I had the privilege of speaking briefly at the book launch of Another Country, by Dr Sharlene Swartz, a friend of mine, and this is some of what I said:
The Great Undoing
Restitution has a bad rap. Many years ago (2004) I was asked to do a session on Being Friends With Anyone – Building Cross Cultural Friendships at our church leaders conference, and my then pastor and I agreed that talking reconciliation without restitution was not the full picture, so I ended up doing a workshop on restitution – as being one of the keys to genuine reconciliation. In the workshop people kept referring to it as ‘retribution’ by mistake – which is the opposite concept.
I felt like I had stuck my hand in a hornet’s nest – and honestly, it was probably to some degree because of my lack of wisdom and limited and less developed view of restitution, but it was not only because of that – speaking about restitution often causes people’s defenses to rise, or shoulders to drop in a kind of hopelessness. People still confuse the term with retribution – I may be as bold as to say that retribution is what could happen if restitution does not.
My understanding of restitution is a very positive one – because I see it as part of ‘kingdom of God living’ and I have witnessed the wholeness that comes from living out righteousness in that aspect of our lives. And my hope for “Another Country’ is greater than my fear of losing things and privilege, (although that is a journey) … But restitution has not been met by many with wide open arms – on the contrary, as Sharlene points out in her book.
I realised recently that talking about restitution, without understanding and acknowledging white privilege, is where the message gets stuck in some circles. What helped me see was being in a Slavery Museum in Chicago in 2001 and seeing a display which helped me understand white privilege. It showed the potential wealth of an enslaved person had they been paid, even a low wage, for their work, as opposed to the free labour they were forced to provide. The disparate piles of inherited money spoke volumes to me. Thus began my journey of seeking more information and truth about the economics of our past.
Restitution is explained well in Another Country, and the stories speak the volumes those piles of money did to me visually. So, I won’t waste much time on the ‘What is Restitution?’ – although I will add a quick metaphor which has helped me understand. If you imagine a dam with a fence around it filled with water, and some people are given access keys to the dam, but the majority are not. This goes on for decades. The people with keys have full access to the water and build underground systems to water their gardens, and pipe water to their businesses for decades, they bottle it, sell it, store it. One day the fence is pulled down. Some who had access leave because they are used to having the only access and take the water they siphoned off with them. Some share their water channels and ideas about bottling water. Everyone now has access but some live too far from the dam, the underwater systems are in place – getting to the water is not easy. That is a simple and probably flawed metaphor, but it may be a helpful image of white privilege, and shows how important restitution is – not just of the water, but of all that came with it. White privilege and restitution are two sides of the same coin. Until we acknowledge white privilege, we will not feel the need for restitution.
Why the Church?
It is biblical: Restitution is a biblical concept, a God idea of making right things that are wrong, no matter who was personally involved in making it wrong. From the Old Testament to the New, the idea of Jubilee, of making things right, of redeeming, of restoration – is a theme, both overtly as in the story of Zacheus and others narratives.
Jesus said, Love your neighbour: The hugest motivating factor is that people are suffering because of our past. Our poverty is racialized because of our illegitimate system. When Jesus spoke of loving one’s neighbour, someone asked, but who is my neighbour? And he told the story of the Good Samaritan – a story of people who were historic enemies.
The Church is networked and connected: Networks are already there, albeit often divided. The channels are there. It is an amazing conduit for this significant work of God.
The South African Church can lead the way in this next struggle. And it is happening in pockets …
Where it is happening …
I have witnessed many beautiful acts of restitution by individuals … giving cars away, buying homes, changing wills; I have seen lives lived in countless restitutive ways. I have seen acts of restitution lead to friendship – in my friend offering to teach someone in my church to drive as he recognised that was a something he had learned from his father and linked to his privilege, and over the many driving lessons they became fast friends and are still friends today. When he replaced his car, he gave his still in good condition to his friend, naturally.
And I have seen friendship lead to acts of restitution – when a lady heard a friend’s life story which was one of dispossession and poverty through being forced off their land, she shared some of her inheritance in the form of a car and ongoing support.
It is life giving and enriching, and biblical, so why is this not common in SA at this time and why are we still having to convince people? Why is the church not leading the way in this, generally?
Why is this not common?
I think many people are waking up and ‘making right’ But given how many churches and Christians there are in South Africa, this is clearly not a huge enough issue on the church’s agenda.
I believe there are many reasons for this, some being:
The Western culture of individualism and an “it wasn’t me” culture, that is in direct opposition to the more African and majority world ideology of community and communal responsibility. And also, the striving for ‘false unity’, which is not unity at all and keeps the status quo in place. A column I used to write in a Christian magazine called ‘Burning Issues’ where I covered issues like restitution and reconciliation, was stopped years ago and the reason I was given was that they would rather focus on issues that bring unity and not division. I believe that is a false unity, as we are now coming to realise in fuller ways. Not dealing with the wounds of our nation has not, and is not helping. I think another huge obstacle and reason for defensiveness for many believers is the love of money. As the “root of all evil”, this may be a major stumbling block to those who have been privileged and are used to a certain way of living.
In the first half of 2016 I spent a lot of time reading about William Wilberforce, and reading more about the abolition of Slavery. I discovered something interesting. Wilberforce had a passion for personal piety laws too – gambling, drinking, etc. And pushed hard to get laws of personal piety through parliament – and it took a few months. The same parliament that took 40 years to pass laws that eventually lead to the end of the slave trade, and then slavery! It is easy to focus on issues of personal piety and ‘holiness’ (and that is what many or most churches stick to) but economic structures are a lot harder to tackle.
Money has a lot of power over humans.
To the Church …
If I had the ear of the Church for three minutes, I would say:
- Be outspoken about restitution and bring it to top of the agenda
Don’t be afraid to poke the ‘bear of money’ – it is the right thing to do and Jesus poked the same bear, telling someone to sell everything and give it to the poor because his riches would hold him back from true salvation. Look at church land and buildings. Assess assets and be public about giving back. It is crucial at this time. A friend of mine, Nkosivumile Gola reminds me that putting it at the top of the agenda is key — and then you figure out how to do it well. Make it a priority discussion as a start.
- Become less charitable and more justice focused for this time
Move away from charity – a universal truth is that charity is a good thing, but our contextual reality is that we need to talk about justice and equity for a season – a long one, I suspect. Our charity muscle is quite a lot stronger than our justice/righteousness muscle at present. Move towards justice. We need to ‘correct’ this imbalance and it will require focused attention for a time, as we have been so charity based for so long. St Augustine said, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
- Do not despise the prophets among you
I tweet about once a year and my annual tweet last week said, “Dear Church, do not despise the prophets – they may just be our salvation.” The prophetic ones pull back the smelly bandage to expose the festering wounds, and take the flack for it, mostly from the Church. Don’t vilify or just tolerate them – embrace them and listen to them, with open ears and hearts. The words they speak may be our ‘salvation’.
We are not a well people, but there is hope. Sharlene asks at the start of the book, is it too little too late? And says no, and I agree – there is hope, if we act intentionally and quickly.
We are in the midst of what I call the Great Undoing – and we need all the help we can get. This book is one of the tools I believe is a gift to us in this season to use to learn, to get others to engage, expand our thinking, get ideas together. To help us choose life, for us and our neighbours. We need to do the hard WORK of the Great Undoing.
My friend Siki Dlanga recently spoke at a church gathering and encouraged people to live Apartheid-reversing lifestyles – restitution is part of that. I like that and continue to ask, What does living an apartheid reversing life look like for me today?
One of my favourite quotes which is in the book: When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the next best time? Today! And I believe we have a chance to plant trees that will create greater shade for the young people of our nation, for the next generation ( as well as caring for the elder generation who got the rawest deal from South Africa). And I believe the Church can lead the way and cause. As Isaiah 58 promises, if we do this the light will rise in the darkness and our country to be like a well-watered garden …
For more about the book, Another Country, which is an excellent resource, click here.