How to be the Church in an unjust economy | Part 1

Much has been made, more recently of the significance of systemic injustice and common-place unspoken privilege as it relates to those considered on the fringes or margins of society.

Even 5-10 years ago I remember a common optimism that we lived in a progressive and tolerant society, that the intolerances and systemic injustices of slavery, gender and culture were issues overcome in our recent past. In history classes we would read about the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, women’s right to vote and the abolishment of slavery with a sense of optimism that these ills has been conquered and overcome.

In the last 5-10 years though increased awareness has been raised there are more people bought and sold today than ever before in history, that women continue to feel excluded from competing for positions of power and people of colour experience themselves marginalised and discriminated against. In light of these awarenesses the romantic idea of progress has faded.

The reality today is that if you are white, male and educated (like I am) in most parts of the world, you have more opportunity and freedom than the majority of the population experience. Ironically because of these opportunities and freedoms we are also the least aware of the invisible boundary lines and glass ceilings the rest of the world’s population encounter on a daily basis.

On top of this, because of the radically individualistic lens our culture operates with, we are sure that if we don’t feel we have discrimination or bias, and no one we meet admits to having it, then it can’t exist. This blinds us to seeing how our collective unspoken and unreflected-on bias’ create the cultural conditions for there to be great levels of injustice and at the same time a society-wide denial of the causes of this injustice.

My role and motivation for being in South Africa connects me in friendship with many people and communities that were on the receiving end of the apartheid system of segregation and oppression. As a white european male it has been an enriching and often horrifying eye opener to both the subtle and overt oppressions that exist both here in South Africa and globally on the basis of race and gender.

One of the hangovers of South Africa’s history and the impact of colonialism more globally means that speaking english is a basic requirement to enter into participation in the economy and to find employment. This creates a tension for us, as Christians we believe that there are aspect of all cultures which represent the beauty and glory of God, even aspects that are crucial to be retained for the benefit and witness of the global body of Christ.

At the same time, for people to become upwardly mobile in an economy and relieve the impact of poverty, they must become skilled in ways that help them participate in the surrounding economy. The economy as a system has little respect for the background of it’s participants and it’s rules and whims are created by those who hold power. For better or worse, those who hold power, or at least those who set the game up in history valued a homogeny or sameness to exist to create a well-oiled system.

While we are motivated to see people be liberated from the oppressive bonds of poverty, it can often seem like they are exchanging one bondage for another when systems of education and economic participation encourage them to be stripped of cultural and linguistic heritages simply in order to progress.

As I have written before on this blog, the goal of homogenising culture is the pride of babel and God’s envisioned future is one where all gather in unity but in their diversity at the end of time, praising God in their tongues and tribes. So this creates a tension; we have a kingdom impulse to help see people economically uplifted from poverty, but also a kingdom impulse to see culture and language honoured and redeemed.

Many studies have shown that humans have an innate lack of ability to live in tension and will resolve and simplify if at all possible, but the cost of resolving this tension is great. On one hand the kingdom impulse adopts the economy’s pragmatic value to become a good economic worker bee, the other option is to value the distinctness of culture and opt-out of the surrounding systems of society. It can feel like we either have to assume the economy’s values wholesale or opt out from society more generally. Neither of which seems like a solidly kingdom option for the here and now.

Part II will be posted here next week.

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