To Change South Africa ‘Clean Your Room’
We may be overwhelmed by South Africa’s problems, but we cannot do nothing about it. And change, Fr Chris Townsend argues, begins at home, even and especially at the Christmas table.
This week is one of the big weeks in South Africa’s history. Whatever way things pan out at the ANC conference in Johannesburg, we know that we cannot go on as before. It would be just crazy to do so.
And this realisation is a great place to begin our Christmas celebrations.
The finalised Incarnation in the Nativity of Our Lord into a place and time — and with persons — means that the old had come to a full stop. It will lead the old order to a murder and then its dissolution.
Death of the Old Order
As we face a similar situation in South Africa, we need to be prepared for the long slog of confirming the death of the old order. The looting, the corruption, the criminality and the confusion—and the silence of the bishops as a collective — has to be left behind in order that the new possibility and potential is given space to become what we know God desires for us.
Without sounding like I’m making a pious plea, we need to be able to read these signs of the times with the Light of the Gospel and the story of a deeply vulnerable and deeply meaningful hope. Deeply vulnerable as only a small child can be, and fuelled by hope because we know that this story doesn’t end in the triumph of evil.
It’s with this hope-filled vulnerability that we are able to commit ourselves to the watchfulness of being a Christian. It also means that we are able to commit ourselves to the necessary work we are engaged in.
Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back
One of the greatest traps we can fall into in our spiritual, moral and social lives is that of being overwhelmed by the immensity of the task at hand, the demands on our charity, the fear for our families and relationships, and the potential of messing this up.
Just look at how young parents react to the birth of their first child — often with a real fear mixed with an overwhelming Joy. This is us: caught up with a real fear and a possibility to which we are called not just by ourselves and circumstances but especially by God
We cannot afford ourselves to be trapped by being overwhelmed, and nor can our country. Now is not the time for inertia.
A young family has to learn that while the baby is cute and lovely just to look at, it still needs feeding and changing. The young parents cannot be inert; looking after a baby and keeping it healthy requires a lot of work. In the same way, we cannot look at our country’s troubles and be inert, for inertia is ultimately not life-giving and serves no purpose — not ours nor God’s.
The Church is a Great Role Model
One of the marks of the Catholic Church in her engagement with the broader South African context is that we are a Church that just gets on with it. Be it the provision of education that would not be dictated to by the vagaries of the apartheid regime, or the need to respond to the HIV and Aids pandemic with the provision of anti-retroviral treatment, we are a church that is not cowed by the state or her messiness. We have knuckled down and got on with the task with dignity and honesty.
As we approach the Christmas season proper (not the crazy pseudo-Christmas of the retailers), we often have to face the messiness of our families and the often broken, unhealed, scarred nature of the reality of lives.
Cleaning Our Rooms
I’ve recently become aware of the work of the Canadian psychologist and social commentator Jordan B Pieterson. One of his focus themes is: “If you want to change the world, clean your room…”
I suggest that if we want to change our South African context, we begin around the Christmas table. We can’t work on sorting out an overwhelming situation in our country without sorting out the often much smaller, even pettier family issues.
Unlike the macro issues of the country, which are often out of our control, the scar-causing and reinforcing histories and relationships of family are within our grasp and we can make the small steps to incarnate a vulnerable hope into our Christmas spirituality.