its cause lies deeper, I believe, than cultural stereotypes, deeper than the male ego and associated inferiority complexes. It began in the Garden. In the Genesis account of the first couple, the first time humans are mentioned is in the plural:

Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created themmale and female he created them.

Without entering the (mine)field of OT criticism, it is sufficient to note that the pinnacle of God’s creation was ‘good’ in its mutuality. Genesis 2 elaborates: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Indeed, the point of chapter two seems to demonstrate male-female mutuality: “they become one flesh”; they were “both naked, and they felt no shame.” Interestingly, in chapter three the serpent addresses Eve individually. Woman is set against God. God is set against Adam, Adam against Eve, Eve against the snake. God’s curses them individually. It is clear that sin has brought with it separation and enmity.

The gospel, in contrast, reverses this spiritual apartheid and brings reconciliation and unification. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” At the deepest level, then, misogyny is self-hatred. It is Y abusing X, chromosomal insanity. Until we regain our Humanity, a ‘rainbow people’ remains concept art.

white conversion

racismWhat does white conversion look like, here in South Africa?

I came to Christ in my early teens but remained blissfully ignorant of the country’s social realities until 1992, when I enrolled at a Bible college committed to the practice of egalitarian principles. As the only umlungu in my year group, I felt especially vulnerable because – in one person – I represented at least three categories of historical European domination: the white male missionary. From ’92 to ’94 I experienced a fundamental ‘conversion,’ in that my existing world view was so challenged by  the data around me as to provoke a new awareness of reality. (I say ‘provoke’ because, as any saint will tell you, repentance is painful.) Why my white church couldn’t preach such repentance is the topic of another post but has to do, I think, with what Louise Kretzschmar calls the ‘privatization of Christian faith.’

Reading about the words and works of Jesus with a converted imagination, then, new categories come into view: power, prejudice, pious spirituality. Terms like healing and salvation convey a deeper meaning. Christian humanism becomes an ideal. One begins to grasp the threat that Christ must have presented to the elites back then – and, by extension, what he would present now. Authentic conversion has to take these categories into account. I hadn’t understood this when, in discussion with missiologist Klippies Kritzinger, he suggested: “Why not study ways in which white South Africans can divest themselves of power?” Aka downward mobility.

This conversation occurred during the late nineties, a time when citizens were realising that apocalyptic scenarios were not ‘simply inevitable,’ that the moderate Thabo Mbeki was an able successor to Mandela, and that the ANC was very much open to business. Yet, despite the establishment of a stable economy and a growing black middle class, it’s my observation that many white Christians struggle with African identity and an unnecessary load of cultural baggage. I know I do. So does the church.

“White repentance – white conversion – is absolutely necessary if we are to become the beloved community they point us toward.” In his own engagement with the legacy of a violent North American past, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (JWH) lists some catalysts that could help white Christians bloom where they’re planted. South Africa is not the US, but I wonder: could these factors find traction among us umlungus?

  1. The myth of the white hero. “White men in American history are not Messiah figures. We’re Pharaoh in this story.” Are we hard-hearted pharaohs? Without stretching the analogy, what character (role) do we play in human liberation? Consider, if you will, that of the princess: adoption and empowerment.
  2. My hidden wound. South African whites freely confess every sin except one: racism. But it cuts both ways; we are its victim, too. Embracing culpability is a huge step towards spiritual health.
  3. Who shall I follow? Gareth Cliff is not the only voice on Twitter. Tap in to some prophetic ones. Jonathan Jansen (@JJ_UFS), for example.
  4. Don’t call the police! OK, JWH’s linking of American police action with institutionalised violence is not readily transferable to the SA situation, where white perception of the police is primarily one of institutionalised corruption. Still, let’s get to know our neighbours before blowing the whistle.
  5. Non-violence ≠ powerlessness. Finally, let’s use – not abuse – what power we have. “We must learn to follow. But we also need to tap the resources we have access to, call on friends we know, leverage our generational wealth, and spend our social capital on behalf of our friends and neighbors. Anything less than real redistribution is disingenuous. Our friends will notice.”