Hermeneutics cannot be achieved without a careful study of context. Words come forth from a specific set of circumstances. The circumstances are essential in the understanding of the text. This principle has been highlighted by the birth of our child. “Unless you become like little children you cannot enter my kingdom” is now almost two years old. Watching and learning from Tayla has been an invaluable tool shaping my hermeneutical task. Today I share a specific reflection – one of many treasures that have changed my thinking.
Children, up to a certain point, are enormously inclusive. They leapfrog over the divides we as adults have become so accustomed to. In Afrikaans, my native language, the word for grandfather is ‘oupa’. It is a very endearing term. Tayla reserves it use for three persons in her life; my father, Lollie’s father and Lazarus – the gardener. Wednesday’s light up for her when ‘oupa’ comes to our house. She really loves him. One of the reasons is the fact that they share some breakfast together and that he generously splits his provisions with her. Tayla has an effortless capacity to break some of the social norms so deeply ingrained in the post-apartheid South African psyche.
Marnis is a small boy in our congregation. After every service he models the kingdom life in a very palpable way; yet again helping with the hermeneutics of understanding the kingdom. Our community does not own a church building. As a theological reflection we gather at a local community hall used for activities ranging from pottery to yoga during the week. The parking lot of the centre is guarded by a ‘security guard’. He sits in a small hut at the entrance and controls who comes and goes. Little Marnis always walks to this man after the service and enthusiastically engages in conversation. In one sense his eyes still see the person behind the function.
As a little boy I was the same … and then something happened. Even though I was still cordial and polite towards the other a sense of difference crept in; people of another race was different. I am grateful that I’ve never been indoctrinated by the extreme forms of apartheid in our country. But I sometimes wonder if my middle-of-the-road prejudice is not more difficult to diagnose and heal? The story of Tayla and Marnis is also my story. A few months ago my parents started the arduous process of scanning their old slides to computer format. This has afforded me the privilege to be reminded of some of the monuments in my life.
One of the pictures interested me. As a small boy I apparently loved hanging out with the domestics that worked at our house. Like Tayla I effortlessly bridged the gaps imposed on our South African society. In the picture attached I’m with Polina. To tell you the truth I don’t really remember her (I would like to believe that it was because I was too young). In any case Rosina then worked at our family for the rest of my childhood and only retired last year. My brother and I also spent a lot of time with her.
I’m interested at what point I started to live the script given to me? When did I diverge from being perfectly comfortable in having ‘table fellowship’ with the other? Will Tayla and Marnis be able to maintain their current freedom?
I do know that I’m on a journey to recover my childhood naturalism in regards to race. For now it’s a journey that takes effort and confession and re-imagining. Let me offer you a very practical example of this. When we were at Shandu’s funeral they gave everyone who attended food! Five hundred people! The food was prepared by the locals and was a gift to their community. As I stood in line to dish up I was confronted with all the missionary stereotypes of locals offering their food. One of the dishes was beef. David bought a cow and it was slaughtered and prepared by some of the ‘mothers’ of the community.
My conditioned instinct would have been to avoid the meat. Was it prepared in clean circumstances? Was it refrigerated? Was the cow sick? All these questions that I’ve been trained to ask mixed in my mind like a high-functioning tumble dryer. In the end I decided to eat what all the rest ate and guess what I’m still alive! Another story to illustrate how unnatural my prejudice has left me: A few years ago I visited in Mozambique. As we played indoor soccer all of us were metamorphosed into walking sweat blobs. I had my Nalgene bottle with me filled with cool water. When I quenched my first one of my team mates looked into my direction and asked for a sip. Does he have cholera? TB? Hepatitis? The tumble dryer was alive and active. I gave my friend a sip, he passed it to someone else and so on and finally the bottle was returned to me. “We left you the last sip” … Would I show my obvious prejudice by not taking a sip or engage in an act of breaking down the ‘walls of division’?
In that instance that Nalgene became an act of Eucharist. Like the blood of Jesus spilled for a new covenant proclaiming that we should love our neighbours. We were united. Was it scary? Yes! Was it worth it? Yes!
These two anecdotal stories shows a man desperately trying to regain something I hope and pray will be fostered in Tayla and Marnis. May God help us!
Note: These thoughts have been stirred by Wendell Berry’s book “The hidden wound”
“Because of our strict division between childhood and adulthood, we have granted to childhood an exemption from the demands and the values of adult society. Under the dispensation of childhood, a child … may cross the boundaries of class and race and property with a good deal of freedom, and his reason and motive for crossing these boundaries is his honesty in the face of his experience. He cuts across backyards, he plays and roams wherever his curiosity or affection leads him, he uses his mind for pleasure, he makes friends among his “inferiors” both black and white, and so on. And then, as soon as his childish pleasures begin to bear the imminence of sexual pleasure, he is suddenly asked to think of “who he is,” to disassociate himself from the ways and the associations of his childhood, to “put away childish things” and become a man. As has been often enough pointed out, he doesn’t under those demands necessarily become a man in any respectable sense of the word; he is altogether likely to become the perfect snot, useless to his fellows, and destructive of his community and his land. In order that his childhood experience of the common humanity of the black and white races may be submerged in the sense of racial difference, thence in the sense of his own racial superiority, he must learn to look on his childhood as a detachable, inferior, and irrelevant period of his life; in short, he makes himself comfortable among the grownups’ lies and so consider himself a man …