One of the highlights with every cohort cycle we run at Isiphambano Centre for Biblical Justice is our final session where we invite the participants to engage in an exercise of what theologian Walter Brueggemann has called prophetic imagination.
Prophetic Imagination is the call to move beyond the world as it seems to the world as it might be. God’s vision for the world as it might be.1 The task of prophetic imagination is two-fold. Firstly to critique and expose the dominant powers thus creating among the “hearers” a profound dissatisfaction with the prevailing status quo or the “way things are”. Secondly, it is to energise, or stir to hope and action, the imagination of a different reality and vision for the world shaped by the vision and values of the Kingdom of God. 2
Over the next few weeks, Isiphambano will be publishing a number of these contributions. Read this piece challenging and inspiring piece “Imagine a City…” by Megan Chitsike.
Imagine a City…
One afternoon my children and I drove past a school where the students coming out and parents waiting were overwhelmingly white. Less than a kilometre away, on the same street, we drove past another school, where the students and parents were only black or coloured. My son noticed this and asked me why there was such a different picture outside these two schools, so close and yet so far.
Another day we went to collect something from a huge house in a wealthy suburb of Cape Town. When we arrived at the gate, an older black man met us and led us in to collect the items. I assumed (correctly) that he was the caretaker of the property, but on the way home my daughter said: “that man is so lucky to have such a big house and garden”. I was struck that her assumption was that the property belonged to him. And I felt ashamed about my assumption, even though it was correct.
This got me thinking about the kind of city I want my children to inherit, a city where a house like this could just as easily and as likely belong to a black man as to a white man. A city where two schools on the same street would not look so different. A city where suburbs are not still largely racially segregated by design and decision, even though laws have changed.
A city that doesn’t look like this:
I don’t want my children to inherit a city of such stark separation, extremes and injustices. A city where many live in dehumanising poverty, without proper housing and services, vulnerable to violence and crime, far from where they work and where their children can’t access good education. And where even the air they breathe is more polluted. While not far away, others live in comfort with big homes and gardens, well-maintained and secured streets, close to their workplaces and excellent schools, surrounded by green spaces and clean air. So close and yet so far. Imagine a city where spaces are shared, homes are opened and resources are pooled to change this picture? Imagine gardens being planted, houses being built, and streets being repaired so that all can flourish?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where so many have been unjustly deprived of their basic needs, dignity and humanity; while the excess of the few has been built on the lack and suffering of many. I don’t want my children to inherit a city where the privileged have also lost our humanity through living in bubbles of numbness and ignorance of the daily realities and hardships others endure. So close and yet so far. Imagine us acknowledging our privilege, and stepping out of our bubbles? Imagine us listening, lamenting and allowing ourselves to feel deeply disturbed about the way things are, instead of numb or overwhelmed or defensive? Imagine us reaching out and acting to change our neighbourhoods and city, not out of guilt or charity, but out of love and responsibility? Imagine.
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where two schools on the same road, or in neighbouring suburbs, present such a different picture, where in addition to the obvious outward difference in skin colour of the students and teachers, there are different class sizes; travel distances to school and quality of education. So close and yet so far. Imagine a city where schools are not neatly divided by race and class, and where excellent quality education, close to home, is available for all children? Imagine a city where all schools are safe, well-equipped and nurturing spaces? Imagine classrooms where children are taught to question the way things are and imagine the way things could be?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where schools that do have diverse student bodies are not truly inclusive and welcoming spaces for all students. A city where schools have hair rules designed for one hair type, or where black students need to shorten and simplify their names for teachers to be able to pronounce them. A city where an unofficial school matric dance takes place with only white students invited. Imagine a city where schools are diverse not only in numbers but in policies, practices, curriculum and culture? Imagine schools that actively seek to make students from all backgrounds and cultures feel welcomed and accepted, and not feel they need to change who they are to fit in?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where a newly-qualified black teacher is employed at an historically white school, white parents are filled with concern, and a child is overheard asking “is she even a real teacher?”. She leaves the school after being doubted, disrespected and scrutinised, while new white teachers are given respect, grace and the benefit of the doubt. So close and yet so far. Imagine parents treating that teacher with respect and support? Imagine parents encouraging schools to seek out and employ teachers of all races so that their children will have role models and authority figures that look different to them?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where a black man walks his dog in a mostly white suburb and residents believe the dog is stolen, or where a black person sitting in his car is either assumed to be an uber driver, or a potential criminal. A city where someone carrying his backpack and running to catch his transport for the long commute home after a hard day’s work, is suspected to be an escaping thief and has neighbourhood security sent to question and follow him. Imagine if his employers paid him a living wage and he could afford his own transport? Imagine he lived closer to his place of work and didn’t have such a long commute home? Imagine residents seeing him and being moved with compassion, rather than suspicion?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where domestic workers wake up at 4am for a long journey to work – walking, catching overcrowded trains, taxis and buses then walking some more. Where they spend their days looking after someone else’s children while their own are left to get themselves to overcrowded schools and play in dangerous streets. A city where there is little hope for a different life for their children, many of whom may end up as domestic workers too or sit at home unemployed and unable to access further education, while the children of their parents’ employers are enjoying gap years, further study and open doors into employment. So close and yet so far. Imagine a city where all employers truly cared for their domestic staff, paying them generously, and investing in their children’s futures? Imagine employers working to find solutions to the transport issues many face daily? Imagine children being given the opportunities their parents have been denied, from quality education to fulfilling employment?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where millions are spent on chasing away or arresting those who are homeless, rather than on finding long-term solutions for homelessness. A city that provides channels for its residents to report homeless people, rather than opportunities to uplift them. A city that only ‘works’ for the few in their leafy suburbs but does little to make life easier for the many living in poverty. A city where streets are well-maintained and lit in some suburbs and full of potholes and broken streetlights in others, where load-shedding lasts for the allotted time in affluent suburbs but goes on for days on end in others. A city where there are proportionally many more police officers available in wealthy suburbs with relatively little crime than there are in townships with daily murders. Imagine a city where more is spent on building sustainable and dignified housing for those who are homeless than on measures to remove them or legal action against them? Imagine a city where no one is homeless? Imagine a city where resources are allocated according to the population and needs of a suburb, and its historical lack of resources, not its influence and wealth? A city where all residents protest the poor service delivery in neglected suburbs, not just those affected? A city where all suburbs are spaces where people can thrive and flourish?
I don’t want my children to inherit a city where Sunday morning is the most “segregated hour of the week”*, and where churches are mostly filled with and led by people who look alike and have similar life experiences. Imagine a city filled with churches that reach across racial and neighbourhood divides to form beautifully diverse and welcoming congregations, who worship and pray together, but also share their lives and learn from each other, and where there are “no needy among them” (Acts 4:34)? Imagine churches that lament the realities and divides in our city, pray for God’s kingdom to come, and put those prayers into action? Imagine communities being connected and neighbourhoods being transformed by churches that reflect God’s heart and display his splendour (Isaiah 61:3)?
The city I want my children to inherit is a city where barriers are removed, gaps are closed and bubbles are burst. A city where bridges are built and hearts are changed. A city where our love for God overflows into love for our neighbours, not just in our own suburbs but in neighbouring suburbs too. A city where everyone can “build houses and dwell in them; plant vineyards and eat their fruit”, where most people won’t merely “build houses for others to inhabit, nor plant for others to eat”, and where everyone can fully enjoy the work of their hands, not labour in vain or bear children doomed to follow the same path (Isaiah 65:21-25). A city filled with peacemakers (shalom-makers), who seek and pursue the peace and well-being of the city and all who live in it (Jeremiah 29:7, Psalm 34:14). True peace, which is “not just the absence of tension, but the presence of justice”1, wholeness and flourishing of all. True peace, which can be found in and through the Prince of Peace, who himself is our peace (Isaiah 9:6, Ephesians 2:14).
Imagine a city where all can flourish and live in this peace as we wait for and look forward to the eternal, enduring city that is to come, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10, 13:14). In the meantime, may his kingdom come, may his will be done, in our city as it is in heaven.
And let it begin with me.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace (shalom):
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” – St Francis of Assisi