Beauty in the Tensions: Reflections on a Trip to South Africa

There are few things I love more than visiting churches in other cultures and contexts and worshiping there with brothers and sisters in Christ, singing songs both familiar and foreign, often in languages I don’t understand. As far from home as I might physically be in those moments—whether across the country or across oceans—the corporate worship of God’s people grounds me in a deeper sense of “home.”

I was blessed to experience this on a recent trip to South Africa. In churches in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I worshiped alongside Christians of a variety of accents, skin colors, personalities, and histories. I was mostly unknown to them and they to me, and yet we were not strangers. We were family, singing songs like this in one voice:

Come, Holy Spirit, move among us. Come, Holy Spirit.
Flow, Living Water, flow within us. . .
Uthando, uthando
Lwakho, lwakho
Luyaphila, luyaphila (Your love is alive)
Umbuso umboso
Wakho, wakho
Uyaphila, uyaphila (Your kingdom is alive)

I had never heard the song before, but it was powerful to sing it—in English and Zulu—with a few hundreds saints I probably won’t see again this side of heaven.

Singing this song with the saints of Common Ground Church, I felt that pang of joyful longing C. S. Lewis described as sehnsucht, knowing that one day this ephemeral glimpse of heaven will become an eternal reality. One day the diversity of God’s people, from every nation, tribe, and tongue, will be together for good, bowing before the Lamb.

But for now we are here, in earthly space and time, situated in a particularity that matters (even if it is not ultimate). Though I could sing the worship songs and feel united to my South African brethren on a profound level, our respective cultural quirks remained. They didn’t understand my apathy about cricket and biltong, and I didn’t understand their apathy about basketball and drip coffee. I tried to explain President Trump to them, and they tried to explain South African political parties to me, but both subjects were too complex to grasp in the hours we had together.

Wherever I go in the world as a Christian, I am close to family.

It’s a strange thing, the body of Christ. We are shockingly global to the point that, wherever I go in the world as a Christian, I am close to family. Yet this family is full of members whose situations are incredibly diverse. We are a people whose homeland is ultimately elsewhere, but who are nevertheless placed in geography and culture now. We are a people whose destiny is ultimately eternal, but who are presently temporal, bound up in a history that involves us and relentlessly unfolds around us.

On my trip I observed the unique contours and complexities of space and time in the South African context. Here is some of what I learned.

Complexities of Space, Contested Land

The first 24 hours in South Africa gave us whiplash. On Sunday morning we worshiped in an upscale suburban Cape Town church—a multiethnic but majority white congregation with a coffee shop that served the best flat white I’ve ever had. Immediately after we went to another church service just a few miles away—but worlds apart. It was a new church plant in the Langa township, one of the oldest black African neighborhoods in Cape Town. There was no coffee shop at this small gathering in a ramshackle rented space. The worship was beautifully a cappella, and the pastor spoke—in a sermon that went back and forth between English and Xhosa—without amplification. Later that day we had lunch in Camps Bay, an affluent beach suburb, where we ate at a fancy restaurant with an ocean view. On the drive we passed the rubble of District Six, the infamous neighborhood where more than 60,000 non-white residents were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated in the 1970s under apartheid.

This is South Africa. It’s a country where—not unlike in my own home state of California—the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” is stark, bound up with generations of racial injustice and systemic oppression. Apartheid may have officially ended in the early 1990s, but its legacy is palpable everywhere you go in South Africa.

Apartheid may have officially ended in the early 1990s, but its legacy is palpable everywhere you go in South Africa.

One of the country’s pressing political debates concerns land reform. Under the policies of state-sponsored segregation and apartheid (and before that, colonialism), much land was taken from non-white South Africans. And 24 years removed from apartheid, the majority of this land still belongs to white people. There is broad agreement in South Africa that some form of land redistribution is necessary, but the question is how? Should white-owned land be expropriated with or without compensation? What lessons can be learned from the experience of Zimbabwe, whose government seizure of white-owned land 18 years ago led to weaker agricultural sector and general economic decline? Would land redistribution in an already volatile economy send South Africa back into recession?

Many black South Africans feel the pace of land reform has been too slow since 1994, when Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party set a goal of transferring 30 percent of white-owned land back to blacks by the year 2000. But in 2018, only about 10 percent of this land has been redistributed since apartheid’s end. Naturally, the issue feels urgent for black South Africans, who represent 80 percent of the nation’s population but own only 4 percent of the land, according to a recent government land audit. Meanwhile whites, who represent 10 percent of the population, own 72 percent of the land. This ongoing disparity—coupled with other factors like dangerously high rates of youth unemployment and fears of government corruption—have made land reform a combustible topic of debate.

Who owns the land? Whose South Africa is it? What does justice look like on this issue?

Within many churches in South Africa, blacks and whites worship and serve together but come to different conclusions on these questions. I witnessed this on my trip. I was with a group of pastors from Johannesburg—about half black and half white—on an overnight retreat. After dinner, the pastors had a long debate about land reform. It was passionate, heated at times, but charitable and respectful; it was clear these brothers loved and were for each other in spite of their differences. But it was also clear this topic touched nerves—and naturally so. Any talk of land is talk of ownership, connectedness to place. It is talk of home.

Listening to this and other conversations among Christians in South Africa, I was reminded that while God’s people are headed for a common home, we exist in an earthly home now. We can’t use the reality of our perfectly just future home to downplay or ignore the injustices of “home” now. We’re embodied beings, created to inhabit spaces, to cultivate the land. Land and home are aspects of how God created us to flourish, and seeking our neighbor’s flourishing in this area is one way we love as Christ commanded us to (Mark 12:31).

We can’t use the reality of our perfectly just future home to downplay or ignore the injustices of ‘home’ now.

Complexities of Time, Contested Narrative

One day we toured Robben Island, the Alcatraz-type landmark off the coast of Cape Town where political prisoners like Nelson Mandela were held for decades during the apartheid era. It was staggering to think about the amount of time Mandela spent in prison (27 years total, 18 on Robben Island) prior to becoming South Africa’s first black president. It was also staggering to think about how recently in history (mere decades ago) government-enforced racial segregation was still around.

Time is a funny thing in South Africa. On one hand, the ancient history of the place is palpable. Table Mountainthe striking geographical centerpiece of Cape Town—is one of the oldest mountains in the world. On the other hand, democracy is young, as are things like mixed-race schools and universities. Colonial influence (Dutch and British) is old, but African cultural influence is older.

Humans are storied people, embedded in time and history. But history is a contested thing. I saw this vividly in South Africa. European colonial influence is everywhere, in the architecture and language and cuisine, among other things. Some take pride it in it, but many resent it. The recent #RhodesMustFall student protest movement—centered around removing statues of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes—highlighted the latter desire to “decolonize” education in South Africa.

Time’s passage can be brutal. For some it goes too slowly, like in the “land reform is not happening fast enough” discussion. For others it goes too quickly, with rapid change leading to unhealthy nostalgia for the way things were. In every case, time marches objectively forward, not backward. But we can choose how we remember (or forget) the past. That’s why history curriculum in schools is such contested terrain. What little-known episodes in history, however painful, should no longer be hidden? Is there still a place for colonial monuments (similar to Confederate monuments in the American South) even if they conjure pain and feel oppressive? What responsibility do we have in the present to apologize for things that have happened in the past?

Like the land reform debates and “whose land?” question, “whose history?” questions are tense and complex in South Africa.

For Christians—people of the resurrection whose ultimate horizon is hope—it might be easy to focus on the promised future and downplay the painful past. But however right our eschatological orientation may be, as we look toward our eternal inheritance, it shouldn’t lead us to absolve ourselves of the difficulties raised by the past and encountered in the present. We shouldn’t say “can’t we just move on?” and expect the injustices of history to resolve themselves with the magic of time.

We’re embedded in time—as place—for a reason. It’s on us to embrace the specificity of where and what God has called us to, however challenging it is. I met one white pastor in Johannesburg who joked that he sometimes envies the non-Christians around him who just live their lives, enjoying watching rugby and drinking beer, unburdened by thorny questions of social justice and racial reconciliation. But as a Christ-follower, this pastor said, he cannot not care.

We’re embedded in time—and place—for a reason. It’s on us to embrace the specificity of where and what God has called us to, however challenging it is.

Throughout my time in South Africa I was encouraged to see that churches were leading the way in reconciliation and justice. Whether by starting a nonprofit that partners with the Cape Town government on education and job-readiness programs, running a clinic out of a church that offers accessible health care and counseling to the poor, or working with schools to promote literacy, the South African churches I saw were creatively striving to serve the specific needs of their contexts.

God in his sovereignty places us each in a “here” and “now” that comes with complicated baggage. It’s baggage we shouldn’t avoid as we pack our proverbial bags for the eschaton. It’s baggage that brings texture and tension and beautiful specificity to life. It’s a specificity that makes living together in our differences a challenge, yes. But it’s a challenge worth taking, for as we honor each other’s unique createdness, we glorify our Creator God.

Everything Holds Together

Amid every complexity of life and every tension in which no single answer suffices, one reliable source of sanity is this: Look to God. Worship him.

During my time in South Africa I read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous work of literature from and about South Africa. I was struck by how often the book’s characters look to God (Paton was a devout Christian whose faith inspired his anti-apartheid activism), crying out to him amid unspeakable pain and injustice.

Riffing on the South African anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Save Africa”) at one point in the book, Paton writes:

Yes, God save Africa, the beloved country. God save us from the deep depths of our sins. God save us from the fear that is afraid of justice. God save us from the fear that is afraid of men. God save us all.

God save us all indeed. As much as a globalized world, social media, and ubiquitous problems confront us and draw our gaze laterally, we mustn’t forsake the vertical orientation. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” the psalmist writes. “My help comes from the LORD.”

As much as a globalized world, social media, and ubiquitous problems confront us and draw our gaze laterally, we mustn’t forsake the vertical orientation.

The more we see of the world, the more it feels overwhelming. But God created it and holds it together. When in doubt or despair, link arms with the saints—however different you are from them—and declare this truth joyfully. I did it in Cape Town with a few hundred South African believers, belting out this song together:

Siyazithoba (We humble ourselves) Phambi kwaBaba (Before our Father)
Thina sithi (We say)
UyiNkosi yezulu (You are the King of heaven)
UnguMdali walomhlaba (You are Creator of this earth)
Ubusa phans’ naphezulu (You reign below and above)
Konke kumi ngawe Baba (Everything holds together in you, Father).

Indeed. In a world where everything falls apart, we proclaim with Paul and the saints throughout space and time: “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

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