UThixo O Phililayo: Living God

A Theological Essay from Prayerful Preparation

by Vuyani Vellem

True to our Reformed heritage, this reflection assumes that God can only be understood if we too as human beings understand ourselves. Essentially framed within the philosophy and ethics of Ubuntu—motho ke motho ka batho babang—our conversation, without suggesting that black African life is the criterion for Christianity provides the testimony of the Living God within the interstice of black African experience. Western Christianity castrated black Africans of their history and identity, incorrigibly and totally subjecting black African life to the spell and myth of the “white power structure.” The survival struggles for the restoration of Ubuntu, the performances of the oppressed obstinately holding on the knowledge of who they are, crack the husk of tyranny and reveal the Living God not as a noun, but a “verb.”

The first section of our reflection takes us through the search of those who are far away from our sight without whom our encounter with the Living God might be significantly opaque. We then briefly allude to the struggles of the gods, concluding with the cracking of the gods of empire in the art of survival for the restoration of Ubuntu.

Outside of sight, far away from sight
The wretched bodies, broken bodies, excruciated bodies, wasted black bodies, human beings out of sight, hidden away from us in times of empire, matter most if we seek to encounter the Living God. That God is revealed in the history of the struggle for liberation is one of the most saving lessons we should treasure whenever and wherever we participate in any conversation centred on God-talk. Without denying the centuries of the church’s discourse on social justice, God’s mystery of the preferential option for the poor “has swept some sections of the Christianity for some time now” (Tefsai 1996: 126) and indeed represents “a significant breakthrough in the history of the church” (Tefsai 1996:127).

This mystery of faith praxis among the wretched in the social and historical process of liberation remains an antithesis to a dominant understanding of the “ordering of creation”1 experienced as pushing the poor out of the sight of the wealthy, “their filthy outfits and dirty bodies” (Tefsai 1996:127) out of God’s worship and glory. In South Africa this experience of keeping the wretched out of sight resulted in one of the worst forms of religious fascism, racially justifying the total exclusion of black Africans virtually from the whole of life. This disdainful rejection of black life is traceable to the 1857 Dutch Reformed Synod’s decision to separate black and white in worship for “practical considerations” (Cf. De Gruchy and De Gruchy 2004: 7-9). The history of South Africa is virtually incomprehensible without faith contesting imperial and tyrannical forms of power virtually prone to life killing as apparent in the context of empire.

For example, the Union of South Africa in 1910, symbolizing the unity of Afrikaner farmers and the British merchants, is a quintessential text of the unity of gold, land dispossession, cultural and faith exclusion of the South African majority—this racial exclusion justified by faith. As Musa Dube aptly states, “Missionaries as Bible readers and their historical acts as performances that reflect the ethics of their texts and institutions” (2000:15) became part of the god of gold, land dispossession, cultural and epistemicide of the black African people. The encounter between the West and black African contexts remains a narrative of the encounter of gods. Mudimbe’s rendition of religion as performance explains this well: “Let us accept any religion, its rituals and theatricality as perceptual phenomena” (1997:2), “in reality performances referring to an external ‘something:’ an incredible transcending everyday practice and its obvious rationality, a Word signifying both revelation and salvation” (1997:5).2 This historical performance of religion, if we follow Eagleton’s caution, “…that theology cannot be limited to a narrowly defined religious sphere,” (1996:10) is intriguing. The most dangerous idols are concealed in what appears “religion-less,” outside religious and theological sight.

We have become aware of theologies that taught the church must not fiddle in politics, pie-in-the-sky theologies, yet paradoxically, secular performances and institutions remain truly related to the religious, if not truly religious. Against this dominant understanding of “the ordering of creation,” separating the secular from the religious, now the “ordering of creation by empire,” which ties together the whole of creation at the destruction of life, the mystery of the option for the poor inspires our search for “Where God is at work” (Boesak: 19-25). Reflecting on the theme: UThix O Philayo: Living God,3 the thought of three human beings who are trapped in the belly of the earth, somewhere in Barberton, a gold mining city located in the province of Mpumalanga in South Africa, refuses to fade away from one’s mind. Almost a month since Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyerende were trapped underground, the reality of the tragic conditions of black life in post-1994 South Africa remains shocking. The rescue mission had to be suspended due to a tremor, the breakdown of drilling machines and rock falls to mention but a few hindrances.

These human beings, who get lost from sight while at work, are experientially part of the millions who drown while crossing the Mediterranean from Africa in search of a better life, ostensibly on the “other” side of the coastal line. They are the same as those millions who had to flee Syria to seek refuge in Europe, those who die in Iraq, the landless in Bolivia, Guatemala, the farmers, indigenous peoples, Dalit and Palestinians throttled by savage occupation—indeed lives that matter while far from sight and our imaginations. Violence against women, incidentally: recent revelations within the United Nations about the UN Peacekeeping Forces that defile the bodies of powerless women, let alone millions of children scattered away from their families and homes, all speak to us about human beings out of sight, far away from our vision of life at the hands of the empire gods. Indeed what the secular world refers to as the struggle for survival, Cone in agreement with Eagleton above, says is what theology should refer to as God’s grace (1975: 2), and our task is to unmask the hidden “gods” of empire. Cone says:

In the larger “secular” black community, this perspective on life is often called the “art of survival;” but in the black Church, we call it the “grace of God.” It is called survival because it is a way of remaining physically alive in a situation of oppression without losing one’s dignity. We call it grace because we know it to be an unearned gift from him who is the giver of “every good and perfect gift” (1975:2).

I grew up in a gold mine city where the surviving migrants, dislocated from their families, constituted a large section of the congregation that shaped my faith journey in search of the Living God. In their dramatic and performative acts in the rendezvous of survival for life—when Ubuntu seemed to be far away from their lives— these miners seemingly danced their God, dancing their lives on God’s rendezvous of life with humanity and the whole of creation.

If Ubuntu broadly speaks about the integration and conviviality of life, among black Africans to be alive means life coram Deo—the dance and rhythms of life in the presence of God (Cf. Buthelezi 1987:96). The memory of melodious sounds of men singing and dancing is both marvellous and frightening as images of tribal wars equally accompanied by singing and dancing refuse to escape my mind. Leonardo Boff says:

The memory of the founder of the Christian community is dangerous and subversive. Its content is one of liberation, and therefore its message inevitably prioritizes the poor and the marginalized (1989:4)

Men and women out of sight, entangled somewhere deep underground, out of sight through the barrel of the gun, deeply entangled below, many layers down below and far away from our sight! Cone’s God of the oppressed must rightly be God the oppressed. Allan Boesak agrees: “Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues, is to ‘stand with God in the hour of God’s grieving’—that is ‘to be caught up in the way of Christ’” (2015:23).

The struggle of the “gods:” “Israel does not know what the ox knows…”
When the castration of creation, Ubuntu and life takes place while we do not know when the prayer of the far sighted and the vision of the broken holds faith “the way the earth holds the seed until it sprouts” (Boff 1987:97), the donkey will know:

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Isaiah1:1-3; NIV)

Israel does not know what the ox knows, even what the donkey knows. Israel does not understand. About “gods” John De Gruchy says:

The word “god” is a symbol for what we worship, for what is ultimately important in our lives. What separates people from one another in this regard is not that some people believe in a “god” and others do not. What separates people is their understanding of who their “god” is, how their “god” relates to them, what moral values derive from their “god,” and what all this means for them in their daily lives as individuals and as societies (1991:94).

Some of the works authored by South Africans who could be described as Reformed theologians are significant for this conversation by merely glancing at their titles.4 First, Boesak’s Black and Reformed (1984), suggests a number of things, one of which is the core question of black identity and its relationship with our Reformed heritage. By engaging this tradition, one cannot overlook the struggle for the identity of the black people and what the tradition itself did to black identity. Almost an inversion of the first text, John de Gruchy’s Liberating Reformed Theology (1991) ostensibly posits the identity of Reformed faith as the core issue to be disentangled or liberated from the epistemic distortions apparent within the historical narratives of black and white conflict. Khabela, in his Tiyo Soga: The Struggle of the Gods: A Study in Christianity and the African Culture (1996), presents a homogenic perspective of the first black ordained pastor in South Africa, Tiyo Soga, within the quandaries and contradictions of the Reformed faith’s embroilment in wars and the defeat of black people at the heavy hands of the British colonialists. At core is the issue of identity, verily, the cultural struggles of the black people against colonialism, conquest and Christianization as a struggle of the “gods.” From these works and many others, inter alia, one simple theme that vividly comes out is that the text of God and “gods” is not only written on paper, but on bodies, minds and the souls of these people. It is a performance of the religion of the Reformed faith and that of the survival struggles of black African people.

Cracking the husk of the “gods” of empire
The castration of the “gods” lies in Terry Eagleton’s dictum, namely that “God is more of a verb than a noun” (2009: 87). Yes the whole life of black Africans—Ubuntu— is a “verb” and knowing these “verbs” is to know the Living God and God’s castration of the “gods.” About these “verbs” of black life, Steve Biko says:

Black Consciousness therefore, takes cognisance of the deliberateness of God’s plan in creating black people black. It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life (2004:53).

The weeping and broken bodies of black Africans heard the voice that said to them “do not weep, your triumph is assured in your black ‘verbs’ of pride and efforts to crack and castrate the power of the gods among you!”

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

The rhythm, lyrics and the street liturgy of the masses of the students during the State of Emergency, elderly men and women, detentions without trial, deaths numerous and untold at the hands of the hit squads, almost every weekend townships filled with the reverberations of this subversive song became the “verbs” of the Living God:

Thula! Thula! Sizwe
UYehova wakho uzokungqobela!
Inkululeko, Zizoyithola

Quiet! Quiet! people
(Your God) Jehovah will gain victory for you
Liberation we shall achieve!
Deo Gloria is not a noun but a verb!

Un-concluding thoughts
When Ubuntu seems castrated and far away from sight, deep underneath the layers of human degradation, when the gods put God far away from sight, “verbs” of liberation reveal the Living God.

Biko, S 2004. I write what I like. 2004. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.
Boesak, A. 1977. Farewell to Innocence. A Social-Ethical Study of Black Theology and Black Power. Johannesburg: Raven.
Boesak, A. 1984. Black and Reformed. Johannesburg: Skotaville.
Boff, L. 1989. Faith on the Edge. San Francisco, New York: Harper and Row.
Buthelezi, M. 1987. “Salvation as Wholeness” in Parrat, J. A Reader in African Christian Theology. London: SPCK.
Cone, J.H. 1975. God of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury
De Gruchy, J. 1991. Liberating Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
De Gruchy, J.W. & De Gruchy, S. 2004. The Church Struggle in South Africa. London: SCM Press.
Khabela, M.G. 1996. Tiyo Soga. The Struggle of the Gods. A Study in Christianity and the African Culture. Alice: Lovedale.
Tefsai, Y . 1996. Liberation and Orthodoxy: The Promise and Failures of Interconfessional Dialogue. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.

1 I employ this well-known phrase in the Reformed world deliberately to signify what this tradition entailed as a whole in the experience of the black Africans, especially in South Africa.
2 For further clarity of my thoughts on this matter see, Vellem, VS ‘Spirituality of liberation: A conversation with African religiosity’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 70(1), Art. #2752, xx pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v70i1.2752
3 This is an isiXhosa translation for “Living God.” It is important.
4 It is not possible due to our limited space to provide a comprehensive review of these texts; however, their descriptive presentation here is authentic to their core arguments, a matter one could only achieve in producing another paper.