Social Justice and an Appetite for Beautiful Stories

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We don’t need to look too far to spot some kind of injustice in society. Just the other day, I spoke to a man working for the government in Mpumalanga (South Africa). Their health department is currently under administration. Instead of the R 120 per person allowed for departmental catering, one catering company asked R 500 per person…and they got paid!

I have started thinking about the way I (and other people) react to injustice, and whether I am really contributing by turning social injustice into social justice. In the social media culture that we live in, it’s so easy to comment on an injustice, go on with our own lives, and eventually forget about the issue altogether.

There are a few things I think we might consider if we really want to make an effective contribution:

  • Look for the plank in your own eye                                                                                                                                     It’s easy to curse the deeds of a criminal, but not always so easy to spot our own blind spots. The first step to becoming a voice against injustice, is remembering that we are all broken people and in need of a ton of grace. If we forget this, we are in danger of becoming self-righteous faultfinders.
  • Choose whether you want to curse the fruits, or find the root of a problem.                                                                      It’s quite straightforward to spot an injustice. That is the fruit. To spot the root of the problem (and even trying to do something about the root) is a different story. We can have something to say about violence against women and children, but to find a platform where we can influence the boys who might carry out what they have been exposed to in their families and communities, will take some more time, effort, intention and prayer.
  • Raise your prophetic voice wisely                                                                                                                                  When Jesus turned over the tables in the temple, the reason behind his anger was the greed of people, and the fact that some people were excluded. But according to John’s account, Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather before he responded. Making a whip takes time. While Jesus was working with the leather, he had enough time to think. I believe that by the time Jesus reacted, he had a clear idea of what he was going to do, and the words that would accompany his deeds. I regularly get convicted by the fact that my words should actually lead to change. Sometimes, words weigh much heavier when accompanied with intentional deeds.
  • Put your money and your body where your mouth is                                                                                                   Money talks. We all know the saying. When it comes to social injustice, as much as we need people to call a spade a spade, we also need people who will be able to use the spade; and some to buy the spades! In the community where I stay, a 25-year old chose to stand for councilor, because he had a vision to (amongst other things) invest in the lives of young people. Always be on the lookout for places where your time and/or your money will make a tangible difference. That’s being a proactive prophet.
  • Don’t forget to look out for beauty                                                                                                                                                                                              We hear many stories daily. The rhetoric of the majority of stories that we hear (especially in the media) is that the world is falling apart. But there are many beautiful and hopeful stories out there. We have to decide how hungry we are for these stories. They might be a bit more difficult to find, but when we develop a healthy appetite for hopeful stories, our view of the world, and of our calling as followers of Jesus will change dramatically.

Stewardship of More or Less

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About a week ago an informal settlement in Kya Sands, near Johannesburg, suffered a terrible blow when about 500 shacks caught fire. About 2000 people were left homeless. Unfortunately, because many shacks in informal settlements in South Africa are built very close to each other, occurrences like the recent fire in Kya Sands are quite common.

I met a man this week who started a Non-Profit Organization in Kya Sands. The aim of their organization is to give the children of this impoverished community a fair chance in life, by providing pre-school children a place of safety and development, where they are fed nutritious meals.

While this man was showing me their facilities, a young man walked past pushing a wheelbarrow. I asked him about the contents of the wheelbarrow. The few burnt steel objects were the only salvageable things left of his home after the fire. He lost everything. He was taking the steel to a scrap yard where he would use the money to start rebuilding his shack.

After hearing the story of this young man, I started wondering how I would have reacted if I had to lose everything. But to be honest, for those of us who are economically privileged, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever be in a situation where we lose everything. Most of us are insured. Most of us have some kind of medical aid. And even if we had to lose everything, I can think of many family members and friends who would lend (or even give) me money to start over again.

Maybe that is why Jesus didn’t have too many good things to say about the wealthy: the more we have, the less we realize that our very being depends on the providence of God. For a person with a healthy bank balance, it’s easy to say that you trust in God. But to trust in God when you don’t even have a bank account, is something totally different.

Another challenge for many economically privileged people, is that we isolate ourselves from the majority of the people around us. It’s easier to sleep sound at night when I claim not to be aware of the plight of many other people.

When I grew up, my idea of stewardship was something like this: whatever I own, I should look after properly. If God has “blessed” me to be able to drive a top of the range car, I have the responsibility to look after it. Maybe stewardship is something totally different. Stewardship reminds me to make the distinction between what I want and what I need.

May we not turn a blind eye to the needs of people around us. May we become responsible and thankful stewards.

To Braai or Not to Braai (with them), that is the Question…

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Many South Africans celebrated their heritage a few days ago. This national holiday is called Heritage Day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many people (children especially) refer to this day as National Braai Day.

National Braai Day is an initiative where South Africans are encouraged to gather around fires, celebrate the heritage of people from different cultures, languages and backgrounds, and of course, share our common heritage: the fact that South Africans know how to braai!

But I wonder how many South Africans actually stood around the fire with people who share a different heritage from their own?

I was invited to spend Heritage Day with a crazy mix of people…and meat! There had to be at least seven kinds of meat that we could choose from. Some of the people are working for the British High Commission in Pretoria, there was a lady from Colombian descent, there was another guy working for National Treasury, and there was a Pedi couple who own a restaurant in the inner city of Pretoria, to mention a few. I really enjoyed meeting people from such diverse backgrounds. If I had to invite people to my own braai, we would probably have been a much more uniform group of people.

I think we sometimes lack depth in relationships and knowledge about the people that share this country with us, because we don’t get to know people from diverse backgrounds on a social level. And because we don’t really know each other, we sometimes live with huge perceptions that we struggle to break down.

Jesus was a great cultural analyst, and he often nudged his people (the Jews) to think differently about difference. The Jews had a pretty bad story to tell when it came to their history with the Samaritans (and vice versa). They didn’t get along at all. But Jesus not only spoke to his people about the Samaritans; he also chose to break the cultural boundaries and engage with the Samaritans. I can only imagine the bad things many Jews had to say about Jesus’ way of thinking and doing.

Jesus didn’t forsake his own heritage. He attended the religious festivals, and he was a partaker of his culture. However, when his people adopted a culture that wasn’t on par with the Kingdom of God, he used his countercultural voice.

As followers of Christ, we have a shared heritage, regardless of where we come from. I also believe that our heritage as Jesus followers should weigh much heavier than our earthly heritage. And this is one of the reasons why I believe we are called to break boundaries, and to be willing to climb into the skins of people who are different from us.

The next time you think about inviting people over for a meal or a braai, try to ask yourself the following question: “How is God inviting me to cross boundaries?”.

A Story about Sibu and Sam

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Meet Sibu and Sam.

Sibu and Sam have been friends for as long as they can remember. Sibu’s parents were poor, and Sam’s were rich.
As a teenager, Sibu loved to listen to the stories that his grandfather would tell of his childhood. Sam would often try to lure Sibu out of these conversations. You see, Sam’s grandfather passed away long ago. And besides, he couldn’t really understand how all the time spent listening to old people would be beneficial to his future.

Sam was a very intelligent kid. Sibu not so much. But Sibu was an avid learner. He enjoyed gaining new insights. Sam made sure his marks were good enough so that he could further his studies. He saw school as a bit of a waste.

Sibu’s hard work paid off in the end. He received a bursary, finished his degree and started working his way up in a company. Sam also finished his degree. His father gave him a substantial amount of money to start his own business.

Sibu and Sam are successful. Sam makes a lot of money. But the people who work for his company aren’t really fond of him. They often feel like pawns in the game that Sam is playing. Sibu is a manager at a company. He isn’t earning loads of money. But the people that work with Sibu, love him. They feel like Sibu is imparting his knowledge into his team. Many are eager to learn from him.

How do we define success? Sibu and Sam are both successful, but success shouldn’t always be measured in numbers. For Sam, his success has come at a cost. Sam has built an empire, but he is a lonely man. Sibu may not have all the money in the world, but he is living a rich and meaningful life.
The relationship that Jesus modeled with his disciples reveals to us the good practices of learning, unlearning and relearning.

Go ask any successful leader, and they will tell you that we are never too old, too wise or too busy to learn. All of us need to intentionally tap into the wealth of knowledge, experience and life lessons of the people around us. Without this, we will end up like Sam.

Choose your circle of influence wisely. I have often made the mistake of listening to people that will only say what I want to hear. If your circle of influence always tells you that you are on the right track, and where there is conflict, you are not the one who needs to change, you have a bad circle of influence.

Without the willingness to learn and to listen to others, we have not yet earned the right for people to learn from us, and listen to our stories.

Watch Out for the Comparison Trap!

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I have always been a big rugby fan. I can recall some Saturdays where my brother, my father and I would watch rugby games from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening (I really wouldn’t recommend this to anyone!).

I loved playing rugby. But I wasn’t too good at it. After a game, the best advice that my family would give me was that I should try to look less like a ballerina when I run with the ball! When I was in the 5th grade, my rugby coach had a peculiar style of motivating his team. After every practice, he would target a different boy with the same line: “You are on thin ice, young man…thin ice…”. It worked like a charm! We won the league that year. All jokes aside, I don’t think our success had anything to do with his motivation or lack thereof. But people who work with people in this way, enforce the notion that we should always compare ourselves with others.

In the networks that I am a part of, I regularly rub shoulders with some pretty awesome people. People who embody the Kingdom of God in beautiful ways. People who have the craziest stories to tell. When I hear the stories that some people tell, sometimes it’s tempting not to start thinking: “You are on thin ice, young man…thin ice…” or “I wish I could be doing what she/he is doing…”

There is such a thin line between being inspired by others, and getting caught in the comparison trap.
Case in point: Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5). This husband and wife rubbed shoulders with a community that understood the value of sharing. People were selling some of their stuff and shared with their friends, so that everyone had enough, and no one had too much. Ananias and Sapphira also wanted to find the approval of the people. So they sold a piece of land and pretended to give all the money to their friends. But they kept some. They lost their lives because of this (scary stuff!).

The problem with the comparison trap is this: we focus too much on the things we should be doing (especially the things other people are nailing, but we are not). And we do not care enough about being the kind of person that God is forming us to become, and calling us to be for others.

People who get stuck in the comparison trap, struggle to be open and honest about who they are. If I hide my faults, my doubts and shortcomings at all cost, and only show people my nice (often fake) side, it’s likely that I will coax other people into the same trap. And so the toxic cycle continues.

Followers of Jesus are not supposed to be in the comparing business. We are in the business of inspiration. If our story, with all the cracks and bumps and bruises, serve to inspire people, then we can be grateful for that.

What happens when our Rules in Life starts weighing heavier than our Rule of Life?

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The world is mourning the loss of a legend. Most of us can recall a few movie scenes where Robin Williams captured our imagination.

But you don’t have to search very far to find some blogger or organization who felt the need to use his death as a reminder that Robin Williams is going straight to hell because of his suicide. It’s so unfortunate.

I have a rule of thumb for the way I view difficult issues: if I can’t speak out of my experience with real people, I’ll rather keep my beliefs to myself.

Many people who believe that people who commit suicide are going to hell, have never shared life with someone who is suffering from depression. Often, Christians who fight the hardest against homosexuality are people who have no relationship with a person who has been struggling with her/his sexuality for so many years.

We often do really well at figuring out the rights and wrongs of this world. And once we have determined the rules that we live by, come hell or high water, we will not seek to understand other people’s views or experiences.

I don’t think that we can really have a meaningful influence in the lives of people if we don’t make an intentional effort to try and climb into their skins. We will never be able to understand fully, but we can at least try.

It’s so easy to call the beggar on the street corner a lazy person. You see, once I’ve distinguished the flaw in his character, I have no responsibility to do anything other than calling him lazy.

A few weeks ago, many people in South Africa were talking about the students from Pretoria who dressed up as domestic workers for a 21st birthday. Some people were enraged, and called it outright racism. Others were laughing it off and saying that people will do anything to call everything racism these days.

Jonathan Jansen, rector at the University of the Free State, had the following to say on Facebook about the #Blackface issue: “I applaud the UP Management for taking a strong stand on blackface episode. The sad thing is that these kids probably wonder what all the fuss is about.”

I cannot agree more with Prof. Jansen. I am just a bit disillusioned after the whole incident. I don’t think many people’s minds have been changed. I hoped that people would have been given the opportunity to really listen to the views of people whose opinions differ from their own. That is the beauty of dialogue. Without true dialogue, we will never really help each other to climb into the skins of people whose ideas and ideologies differ so much from our own.

When our rules of life weigh heavier than the rule of life that we choose (the way we do life), we lose the ability make a connection with the lives of people.

A story about a lesson learnt from a security guard

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The other evening, I went to a place in the inner city of Pretoria with some of my friends, called Crossroads Coffee House. They have been involved with the homeless in the inner city for many years. I had a conversation with a man who was so grateful for a volunteer at Crossroads, who helped him to sort out his identification documents. But there was one particular conversation that really made me think about the attitude we sometimes have when it comes to our mission as God’s people.

I met a man who does security work. It just so happened that he was doing security work at a shopping mall in the community where I am staying. The first thing that bothered me, was the fact that this guy had a job, but he was still so poor that he came for a meal at a shelter. The other thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about, was the fact that I have probably walked past this guy many times before, but we had our first conversation in a liminal space.

Our visit to Crossroads exposed my own blind spot when it comes to God’s mission. I realized that I often function in outreach mode. When I was in outreach mode, only then was I willing to have a conversation with a security guard. When I’m functioning in the “real world”, not so much.

When we go on short-term mission trips, I am willing to go anywhere (mainly because I’m not driving around in my own car, I don’t have my wallet with me and I have a cheap phone with me). When I’m in the “real world”, I reason that responsible people should hang out in spaces where we are relatively safe.

A friend of mine was talking about intentionality the other evening. I was confronted with my own life, and the fact that I don’t always think about the world that I live in and the things I do in this world. I might have a desire to be a friend of outcasts, the poor and unimportant people in society, but if I pray that God will miraculously send these people to my doorstep, I might be praying for a very long time.

Jesus had a thing for moving in spaces where his contemporaries were not comfortable going. He didn’t do this because he wanted to be called the rebel of society; he moved where the need was.

I have once again been confronted with how God’s mission finds embodiment in my life. Are we going where the Spirit is working, or are we moving where we have become used to moving?