In light of the many things that have come to the fore over the last few weeks, I felt compelled to share some of my reflections as a Christian, white, middle-aged, English-speaking South African man.
One of my favorite biblical texts is Phillipians 2: 1-11. These verses speak so clearly of the Gospel; God’s saving work accomplished through the perfect birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul writes to the church in Phillipi to encourage them in times of suffering, and then at the beginning of chapter 2, he writes (ESV):
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In my 31 years of being a Christian, and in my 8 years of full-time pastoral ministry, never have these specific words been such a comfort and conviction in the midst of everything that is going on:
- Increased awareness around #BlackLivesMatter (sparked abroad by the senseless murder of #GeorgeFloyd in Minneapolis, and fuelled locally by the brutal SANDF killing of Collins Khosa);
- Increased opposition to #BlackLivesMatter;
- The increasing and ever-present reports of gender-based violence in our communities across South Africa (epitomised by the brutal murder of Tshegofatso Pule – who was 8 months pregnant when she was killed);
- The threat and effects of COVID-19 and;
- Impending economic recession.
As I reflect on all of this, I’m finding more and more that my ultimate hope is in the fact that Jesus is coming back to make all things new, and that when He does, He will come to reign in perfect righteousness and justice. Oh how we as Christians at this moment in time are looking forward to that day!
However, I believe that Paul’s words here at the beginning of Philippians 2 also serve as a timely warning and an example to me at this very moment. I need to remind myself that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, member of the God-head, omnipotent (having all power and authority in heaven and on earth) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, humbled Himself and was obedient even to the point of an excruciating death on a cross, in order to save others.
There is an age-old adage that says that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but this was not the case for our Lord and King. Jesus has all power in heaven and on earth and yet He does not hang on to it with everything He has. He doesn’t give in to Satan’s temptations which seek to corrupt His absolute power (Matt. 4: 9-11). He does not establish an earthly kingdom and safe-haven for Himself and His disciples off of the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves and then part with petty scraps and leftovers. He does not use His power to colonise, capitalise, and monopolise. He doesn’t clutch to His God-given power and privilege whilst seeking to give the impression that He has given it away with meaningless tokenism. He doesn’t hang on to it for dear life and then when things get out of control begin to talk about equality. He does not wield His power with abusive force. No, Jesus willingly relinquishes His power and lays down His very life for the eternal lives of others.
If you are a Christian, I believe that the Gospel clearly compels us to leverage our resources and influence for the benefit of the excluded, the marginalised and the abused. Our attitude should be like that of Christ Jesus, who humbled and emptied himself of all power and privilege and looked to the needs of others. Jesus confronted misogyny (John 8:4-11) and He outrightly challenged the unjust religious authorities of His time with both harsh words and harsh actions, even turning over tables in the temple and driving out merchants with a whip (Mark 11:15-18).
…the Gospel clearly compels us to leverage our resources and influence for the benefit of the excluded, the marginalised and the abused.
Now, I realise that perhaps many of my white brothers and sisters in Christ may be asking, but practically what does this look like in South Africa in 2020? Well, honestly I am no expert or authority in this. No white person is! And no white person should ever make themselves the central focus of such an effort in this regard. But allow me to share some of my convictions, prompted by some of the questions I have recently been asking myself… Questions that I believe begin to foster this process.
Perhaps it’s time to begin engaging with how my grandparents, my parents, my siblings and I came to own the resources we have acquired over generations. How did my family benefit from Apartheid? How has my gender and the colour of my skin afforded me the numerous opportunities I have enjoyed whilst living in South Africa? What messages did I begin to internalise in my home? What is the picture I associate with serving compared to the one I associate with being served? Why did I not regularly share a meal with the incredible women who helped raise me?
This is something that I still very much need to press into with my own family and friends, as uncomfortable as this may be. Could this mean tension, division, and rejection in these spaces? I pray that this would not be the case, however, it could be a possibility… But as Jesus says, ‘Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:50). So long as we love Jesus, we will always have a blood-bought family.
How did the schooling system that I was a part of entrench racism and chauvinism during my formative years? I remember the sheer panic, fear, and concern in my local community around the first black students enrolling at my primary school in 1992. I remember how my brilliant Grade 5 History teacher with a degree from Oxford was met with suspicion simply because he was black. In 2002, I remember enforcing our “high school rules” by telling a black grade 9 pupil to make sure that by the next day he had his cornrows removed. Throughout my time at an all-boys high school school, I learned to play my part in toxic masculinity. As I look back now, I repent for what was, and in writing this article, I have been convicted to seek out those whom I have wronged, and truly apologise for perpetuating these systemic injustices – not to merely clear my conscience, but because the Gospel compels me to do so (James 5:16).
Recently I have found it helpful to ask the Holy Spirit to bring to mind the people whom I have made feel like they are less than worthy of love and respect. Over the past few weeks, I have listened to many of my black brothers and sisters share story after story about when they first were made to feel like the Other because they were black and/or female, and how these struggles continue on through life. These stories caused me to lament, and at the same time, I wondered how many times I was guilty of such atrocities. Throughout my life, I have been ignorant, insensitive, and unthinking (and I often still am) but this has led me to explore what true reconciliation and restoration look like.
I have found myself yet again examining who sits around my social dinner table. Is it truly reflective of all the contexts that my wife and I find ourselves in, or do certain friends just not get the invite? What am I doing to confront prejudice at family and social gatherings? Am I willing to call out the oversexualised references, the racial slurs, the hate-filled jokes, the eye rolls, the offensive generalisations and the demeaning stereotypes on social media? What about when I find myself in the line at my local supermarket or bank, or even at work?
And speaking of the workplace… Who is worthy of my “good morning” greetings and who only warrants the slightest of nods? Am I willing to truly commit to supporting local black businesses? And do I support them the same way I’d support a white-owned business? Do I take the time, money, and energy to invest in black businesses whilst providing honest and valuable feedback, or is it a “just one chance – no mess-ups or we’re through” type deal?
And finally what about at church? Who do I follow without undue suspicion? Who do I intrinsically find myself trusting? Who do I instinctively seek to mentor and grow? Who has the authority to speak into my life? Who am I happy to listen to and who am I too comfortable interrupting?
I felt a calling into full-time pastoral ministry from a fairly young age and as I got older, the call to plant or lead a church kept getting stronger. In 2017, my wife and I joined Rooted Fellowship and we began to explore what planting and leading a transcultural church in South Africa could look like. However, the more we got to know the family at Rooted, and the more we became exposed to transcultural ministry within the South African context, the clearer it became to us that God was not calling me to be the lead pastor of a new transcultural church but instead calling me to be All In at Rooted Fellowship. My time spent at Rooted Fellowship as a church plant resident in 2017 convinced me that Jesus was calling me to lay down my earthly desire to be the lead pastor of a church because he could use me so much more through my support and submission to a black lead pastor.
The world needs more and more Gospel-centred churches to transform our hearts and minds …
I recognise that these are my personal convictions, and I am certainly not saying that white lead pastors of churches in South Africa have no role to play. God builds His Kingdom through the power of the Gospel and he’s been doing this in Black-led churches, White-led churches, Transcultural, multi-ethnic and diverse churches for more than 2000 years. The world needs more and more Gospel-centred churches to transform our hearts and minds, but I believe that if we truly want to seek justice, peace, and reconciliation across this nation and beyond, then the Church, Business, Education, social institutions and the family will intentionally need to prioritise the laying down of power and privilege. These bodies will need to genuinely look to the interests of others and they will need to humbly seek to serve, and not to be served. Will this will be difficult? Absolutely! But I believe that as we look to Jesus in Philippians 2, we have the perfect example to keep following, we have the hope we can cling to, and we have a coming King we will answer to.