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Following Jesus in the Personal and Political

A few weeks back I was to speak at a local ecumenical network dinner on “Elections and the rise of racism and emotional bitterness in South Africa.” The emotive and loaded title of the evening’s conversation left me with a fair amount of reservations. I never ended up giving the prepared talk as my mom passed away the night before.

But as I’ve had a few discussions this week with folks wrestling with what to do in these elections, I thought at least a snippet of my prepared notes might help to frame ongoing conversation:

The late 60s student movement heard the rallying slogan: “The Personal is Political”. The phrase intends to underscore the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. So when what is happening in the public space begins to evoke a personal reactive response from me (defense, withdrawal, justification, absolution), I have to remind myself, The PERSONAL IS POLITICAL. What it means to be white in South Africa at this time is a deeply political question. My personal response as an individual white South Africa to questions in the public space has deeply political implications.

So as we sit in an election year, I come back to the defining question, “what does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the personal AND the political space and how do I ensure that my “going forth” is lead by peace and joy – by shalom, rightly restored relationship, equity, fullness of life and rejoicing?”

I do not believe that there is a single “Christian” way to treat my vote in a constitutional democracy. I do not believe that there is a single “Christian” party or even that there are single “Christian” positions on all the issues facing this country.

I firmly believe though that there are some more helpful marks of punctuation which will serve us far better than a simple X in a box.

? – I believe the Question Mark invites us to explore together, to lean in and listen to one another, to create space for open-ended conversation. I am reminded of the proverb: Statements lead to a state; Questions lead to a quest. I would like to suggest that we need fewer political position statements and more personal commitments to ask good questions together.

✓ – The Check Mark invites us to affirm a holistic life ethic, a vision of what we are FOR not simply what we are AGAINST.

; – The Semi-colon invites us to consider where we are building bridges between two or more seemingly disconnected spaces, relationships, objectives, or hopes.

All three of these become GENERATIVE marks in helping us answer what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus in the personal and the political space. By generative I mean they have the capacity to create anew, to open up possibility, to find the “third way” of Jesus, to pull us into closer relationship with one another.

There are a few questions I have been wrestling with over the past few years which I would like to offer in to this space as we prepare for all this year holds.

  1. What might the political and economic acts and teachings of a Carpenter-Rabbi to a Hebrew (take note) nation under the violent Roman Empire in occupied territory, have to teach me in a constitutional post-apartheid democracy?
  2. Where, how and for whom is my vote entrenching power/Shifting power/ or creating space for the marginalized to have voice in spaces of power?
  3. Am I voting out of vested interest, fear or pain (either my own or those I seek to stand in solidarity with)?
  4.  On those issues which my conscience and my reading of scripture teach me are immutable, what am I doing tangibly beyond my vote?
  • Am I demonstrating an holistic ethic of life?

Another world is possible. I (as a White woman) can only speak to what this will require for White People:

Firstly, a reimagining of what it means to be “People” – fully human and fully committed to this place. Perhaps it means to recognize that enragement – that intense anger and grief in the face of grievance – is a right and fitting response to the image of God being denied and squashed. That righteous indignation may hold the key to our collective redemption. Perhaps it is ours to receive into our body and hold the intense pain and anger of others long enough for healing to begin to emerge. Perhaps for some of us it means relinquishing our other “citizenships” – our dual passports, escape or contingency plans, our “threats of abscondment” if all doesn’t work in our best interest. Perhaps it is to say I am here; I am fully engaged; to build trust and affirm our commitment to being present to the long work.

Secondly, a radical recalibration of our understanding of the world and our place in it. Perhaps we need to understand that this – this hard, messy, uncomfortable painful, fraught work – IS what “getting over it looks like”. This is the work; ours is to labour in it.

Lastly, a definite reconfiguration of our intimate and social geography, our churches, our social spaces, and our friendship groups.

While we may have addressed the laws of apartheid, while we recognise that there are economic systems which still need to be transformed, that there is infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt, and priorities which need to be shifted, most of us have not yet recognized that our greatest work is to realign the relationships that were broken by the apartheid project. Above all, we need a city of lower walls and longer tables.

By Valerie Anderson

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