How are things looking with regards to church diversity in South Africa?
Meet Ben Ker, who has some thoughts around the church and their approach to unity in diversity. i am letting him use my space today to share some of those with you and he would love some engagement around them so please consider sharing some feedback:
In recent decades there has been a strong reaction against apartheid ideology in white South African churches. While apartheid ideology affirmed that ethnic groups should be separate because they are essentially different and that white people are superior, white churches (ones that have been started and largely led by white people) today hasten to affirm the opposite. They now assume that churches should be multi-ethnic, that everyone is essentially the same, and that everyone is equally valued before God.
As a white person living in South Africa I have been grappling with this past and the current responses to it, and am writing here to white Christians to share some of my thoughts and participate in the ongoing conversation around these issues. I have begun to think that the extreme post-apartheid shift away from racial difference has created an inability to see cultural difference, crippling the ability of the church to effectively work for reconciliation and unity in diversity. I believe that the efforts of white churches to this end are self-defeating because they assume Western standards as the basis of unity.
The Current Approach to Reconciliation and its Shortcomings
The current approach to reconciliation is well summed up in the following analogy I heard from a white person.
The church is like a piano – when each key is perfectly in tune with a tuner, they are perfectly in tune with each other. Christ is the tuner and we are the various keys. We have diversity, as we play different notes, but when we are united with Christ we are united together in harmony.
While containing some truth, this analogy disregards the reality of humans as cultural creatures. The way we relate to God and each other is through our cultures. Everyone is equal before God, but we are not all basically the same. Different cultural groups can inhabit very different worlds as they have different values, languages, ways of knowing, beliefs about how reality works, and ways of behaving in different situations.
While we Westerners speak about cultural diversity, we often display an ignorance of the actual differences between groups, assuming everyone is like us because our culture is dominant and rarely challenged. In fact, in my experience many Westerners do not think they have a culture – their culture is “just the way things are” or “the way things should be”.
For example, even in white churches which are racially diverse it is still assumed that Western practices are natural for everyone. Worship songs may be sung in some African languages, but they still use Western musical styles. Sermons are often very intellectual and draw exclusively on Western movies and books for illustrations. Dancing is rare and rather embarrassing. Churches are administered according to Western secular standards of efficiency and good governance. The list continues, from styles of prayer to what “socials” look like. I have seen that this often causes non-Western members I know to struggle to understand or relate to certain elements of church and feel uncomfortable and alienated. Unlike Westerners, they are made well aware of the features of their cultures as these are consistently marginalised and silenced.
I do not mean to demonise Western Christians. I am convinced most are unaware of these realities of cultural disparity and Western hegemony. Additionally, I am uncertain whether it is possible for there not to be a hegemonic culture in a community (as much as we may desire real equality because of our theological convictions). I cannot think of a community without one. The real question is how we respond to this fact. It surely challenges the above piano analogy, as it turns out that the Christ with whom we are called to be united tends to be the Christ of Western theological traditions and Western religious expressions in the English language. Again, I am not saying Western culture is illegitimate, but rather that trying to achieve genuine inter-cultural reconciliation using Western culture as the standard for unity is contradictory and self-defeating.
The Way Forward
Where does this leave us? It seems clear to me what the Christ-like approach should be. While people of African cultures may choose to adopt elements of Western culture, it is not loving to continue to let African cultures be marginalised and impose Western culture as the norm for Christians in our churches. This does not allow Africans to be fully human in white church spaces as they have to suppress their culture and learn to be competent in the Western language, theology, ways of worshipping etc. This repeats the injustice of racism, where whiteness is viewed as the Good that people of colour have to try to live up to. And it also reinforces the dominance of Western culture and the inferiority of African cultures.
The model Christ gives is the opposite of this human wisdom. He had all authority and all supremacy, yet “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8 NIV). This is the way forward for white churches and Western Christians in incarnational love. This requires meeting African Christians on their cultural terms instead of making them come to us on ours
I believe the key to this is learning the African languages of people who are in our communities or near them – we cannot expect to understand someone’s culture without a deep knowledge of their language. As long as we are using English we are confined to using Western concepts and categories that will not be able to convey how Africans understand their own cultures. We will continue to be ignorant of African culture and dismiss it when it goes against Western values and ways of thinking. But if we humbly meet Africans on their terms and their spaces, learning their languages and cultures, we can start to discover together with them how we can make space for their expression in white churches. When Africans can start to bring their whole selves into white spaces and participate as equals in church life there is the opportunity for real unity in real diversity.
However first we need to realise that the dominance of Western cultures tends to exclude Africans and convey the message that they are less valued, like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. We need to realise this is not merely symbolic but affects our ability to be reconciled with each other and conformed to the likeness of the Lord Jesus. We need to have the types of friendships with black people that allow us to hear honestly what their experiences are in white churches. And then, only out of love for our brothers and sisters, will we have the motivation to undertake the difficult and inconvenient journey of dethroning Western cultures and learning African languages in order to discover how God is at work in African cultures and through them wants to bless South Africa and the world.
If you would like to discuss this idea of church diversity or give feedback please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether this paper resonates with or contradicts your experiences and knowledge, I would like to hear your story.