Reflections from The Warehouse | Rene August [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

Creative and emerging expressions of theological/missiological education in a South African context: reflections from The Warehouse, in Cape Town, South Africa

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Arundhati Roy [1]
René August

Articulating voices from the margins is the work of every disciple of Jesus. Within our own sacred text, the Bible, we find each author seeking to do just that: be it the nomads Abram and Sarai; Joseph, the son sold into slavery; the nation that Pharaoh enslaves in Egypt (Gen. 47:13–26); the wilderness refugees in the desert; Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute; Ruth, the refugee woman who marries Boaz; the exiles in Babylon; the prophets like Amos who wrote laments and poems; or the internally displaced working-class carpenter, betrothed to a teenage peasant girl, Mary, who gives birth to Jesus in a feeding trough for stinking animals in Bethlehem, Palestine. The Bible, for us, remains the single most significant body of literature written by and for “people on the margins”. Most importantly, at least two thirds of the world live in the so-called margins, which makes the life and witness of these disciples central and not marginal to all we do. No hermeneutics and theological framework can lead us into faithful discipleship unless we are able to enter into their perspectives and their praxis.

At The Warehouse, this has become some of our most important work. We find ourselves asking: what kind of theological education can form, inform and transform all who participate in it? How can our reading of Scripture help us relocate our founding and framing narratives into a life of vulnerability, humility and decentring power?

This has taken us back to look at the incarnation: the life and example of Jesus.

First, our work is the work of relocation:

The incarnation begins with a relocation of God. As we read the stories of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, we find God, being relocated… from “heaven” to earth. This happens with a few significant points of contact.

  1. Geography
    Heaven can be conceived as a place without limitations, pain, disease, suffering, hunger, poverty, homelessness. In the story of the incarnation, Jesus LEAVES this place of heaven. Jesus leaves the place of seeming “unaffectedness” to enter into, to be affected by, to have a place in and to be in spaces with all the things that can and do affect us.
  2. Proximity to pain
    The location of this incarnation happens to be on land that is contested to this day. Bethlehem, in Palestine, remains far from seats of power, far from thrones and political influence. When the magi come to seek for the king, they go to Herod, to the place of power, or influence, of “people in the know” and there they find nothing. It is in a place of foreign occupation that they find Jesus: the son of a labourer, born into a poor family with no land.
  3. New lenses
    We cannot understand this kind of reorientation and the implication of this relocation outside of relationships. We need to listen to and learn from those who share life experiences with Jesus: the economically poor, the politically oppressed, the geographically displaced, the socially excluded, and those whom Arundhati Roy calls the “preferably unheard”. Most importantly, our reading of the Bible needs to use these lenses as tools that provide us with new spectacles through which to read it.
  4. Systemic and symptomatic change
    A surface reading of the story of relocation could leave one feeling warm and comforted about the love of a Saviour who chooses to “come to me”. The location of the incarnation story is a sobering reminder that if Jesus were born today, in a poor, rough neighbourhood, among animals, to a poor family, and became a refugee, many of us would not even have noticed, not bothered to visit him for healing. The location of the incarnation, and every miracle of Jesus, not only deals with healing and sin, but disrupts and exposes the sin in every system of oppression and injustice that the characters in the stories had suffered and endured. Each one has a symptom of pain and the cause of that pain is highlighted and transformed by the presence, power, actions and words of Jesus.

Second, our work is relationships:

We believe that the building of good, healthy, diverse, loving relationships IS OUR WORK.

  1. Who we learn with determines what we learn
    I was running a four-day training programme for church and community leaders. The same course was run in various cities across South Africa. The manual and content were identical. On the second day, we would read Jer. 29:1–4 together. We would give some background to the letter and then ask what we thought this story was about, what it looked like for us today and what God’s prophets may be saying to us as we listen. Each group, each city and each context offered a different response to the text: a different insight and even a different “message from God”. This may be a simple illustration, but it remains true in all our work. When you read the story of Jesus healing a man born blind, and you have a blind person in the room, what you learn will be different to what you learn if you only ever read it with and listen to people who have sight. Similarly, when you read that Jesus was poor – that his parents had brought the basic minimum as a thank offering to the Temple – with people who have very little to bring as a thank offering to God, you will learn new things too.
  2. Where we learn shapes the conclusions that we reach
    I have taken groups to read Scripture in many different places. One such time we read the passages about God’s response to slavery in a museum called the Slave Lodge in Cape Town. Visiting the places where people were enslaved, spending even a few minutes in the torture chamber, or a prison cell where people were held, and reading Scripture in that place both creates a new lens through which we “see” the story and brings new insights and conclusions.

Third, our work is the work of decolonisation:

Colonisation involves many things, but for the purpose of our work, I pay attention to leverage points… and this requires me to focus on power. The work of colonisation and decolonisation then becomes the work of reorganising power. As an example, when the Dutch and the British came to colonise South Africa (and many other countries), among other things they reorganised power. That experience included the reorganisation of social power, economic power, religious power, political power, geographical power and what I call “narrative” power.

They imposed meaning and value by commodifying each of these entities. Today, the power of these narratives runs so deep and is so intertwined in Christian homogeneity that it almost feels heretical to reframe them. They so significantly shape our hermeneutics that it makes it difficult to try to apply different lenses to the reading of Scripture. The theologising is considered with hyphenation, like womanist-theology, contextual-theology, public-theology, black-theology, integral-theology… but there is no hyphenation for white, Eurocentric, minority-world theology. All theology is contextual and the work we do is simply to relocate ourselves and Jesus in our geographical, economic, political, religious, social and racial constructs and realities.

In order to “decentre” Eurocentric perspectives, we simply ask different questions of the Bible and of Jesus. Upon reflection, these questions highlight the details of these realities in such a way that it gives us new lenses through which we read and reinterpret the personhood of Jesus and the love of God in the world.

These lenses become the new perspective through which we can notice the words and sounds and feelings in the Bible. Doing this work in the community and not in isolation gets us closer to how Scripture was first shared. God’s word was heard and shared and not only read.

These lenses help us deal with the issues of power. For example, a UK audience might like to consider these questions:

  1. What is the movement of power in the stories of the Bible? The movement of geographical, economic, political, religious, social and racial power?
  2. How does the location, words and life of Jesus reorganise these powers?

These lenses put back into focus the audience that Jesus spent most of his time with. For example:

  1. When we read the Bible, which people seem to benefit most from God’s intervention and action?
  2. When we read the Gospels, who are the people that gain the most from Jesus? What kinds of power do they have?
  3. Who are the people who gain the least from Jesus? What kinds of power do they have?
  4. Where are they located geographically, in terms of whom Jesus centres and who is “on the margins” of God’s activity in the world?
  5. How do we ensure that we too, like Jesus, stay in contact with and listen to those on our margins?

These lenses help us to see diversity and inclusion as part of the work of God in the world, and not only a human rights issue. For example:

  1. In Matthew, Jesus is introduced as a descendant of Abraham and David, but the genealogy includes Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, Ruth, the Gentile, and Mary. Three women give Jesus his “credentials” as the Messiah.
  2. The Canaanite woman with the sick child, fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion who has great faith, the angels sending a sign from God to shepherds working in the fields, Nazareth, Bethlehem… All these places, races and characters reflect a clear intention and the inclusive agenda of God.

These lenses help us move closer to one another with stories of difference instead of seeking “unity and agreement”. For example:

  1. The history books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles don’t seek agreement. They offer differing views on the benefits and detrimental consequences of Israel having a human king.
  2. The Gospels come to us with four accounts accepted in the canon of Scripture, they are not seeking one, agreed-upon single narrative, but allow the four to complement and enhance the differences between them.
  3. The priests, prophets and kings were seldom in agreement about what God was saying and doing and commanding and requiring. Their lives and messages sit side by side, seeking to help us with conversations about making meaning.
  4. The prophets wrote to God’s people while overlapping in time and space and there is no intention to give “one clear agreed-upon prophetic word” to God’s people. Rather, in each instance, the stories hold together, offering reflections from the prophets, priests, philosophers and poets.

While this is not a conclusive list, it provides a framework within which I seek to do this work of decolonising our reading of the Bible, the gospel and Jesus. It creates new narratives and reaffirms narratives that come into conflict with stories of self-preservation to self-offering and self-sacrifice.

In order to be faithful in articulating voices from the margins, we need to reframe our points of departure. People on the margins of socio-economic, socio-religious, sociopolitical and socio-geographical power are the people in the centre. They are in the centre of the stories of God, they are central characters thought out the holy scriptures, they are the focus of God’s action and, indeed, even the ones through whom God acts in the world. Articulating these voices requires me to share my power, my platforms, my attention and be transformed from glory to glory.

René August is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Cape Town and works at The Warehouse Trust. She leads, trains, disciples and coordinates a variety of activities and trainings that seek to equip the body of Christ to more faithfully live out the love and justice of Jesus in and for the world.

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Notes

[1] Arundhati Roy, “Arundhati Roy – The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture,” The University of Sydney (4 November 2004), accessed 18 June 2020, https://www.sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=279.

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