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Faith Forged in the Wrestle

I loved playing rugby at high school and university, and Cape Town winters meant playing on wet and muddy fields. Muddied clothes were a badge of honour while clean clothes were a clear indication that you hadn’t contributed during the game.  I am often told that getting involved in the work of justice is bad for people’s faith as it muddies a clear commitment to Christ. Immersing myself in the work of justice and peace has undoubtedly confronted me with theological challenges and personal questions, but it has also led me into a deeper and more resilient faith in Christ. 

The white clothes of my faith were first muddied when I crossed the railway line from the white and peaceful garden suburb of Pinelands into the township of Langa in 1986, where unrest and violence were ever present.  It was here where I learnt that the pastors and prophets I had grown up with had been “whitewashing walls” and saying “peace, peace where there was no peace.” My faith has never been the same. 

As I’ve increasingly encountered the insidious and oppressive nature of injustice, I’ve often wondered if my faith would survive. Whether in the midst of this battle I’d be able to sustain a viable, living faith or whether, in fact, involvement in the work of justice is bad for faith. 

But these apparent challenges to my faith are like the mud and dirt on my clothes at the end of a rugby game.  They’re evidence that I’ve been in the arena — bloodied and bruised, my faith marred by blood and sweat and tears[1]by confrontations with injustice and oppression, by violence and pain.  But as Phyllis Trible notes, if we avoid this arena we also end up “falsifying faith”; the very faith that is meant to be good news to those who are oppressed by injustice.     

It turns out we are profoundly a people of faith, a faith that has been risked in obedience to following Jesus into dark and hard places where the very existence of a God is problematic and yet, in the end, this faith grows and matures with deepened, resilient roots. 

And a faith unrisked is perhaps no faith at all.

Sustained proximity to or immersion in injustice and the pain that it causes is a wilderness experience. In this wilderness, like the one Jesus was led into, we are confronted by temptations that challenge the idolatries of our time, the things that set themselves up against God’s work in the world.  In this wilderness we are confronted with all the places where we believe in our own capacity to provide and to make a difference if we just had more or worked harder. In this wilderness we are tempted to be more and more spectacular, impressing with our brochures, status updates and carefully conceived replicable models and theories of change.  In this wilderness we are tempted to use the very systems of power and domination that oppress others to pursue our work and mission.   

However, this wilderness also invites us to reject these ways in favour of the way of Jesus. This requires a continuous renouncing of all the ways in which we are addicted to and complicit with these systems, often so deeply embedded in Christendom, that it can feel as if we are renouncing faith itself. 

Immersion in the work of justice has definitely changed my faith in Jesus — often in ways that I’d prefer that it didn’t.  In the face of this work I often feel fragile, overwhelmed, perplexed and filled with despair. In the face of this work, my faith can feel at risk every day, but I continue to say yes to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and in this, Paul’s words to the Corinthians give me courage to keep pressing on. To be a person of faith, invited with others into the places of death and mess and pain so that the very life of Jesus may be made visible in us. 

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body.”

2 Corinthians 4:7-10

[1] With thanks to Theodor Roosevelt

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