Friendly Racism

I was asked to speak about racism again, this time for an audience of South African Christian teenagers. I decided to base it on some excellent resources that I came across recently on the subject of covert prejudices. The following is the text of my speech, plus some of the key slides. I think it is a particularly important topic, given South Africa’s growing racial tensions, white supremacists in the USA, anti-immigration movements, the All Lives Matter movement, and Donald Trump in his totality. Most of us agree that racism is wrong, but most of us are also unaware of the degree to which small, seemingly-benign biases colour our vision.

(Note that for ease of reference, I refer only to black and white race groups. It is admittedly clumsy, and I mean no offence either by those terms or by the exclusion of any groups that don’t identify as either.)

* * * * * * * *

There are any number of illustrations that I could give from the last 400 years of our nation’s history that would illustrate how heavy a role racism plays in our pasts. I was going to choose the example of a British guidebook that described the inhabitants of this country as:

Unwilling to work and unable to think, stupid, with no mental resources whatsoever. They were cowardly, devious and cruel to animals. They are active only in mischief; and crimes against morality meet with applause if in the end they are successful. (Barrow’s travels, Paraphrase)

Because in this case their racism was directed against the Afrikaner, which goes to show that hatred moves around in circles, looking for a new target, and that our problems as a country in this regard are likely to be far from over.

But I returned to a more recent example, the famous case of Matthew Theunissen who was very upset about the sports’ minister’s ban on international sporting events in 2016 and he said this:

(For non-South-African readers, the ‘K’ word is the most violently racist word we have.) I’m sorry if this is a bit shocking, but this is a good example, because Matt T is a born-free—he was born after the end of Apartheid—he lived in wealthy Noordhoek, and he has a Master’s degree. He was not alive in the Apartheid system, he’s not disadvantaged under the new system, and he is not stupid. How can he still have this much of the Old South Africa in him?

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A Lesson on Semantic Domains that Has Absolutely No Implications for World Politics

Semantics is important.

Although I have seen recent published writings by doctored authors who still argue that individual words (rather than phrases or clauses) are units of meaning, it is generally accepted that words have potential meanings and they may take different senses depending on the semantic domain in which they are employed.

Take for example the word “row”. What does it mean? To paddle a boat? A line of things? A squabble? Yes, depending on where you use it.

So let’s consider a randomly chosen word. Let’s say… “to hope”.

Based on my armchair semantician’s grasp of the subject, I would suggest that it has at least two semantic domains:

  1. The domain of wish: The subject desires an outcome for his own good or for the good of another. It implies a lack of control over the outcome. “I hope that the cricket isn’t rained out.”
  2. The domain of threat: The subject implies that the other person will force an unpleasant exercise of power should undesired behaviour continue. It implies the power to enforce the implied threat. “I hope that your room will be tidy by the time I come back.”

So how does one know which one is meant? On one hand, it involves the ability to read subtext. Many comedies have based scenes on a character’s inability to read subtext, and thus to confuse wish for threat. “I’m holding thumbs too, mom.” But most people—you, me, FBI directors—obviously would have no trouble understanding the difference between wish and threat.

But one might also be able to tell based on the outcome. If, for example, oh I don’t know, a subordinate were to be fired from his job after his ‘superior’ “hoped” in vain that something would go away, one would be able to infer that the subordinate had correctly identified that sort of “hope” as a threat, and it would be disingenuous for someone—hypothetically a senator from Idaho—to pretend at that point that “hope” merely means “wish”.

Grudem’s Strange Support for Trump

I frequently urge our theology students here in Cape Town to be willing to disagree with the celebrated commentators and theologians whom they read, because our natural state is to revere those scholars who have major published works and who have become household names, and defer to them as authorities instead of testing what they say.

It was surprising (on one level) to see one such celebrated scholar coming out in support of Donald Trump this week. Wayne Grudem is well known here for his accessible Systematic Theology, and for partnering with John Piper on the less-good Biblical Manhood and Womanhood stuff. But he has ably demonstrated his human fallibility by radically over-correcting the anti-Trump sentiment that he detects among some of his peers. His article featured on Town Hall is an attempt at an ethical argument in favour of Trump, but it is deeply disappointing on several levels.

I must say up front that I am not American, not particularly knowledgeable about politics or economics, and I do not have much expertise when it comes to speaking about Trump or Clinton. And disdain for Trump is in no way to be read as support for Hillary. Right at the start of the primaries I joked at how ridiculous it would be if the Americans had to choose between these two arch-demons, and now a year later or so (and one Brexit under the belt), here we are. Democracy this year keeps delivering the theatre of the absurd.

Christian or Republican? Pick one

As an outsider to American culture, I feel I am at least well placed to see what is harder to recognise from the inside, and one seemingly regular problem in the States, and a pervasive one in Grudem’s article, is the unfortunate confusion of Republicanism and Christianity.

For example, Grudem speaks as though it is Christian duty to support big business over big government, to affirm that government spending on healthcare is bad and that government spending on America’s big military is good. These are big Republican issues, but they seem to me to be preferences and not Christian issues.

It seems to me that Christians can support (well enough) several of the positions of either party as being compatible with their Christian faith. The Republicans can’t, it seems to me, keep claiming that all their preferences are the Christian ones, just because they are policies that are broadly thought of as conservative. And it is certainly true that Christians need to be Christians first and party-members second—it is not an article of the faith to be on the right wing.

Freedom

The second issue concerns freedom. His slippery-slope argument that Hillary would install ‘liberal activist judges’, who would then curtail freedom of speech and religion, promote more odious abortions laws etc.—if true—was the most persuasive reason for voting Trump (though Hillarophobia is still not an argument that Trump is a good candidate). He provided several anecdotes of tendencies in American society to vilify anyone for holding to religious or moral convictions that have recently become unpopular. If that is a fair assessment, it is worrying.

But his column is also angling for ‘Christian’ government (headed by Trump! Can you imagine that?) so that there can be prayer in schools, or on the football field before games, Grudem specifically adds, and other explicit government-backed promotions of Christianity in public.

I am confused as to why it is the government’s job to promote one religion to a people that clearly are not of homogeneous views on the matter. It’s all very well for Grudem when it is a ‘Christian’ party that stands to inherit the throne, but how would he feel if it were a Muslim party? Would he be advocating the government’s role in promoting respect for the name of God then, or would he be talking up the importance of pluralism and government sticking to secular policy and not meddling with religious freedom?

By all means advocate that Christians should be allowed to be Christian in public, but making non-Christians observe prayer times etc. seems like a wrong turn to me. That’s not religious freedom. It’s religious constraint of which you happen to approve.

Trump’s Promises

Perhaps the worst thing about Grudem’s article is its disingenuity. He is happy, it seems, to parrot Trump’s ludicrous campaign promises as though they were fait accompli, and to paint Clinton’s campaign as though she were Jezebel herself.

Trump is full of big promises and talks eagerly about the wonderful end product (America will be great again!), but has no political experience and rarely will be drawn on how he intends to reach these idyllic goals. And when he is, lest we forget, the solutions tend to be one part racism and one part nonsense. Ban all Muslims from the US. Build a wall on the Mexican border.

For an ethicist, Grudem is remarkably uncritical about this. In fact, he specifically approves of the idea that acts of terror and immigration policies are connected (“Trump has repeatedly promised that he will finally secure our borders, an urgent need to protect the nation from ever more terrorists and drug smugglers.”), and says things like this:

“Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done, with Hillary Clinton’s support when she was secretary of state. If Trump is anything, he is tough as nails, and he won’t be bullied.”

Trump doesn’t seem tough to me, he seems insecure, but even granting this, how does one ‘get tough’ with China or Putin in constructive ways? Getting ‘tough’ with Al Qaida led to expensive and unpopular wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and rather than resolving the tense anti-American atmosphere in the Middle East, we now have yet another anti-West group in Isis. But Grudem remains convinced that Trump knows the answer; the answer is to defeat them:

“Trump has pledged to aggressively attack and utterly defeat ISIS”.

That’s it. No plan (but for another implied ‘big push’); just a declaration of the nearly impossible end result.

Bravo

The fact that Trump’s policies often represent a convenient about-turn on what he has claimed in the past, and the idea that he was motivated to run because of his concern for America’s poor, and not because he was mercilessly humiliated at more than one White House correspondent’s dinner, these are things for which Grudem also gives Trump a free pass.

Trump’s character

Grudem is aware that Trump is a man of weak character. He concedes:

“He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages.”

What I find odd is that, as a Christian, Grudem can see these as matters of little consequence. Leaving aside that marital unfaithfulness was enough evidence for Republicans that Mr Clinton was unfit for office, the Bible is witheringly critical of people who are proud and lovers of money. Pride and avarice are not uncommon in politicians, but Trump is the eager epitome of each of these things. This is a man who refuses to forget that the editor of Vanity Fair called him a “Short-fingered vulgarian” in 1988. Pride is not a small problem; it is a crippling danger in leadership, which is why it is telling that the greatest biblical leaders, especially Moses and Jesus (cf. Num. 12:3), were characterised as humble, and the wicked kings and Pharaohs are proud. The Bible repeatedly says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Grudem fails to mention how often Trump has been caught out as a liar, and he fails to mention dishonest and exploitative business ventures such as Trump University in which he made clear promises about the quality of the programmes on offer that were never kept.

To call him a “good candidate with flaws” is a galling whitewash. Speaking of whitewashing…

“On the other hand, I think some of the accusations hurled against him are unjustified. His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic – I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made.”

Mr Grudem, if he says bigoted things in unguarded moments, it pretty much means he’s a bigot.

Clear argument fallacies

And finally, the reasons given why Trump is good in spite of all appearances to the contrary are often remarkably devoid of critical thinking. Grudem says:

“Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity.”

Dave Barry answered this one several years ago:

Dave-Barry

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person. Or as Jesus put it: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). Someone who is able to be pleasant to those to whom he has an interest in being pleasant is not a remarkable person. It is the person who is able to be kind and generous to those who are opposed to them who is genuinely praiseworthy. Trump is clearly and publicly not that guy.

Grudem also says,

“These American citizens recognize that Trump has built a business career on listening to experts, solving problems, and getting things done. They realize that Trump didn’t earn $4 billion by being stupid, and their instinct says that he might be exactly the right person to solve some of the biggest problems in a nation that has for too long been headed in the wrong direction and stuck in political gridlock.”

I am again surprised that Grudem confuses being rich with having virtue and competence. Apart from anything else, Trump  earned $4b by inheriting it from his dad, if I am not mistaken. But even if he is good at making money, there is no reason to expect that it is a transferable skill, or that Trump is reliable in other areas. Convincing a fellow capitalist that you can make them lots of money and convincing Iran not to build nukes have very little in common. (Also, if riches and problem solving make Trump a good candidate, why not Pablo Escobar?)

As for the comment about political gridlock, that problem seems to me to be the result of the long-standing refusal of Republicans and Democrats to work together, largely, it seems, because the rhetoric that one side uses of the other (as this column typifies) is routinely full of prejudiced, fallacious views of the other’s position. I expected that Grudem would show his opponents the charity of representing them fairly, but he uses the same polarising, us-and-them tactics that he thinks Donald Trump will fix.

The only way that Trump will fix political gridlock, and this really is a reason to vote for him, is that surely this time Republicans and Democrats together will be united in undermining their president. Already some Republican leaders have admitted that they will vote Democrat, because sometimes the party has to come second.

Grudem argues in his column that some Republican Christians “may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Trump-Clinton election, and perhaps not even vote. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing.” He is incorrect that not voting is the same as doing nothing. Not voting can also be a statement that the system that produced Donald Trump as a viable candidate is terminally ill. It is a statement of protest against the prejudicial propaganda that delights more in spoiling the opponent than listening to them and that has led to the political gridlock that he mentions.

It is disappointing that Grudem has encouraged Christian support for Trump, not because Christians should rather support Hillary, but because Christians should represent integrity and love for their enemies, and they can’t do that by supporting a ‘Christian’ candidate of patently anti-Christian character, and they can’t do that by perpetuating the divisive rhetoric that has led to the sorry state of affairs that America seems to be in. In my opinion, an article about the Christian vote in the upcoming election should rather be characterised by mourning and much searching of heart.

 

*****

I have subsequently been linked to an article that fittingly does just that. It is well worth reading: http://samuelwhitefield.com/1811/four-issues-to-consider-before-you-vote-trump-what-is-really-at-stake

White South Africa and Racism Presentation

Speaking about racism is a little daunting, because it personally took me a long time to recognise my own racism—and I like to think of myself as an introspective person. My attempts in the past to convince fellow white South Africans that we have a racism problem have not gone too well—we don’t see it, and we do our best to avoid seeing it.

It is almost as if we have amnesia about Apartheid—none of us approved of it, none of us were really influenced by it, and it was more than 20 years ago; haven’t we all got over it by now?

So having to try to persuade an audience (in 10 minutes or less) that our own racism is something we need to take seriously seemed a difficult task.

But then there was Matthew Theunissen.

Matthew Theunissen is practically a born-free. He was born in ’92 or ’93, I think. He went to a small private school with pupils of all races. He is privileged enough to have achieved two masters’ degrees, and in spite of being unemployed, he is able to live in the pretty middle-class suburb of Noordhoek. He has no reason to be racist or angry.

Matthew Theunissen recently went on FaceBook to let the world know that he thinks of the present government in the most racist and vulgar terms possible. There is nothing he could have said of a racial nature to be more hurtful to black South Africans. Why? Because the minister dared to touch his love for sport.

But then he did a beautiful thing. Seeing the response to his racism blow up to monstrous proportions, he went on a radio show to apologise. He heartily agreed with the interviewer that people who are not racists do not say such words—that it doesn’t even occur to a non-racist to use this language—and then with almost his next breath, he proceeded to insist that he is not actually racist.

Why is it that—even when there is indisputable evidence of it—almost no one can admit to being a racist? Why could even Matthew Theunissen not bring himself to say, “I am racist”? It is as if he has an image of himself as a good person, and so doing something deliberately awful, as he did, must be accidental—some strange intrusion into his character—but not who he really is. Even when his racism is plain to see, he wasn’t able to own it.

So perhaps the first reason why people don’t recognise their own racism is that we know that racism is bad—and being labelled a racist is a disaster—and we think better of ourselves. We’re not bad people; when we think or say racist things, it’s an exception to the rule, not really who we are.

The second reason why we I think we can’t own up to racism is that we think that racism must be accompanied by hatred, or hostility towards people of another race—it is something that you have to do. So if I were to ask you, “Are you racist?” many of you would answer ‘no’ on the grounds that you haven’t used the K word, or  assaulted a domestic worker, or whatever other prominent example from the media you might want to choose.

The problem is that racism is much more than just behaviour. On a social level, racism has more to do with how society is structured—the place that various race groups occupy in society. On a personal level, racism has more to do with our attitudes towards others—the place that members of various race groups occupy in our thoughts and feelings.

Racism is not active hostility; it is the passive assumption that whiteness is better, and that blackness implies some sort of moral or intellectual or social inferiority. Racism is not a matter of hate; it is a matter of prejudice.

The word ‘prejudice’ is made up of a prefix (pre-) that means ‘before; in advance’, and ‘judice’—which is the same root from which all of our judicial words in English come—is about judgement. ‘Prejudice’ was not originally a word that referred to hatred or unfair treatment, but merely to a pre-judgement—an opinion about someone that is formed on the basis of some superficial quality, and without reference to who they actually are or what they are like. So also, racism need only be this sort of superficial pre-judgement for it to be damaging.

One of the key moments for me, in which I realised that I was this kind of racist, happened only about 10 years ago. I was driving through Constantia heading to work, and I noticed a team of manual labourers working on the road. It may have been that one of the labourers was white, but one way or another, it occurred to me that I would have seen a white labourer as unusual, and working in some way below his station, whereas black labourers would be normal.

For the first time, I really understood how deeply that Apartheid way of seeing the world was ingrained in me. I didn’t act racist; I just realised that I saw a sort of rightness about black people occupying a lower station. I wasn’t violent, or angry—I had no ill-feeling towards anyone at all—but I did something that is at the heart of all evil behaviour—I put a different value on one person over another for completely arbitrary reasons. That makes me a racist at heart. Or, the label that I now prefer to use, I am a recovering racist.

Racism is not only a matter of what we do or say; it is an internal issue that has to do with how we see the order of society—it is the pre-judgement of someone’s worth or intelligence. It affects who we trust; who we employ to do jobs that require certain levels of responsibility or expertise; who we look to for advice or guidance.

So a racist is that lovely friendly mum at school who still thinks nothing of referring to an adult worker as ‘the girl’ or ‘the garden boy’.

Racism is what made the white American cashier—in a story I heard recently—refuse to take payment by cheque from a black woman right after taking a cheque payment from her mixed-race sister-in-law because she looked white.

Or if we use a sporting example to make Matthew Theunissen happy, racism is why white supporters grumbled about Alviro Petersen as a quota player (i.e. a player chosen to make up race quotas and not primarily on merit) when he was selected for the Proteas cricket team in 2006, even though he had broken several domestic batting records in the year leading up to his selection. Racism is why every under-performing black player will be dismissed as a quota selection, and why under-performing white players “should be given time to show their worth”.

Racism is why the murder of a white girl usually makes the headlines, and why the murder of a black girl almost never does.

Racism is not about hostility; it is a prejudice that affects the trust that we put in people, and the value that we place on their work or on their lives.

The Bible doesn’t use the concept of race very often, but it is certainly aware of the damage that prejudice does.

This is what James 2 says about favouritism:

“2:2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?…

He goes on: “8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

By pre-judging the worth of people on the basis of superficial things such as their skin or their wealth, James says that we have become judges with evil thoughts—that we have failed in our duty to love others.

So, to get back to Matt Theunissen—he had no good reason to be angry, and he isn’t some grizzled member of the broederbond who bought into decades of apartheid propaganda. He’s a normal white South African. He is also clearly racist, and yet he is the only one who can’t see it.

So what about you? Why do I want you to identify yourself with Matthew T? Racism is clearly harmful to our country, and when we fail even to recognise that we have a problem, we unconsciously blunder our way into causing more hurt and more division.

But even more importantly, racism is also a barometer of a deeper problem. Racism is a clear fact of our national past and our national present, but in spite of it being a fact, it is a problem that we almost universally are unable to acknowledge. If we can fail to judge ourselves enough to see racism, what other prejudice and corruption lives within us undetected?

If you’re not a Christian, one of the main reasons why you should look into it more carefully is that racism is not the only hidden corruption that we fail to acknowledge about ourselves. And the more accurately you see yourself, the more you will start to realise that we all are carrying damage and we need to be re-created from the inside out. This is a big part of what Jesus came to do.

If you start to look at your own inner life more carefully and honestly, I think a lot more of what Jesus said will start to make sense.

This has been adapted from a presentation given at St Stephen’s Church in Claremont, Cape Town, on 22 May 2016. Click here for my presentation and just the questions aimed at meClick here for unedited audio of all three presentations. 

Good blasphemy?

One movie that I liked well enough to add to my small collection is a slightly odd mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). It satirises beauty pageants and the abuses related to that industry.

One particular scene has always stuck in my mind, mostly because as a Christian, I am sensitive about blasphemy and this pushes it a bit far. Watch it here:

denise

In the clip, we see the ‘talent show’ part of the beauty pageant competition, in which the beauty queen finalists all have to show off some sort of talent to prove that they are more than just a pretty face. The woman introducing the next contestant (Gladys) is the organiser and judge of the competition, as well as the mother of the next contestant, who is called Becky. Both of them are dishonest, evil characters who will stop at nothing to win. Gladys introduces her daughter as follows:

“Now, it’s with overwhelming pride that I introduce contestant number six, who is also the president of her class – two years running – an honor roll student and the new President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club – Ladies and Gentlemen, Rebecca Ann Leeman!”

Becky sits on stage with the spotlight on her and says,

“You know what? The rumours are true. I do have a special fella in my life. And if nobody minds, I’d like to sing a little song, just for him.”

She proceeds to sing ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and as the chorus begins and the ‘special fella’ emerges from the wings to do the dance routine, we discover that this ‘fella’ is a ridiculous Jesus mannequin pinned to a cross on wheels. Becky takes his outstretched arms and begins an up-tempo dance with him.

Now this is clearly meant to be blasphemous and therefore to offend the Christian audience. If the movie were any bigger or happened to appear at any more momentous an occasion than its setting in 1999, I imagine that it could have precipitated the proverbial dung storm (in the parlance of our times).

Nevertheless, I decided to use this clip for a lesson on satire at GWC, the Bible college at which I teach. While it’s not normally the sort of place in which blasphemy is appreciated, it was a calculated risk that I thought important. Why? Because Christian leaders are particularly bad at responding to media in general, and to public acts of blasphemy in particular. How does this movie scene help? Well, consider what satire is for.

If you’ll pardon the source, Wikipedia’s article called ‘Satire’ (accessed 8 Oct 2013) says:

Satire is a genre of literature [etc.]… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”… This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Emphasis mine)

Wiki adds that exaggeration is a common technique in satire.

In short, satire is a form of criticism that aims at shaming people into changing their bad behaviour. We expect it to mimic that bad behaviour in ironic and exaggerated ways so that the wrongness of the behaviour is both clear and embarrassing. When the recipient fully feels this embarrassment, the hope is that it will provoke change. Often the offence is all that is felt, and this is why satire is subject to more misunderstanding, criticism, and controversy than perhaps any other genre.

Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous is surely being blasphemous, consider how this scene fulfils each of the requirements of satire:

  1. Exaggeration:  Dancing with a crucifix is clearly preposterous, but most of the crowd more-or-less laps it up.
  2. Seems to approve of the bad behaviour: Although the film-maker seems to be blaspheming in this scene, the ‘straight character’ (Ellen Barkin), who represents the film-maker’s opinion of the clear thinker on this matter, reacts to this dance with shock and ridicule. The film-maker knows that it is unacceptable.
  3. Uses shock to shame the abuser: This is the key issue. Who or what is this ‘bad behaviour’ supposed to be shaming?

If you can take a step back from the offence of this scene and consider its purpose, you should notice a few things. Firstly, the scene in no way is criticising Christianity, or saying anything good or bad about Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is not really there—he’s a mannequin—and he is consequently passive in the scene. He is acted upon, and not an active participant. Rather, the criticism is being directed primarily against people who use Christ’s name as a tool of audience manipulation. When the popular vote is needed, Jesus is trundled out to be paraded in front of the unthinking Christian audience. It doesn’t matter how wicked some people are behind the scenes, as long as they pay lip-service to Christianity, they have public trust.

Now think about what the Bible says about blasphemy. The Bible obviously acknowledges that unbelievers are blasphemers in their own way, but the strongest criticisms for blasphemy are actually levelled against those who are supposedly God’s people. Take for example St Paul’s summary reading of the Old Testament material on this subject:

Romans 2:23-24
23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

[See also Isaiah 52:4-5, Ezekiel 20:27-28, and Ezekiel 36:16-23 for more examples.]

The main sort of blasphemy that God prohibits is not the sort perpetuated by His enemies, but the sullying of His reputation at the hands of His own supposed representatives. This film clip seems to me to be making a similar point: those who claim to be representing Christ are often doing so only for appearance’ sake, whereas they actually blaspheme Jesus by their lifestyle and by their hypocritical public use of his name.

So while I would not usually condone blasphemy, satire is a medium that fights fire with fire. We get offended by a movie character dancing with a crucifix, but we don’t get offended when politicians stab one another in the back and dedicate the knife to Jesus? Perhaps we are the bigger blasphemers.

The second contribution of this scene is the attack on offensive Christian sentimentality. Becky addresses Jesus in terms associated with a boyfriend. In the original script, a dance move was supposed to cause Jesus’ loin cloth to slip, and in order to prevent it falling off, Becky was supposed to be left holding Jesus by the crotch. Even the film-makers seem to have decided that this would be going too far, and so there is no such scene in the film itself. Nevertheless, it does aim a slap at the incongruity of using ‘in-love’ language of Jesus (and other superficially romantic ways of speaking about faith). However much you might be able to drum up butterflies in the tummy about your relationship with Jesus, the Bible actively promotes the idea that our relationship now is partial and in a waiting period, not complete and immediate. For example:

1Corinthians 13:9-12

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (See also 2Corinthians 5:6-7)

So by all means be excited about being forgiven, and being adopted into the family and the very being of God. Just don’t be fake and sentimental and showy about it. As Drop Dead Gorgeous points out, overdoing how close you claim to feel to Jesus can just come off as obscene. A bit more realism and a lot more sincerity would probably do the public face of Christianity a lot of good.

Satire Side-bar!

Satire is a very ancient genre and may well have found its way into scripture. Sections of Daniel, for example, seem to be ridiculing the Babylonian emperors who had taken Daniel and his compatriots into exile. The book of Jonah also casts the prophet in an exceptionally bad light: for the whole book he represents an attitude of unforgiveness towards Gentiles and disregard for their lives that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of God that the book teaches. This too might be intended as a satire of Jerusalem’s ‘pious’ people who have none of the love and mercy that their God does.

Get your problems out the way of my comfort

We naturally dislike people who attend to the bare minimum of their responsibilities begrudgingly and with endless complaint. I no longer shop at certain retailers because asking assistants for assistance earned me bad attitude. There are hundreds of films that feature lazy people who, if they had just gone and done what they were supposed to, none of this would have happened, or who do it with endless grumbles but just in time to avert huge disaster (but I can’t think of a single example right now).

This week, South Africa’s most in-the-news hospital, Baragwanath, left a badly burned man to die, seemingly neglecting the bare minimum of their profession and their humanity. You can read that sad story here (caution: unpleasant pics). However, one of the state doctors today wrote a must-read response arguing that when it comes to lack of care and responsibility, blame should rather be placed on the politicians who have run health administration into a state of collapse. Either way, such lack of care is horrifying.

It is easy to take moral high ground in such circumstances, but sometimes we’re just as uncaring; we’ve just found ways of clothing our selfishness in diplomatic dress. Such as in church this weekend…

In Religion: Speak to God about it (just don’t make your problems mine)

In the church, we’re champions at spiritualising our selfishness. I spoke on the weekend at a church on the subject of relinquishing our wealth as a necessary part of Christian discipleship. Afterwards, a woman apparently in terrible poverty spoke to me about it, claiming that at other churches, she had been told to bring her problems to God and ‘leave them at the altar’; to let God sort them out. She felt unable to speak about her desperate needs to anyone in the church any longer.

Of course, we must trust God, and God is the ultimate provider. However, telling someone to leave their problems at the altar is another way of making sure that they don’t share their problems with you. We can sound spiritual while also telling people not to bother us with their uncomfortable issues.

The Bible should make us very uncomfortable when it comes to our money and the poor in our congregations, because when it tells us that there ‘shall be no poor among you’, it also tells us the mechanism by which this relief from poverty takes place, namely, those whom God has given much must be generous towards those who have little. For example, in Acts 2 & 4, when there was need, the church would not consider their property to be their own, but would sell something so that they could provide for one another. That’s an often-repeated pattern in the Bible for provision for the poor in our congregations.

Now, the Bible is not at all like communism, and it is true that giving handouts can sometimes do more harm than good. Nevertheless, we do not therein find an excuse to avoid our responsibilities as the rich in the church. Be strategic about how you use the wealth God has leant you, and be sure that you use it for the reasons for which He gave it.

In Politics: Look to the future (Don’t remind me what I did in the past)

A third thing this week that illustrated selfish comfort trumping concern for due responsibility was an article in the City Press, written by Alistair MacKay, called How Whites Can Reconcile. He points out that after the horrors of Apartheid, most whites have coasted along in silence (usually, I’d add, breaking silence to complain that the new government is ‘ruining the country’), until now, 20 years later, we become impatient with people who still feel the hurt and injustice of the past system. As MacKay says:

I saw this comment on reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy the other day: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?” No, we haven’t.

It’s curious that among white people now, it is hard to find a person who was ever racist during Apartheid. We’ve washed our hands of it and ensure that we now deflect away any blame for that system, because it makes us uncomfortable to be associated with it.

In response to the article, many of the comments demonstrated exactly that, ironically confirming the author’s message in their criticism of him.

“Alistair, what I can remember about apartheid was that it oppressed just about everybody. There is a reason your parents, their friends and acquaintances didn’t ‘toyi-toyi’ outside parliament. They did what they could under the circumstances.” (sean.crookson)

“Oh please, look its your opinion but lets face one fact. You cannot continue to cry about the past. If I hear another person say apartheid I will soil my pants. When can people stop. We live for tomorrow not for what happened yesterday! Maybe it was horrible, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Honestly I do not care.” (Mr.T)

“The past was awful yes, but it is not today and we cannot change it other than changing what we think and feel now, so stop focusing on what was wrong and start focusing on what is right.” (WessBergg)

If I were a sufferer of Apartheid, I’d not be experiencing feelings of forgiveness hearing that whites were oppressed too and did all they could; that we should just live for tomorrow. It’s easy to look forward to tomorrow when today was so pleasant. Not everyone can say that.

Three Lessons: #1 Empathy

We can learn a few things from the mistakes of these commenters. The first thing is empathy. Let’s remember that whites in the past 300 years or so took something like 70% of the best land for the white minority and put the black majority in the remaining 30%. In living memory, many South Africans lost homes and land without compensation due to group areas legislation, and were put in new high-density housing areas.

I don’t think I’m too far wrong if I say that black South Africans weren’t allowed to touch the same crockery or toilets as whites, or go to the same beaches and parks. They couldn’t buy houses in the best neighbourhoods. They had to carry passes to be on their own streets. They could have any job as long as it was manual labour, were forced to study in Afrikaans, and couldn’t vote or tell the newspapers if they didn’t like it. That’s besides the daily attitude and abuse from many whites, ‘special treatment’ from the police, continual propaganda that said they were less valuable, less able, less human. I can still remember how unusual it was to see a black person driving a car in the 80s, and how we as whites would normally suggest that he must have stolen it.

Like me, you may have grown up in a home that aimed at being non-racial, but even still we owe the country an apology. If nothing else, there was not a mass exodus of upset whites to other countries, nothing like the one we have seen since Apartheid fell. We stayed and we didn’t fight what was wrong. That’s bad enough. But I can see — even as someone who hated the more overt racism of my classmates — how part of it I was. We were racists, as much as we might hate to admit it now.

But here is an example of how whites still respond to the suffering caused by Apartheid:

“Great article? It’s just another whining, guilt-tripping piece distorting our past. It’s all to obvious that separate development… was a necessity for Whites to survive and shield them against risks for their livelihoods. Any rational person could have seen that. Ultimately this is shown step by step to be true now. Fact is also that Blacks had a fair chance developing their own communities. And that they were supported in this by the then White government. One may say that Blacks were poorer. Really, but why was that? Despite efforts of Whites to lift them up or due to something else?” (andreas.meyer.12327)

That’s right, whites had to be separate from blacks out of necessity for survival, and the white government was trying to uplift black communities the whole time. The fault was somehow with the blacks. That’s the undistorted version of our history.

“Blacks under apartheid were more literate than black Americans. They also enjoyed the highest standard of living of all blacks in Africa. Even in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it is stated that 40% of SA’ns claimed that life was better under apartheid (whites constitute about 9%). The tragedy is that modern youth has become so narrow minded, stupid and uncouth that they can’t distinguish between freedom and slavery anymore.” (alan.secreve)

The fact that we can pull narrow statistics to ‘prove’ that we were actually being kind to black South Africans is startling. It’s sad that people still experience terrible quality of life, but hardly stands as an argument that Apartheid was freedom.

So, fellow whites, when our brothers and sisters of other races are still struggling with pain and dire social circumstances created by Apartheid, try to have a little empathy before you decide to dodge how uncomfortable it makes you feel.

True, we can’t go back and fix what we’ve done, and it will take decades to get beyond it. True, we must look forward. But while we’re moving forward, we can stop making hurt worse by parading opinions that range from pretending we had nothing to do with it, to the idea that blacks should be grateful for what whites did for them in Apartheid.

And while you’re at it…

Lesson #2: Count your blessings

We are extraordinarily good at taking all the credit for our personal achievements and claiming that we never received a dime from anyone. Whites are generally under-appreciative of the benefits we had under Apartheid. Years ago this Zapiro ‘cartoon’ offended me into thinking about it:

I could argue that my upbringing was not privileged — we sometimes had to rely on ‘handouts’ to be able to eat, for example — but it was. I lived on a nature reserve on the edge of a quiet white suburb. There was no poverty and hardly any crime in our areas. I was at excellent schools that were cheap and well resourced. I could even play tennis for free.

When I began my tertiary education, I had to work nights and weekends to support myself for much of it, and I eventually got excluded from the course because I couldn’t pay. Yet for all my life, I had the freedom, government support, and social infrastructure to be able to learn and to excel. I am who I am because I benefitted from Apartheid.

But some say:

Sorry but you are saying that we should feel sorry for other peoples lack to move on. I was born in 1983 and had to work 2 jobs through varsity while my black counterparts had scholarships and used the money to drink and party… JUST because your classy English Family benefited from Apartheid doesn’t mean that all whites were as lucky or unlucky as you… I will not feel ashamed and neither will I apologize for working my ass off to get to be where I am today. (R3ndi3r)

Hard work and struggle is what 95% of people everywhere have to endure. Yes, that is true of many whites under Apartheid, but that is a far cry from receiving no benefit. Everything about Apartheid government was structured to give whites the best and to keep blacks weak. If you are white, you received favour and benefit at the expense of the dispossession and cheap labour of everyone else. To complain that black South Africans are now just seeking handouts is to forget that the whole country was previously engineered for your welfare.

David Wong recently wrote an outstanding article called Six Things Rich People Need To Stop Saying that deals with exactly this attitude, but on a more general level. You should read that article right now.

Lesson 3: Make relevant arguments

Maybe there are some reasons for us not to dwell on the past. Feel free to argue for them when it’s appropriate, but make sure you don’t make hurt and division worse by using irrelevant smokescreens to escape taking responsibility. Take this commenter for example:

Most blacks… are made to believe by their “leaders” that all whites fell into bottomless riches during Apartheid. Taking myself and my family… Afrikaners before WW2 were the poorest Europeans on the planet. My late father had to go to the township in the small town we lived in, to go and BEG for food. World War 2 saved him from poverty… When I finished school,there were no money for university. I had to struggle on my own, leaving South Africa, in the hope i can get my foot in the door somewhere… If I see the opportunities black people have today, in the new South Africa, I feel envy. I did not have those opportunities. Every time I went back to South Africa, to find work, the door just became more shut every time I tried… Just in “AA”, racist (ANC) SA that I had this problem. (HenriLeRiche)

It’s a sad story of struggle. I don’t want to minimise that. But it ends with an invective that calls affirmative action and the present government racist, and none of it has much at all to do with the article that it criticises.

There is ample evidence that white South Africans have showed far too little awareness of how bad their behaviour was and how gracious the current government has been in visiting absolutely no punishment upon whites at all. Even affirmative action is not punishment, and we still have (warning: statistics from my sketchy memory) something like 90% of whites employed, versus less than 60% of the rest, and about 50% of the economy in white ownership. The article is about us dodging responsibility for our role in the past. What does it have to do with anything that some whites aren’t rich, or that the Afrikaaner was also poor once? What does present government performance or policy have to do with it?

We all have reason to be apologetic for our role in Apartheid, even if small, and to be thankful for the grace that black South Africa has thusfar shown. Yes, it is an uncomfortable position to be in, but let’s not make things worse by refusing to let pain that we helped cause intrude upon our comfort.

Peter Bruce fumbles Zuma Spear

Yesterday I posted an article that laments poor analysis of art. This morning’s Business Day includes yet another literalistic interpretation of ‘Spear of the Nation’ that shows little capacity for visual communication. Editor Peter Bruce says,

But I cannot for the life of me understand what he has done to deserve to be immortalised in a painting with his genitals hanging out of his trousers. Too many wives? It’s legal in SA. Rape? He was acquitted. A womaniser? So what, as long as his sex is with consenting adults. What then? Having your genitals depicted in public is a hell of a price to pay for being a rotten political leader, for being weak on economics or beholden to too many political interests. Brett Murray is, of course, free to do as he pleases in this democracy and you could just bet on the ANC to make matters worse by kicking up such a fuss.

But the sad fact is stuff like this only works in a Victorian society like ours. The artist went out of his way to shock and it proved depressingly easy, whatever side of the “debate” you are on. There’s no artistic thought here, merely the prudish notion that you can hurt somebody you disapprove of by pulling his pants down in public and giggling as you run away, this time crying “artistic freedom” as you go. (Business Day)

This again demonstrates confusion about what the painting is and what it means.

Firstly, Jacob Zuma hasn’t has his genitals displayed anywhere public; it’s someone’s drawing of a penis on someone’s drawing of JZ. Similarly, no one pulled JZ’s pants down; they remain firmly around his waist. Both of those are massively important distinctions when it comes to supposed abuse of his dignity. It’s a painting, an idea, not a sexual assault.

Secondly, why the assuption that the painting means what this author thinks it does? Everyone is interpreting it clumsily with zero appreciation of symbolism and the way that protest art communicates. The painting could mean a myriad of things other than ‘JZ’s penis is out too much’. It’s an overly-literal analysis, decrying a field that the author seems not to understand.

Even if this painting is so crass as to be merely taking a shot at Zuma’s embarrassing sexual exploits, why is it so unbelievably hurtful to raise such issues by means of visual protest, but acceptable to tell the entire nation in newspapers like Bruce’s that he impregnated his friend’s daughter? I’d rather someone drew fictional naked pictures of me than made my actual private transgressions into international news. Whose hypocritical ethical yardstick are we being forced to use here?