The Justice Conference - an overview by Johan de Meyer

South Africa’s young church did not mince its words when it comes to social justice issues at The Justice Conference this past weekend, saying that if Jesus associated with marginalised people in his day, he would definitely join activists in the “deep sh*t” of South Africa’s sanitation crisis today.

The conference organisers set out to help mobilise young Christians from a broad spectrum of denominations - indeed, the thousand-odd crowd was significantly racially diverse and reflected most churches in SA - to get down to business in practicing social justice in their daily lives.

In doing so, the organisers explained, they wanted to re-awaken the activism that saw the church play a significant role in the dismantling of apartheid.

If this conference is anything to go by, Christian youth do not see themselves as separate from forces shaping the current social landscape. It is not a matter of bringing their faith into dialogues around education, decolonisation or poverty. Instead, young people whose daily lived experience is one of disempowerment are trying to make sense of their participation in movements like #FeesMustFall, Black lives Matter (also represented at the conference) and those around the decolonisation of education.

The church’s complicity in injustice
Speakers critiqued theologies that prioritise personal sin while being quiet about social sins and defining success by income and possessions.

They called on the church to acknowledge how its theologies are contributing to continued injustice, just as denominations like the Dutch Reformed Church has had to acknowledge its support of the apartheid ideology.

In the words of Marlyn Faure, “Christianity can never be okay if it is based on someone else being exploited or excluded.” It was not hard to take note of the pressure points. Time and again dialogues on issues around decolonised education, income inequality, land and sanitation steered back to frustration around race and the false sense of equilibrium of 1994.

Why are black churches filled with images of a white Christ?
Why have churches become multi-racial, but not multi-cultural?
Why are national Christian gatherings dominated by white males, with black speakers left wondering why they are used as tokens, and having to defend their right to have an opinion?
Why is the church not talking about restitution?

Sivuyile Kotela, social impact activist and strategist, went as far as saying that having all-white church leadership teams in South Africa today should be seen as criminal. Others were very clear that the concept of a post-apartheid South African city is still a myth as our daily lives are governed by spatial designs that have not yet shifted.

Ongoing just actions, not charity
Attendees were encouraged not to increase their focus on acts of charity but to engage with government on policy level, to challenge the “invisible hand of the markets” and to create strategive funding and investment opportunities that will shift the social landscape. Brian Koela, Christian social activist, said charity leaves the ideologies of self-interest untouched and the wealthy unchallenged. “Charity means those with capital set the agendas of the working class. Those with nothing remain powerless and the poor remain disenfranchised. Justice, in turn, seeks to find the cause of the problem of poverty.”

Rene August, an Anglican priest, encouraged a very direct application of Bible passages that call for debts to be cancelled and for property to be returned to its original owners. She asked privileged conference-goers to commit their families to living on R6 500 per month for six months, as an immersion into the lifestyle of poor South Africans.

Normalising dialogues on race
Conference goers described the event as “cathartic”, saying it was a relief to hear so many speakers give voice to their frustrations, normalising conversations on race, culture and inequality among churched young people. Perhaps most disturbing - and most poignant - was the call from Nkosivumile Gola, Food Is Free founder, theologian and social activist, who asked that we should “look into the sh*t, and not just flush it away.”

He explained that Jesus Christ associated himself with the downtrodden, with the marginalised and oppressed. In today’s South Africa, this translates into people in the average township - those who use buckets to relive themselves because they fear being raped in the communal toilets in informal settlements. And young Christians, whether in privilege or poverty, should follow Christ into these hard spaces and work to transform them. “If Jesus associated himself with the least of these, then he himself became one of them. Then Jesus was in deep ‘shit’.”

The Justice Conference revealed that Christian youth are not on the outside looking in. They are already in, and are not losing their faith due to the reality around them. Instead, they are using their faith to make sense of their world, and to give them practical direction in making things right in South Africa.

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