(This article was first published on the Hope City Presbyterian website on 25 February 2016)
Unless you’re hiding under a rock you’ve probably seen some sort of media coverage of the racial tensions and violence at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State. You’ve seen scenes of hatred, frustration, aggression, and deliberate racial violence. You’ve probably also seen a lot of polarising commentary. The poles feel like they’ve tragically moved even further apart this week. For me this week has been a source of immense grief combined with a sense of helplessness. A little ray of light broke out on Tuesday when in the midst of rival protesting groups at the University of Pretoria, another group of students began to pray. On appearance the group seemed sincere, and, even better, multi-racial. I have not seen any reports that detail what they were praying for (I can guess of course), but it surely can’t be a bad thing if one of our chief responses, as Christians, to such tensions is prayer. Not only is it not a bad thing, it is absolutely essential, and any approach to addressing tensions in the current situation that is not founded in prayer is deeply misguided.
By yesterday afternoon images of that prayer meeting were circulating around social media with great approval (read “likes”). It seemed to buoy everyone, across race lines. It was accompanied by several slogans and hashtags, one of which was #colourblind. It’s a concept we’ve heard before; a sentiment of desire for an ideal world with ideal social relations, in spite of skin tone. But it’s not a sentiment I can share at the moment, nor do I think we should share it. Let me try and explain.
Colour-blindness has many faces in current rhetoric. Its more sophisticated name is non-racialism; its less sophisticated name is rainbowism. At its core, non-racialism advocates for a society to emerge where race no longer factors into the social and economic dynamics of the lived experiences of all people in that society. Its premise is that if we think and behave in non-racial categories now, one day we’ll wake up and find that we actually live in a non-racial society. It sounds good right? Something we should all get on board with? So why can’t I?
I can’t because I can’t live a lie – I can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter, that I don’t see it, and that it doesn’t colour almost all our social and economic interactions in this country. And until that reality is confronted colour-blindness is a delusional pipedream that will not bring racial and economic justice to the oppressed. In fact worse than a delusional pipedream, it is a blatant insult to, and form of ideological violence against black people. When the world already works according to your agenda then it’s easy to be colour-blind, it costs you nothing, it brings you no discomfort. And it is an undeniable fact that our Western world, and everywhere that world has reached (through various forms of colonialism), is set to support and further the agenda of whiteness. This is not disputable, folks. There are mountains of academic research and thought to back this up. I, as a white, heterosexual, male am the pinnacle of aspiration. To be like me is to make it in life. So of course I can be colour-blind, it’s easy not to see black, because it’s not my lived experience. But it’s near impossible for a black person to be colour-blind, because almost everything he or she does is coloured by the colour of their skin.
We Live in Different Worlds
Let me give you a simple example of what I mean. I can declare my colour-blindness, and my umXhosa friend can stand with me and declare colour-blindness too. We can link arms, take photos, post them on Facebook, and make everyone feel better. Tonight we can both take a walk up the street next to my apartment in Green Point. If I walk up that street alone, dressed casually, and cast a glance at a fancy sound system in a parked car, and I’m observed by a resident, I probably won’t see the incident reported on the neighbourhood Facebook group tomorrow. If my umXhosa friend does exactly the same thing that I do (EXACTLY THE SAME), and is seen by a resident, he will in all likelihood see a post on the same group racially profiling him, warning us about suspicious behaviour, and calling on us all to be vigilant. We live in different worlds! Colour-blindness wants to pretend that we don’t. I can’t pretend. To pretend is morally problematic, delusional, and deeply insulting. It’s dehumanising.
So as Christians what do we do with our theology that says, “We’re all one in Christ”? How do we reconcile that with this dilemma? The apostle Paul clearly states in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He cuts across racial, class, and gender boundaries in that declaration. It sure sounds a bit like colour-blindness doesn’t it?
Well no, not really. First of all there’s nothing in this text, or any other text in the New Testament, that indicates that equality and diversity are mutually exclusive. Beauty does not equal sameness. Secondly, what’s being spoken about here is an identity, to be willingly adopted and shared by Christians. It’s a call that Christians embrace, to share a new familial identity in Christ with other Christians, regardless of race, culture, class, or gender. It’s not a statement about lived experiences. It’s call to a common commitment, a common obligation. It’s a recognition that from God’s point of view, not humanity’s, all people are fundamentally equal in the gospel. It’s not a call to ignore humanity’s faulty assessment of human relations, nor the systems that humans build to prop up those faulty assessments. It is most certainly a call to overturn, deconstruct, and break down those assessments and their accompanying systems.
It’s a spiritual reality that needs to be applied to your lived reality. Colour-blindness, non-racialism, rainbowism, whatever you want to call it, does not aid us in our ability to apply this spiritual reality to our lived experience, because it papers over the cracks. You can’t fix the cracks if you’re not seeing them clearly. As one twitter commentator put it, “Basically rainbowism is like trying to cover up a stench by spraying nauseatingly sweet perfume without removing the putrid heap.”
I firmly believe that the Christian gospel has resources to help us clean out the putrid heap. Justice, of many varieties, is a key concept in the Bible and it is a key component of Christian corporate holiness. Holiness has for too long been relegated to the realm of a couple of “naughty things” you don’t do. But that is an impoverished view of holiness. Holiness is about what you do do to humanise, to break down barriers, to include, to dignify. We spend a lot of time talking reconciliation, but I wonder if reconciliation would not become the more natural end if we spent more time talking about racial and economic justice, incurring cost and discomfort for the sake of the poor and the marginalized. If justice rolled down like a river in our participation in this country, wouldn’t reconciliation be the sea at the end?
Classical Christian doctrine teaches that Christ satisfied the eternal justice of God at the cross and as result he will one day usher in a kingdom where injustice will no longer exist, the New Heavens and the New Earth. If that is where the world is heading, if that is part of the kingdom I am signing up for as a Christian, then how can I not give myself to working for justice in the present. The kingdom is not here yet in it’s fulness, and so I think colour-blindness is a mistake, relationally and theologically. But justice is coming, it is going to roll down like a river (Amos 5:24) and so I best live in light of that coming reality.
A Meaningless Palliative:
I’m glad those students prayed. I’m glad we all saw the prayer as a good thing. But I share the sentiments of Craig Stewart when he writes, “The students (praying) in the circle are doing a brave and courageous thing. But it will be a meaningless palliative if we allow their actions to simply medicate our emotions without dealing with the underlying reality. If we do, if we allow ourselves to move too quickly past the pain then we will fail ourselves and this moment in our history. If we turn the perpetrators of this racist violence into extremists who are far from us, then we turn away from the cup of salvation that is being offered to us in this moment of pain.”
Colour-blindness, non-racialism is not the answer for our present occasion. Non-racism is the answer, economic justice is the answer, humanising is the answer. It’s hard work. It’s uncomfortable work, costly work. But it is work that Christ has prepared us for, and work that he will equip and empower us for. His willing body broken under the justice of his holy Father’s opposition to all sin is testament to his commitment to rid this world of injustice. It’s testament to his commitment to you in helping you to take up the call to justice.