By Ayabonga Cawe (@aycawe)
When will the Black God stand up? I grew up in one of those households where the picture of white Jesus fought for space on the wallpapered wall with pictures of Mpho and Mphonyana and the nameless black girl with tears. With hindsight, I realise that this may have been the closest our visual understanding of God, and her place in our fraught lives had ever been.
I too joined my mother on her weekly trek from small town suburbia to Ezibeleni, a small township outside Queenstown, to church every Sunday morning. Just like any other child, I asked these questions; Kutheni kukhonza abantu abamnyama qha apha ecaweni? Kutheni ninxiba i-uniform kodwa abelungu abayinxibi bona? They were questions about the racial make-up of our church and why only black churches had uniforms when their white counterparts across the railway tracks paid no attention to the starched uniforms that our parents ironed meticulously on Saturday evenings.
I never understood how the poorest people in our community who would battle to find a meal or proper clothes during the week, would be dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ at the end of the week. Did we have to be different people to meet God and be in fellowship with her children? Could we not just come as we were?
Without the language to articulate these questions, I soon realised that the church was not a harmonious enclave untouched by our social dynamics, but a space that was mediated and defined by a divided, racist and unequal society. This schism between our ‘weekly’ and Sunday selves showed how detached the church experience in many instances was to the daily lived experience. Why was the normative world the church envisioned, a far cry from the oppressive and violent experiences of black life in South Africa?
In essence for many of our parents, for six days in a week you were a sullied Kaffir, and for one day (a few hours maybe) you were a child of God. You were black all week and on Sunday, you were deserving of the prize given to the meek, a prize in heaven. It is this ‘prize in heaven’, which Biko rightfully noted, creates in black people a docility that allows them to endure dehumanizing suffering on earth under the pretext of a life of humanity in heaven.
Biko’s harsh reminder to the black clergy strikes a chord here“‘I would like to remind the black ministry, and indeed all black people that God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven to solve people’s problems on earth”
This docility creates a certain complicity in our earthly suffering, in the hope that heaven will offer much deserved solace. An unintended consequence of this theological practice which delays the resolution of social antagonisms, is that it leads people to misidentify the cause of their suffering, and by extension the action required to resolve it. It has led many of our people to wrongfully accept their lot on earth, as the divine wish of God.
One can imagine why such a view would benefit the colonial establishment and their religious institutions. The missionaries as we now know, were an integral part of the colonial project in withering the resistance of our people to dispossession. It is instructive that political responses to this theology of hopelessness came from the church itself, from the early work of Tiyo Soga in the 19th century, right up to the Black Theology wave of the 1970s.
We must also remember that many committed patriots in the church establishment in South Africa and worldwide took part in and/or supported our struggle. These men and women from the clergy took heart in Biko’s reminder and sought to link the gospel to the daily challenges of our people. My father once shared with me how he became aware of the struggle through the fiery and conscious theology of people like the late Rev. Mcebisi Xundu and Rev. David Russell in the Eastern Cape in the 1970s.One of the verses he remembered vividly was Lamentations verse five;
Remember, Lord, what has happened to us;
look, and see our disgrace.
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to foreigners
We have become fatherless,
and our mothers are widows.
We must buy the water we drink;
our wood can be had only at a price.
Those who pursue us are at our heels;
we are weary and find no rest.
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Verses such as these, spoke more intimately to the African people in South Africa than injunctions to respect authorities, which are also found in the same biblical text. The clergymen referred to above understood their role as not only to be in service of the souls of their congregants but also to be in continuous struggle with the people, fully aware that no God had ordained their suffering on earth.
I have often pointed out that no God has ordained the suffering that African people have faced at the expense of racialised capitalism in South Africa, which has meant we must buy the water we drink and our wood can be had only at a price.
Which brings me to the issue of some pastors in what we call‘charismatic churches’. Recently, we heard reports that church leaders have been dabbling in the bizarre acts of making congregants drink petrol to making them eat snakes, rats and reptiles in pursuit of divine blessings. It is easy to say that the people who fall prey to these practices are dim-witted and desperate, and that they deserve this.
However one understands that in a capitalist society like our own, even the desperation of our people to escape their worldly oppression presents a market opportunity for tricksters to exploit. It stands to reason that a lucrative market exists, when one considers that for those who have suffered for eons, ‘salvation’ and ‘lucrative blessings’ in whatever form are welcome sooner rather than later.
From TB Joshua to Benny Hinn and even our latest ‘sensation’ Penuel Mnguni, there are many who have joined this lucrative market, operating from palatial mansions to tents pitched on township veld; the ‘church market’ has opened up to more ‘competition’, economists would say.
As Mahmood Mamdani argues, markets have colonized society, with no aspect of social relations protected from the pernicious marketization of previously communal and altruistic pursuits. And so the church and the theatre of miracles has become a competitive market with each pastor trying to outdo their competitors in pursuit of a bigger share of congregant’s pockets.
It was not enough that Benny Hinn on TBN had our mothers enthralled when he touched people’s foreheads and they fell, Penuel Mnguni can even turn you into a horse, and can, in your pursuit of divine blessings, make a snake taste like chocolate.
These churches, reflective of the society they are embedded in, adopt a short termism similar to that of the market, with quick fix miracles for sale. The allure of the prosperity associated with being divinely blessed in a society where poverty is widespread is not beyond comprehension.
In a society where people are blamed for their poverty and oppression, a path to shared prosperity embedded in political struggle and resolution of social antagonisms is not as attractive as promises of a quick path to individual prosperity if you pay enough church fees and take part in enough mind-numbing gimmicks. It resembles a spiritual lottery, where our people risk their livelihoods for divine intervention to solve political, economic and social problems on earth.
What then does this mean for the role of the church in creating a more humane society? It would be easy to dismiss the church and faith as a whole; however, we know that as Africans we are a deeply spiritual people. It is this spirituality, which needs to be understood, not as a separate dimension to our daily emotional, physical and other dimensions, but as a dimension in constant interface and conversation with the lives we live.
This is why, for many of us, African religion and ancestral belief and our conception of ourselves as ‘whole beings’ is not a distinct phenomenon separated from our culture. If it is whole beings that we wish to engage with in struggle, it is clear that no struggle will win without a corresponding liberatory interpretation of faith. As Biko noted“No nation can win a battle without faith, and if our faith in our God is spoilt by our having to see Him through the eyes of the same people we are fighting against, then there obviously begins to be something wrong in that relationship
It is clear that our responsibility is to build a spiritual template of faith that corresponds to the society we wish to build. We can no longer be beholden to an anti-black, heteronormative and capitalist interpretation of theological text. This may be a call to rally behind the Black Theology that infused an energy in our struggle, or a Black Conscious and intersectional reading that brings God and Black Jesus closer to us, not only on wallpapers, but in our lived experiences.
In this reading, we are not the step-children of God who walk out in their ‘Sunday Best’ to meet a jealous God indifferent to our suffering, but we are active agents that give life to the spirit of Christ as a campaigner for social justice. It has to be an interpretation which engages our social reality and as Biko teaches us, it has to be an interpretation that sees as sin, allowing oneself to normalise oppression.
Without such an interpretation, we are sitting ducks to the tricksters and peddlers of gimmicks and quick-fix miracles, whose interests at the pulpit are no different to those of Wall Street traders.