As a Christian, and also as a privileged white Afrikaner woman who, with my husband, has made a decision to move away from the dangers of comfortable suburban living, and make our home amongst people who are very different from us, I have been very aware of the precarious space I occupy. When I open my Facebook account (nowadays with an increasing sense of dread rather than one of excitement), many of my friends are crying out in deep pain that #blacklivesmatter, posting desperate calls for change and for white people to leave behind their ignorance and privilege… and yet other friends…post pictures of their latest sighting in a game reserve, the view from their holiday apartment, their meal at a fancy restaurant or perhaps an inspirational quote with pink flowers about loving people. There seems to be this ever-growing gap and increasing polarisation. I feel overwhelmed with the sheer vastness of the separation between people in our country, and I am still regularly startled at my own ignorance and lack of understanding. I am so aware of the fact that I am in this space for a reason. When I feel overwhelmed like this, I know it is probably a good idea to figure out what God is doing in that particular place and time and, in doing so, join in rather than try figure out my own way. So here is what I have been doing to create space for understanding, listening and ultimately a joining in with what God is doing at the moment. This is what I am choosing to do as I figure out what it means to be a Christian within the context of my Afrikaner whiteness and within the context of my womanhood:
- I have come to admit and acknowledge my own racism, privilege and ignorance. Living in the city I come face to face on a daily basis with the stereotypes and racist attitudes that have been existing in me for years. It has been said before, but I will say it again: just having black friends, “loving people of colour”, knowing the words to our national anthem and being involved in charity work, does not mean that you are not racist. Racism is deeply entrenched within us as South Africans. I have to own up to the fact that I still get more nervous when I encounter a black man alone at night, than when I do a white man. I have to admit and acknowledge that racism existed and still exists in many subtle ways in my life. I have to admit that I am a beneficiary of apartheid. I have to acknowledge that so much of what I possess now has become “mine” at the cost of the oppression of others. This is a reality I have to face.
- I have to ask God to bring deep transformation in my own experience of and participation in racism and reconciliation. Phileena Heuertz said, “To the degree you are transformed, the world will be transformed.” As much as structural, systemic change is desperately needed in this country, it will be futile if our hearts towards people of other races and cultures and economic classes are not transformed. I believe that this deep transformation will also bring us to a place where we could become people who can imagine alternatives to our current situation beyond what the world has on offer at the moment. I believe this transformation happens as I learn to abide more and more in God. I believe this transformation happens as I do the necessary and difficult work of dismantling my limited understanding of God as a white male. I believe this transformation happens as I start understanding what the Good News really is and how this impacts radically on politics, economics, social policies and not only on individual hearts and lives.
- I have to admit and acknowledge my own compliance with white male dominance by consciously and unconsciously submitting to being dominated on so many occasions. Someone once said that 80% of the atmosphere in a room is determined by the person perceived to be the most powerful in that space. Every time I perceive the white male in the room as the most powerful person, I agree to that person defining the atmosphere, which very often impacts on my definition of my own role and value in that space. I learned from a black woman double my age who has worked as a domestic worker most her life that living with faith means that we live not to be noticed or acknowledged by the powerful white male in the room, but by God alone.
- I am learning how to avoid responding from a place of fear or guilt. These feelings can so easily become toxic to my own well-being and cannot bring any real freedom or life to anyone around me.
- I have to make a choice every day to avoid apathy, indifference and ignorance. I have come to realise that making a choice to turn away, to pretend that I do not know better, or think that it does not involve me comes at a cost – an immense cost to others, our country, generations to come, the mission of God to save this world, and therefore also myself. I have had to learn that responding responsibly does not mean remaining silent. I am learning from Jesus how to respond in ways that are filled with prophetic imagination and are subversive – challenging the status quo without falling into the traps of empty or aggressively superficial activism.
- I have to remain aware of my white fragility (and that of other white people around me). This fragility was and remains to be a huge eye opener for me. The propensity of us white people to take up space in racial conversations, to cry in the face of narratives about racism and thereby shift all attention to ourselves, our defensiveness and our habit of rationalising issues, as well as our lack of capacity to talk in robust terms about racism and racial incidents are just some of the signs that reveal just how fragile we are when it comes to facing up to our own racism (so if you are white and you feel defensive about what I have just said about white people, you have pretty much confirmed your own fragility). I personally find this a very challenging, but a very necessary work to dismantle, as I continue occupying my space in the gap.
- I am working towards acquiring a proper knowledge of the the history of our country and what it means to be African. Slowly it dawned on me over the last couple of years that my understanding of the history of our country is at best inadequate, corrupted, dishonest and grossly misconstrued. Reading biographies and articles about our history is slowly helping to clarify my understanding. I am still not sure why reading Steve Biko has not become compulsory reading for all South Africans. I have to unlearn and relearn South African history. I have made a decision to stop blaming others for my lack of knowledge and understanding of what had happened here in the last hundred years, the last three hundred years, and the time before that. I have needed to learn about the TRC and the lack of interest of white people in the process. I have needed to learn who Robert Sobukwe was. I have needed to learn why Nelson Mandela is a hero in some people’s eyes and a “sell out” in others’ (I think I get that now…). I am learning something about what it means to be a good Afrikaner when I read about Beyers Naude, or even Brahm Fischer. I am still figuring out if I can say with authenticity, “I am an African”, even though I was born on this soil.
- I am making a point of avoiding judging people. As Brene Brown reminded us in her TED talk when she quoted Abraham Lincoln’s speech from years ago, it’s the critics who are sitting in the cheap seats: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” I choose not to sit in the cheap seats, but to go down to the person fighting the fight, sit with them, hear their story and cry with them before I feel I can get anywhere close to judging their position. This includes the inclination to lecture the wounded and police the pain of those who are suffering. I feel the one word I will always need to hold on to as a white Afrikaans Christian women is to STOP and LISTEN. Don’t judge, don’t defend, don’t lecture, don’t police, just LISTEN. I have also learned the importance of listening to those closest to the pain, rather than those interpreting the pain. Media, politicians and non-profits very often have different agendas driving their stories and colouring their lenses.
- I need to hold on tightly, and in faith, to the belief that there is enough for everyone in this world. Our God is a God of abundance. Matt Anslow, in an article on Walter Brueggemann and abundance, makes the following statement:
“But the peculiar thing, at least from a biblical perspective, is that the rich – the ones with the abundance – rely on an ideology of scarcity, while the poor – the ones suffering from scarcity – rely on an ideology of abundance. How can that be? The issue involves whether there is enough to go around – enough food, water, shelter, space. An ideology of scarcity says no, there’s not enough, so hold onto what you have. In fact, don’t just hold onto it, hoard it. Put aside more than you need, so that if you do need it, it will be there, even if others must do without. An affirmation of abundance says just the opposite: Appearances notwithstanding, there is enough to go around, so long as each of us takes only what we need. In fact, if we are willing to have but not hoard, there will even be more than enough left over.”
I am learning how to be a steward of God’s abundance in this world. I refuse to give into the temptations of hoarding and entitlement which ultimately all lead to a gospel of scarcity.
- I have had to make a decision to let my actions speak louder than my words. Social media can be filled with so much noise and people are selective in what they choose to expose themselves to – we simply block what we do not want to hear or see. Rather than simply stating what I think and feel on social media or in a blog, I want to live a life that leads people to imagine an alternative reality – one that disrupts the dull hypnotising drone of the status quo. Not by my words, but by my life, I want to criticise the dominant narrative of capitalism, consumerism and individualism. I want to live the kind of life where Jesus and His rule is made fully present in the world around me. I want to embrace the holy ground we are standing on and see things as my God sees it.
So this is me. In the middle. Very far from where I have once been, but still having a very long way to go. Hoping to stand in the gap with arms stretched out as wide as I can to reach past the huge separation and bring hope, life and freedom in the name of the God I serve.
Jana Niehaus – Izwe Lethu