A discussion note for South African Christians via SACLI
By Rev Edwin Arrison, 10 July 2020
A basic statement of faith is that all people are created in the image of God. And all people have God’s breath within us (Gen 1 and 2).
But what happens if, over hundreds of years, this image is denied within black people and a universal cry rings out “We can’t breathe!” At that point, black people affirm—without seeking the validation of others—that indeed BLACK LIVES MATTER. The cry of the people simply echoes the cry of God. That is why it can truly be called a “movement” and not simply a “moment”.
An inadequate response to this cry
One of the most common responses to the slogan BLACK LIVES MATTER (BLM) is that actually ALL LIVES MATTER (ALM). This is said with an unfortunate superiority that can be described as haughty.
A counter-response to that has then been: OK, if it is true that ALL LIVES MATTER, why do you think has it become necessary to say that BLACK LIVES MATTER?
Because, if indeed all lives mattered and mattered equally, there would have been no need to now say and emphasise that BLACK LIVES MATTER.
A uniquely Christian process
From a uniquely Christian perspective, It might be that in order to get to the ideal that we all agree upon (where ALL LIVES do indeed MATTER and matter equally), all Christians have to pass through a phase where you affirm: BLACK LIVES MATTER. This would be similar to saying: you can only truly reach the empty grave of Easter if you pass through the pain of GOOD FRIDAY. But if you arrive with me at the empty grave without having been with me at the cross, then my alleluia and your alleluia will be different. “It’s a cold and its a broken alleluia” (Cohen).
Special attentiveness and presence
Being fully there when someone expresses pain and not trying to impose your pain, compare your and others pain in that particular situation, requires a special awareness, attentiveness and presence on the part of the listener. This special awareness, attentiveness and presence becomes MORE important if the listener is part of a group who were/are responsible for the pain of the one expressing the pain.You do not have to be the actual perpetrator of the pain. For example: If a woman says MEN ARE TRASH she is expressing a pain that all men have to listen to and take responsibility for even if as an individual you do not encourage such behaviour. Without knowing it, you may be encouraging a rape culture and patriarchy through unconscious actions and it is important that this be brought to your consciousness. Only those who experience the pain can lead you to it.
Context, context, context
In South Africa, this discussion takes on a special poignancy. From a black perspective, white people should simply say BLACK LIVES MATTER. No qualification, no explanation, no ifs, no buts, no nothing. Why? This is because of more than 300 years of colonialism, slavery and apartheid where the dignity of the black person was systematically trampled underfoot. Any “whataboutism” in this context is not only irritating, but also grossly insensitive.
White role models
White people do have role models to guide them through this: think of Beyers and Ilse Naude, Albert Nolan, even Helen Suzman. But there are many, many, more and perhaps what these white South Africans did and wrote should be highlighted more. How many white South Africans know Helen Joseph? Or Michael Lapsley? Or Albie Sachs or Denis Goldberg or Bram Fischer or David Russell? Russell in particular was one of Steve Biko’s key interlocutors and it is even said that David Russell spoke a deeper Xhosa than some Xhosas! The point is that there are no lack of white role models but these must be taught in the homes and schools and be made culturally “cool” so that children and young people wear T shirts with their faces and slogans on. By doing this, the values that these great South Africans carried within themselves will be passed on to the next generation of white South Africans. Otherwise we are simply abandoning a generation of young white South Africans to other cultural slogans and practices that are less than edifying or wholesome.
By saying “FARMERS LIVES MATTER” (something we all agree with in any case) you are centering legitimate pain into another painful context. By de-centering black pain you therefore repeat what has been happening over many many years: black people’s pain have not simply been ignored but has gone mainly unacknowledged.
Healing: hurt people hurt people
It has been said that “hurt people hurt people”. Unless black pain is fully acknowledged and brought to Christ for healing, the kind of violence we are seeing in our society will simply continue. Acknowledging black pain, besides everything else, is therefore a powerful healing movement in our society. If it is dealt with in a way that takes our particular context seriously (and this cannot be faked but can only be done authentically) then South Africa can heal.
Are we asking too much of white South Africans?
It has often been said that the forgiveness and ubuntu displayed by black South Africans has not been met by an equal amount of white magnanimity. It might be that white people ask: what is the equivalent of “ubuntu”? Over the years, my answer has been this one composite word: SAMEHORIGHEID. It is a beautiful word because it expresses two things: ons hoor saam (we hear together) en ons hoort saam (we belong together). In that sense, it brings together the ideas of indaba and ubuntu.
Could this word bind together all our efforts while we firmly proclaim: BLACK LIVES MATTER? So that we truly move to a point where ALL LIVES MATTER.