Through the hole in the hedge

“Any thoughts?”, asked a friend on facebook. On whether we should, instead of worshipping some system or trusting it to heal our land, rather focus on “fortifying people from the problems created by the systems that direct their lives and movement?” When she asked this, an article by Peter Bruce has already been stirring thoughts in my head for a few days and thus I answered it based on those initial thoughts. Perhaps not as accurately as I could but answered it nevertheless. Herein, Bruce suggests more effective economic measures and wealth redistribution as the door through which the problem of racism in South Africa could be fixed and a divided South Africa could enter a shared future. His vision of a South Africa with a growing economy and greater participation in it is desirable and the idea of it exciting. What excites me less, however, is that he starts off his article with a theological problem to which he appears to suggest an economic or materialist solution. Did he realise he was opening up a theological problem?

Hole in hedge_2He describes the impact things like the slave trade or wars can have on groups of people as it had on both black and white South Africans. How people think of themselves or others as commodities rather than human, or imprisoned rather than free. His focus is, however, more specifically on how slavery affected South Africans. Bruce considers slavery an unavoidable outcome of economic necessity and later states that “you cannot commercialise human beings you respect”. The logic, in short, appears to be that a purely economic system led to slavery which in turn led to the racist white (Western) mind suffering from a superiority complex with the abused black (African) mind as the inverse side of that same coin, and thus the obvious way out has to be: a purely economic solution. But did a belief system or an economic system cause people to commercialise other human beings? One does not simply begin selling people as commodities. What makes parents who struggle financially sell their own daughters as sex slaves in certain parts of the world today? A certain worldview or logical jump has to allow for people to be treated in that way.

Bruce presents practices based in dehumanised views of the other and ourselves – thinking of people as either lesser or more than human, animals or gods, belonging to animal-like or god-like cultures – as foundational to racist attitudes. He considers the system of slavery as problematic and acknowledges its influence on the psyche of all parties involved. I understand Bruce wrote his article for a financial publication and thus presents economic solutions to South Africa’s inequality problem but he does start from a problem in the theological sphere of personhood and identity, which in my opinion cannot be solved through a redistribution of resources and further class categorisations. It requires not an economic solution but a theological one. One found not by entering the door suggested above but through the ‘hole in the hedge’.

The question of personhood is always a theological one, shaped by the narrative in which we believe we exist, regardless of whether that narrative flows from a faith based in history or in the fiction created through our thoughts. We derive our understanding of who we are from our understanding of the divine. Could God be bought and sold? Does our God dominate their god? Are we ourselves gods? Are we all without gods? Are we all subject to and held accountable by the same laws based in the same Truth of the same God? Is God relational? Does God have volition? If God does wage war and conquer, by which means? How vulnerable is God in the face of opposition? If God is conquered, how does He respond? Is God just? Does He show mercy?

It requires a certain understanding of God and oneself to treat another person as something other than human. It requires a certain understanding of God and others to consider oneself as something other than human.

man brotherThe slogan coined by Josiah Wedgwood (ironically, the grandfather of Charles Darwin), “Am I not a man and a brother?”, played a critical role in the cause of abolishing slavery in Britain in the nineteenth century. This appeal asked the question “Am I not a fellow human being made in the image of God (man) and did Jesus Christ not die for the African just as He did for the European and people of all ethnicities (a brother)?”[1]. The same could be said of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appeal to the American people through her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was it simply because it appealed to the public conscience of that day or because there was no rational alternative to which the abolitionists could turn?

Without God there is no Truth, only perceptions and rationalisations. Without Truth all ideas are equal, people only as far as they are useful, convenient or necessary. Without the inequality of ideas, racism is a rational inclination which might inconvenience some while granting convenience to others. We cannot appeal to an authority but instead become authorities ourselves. Justice not based in God is justice based in him who best mimics God. Can such justice restore or will it be ever rectifying towards ‘heaven’ as it is proposed by the latest god? These heavens, Roger Scruton argues, are, despite noble intentions, too often much like the world dreamed up and imposed in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: places where the imperfect individual is replaced with the pure abstraction, where the human world is rewritten as though composed of forces, movements, classes and ideas, all moving in a stratosphere of historical necessity from which the messy realities have been excluded. These “good intentions can never be questioned since nobody knows what it would be like to achieve them”, states Jean-Francois Revel. Or as Joe Boot, speaking at a recent seminar I attended, mentioned (paraphrased): “social justice is a term often used but no one in a strictly secular world really knows what it looks like”.

I am, however, not completely correct in referring to Bruce’s response as non-theological. His response is not too dissimilar to that which flows from a secular humanist theology. Personhood is relativised along with Truth into individual expressions and desires. This is an unfortunate effect of ‘human rights’ no longer derived from God as source: people end up less or other than human. People are reduced to ethnic or cultural groupings, gender categorisations, economic classes and so forth. As most of us hold to some or other ‘doctrine of salvation’ for mankind, there is no longer one ‘true person’, or God, through whom salvation is found but we become ourselves the mythological gods of old, continually at war, looking to subject others to our divinity.

These wars are fought in the name of human rights and in pursuit of the ever elusive, very vague ‘progress’. Scruton recognises this consequence of secular humanism, calling it “the new secular religion of human rights” as it seems to “occupy the place vacated by faith and with it humans have become gods”. “It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights”. Immorality is thus that which infringes on perceived rights and the result of this religion of rights is that “people feel unendingly hard done by. We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it”. In the name of ‘reproductive’ or ‘women’s’ rights, for instance, we legally disallow persons to enter otherwise ‘free’ societies on a daily basis through abortion. This is quite evident in NARAL’s denunciation of Doritos for wrongly “humanising fetuses” in a recent Superbowl commercial. Everything becomes an injustice as these rights pull us apart from, instead of restoring us toward, one another. The solution is not sought in the pursuit of Truth and obedience to One greater than us but in the continual division of people into opposing groups and classes. Is this not also dehumanisation?

It appears that human relations and a commitment to clear thinking on personhood are not central in such pursuits towards progress. Trust in fallen human beings’ ability to meet face to face in a broken world to build systems from the ground up and create flourishing societies is weak or non-existent. We rather look to perfect systems, designed by the gods, to compensate for imperfect human relations and negotiations. Lacking a clear definition of personhood to strengthen human relations, materialist attempts to redistribute financial resources among people seems to depend on a redistribution of personhood among people categorised along different identities.

Steve Biko foresaw a South Africa in which “there shall be no minority… no majority; there shall just be people”, while President Nelson Mandela also spoke of a “people-centred society”. Is such a society attainable when personhood remains a largely undefined concept, not eternally fixed but always at the mercy of those in power? Is the creation of material equality helpful if the rich and poor are equally greedy, suffer from the same sense of entitlement, and have the same skewed views on personhood and neighbour?

Proposing a solution would mean appealing to Truth once again. Truth, not originating from among men but which became human, modelled what being human looks like, and calls all – those considered less and more than human – to become properly human. Truth, so primary and universal, it requires us to extend both our love and judgement across religious, ethnic and familial boundaries – yet, recognising the otherness of others, from this gracious Truth developed a social preference for “neighbourhood and mutual freedom rather than brotherhood and shared submission”[2].

I turn again to Scruton[3] and summarise his thoughts on escaping from the secular hole we dug ourselves into. He argues we return through the ‘hole in the hedge’, as proposed by the Psalmist (Ps. 100), rather than a door towards elusive progress:

‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves’. This sentence contains all theology. It reminds us of three truths: that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarised in a statement of identity, knowing God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God; that we did not create ourselves, nor the world in which we live; and finally, that God created us.

When we ask for the ‘why’ of the world – who we are and how we ought to live – we are not turning to scientific projects which answer the ‘how’ questions. We are seeking a point of view outside all time and change, from which we can view the world as a whole. Only God can obtain that point of view. Hence it is to Him that we must look for an answer.

The right course for ‘his people, and the sheep of his pasture’ who have strayed into the unknown territory, is to go back through the hole in the hedge. After a long history of human pride and arrogance that has sundered us from nature, we need to return. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are often sneered at. Yet, there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.

The psalmist charges us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude: ‘O go your way into His gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and speak good of His Name’. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well-being are not rights but gifts. A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth and that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them? Where there is no gratitude, there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise. Even in the midst of suffering we enjoy the free gift of life while we might not even have existed. God’s ‘everlasting mercy’ is not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct even through suffering and hardship. His commands are a great endowment of good will that only free beings can obey.

The psalmist concludes by telling us of God that ‘his truth endureth from generation to generation’. Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent – or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.

“Any thoughts?” Should we, instead of worshipping some system or trusting it to heal our land, rather focus on “fortifying people from the problems created by the systems that direct their lives and movement.”

 

Serv.

 

 

“Should we women [and surely we men can follow suit?] who belong to different racial groupings, not reach out to one another, make the journey to one another’s heart, so that our children and grandchildren may inherit a future of peace in this beautiful country of ours? Should we not seek opportunities to work together? Establishing proper starting points among a people, a multi-racial country, a miserable world, lies to a large extent in the hands of women. There are enough of us willing to do it because we are open to undertaking the longest journey, from heart to heart, person to person.” –Alba Bouwer speaking at a women’s gathering in Johannesburg, 1982

[1] The ‘image of God’ and ‘incarnation of Christ’ concepts thus guided their reasoning.

[2] Scruton R 2014. How to be a Conservative. Bloomsbury: London, UK.

[3] Scruton R 2005. Gentle Regrets: thoughts from a life. Continuum: London, UK.; p. 234-239.

*’Hole in the hedge’ photo from vancouversun.com
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About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Human Behaviour, Life, Slavery and Human trafficking, South Africa and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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