Spiritual formation in the most unequal society in the world.

“Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind in Christ Jesus…” (Rom 12:1) 

The past July, the protest and looting in South Africa left many of us in the church bewildered, angry, terrified, or even burnt-out. Church leaders and members were called upon to deal with the emotional and physical trauma that many experienced over those days. Leaders had to manage new logistical challenges from getting church members to hospital to figuring out how to get food to those cut off from access to grocery stores. Some pastors I know have faced the tasks of preaching to congregations of both looters and the looted. It’s an extraordinary challenge. In the aftermath of these days, the question that both church leaders and members are still trying to sort out is — what do we do with all of this? How do we make sense of it, and what do we do now?

There have been many explanations given for what happened in these days of violence, but one thing is clear – those few days were not normal life. And perhaps it seems like what happens on an extraordinary day when you are worried that you are going to run out of bread or petrol, or you are terrified about your physical safety, is irrelevant to the Christian life. What you do when people are burning your nearest grocery store, what your gut instincts are about who you protect and who you don’t, who belongs and who is allowed through your barricade, who you are willing to hold a gun to defend (and who you are willing to shoot) — these questions are so far removed from our daily life that perhaps whatever actions we took in the midst of this chaos are excusable. Now that things have calmed down, we can move on with life.

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Spiritual Formation: Becoming like Christ

Dallas Willard, writing about spiritual formation and discipleship argues that while discipleship must engage our desires (what we love and long for) and our reflective will (our moral center, shaping our minds and thoughts around what is good and right), it also has to work its way into our embodied will. Most of my life is automatic. I don’t think about snapping in frustration at my child. In fact, when I stop and think, I don’t really want to be that sort of a mother. And yet it pops out automatically when I’m running late and he’s taking too long. This gut reaction is embodied will. 

Willard uses the example of Peter’s denial of Christ to illustrate our automatic responses. We know Peter doesn’t want to deny Christ. Peter says he’s willing to die for him (Matthew 26:35). And yet when he’s standing outside with people who are part of the group that are about to put Jesus to death and they ask him who he is with, Peter denies Christ. Not once, but three times. When his body was on the line, when the adrenaline and fear were rushing through his ears, he found his mouth saying, “I don’t know him. I don’t even know what you’re talking about” (Luke 22:54-62). It was extraordinary circumstances. And yet, Willard points out that in that extraordinary moment of fear, we see who Peter really is on the inside. Peter realizes this himself. His own reflection after the fact reveals to him what he’s really like, and he runs away weeping bitterly (Luke 22:62). 

We can’t deal with spiritual formation in abstractions. The question we must ask is not just, “how do I become someone who trusts God?” We must ask specifics. In the aftermath of these days, our questions must be things like:

If I am a desperately poor person no matter how many hours I work at my minimum wage job in the most unequal society in the world, if I have multiple dependents and the stress of health care, school fees, and grocery bills, how do I become a person who is so convinced of God’s provision and care that I am impervious to the people rushing past me to help themselves to free merchandise? How do I trust God in the face of chronic injustice? 

Or, 

If I am a white person who makes up 9.6% of the population of my country, but lives in neighborhoods, attends churches and schools that are 80% white, how do I become a person who is so convinced of God’s provision and my fellow black believer’s  worth in Christ that I believe their reports of racism and harassment at road blocks? How can I become someone who advocates for more inclusive security measures, even if it puts my own family at risk? How do I become a person who is capable of noticing the chronic injustice around me? How can be more sensitive to the wages I pay to employees rather than my own comfort? How can I be someone who considers the effects of where I “just so happen to live” in keeping me from hearing these stories in the first place, and whose instincts mimic Christ in all circumstances?  

The places where we put our bodies, where we find ourselves situated in a specific culture, geographic location, or racial group are exerting enormous pressure on us to conform to a standard way of being. Our automatic responses are shaped much more by who our neighbors are, how our parents acted, and the history we inhabit than by the truth of God’s word. The most unequal society in the world is shaping us, whether we want it to or not.

And it is shaping us differently. It shapes me as a white woman differently than it shapes a black man. That means if my church – whether it’s the mom’s group I attend, informal chats with my friends, or my Sunday morning gathering—  is going to truly help me enter into “processes through which people are inwardly transformed in such a way that the personality and deeds of Jesus Christ naturally flow out from them when and wherever they are”, as Willard says — then it’s going to have to address these identities and the force with which they are shaping me. As a white person. As a woman. As someone who lives in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal. 

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What did that week reveal about how are we being formed?

I feel afraid sometimes to talk about race. I’m a white person in South Africa who lives and moves in mostly white circles. I like to believe the story that 1994 changed South Africa, that we’re a true rainbow nation now.  As believers, it feels safer for me to just believe that since we all have the Holy Spirit, and our intentions are good when it comes to how we relate to the black people around us, that is the part that matters. There’s nothing much I can do about social injustice on a large scale, so if I’m kind to a person I meet at the shop or on the road, or at an occasional church meeting, that’s enough – I’m reconciled. 

But these past few weeks in my small town felt like a bandage over deep wounds had suddenly been ripped off. It became very clear that for all our talk about reconciliation and unity, that we are not reconciled.  Our gut instincts about who belongs and who is safe have much more to do with race than with our common identity in Christ. In fact, in my white town perhaps the reason we didn’t hear of racial harassment at roadblocks is not because it didn’t happen, but because we don’t even know people who are different than we are, and our view of reality was shaped by this.  

What was most heart-breaking to me was that even when confronted with the painful stories of black Christians who experienced harassment or discrimination during the week of the protests and food supply shortages, my fellow white Christians were much quicker to jump to the defense of the white security system than to acknowledge black pain. We were instantly held captive to stories on social media of angry black people from our neighboring community coming for us, and our fear justified any reactions or “safety measures” we took, whether these reports were actually true or not. We instantly believed stories of black threat, and held in suspicion stories of black pain. It was our friends, our husbands, our brothers on security teams. Maybe all problems could be traced to a bad apple on the team, but we didn’t jump to root them out immediately. We gave “our side” the benefit of the doubt, at the expense of our black neighbours. Our gut instincts were those of afraid, white people looking after ourselves, not of children of God. 

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The Gospel – The Narrative that Should be Forming Us

Ephesians 2 describes so clearly how God rescues us. We were dead in our sins, just following the passions of the flesh, when God in his rich mercy made us alive in Christ. We can’t boast about it. He did it. Why are we given this new identity as his children? Paul says we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2: 10). He then goes on to describe this new family of God that we have joined, a family where our identity as his children takes precedence over race or culture, Jew or Gentile.

 “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2: 19-21).

The church, united in holiness, walking in the good works of Christlikeness, brings God glory. 

The gospel that I am a sinner in need of saving by grace is universal. But the process by which I am conformed to the likeness of his son will look different for me than for someone else. Discipleship for a slave owner like Philemon looked different than discipleship for a runaway slave like Onesimus. What it meant for Zaccheus to follow Jesus was different than what it looked like for blind Bartemaus. I understand the fear of talking about collective identities like race in church. Perhaps especially for us white people, where individualism is so deeply entrenched in our worldview, we don’t want to be lumped together by a racial category. But what if these racial categories are impacting our lived experiences and shaping our realities? Then to ignore them is to stunt our spiritual growth. 

Through Christ’s death, resurrection, and indwelling of his Holy Spirit, the gospel invites me into community with God and with a whole world of Christians who will one day be worshipping around the throne (Rev 7:9).

In the most economically unequal society in the world with a history of race-based oppression, talking about race is not stirring the pot, it’s fundamental to our spiritual growth, and to our collective witness in a broken world. What would it mean if the next time the world around us started to burn, there was no question in my black neighbors mind about whether she belonged  in my community or not, because she knew her white brothers and sisters in Christ were her family? What a witness that would be to the transforming power of the gospel. 

If you’re interested in identity and spiritual formation, Emmanuel Katongone’s Mirror to the Church about the Rwandan genocide asks a lot of good questions.

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