WE REALLY discover our calling in life when we choose to live for the purpose God created us for and to become the person and people he wanted us to be. Black consciousness has expressed the need for blacks to distance themselves from white liberals in churches and universities in order to be themselves and to be able to express themselves freely. They viewed “white liberals” as people with a sense of guilt or shame about their privileged position but who, nevertheless, continued to exercise power and control.
My experience of meeting black students at UCM and the Anglican Students’ Federation gatherings allowed me to hear firsthand the pain and oppression of black people in South Africa. This led me directly to the call to follow Jesus Christ as a radical disciple. What I quickly discovered was that radical discipleship always means being somehow out of step with institutional religion and its power structures. In South Africa, the temptation for white Christians was to escape into prayer and mainstream religion when we should have faced problems and taken action.
IF WE recognize Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6), we recognize him as the source of all truth, righteousness, and holiness. To live in the truth is to live as Jesus lived. To know Jesus and to follow him is to be changed in his likeness. This inner transformation leads directly to outer obedience and action. The two must go together. Both spirituality and activism are essential and indispensable elements of true Christian discipleship.
In South Africa this has long been a hallmark of the liberation struggle. Many of the greatest leaders of the liberation struggle were committed Christians, including Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Oliver and Adelaide Tambo. It is impossible to fully understand the history of the struggle for justice in South Africa without an understanding of the role of Christian leaders, individuals and organizations.
Certainly, the Christian Church has a great deal in its history that has actively supported and even directly caused the oppression of black people. But next to that is the story of leaders like Trevor Huddleston, Beyers Naudé, Desmond Tutu and many others, who stood up – often at great expense – for truth and justice.
The importance of maintaining a depth of Christian spirituality with radical activism and obedience was recognized by Desmond Tutu when he became Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.
Together with Reverend Francis Cull, the Archbishop established the Institute for Christian Spirituality, which was based in Bishopscourt, the Archbishop’s home in Cape Town. Denise Ackermann, a member of the Institute’s core team, describes Desmond Tutu’s justification for establishing it this way: “If we can only bring the clergy back to prayer, we will win the day.
Ackermann goes on to say that she did not believe for a moment that the Archbishop said that the clergy had given up on prayer: “What he had in mind was a lasting truth for the life of the Church. .
“During the turbulent times of the 1980s (and for that matter at all times) the Church was / is called to advocate for an alternative way of being a human community. While wave after wave of repression, fueled by states of emergency, was the order of the day in the 1980s, as the human dignity of people was trampled on by state forces, the Church, in as the body of Christ, has a prophetic witness to proclaim tolerance, love, justice and the affirmation of the inviolable worth and dignity of all. It required believers to draw deeply on their spiritual and moral resources.
“L’Arche, with unwavering wisdom, knew that the Church, to be up to her prophetic task, needed members capable of living creatively between the tension of vital public actions of protest against injustice. ‘on the one hand, and silent withdrawal times. for prayer, on the other ”(Denise M. Ackermann, excerpt from a conference given during the celebration of the 20 years of the Center, Stellenbosch, August 2007).
Archbishop TUTU understood the importance, especially for the clergy and Christian leaders, of both contemplation and the struggle for justice. These are two imperatives of the gospel. The church of every generation needs leaders and people who can creatively hold these two together in their own lives. This is what then becomes the contemplative combat.
Tutu and Cull also recognized the dangers of suing one and neglecting the other, as Ackermann puts it: “Both knew that burnout was too easily the lot of political and social activism. Both understood that the withdrawal into a privatized world of engaged spirituality was contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Both knew that activism can be initiated more easily than taking time to be with God.
“I believe that what l’Arche and Francis had in mind was to help the Church – its clergy and its laity – to find the balance between active participation in the cause of justice and the life of prayer. In other words, we had to engage in the endeavor of nurturing Christian spirituality in the life of the Church.
THE question many of us grapple with is, what does it mean to be firmly anchored in Christ at the center of our being and to live with integrity in the 21st century? In the life of Jesus himself, we see both a steady withdrawal into solitude and prayer – the contemplative dimension – and radical action to heal and save those who were suffering and oppressed. This led him directly to conflict and struggle, and his arrest, trial and death on a cross.
When I examine the issues of climate change, racism, poverty and inequality, and war, and reflect on the pressure many people face every day due to digital technology and the era of acceleration, it seems to me that there is much that we can learn, in the face of the challenges of our time, from the experience of those who have already passed through the heat of struggle and ordeal.
South Africa’s struggle for justice and liberation has much to teach us as we make our way through the enormous global challenges of living in the 21st century.
This is an abbreviated excerpt from The Contemplative Struggle: Radical Discipleship in a Shattered World – A Journey to South Africa by Ian Cowley, published by BRF at £ 8.99 (Church Times Bookstore £ 8.10); 978-0-85746-982-3.
Read a review of the book here.