We took time this week to catch up with Ayanda Nxusani to chat about anti-racist discipleship. Ayanda is a Masters student in historical violence and intergenerational trauma.
Ayanda, could you begin by clarifying for our readers your understanding of the terms ‘racism’ and ‘discipleship’.
The term racism means different things to different people. From my understanding, racism is in part a discrimination or prejudice on someone or a group of people based on the colour of their skin and their racial classification. In addition to that race also has a power dimension to it. The individual who is doing the discrimination also has the power to make decisions that disadvantage the person discriminated against.
Discipleship for me is about a relationship of mutual submission and mutual love for a certain ideal. As Christians, we are disciples of Jesus and we also walk in loving and continuous discipleship with each other in community.
After twenty-five years of democracy why do you believe racism is still so prevalent in South African society?
There are many reasons why racism is still so prevalent in South Africa. Firstly, at the end of apartheid as a society we focused primarily on the changing of apartheid laws which were set to disadvantage black South Africans, but we did not really focus on the hearts of the people who maintained and benefited from those laws being in place. And so we find ourselves 26 years on with a country which has the most progressive constitution in the world, but host to incredibly racist individuals.
Another reason is that our progressive constitution was not personally embodied by many South Africans. The beliefs that underpin our constitution of equality and freedom for all remained as beliefs and ideals but not really as personal convictions which is why we find ourselves here, 26 years on and possibly for longer if the public does not commit to personal transformation.
Distinguish for us the difference between being a ‘non-racist’ and ‘anti-racist’, and why the choice of the later?
The way in which I have experienced these two terms has been both through a linguist lens and also through an intergenerational lens. The term ‘non’ is a negative force implying a negation or an absence of something. ‘Non’ is also quite a passive term instead of a more active term such as ‘anti’. So ‘non-racist’ or ‘non-racialism’ is the hope of the absence of racism. This was also a term that was used largely after the end of apartheid, by older generation activist who were working towards the end of racism in South Africa and around the world.
‘Anti’ to me lands more like an active work. ‘Anti-racism’ therefore moves away from being a hope but becomes an ideal which we are actively working against. It moves us from “We hope for a world free of racism” to “I am working actively and daily to fight against racial injustice”.
Could you give our readers some guidance on how to identify and eradicate racist behaviour in themselves?
This may sound very cliché but acknowledgement is a huge part of anti-racism work. If your readers do not believe themselves to be racist then they will not believe that they have to eradicate any racist behaviours and beliefs within themselves. As Christians, we know that the world is broken and that we are broken in need of a loving saviour to restore us back to a loving Father. We know that daily we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. If we don’t know that we are in need of saving, then we won’t commit ourselves to the life of dying to ourselves. It’s the same conviction with racism. If your readers do not believe themselves to be needing to be saved from their racist ideals, or don’t even believe that racism is real, then they won’t do the hard work.
Within the church context, and from your experience, would you say the church is vocal enough about the issue of racism?
Yes and no. To some extent the church in South Africa was very vocal about racial justice under apartheid. Many anti-apartheid activists came out of the Christian Church. And the church was an active participant in the fight against apartheid because I suppose there was no way to ignore racism (even though many did) because it was so glaring.
Today I believe the church is reactionary. We speak about racial justice when students on university campuses highlight their experiences of racism and classism in South Africa, then the church hosts webinars and conferences on it. But on the daily, the local church does not speak out against racial injustice as loudly as they do other issues. I will note however, there are a lot of grassroot Christian activists working hard to highlight and fight against issues of racial injustice in our society. However, the Sunday morning institutional church is not part of that activism.
What role can the Scriptures play in a Christian’s journey with racism?
The Scriptures provides such a beautiful framework for the Christians journey. The Scriptures tell us that the world is broken (Genesis 3) and that God then made a plan to restore to perfect Shalom (John 3:16) and that a time will come where there are no more tears. In this 3 part story we are living in the middle of it and are still awaiting glory but in the daily, we are called to die to self, to walk humbly before the Lord, to love justice, to love our neighbour, to lay down our lives for the other, to feed the hungry, to care for the widow and to hear the widows cry for justice. It’s all there in the Bible, we just need to incline our ears and hearts to hear the cry of God in the city.
Could you give some specific guidance on how those walking with young people in the local church could implement anti-racist discipleship?
Youth leaders have a unique opportunity to shape a new generation of disciples in the local Church but that is also such a huge responsibility. I am a huge fan of contextual bible studies. Youth leaders should locate the story of Jesus birth for example. He was getting ready to be born and there was no place for him to be delivered, and how Mary had to give birth in an unsanitary place. That is the story of many women in our country, who are pregnant and have limited access to health care to give birth in a safe environment. When we understand how Jesus came into the world, we then are able to see the different Mary’s in our city and desire something different for them.
Something I enjoyed as a young person in my local church was having my youth leaders validate my experiences in the world, I was a young black girl from eKhayelitsha and had many questions that I didn’t know where to place. Youth leaders are perfectly situated to offer safe spaces to young people offering honesty about their own experiences in this constantly shifting world.
Often people can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue of racism and given to hopelessness. What encouragement can you offer to those who believe they can’t or won’t make a difference?
First I would say, if we are doing the work of anti-racism on our own, without the help of the Holy Spirit, we will definitely burn out. Isaiah 40 says:
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength “
And so we trust not in ourselves but in God and God gives us the power daily to work against racial inequality.
Then secondly, growing hopeless helps no-one. And so really we need to all find ways to create resilience within ourselves because either we become actively anti-racism Christians or be passive about it while millions of peoples lives remain the same.