Perhaps there is not much difference between churches that equate wealth with being blessed, and the phenomenon of wealthy older men (blessers) and materially desirous younger women (blessees). In both cases relationships are reduced to transactions, in which integrity and morality are traded for instant blessing with success and gratification. God gets re-made in our image and the God of the Bible, embodied in a suffering, compassionate and sharing Jesus, is dethroned.
Perhaps we should be less surprised as a society, because we have long equated wealth and prosperity with success and freedom. We idolise transactional relationships through affording them so much media space, and we idolise and emulate cult-like figures embodying instant gratification.
Even our most radical political leaders – and some high-profile Christian pastors – find convenient excuses for lifestyles that utterly betray their official political agendas and the crucified founder of the Christian movement they purportedly adhere to. We should perhaps cease our oversimplified critique – without ceasing to be vocal against racism and other -isms that dehumanise people or deconsecrate the earth – and make sure to engage the much deeper intersectional and even interracial complicity in turning God, and other human beings, into mere transactions.
In the Mail and Guardian of Friday 1 July 2016, an article by Pontsho Pilane was published in response to a sermon by Pastor André Olivier of Rivers Church. It surfaced critical themes to be considered by churches and theologians in South Africa today, and the debate it solicited should be welcomed. The article left me rather drained and emotionally conflicted, as it explored and nagged at the soul of my own faith and being.
It reported that André Olivier and his church were labelled racist by some observers, that some black church members took offence at the pastor’s sermon and made it go viral, and that other black members took offence at their church and pastor being labelled racist, facing insulting comments on social media for coming out in support of their pastor.
I felt the need to respond to the article, even if only as personal catharsis. However, trying to respond to all the different perspectives and nuances in it – and probably also the journalist’s interpretations of what the respondents said – would become a confusing labyrinth. So I decided to respond more or less in the form of a personal confession. So let me do that.
I am not a religious person. I, too, feel enslaved by institutional religion. But I love Jesus.
When Xola Skosana responds to the sermon of André Olivier of Rivers Church, I agree with much of Xola’s analysis of white and black Christianity. Marx probably rightly said that religion is opium to the people, when it silences their consciences, domesticates their anger away, and enslaves their aspirations for justice and freedom.
Any form of Christian expression that silences, domesticates and enslaves is, in my mind, not an expression of the liberating Jesus who came to share abundant life with all. It presents Christianity as a dangerously enslaving religious form, and something entirely different to what Jesus lived and died for. One can even say that it was the same kind of complicity between greed and bad power that killed Jesus.
Too often Jesus is killed again and again where the institutional church masks and perpetuates racism, subtly or overtly; and where greed, capitalist exploitation and personal self-enrichment at the cost of others are labelled “blessed”. In such instances god is at best a patriarchal, racist blesser, not to be misunderstood as the God whom one encounters in Jesus.
Having said that, I do not agree with all of Xola’s conclusions. When Xola says the God of the Bible was co-opted by the white church, I disagree. I disagree because God cannot be co-opted by anyone or anything, not even by white (or black) capital or black (or white) political power. At best we can try to make little gods in our image, and then equate such idols made in our image to the God of the Bible. People even start to believe that their little gods are the real thing and peddle a colonialist god as the God of the Bible. In South Africa a theology was constructed that was overseen by a separatist god of apartheid. Until we were caught out and unmasked.
The God-constructions of a large section of white Christianity are just that: constructions in their own image. The God-constructions of many black churches are just that: constructions of an escapist god who will transport us from this life’s suffering – like Elijah, in a fancy car – to heaven; a spirituality focused on a god that is powerless (without agency) and even unwilling (complicit) to transform realities on this side of heaven.
The God-constructions of prosperity churches that equate blessing with wealth are just that: constructions that conveniently suit members’ (white and black) aspirations of personal wealth and prosperity, causing all others who did not “make it” to be labelled “lazy”.
It is no longer just the self-proclaimed prosperity churches that turn God into a transaction. Many mainstream institutional churches, even those few who struggled against apartheid, have now abandoned the struggle against economic oppression, turning the church into a label to complete the package of “right” address, “right” brand car, “right” companion and, now also “right” church. In this process the Jesus who lived in close solidarity with lepers, outcast women and poor beggars, and who exorcised the temple from money-makers exploiting the poor and the stranger, is manoeuvred neatly out of the church to make space for an idol god.
Where I disagree with Xola is in my conviction that the God of the Bible is not the same God as the constructions I mentioned here. What we have to unmask is the false gods that are expressed in Christian forms perpetuating superiority and inferiority, capital and greed, bad power and oppression, arrogant and triumphalist religion. What we have to unmask is domesticated or domesticating theologies that have become the footstools of those with power and money. We should not discard the God of the Bible along with such oppressive forms of Christianity, but rather be vigilant in our naming and unmasking of the lie.
I do not agree with Xola, because my commitment to fight racism in myself and in society for as long as I live is because of the Jesus I encounter in the Bible. I am committed to work for social, economic, gender, child, political and spatial justice, because of the Biblical prophets and the Jesus of the Bible. I am committed to keep on discovering the Jesus before Christianity that Albert Nolan so eloquently wrote about. This Jesus is not the Jesus that Emperor Constantine co-opted in the year 312 CE, from which the institutional church is still struggling to recover until this day. So, in that sense, Xola is right.
The greedy, ungodly, predominantly white Christianity that colonized nations on the backs of black bodies, turning black people into slaves (in some cases in conjunction with greedy, ungodly black sellers), has nothing to offer the black, or any other, struggle. In Western Empires, Sampie Terreblanche gives a riveting and disturbing account of a colonialist Christianity accompanying colonial conquest.
Such a Christianity, still as pervasively present today and still occupying and enslaving white and black minds alike, needs to be unmasked and deconstructed. And yes, it needs to be decolonised, but I doubt whether that will be achieved through politicians marching on churches, or neocrusaders who are hell-bent on decolonising, say, Rivers Church. I doubt it because it is in the interest of too many – white and black – Christians to retain the status quo. It works for them.
I am more committed to support the prophetic remnant – that marginal group of alternative movements in the worldwide church that is committed to recover and follow the Jesus before Christianity, or that is excited about discovering and following Jesus post-Christendom. Where local expressions of the institutional church are honestly wrestling with decolonising and de-christianising itself to become more authentic in following the Jesus before Christianity, for example in South Africa today, that seems a worthwhile commitment to accompany and support.
What happens historically to the God of the Bible and the Jesus of the poor when replaced by the institutional church? This Jesus simply goes elsewhere, rising up in strange and obscure places, often through remnant movements, sometimes within the institutional church but very often on the margins of the church, as a thorn in its flesh, or even outside the church.
This Jesus and the movements representing Jesus before Christianity, or Jesus post-Christendom, do not usually come with much glitter or razzmatazz, but under the radar, in the form of humble servants. They mostly arise from below, from places of deep pain and suffering and disillusionment. They model creative collaboration in resisting oppressive powers, restoring human dignity, speaking healing into the fractures of society caused by rampant injustices, the abuse of power and unbridled greed. They work on the side of justice, exposing injustices, and ushering in signs of what could be. They are often misunderstood and discarded because they do not carry labels and do not choose to be with the “right” companions. Their companions are the ones André Olivier labels lazy because they have been systematically excluded from the tables of abundance. They might be marginal movements but they are all over. And sometimes they carry the seeds that can liberate the institutional church from its captivity to false gods.
Here, too, I disagree with Xola. He singles out Allan Boesak and Desmond Tutu for their attempts to construct a different God to the colonial, crusader god, almost suggesting that they have failed. I disagree. They echoed the God of the Bible who came in Jesus to set free the oppressed, give sight to the blind and announce the beginning of a new dispensation.
But most importantly, they were not alone; they were in the company of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador and Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru and Ivone Gebara of Brazil. They were in the company of Michael Lapsley in Cape Town, Beyers Naudé in Johannesburg and Takatso Mofokeng in Pretoria. They were in the company of Dorothee Sölle in Germany and James Cone in New York City. They were in the company of Ben Beltran in Manila and Theresa of Avila. They are in the company of millions of followers of Jesus worldwide – often poor and disenfranchised women, men and children – who daily resist, often at very high cost, the domestication of God into an idol of enslavement, instead seeking to follow the radical Jesus who was so radical that they had to kill him to silence him.
There is another church and another Jesus rising up in the slums of Kibera or Delhi or Guatemala City or Khayelitsha or Hillbrow – postcolonial and post-Christian – protesting death in all its forms. And it is wrestling with many others to dismantle systems of oppression, whilst opening up just spaces with equal and dignified tables. It might not happen tomorrow or next year. But the journey has started.
We should not discard this Jesus by making the same mistake of looking for a label. We should have eyes to see and ears to hear. There are many false gods, traded as the real thing, and there anything goes. But once Jesus pitches for real, to exorcise the church, to heal the lepers, to destroy the chains that oppress, and to be good news to the poor, we will not be able to miss it. It will change us.
Stephan de Beer is the director of the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria