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On our last birthday my dear brother and I were out to dinner with our parents. Simon is a fan of controversy. He is a non-conformer. As often happens at our family gatherings we ended up discussing something deep and philosophical and just edgy enough to make my long-suffering mother roll her secretly conservative eyes. The topic of the conversation was: “If you could pick only one book for your child to read in her whole life, what would it be”. Typically, my brother announced that he wouldn’t choose the Bible. Shock! Horror! Fun stuff all ’round.

It’s an interesting question because it’s really a variation of the “which books have been the most influential on your life?” Often people subconsciously resort to name dropping when they are asked this question. We want people to be impressed by us. I think the new framing of the question might help us to avoid that.

So now I’m asking you! I’ll rephrase it to make it more interesting:

“If you had to choose the only three books that your child would read in their lifetimes, which would they be?” To avoid frustrating controversy, we will assume that your child is allowed to read the Torah or Bible or whatever in addition if she so chose.

What does it mean to be a white South African Christian living in the year 2009? For many people I know it means being tired of shame. Implied shame. Only gentlemen like Mr. Malema (ANC Youth-League leader) and his friends seem politically incorrect enough now to actually shove it in our faces, but the shame is pervasive. It lies behind every third newspaper headline. It sits in the eyes of the car-guard at the shopping center. It even pollutes our hearts while we worship in our multi-cultural churches. Shame – irrational and unfair and denied and stubborn as a wine stain on our whitewashed hearts.

I’m 27. Apartheid is an academic misadventure to me. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my fault! Sometimes I shake my fist at God for this shame. As if it was His fault.

Remember Daniel?

I used to wonder if Daniel felt this shame as he worked the endless ours in the service of the king who had destroyed his people? Who kept him as a highly educated slave? Who had castrated him? And I wondered if he fought the shame as he walked around the city feeling the eyes of the locals on him? Jew. Eunuch. Slave. I wondered if he shook his fist at God as he knelt down to pray. God had judged his people and delivered them into the hands of the enemy. Their sins had found them out. And Daniel was paying for the sins of the fathers with his very life.

No he didn’t. Daniel poured out his life in service, not to the king of Babylon, but to the King of Heaven. He sacrificed his royal bloodline and his right to marry and have children, and his right to be angry with God on the altar of worship.

Being a white South African Christian (or any Christian for that matter) means learning to lay down the injustices of the present and the past and the future and to fix our eyes on Him. In that gaze, there is no more shame.


    (NOTE: The parallel is not to be taken out of context – I am NOT comparing the ANC or black South Africans to the Babylonians or white South Africans with the people of Israel. The parallel exists only in the way I wish to respond like Daniel to the feelings of unjust shaming that I inherit as a white South African living in 2009)

Have you ever had one of those annoying conversations where someone asks you to try to define yourself without mentioning your job, your relationships, your abilities, your interests, or your appearance? It’s hard. We tend to always identify ourselves in terms of the other – “I am a husband” (in relation to my wife), or “I am a musician” (in relation to tone-deaf people, but not so much in relation to real musicians), or “I am a Child of God” (in relation more often to those who are ‘not a child of God’ than in relation to God Himself). This desire to distinguish ourselves is virtually unavoidable, but I believe it’s damaging on many levels.

For one thing, defining identity as in relation to the other almost always leads to some form of pride and/or persecution. We need not even go into the history of slavery, colonialism, apartheid or any such tragic realities. The insidious draw of nasty national pride is something every internet-using Springbok rugby supporter understands first hand. Who has not gone into a chat room or an online poker game and said, “Hey all you wallabies, kiss my green and gold butt! Tri-nations champions 2009, woohoo!!!”?…. Well maybe that’s just me. It’s worth noting though that virtually every nation has at some stage publicly voiced that secret “truth” that ‘we’ are just better than ‘them’. Consider:

    Cecil Rhodes on the British: “The British race is sound to the core and… dry rot and dust are strangers to it”

    Thomas Babington Macaulay on the English: “[we are] the greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw”

    The United States Journal 1845 on the US: “We, the American people, are the most independent, intellegent, moral, and happy people on the face of the Earth”

    Strabo on Europeans: “I must begin with Europe because it is both varied in form and admirably adapted by nature for the development of excellence in men and governments”

    South Africans at any large sporting event: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, We are the Champions, We are the Champions!”

Of course, as an English-speaking South African, I can laugh at this national sentiment a bit easier than most, feeling always a pilgrim, lost somewhere between the Isle of Wight and the Johannesburg Zoo. I can agree more easily than most with Dean W.R. Inge that “A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours”.

Who are we really?

Christians are citizens of another Kingdom too. And the lure of national (religious) pride there is as strong as in any other ‘nation’. We feel the same sort of ridiculous pride at Angus Buchan open-airs as we do at the Springbok rugby games. As if we had had something to do with being born South African… or being born again by His grace. In truth we have about as much right to be proud of being tall or having blue eyes. I reject this kind of identity in terms of the other. I will not sing with the Smalltown Poets: “Call me Christian”. I will not nod my head stupidly at the speakers at youth camps when they tell me “Your identity is that you are a child of God – nothing else matters”.

It’s not that I don’t value that adoption. It’s just that it can be a substitute. I spent years in the church nodding stupidly at altruisms that I didn’t understand and at the same time desperately trying to suppress the sinking feeling that I didn’t have a clue who I was. Identity is not an objective expression of relations between individuals. Identity is a subjective experience. I had just such an experience one day as I lay sobbing my eyes out and shaking my fist at God for abondoning me to my depression. I can hardly describe it in words, but I want you to understand that in one moment I was very aware of God’s nearness and love and in the next moment I was thoroughly aware of how mistaken I had been about everything in my life. I had a peace and a clarity that has never left me. I knew who I was.

And that is why I say that identity is an experience.

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, spare us, O Lord” – Teresa of Avila

As a teenager growing up in an evangelical church, I used to look foreward with great excitement to youth camps. They were the hilites of my year. I loved the worship. I loved the time with friends. I even loved the big religious lie that well-meaning speakers repeatedly fed their enthusiastic audience: “You can be happy, and sin-free if you can just make a stand today and then work at it”. It was a beautiful lie… one that gave me a warm, fuzzy hope for a few weeks. Like the promise of Santa Claus excites a 10-year old. You don’t have to believe it to love it.

But loving that lie for so long was one of the biggest mistakes of my young life. For a few weeks every year it gave me a dreamy hope. For the rest of the year it filled me with guilt. Unrelenting, life-draining guilt. Because I was not free of sin, and I was not free from depression. And I was certain that God was angry at me for it.

I came to believe that joy, instead of being a gift from God to undeserving sinners, was a challenge and a test from God to Christians. I knew that I should be full of joy and so I substituted the gift of God for a religious grin and a shrug of the shoulders. My depression depressed me but I felt too guilty to admit my struggle to anyone.

By the grace of God, my story has a happy ending: God miraculously delivered me from my depression. He fixed all the chemical imbalances in my brain and allowed me to experience a freedom I had not experienced in years. It was a miracle.

Miracles are not normal.

Many “sour-faced saints” have spent hours on their knees asking God for this miracle. They have lacked no faith. They have harboured no unconfessed sin or unforgiveness. Still, they remain unhealed and the irrational guilt and shame and confussion that they burden themselves with remains.

It is not God’s will for us to suffer from depression. But neither is it God’s perfect will for us to catch a cold, or lose a child through miscarriage, or suffer neglect or poverty. It is not even God’s perfect will for us to die. Yet we do.

Imperfections in this fallen world speak neither of God’s disinterest, nor of our lack of faith. They are a sign that the world is broken. For Christians, they are a reminder that we will someday be made whole. John writes of that Day in Revelation 22:1-5

    “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve Him. They will see His face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever”.

Until that day, there is no need for guilt. So take your meds and enjoy yourself and your family and your future. God bless!

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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