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.”

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