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True Privilege

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Reverend René August is strategist, thought leader, disciple maker, speaker, author, co-conspirator, trainer, reconciler and friend. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and works at The Warehouse, which supports churches to live out the peace and justice of God for the world. René is part of The Justice Conference South Africa team.

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René August grew up in Cape Town “under apartheid, in a Christian family, with brown skin”. She’s spent her life developing a love of scripture, exploring power and privilege, learning from others, and wrestling with the questions that arise along the way. In a world crammed with diverse perspectives, where certain voices are amplified and others silenced, René extends a gracious invitation to consider the lenses through which we’re looking at scripture – and each other.

What are some of the moments, or people, that have shaped your life and what you’re involved with today?

When I was a young child, our family was forcibly removed from our property, and we all ended up - 8 of us - in a 3 bedroom house. I shared a bed with my great grandmother. I remember waking up and she would be sitting up, reading the bible aloud. From a very young age I really, really loved the bible. My sisters wanted to pretend-play “school” and “house”, while I wanted to play “church”! My experiences with my family, and growing up in church, made me realise that you can love Jesus and not agree, and also that the bible wasn’t a simple thing to read. Later I studied the bible at an inter-denominational college. There was rigorous dialogue and debate, and people I fundamentally disagreed with – but couldn’t deny the fruit of the spirit in their life. That was another formative experience for me, again with scripture at the heart of it – how do we interpret scripture with diversity of beliefs, in a diverse community? This ability to see how context and experience can affect what you see in scripture is something that has always intrigued me.

And then going to work in the inner city, where those who live on the margins of power live with very little access to what is readily available in the city. There’s a moment I remember: there was a guy who lived outside our church. It was winter, and to keep his feet dry he kept his feet in plastic bags inside his socks and shoes. There was something wrong with his feet - the soles of his feet had peeled off, he couldn't walk anymore. We had Al Gore (who was Vice President of the US at the time) visiting the country, and he was coming to visit one of the projects our church was involved in. We had gone through all these protocols and security details, all the rehearsals, all been checked out and searched. The day came, and here was this guy saying, please can I clean his feet for him now? And I’m like, I can’t do it now, I have to go and shake hands with Al Gore, dude! But I said okay, I’m going to squeeze it in. And I’m there almost being sick from the smell of his feet, and half an hour later, those same hands shaking hands with Al Gore. It was just mad. It raised the question, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this moment, in this crazy hour, in those two places at the same time, without choosing one over the other?

This ability to see how context and experience can affect what you see in scripture is something that has always intrigued me.

— René August

So those experiences were formative in developing your ideas around the lenses we read scripture through. Tell us more about that.

All of us have a lens. The conclusions we come to are beaucase of the spectacles we're reading through, not because of the words we're reading. Something that developed this idea was being part of a group of African Christians, we were from 15 countries. We decided to list the biggest issues on the continent of Africa. We ended up with eight things, and we agreed that we would read scripture through those eight lenses, for eight years. Reading the Parable of the Lost Son through a lens of economics, or reading it through the lens of land, geography, spatial justice – that completely transformed everything. And then, Genesis 1 – the first place we’re given spiritual authority is to care for creation. It’s the lens. It was always there, but the lens creates the capacity for me to see or not see, especially things that aren’t always obvious to me.

So then I asked the question, what would I notice in scripture if I asked the question about power? I started playing around with it a bit in the gospels: Jesus disrupts power, full stop. The incarnation is about the disruption of power. Through emptying, and embodying what is despised. Geographically born in Palestine, economically born in poverty, religiously Jewish. Under Roman occupation. Embodied in a race that was hated, in brown skin, as a refugee… we’re just in the first chapter of the gospels! Who benefits the most from the life and ministry of Jesus? People on the margins of power.

So, my now go-to question as I read scripture is: what is the movement of power? From what to what, from whom to whom, as a consequence of the work, the word, the actions and presence of God?

Who benefits the most from the life and ministry of Jesus? People on the margins of power.

René August

What would you suggest starting with, for someone who is just beginning to explore this idea, or is unaware of how they might be bringing a bias to their reading of scripture?

First, spend a little time listening to different people speak about what the bible is, and what the bible is not. Because what you believe the bible is will determine how you approach it. The bible isn't one book – by its own admission it's at least 66 books. We can't approach it as a book of answers or guidelines. These books have different genres and with any genre, you have to appreciate the integrity of the genre. How is it that this book that forms and transforms us so powerfully, more than a third of it is poetry and music? There's history, there's apocalyptic literature. There are four gospels, and we like to focus on the unity of the gospels, what they all have in common. But there are parts they don’t have in common! They're four different perspectives on who Jesus is, and they are not in competition with each other. They are seeking to provide the full perspective on the same thing.

Second, choose a lens. But know that it's only a lens, it simply helps us to see. And so you can switch lenses, but know that when you pick a lens, that lens will help you, because it will expose your bias, but it will also help you see other things. Then pick another lens, and that lens will show you something else. Lisa Sharon Harper has written a book called The Very Good Gospel. She highlights three words that I find very helpful to consider as lenses. First, goodness. The Hebraic understanding of goodness is that goodness resides between things not in something, like right relationships, shalom, justice. So as you’re reading scripture, what do you notice about how God is producing goodness between things?

The second word is image. In Jesus’ time, Caesar’s image was imprinted on the coins. Where that coin could be used as currency, that coin also declared the extent of Caesar's power. Where an image has authority, you declare the extent of that image’s reign. We bear God’s image, so where I have authority, I declare and extend the reign of God. And where I mar, or diminish or crush the image of God in anyone, I declare war against God. So as you read scripture, how do you see the restoration or the extent of the reign of God grow as a consequence of this image?

Another word Lisa uses is dominion. Not control, not domination. The first place we’re given dominion is to care for and protect creation. So in my garden, when I plant my kale and spinach, my dominion is that I till the soil and put compost in it and I make sure the snails can't get to it. And so this “care for and protect” work of dominion, of all that God has created – what does that look like as I read scripture?

We can all use those lenses of goodness and image when it comes to responding to injustice. Is it producing goodness between us? Is it restoring the image, extending the reign of God? If the answer is no, then we must fight it.

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When we allow ourselves to be emptied of power – that’s the privilege. That’s what Jesus did, that’s what the cross is: a real emptying of every kind of power, laid bare.

The recent attention on Black Lives Matter in the US has rippled out internationally. How would you encourage Christians – particularly western Christians – to participate and respond to complex issues of justice?

Part of what makes it difficult is that I think we’re addicted to results. People want to protest a little and then see things change – but that’s not your privilege. When we allow ourselves to be emptied of power – that's the privilege. That's what Jesus did, that’s what the cross is: a real emptying of every kind of power, laid bare. To allow ourselves to live the crucifixion, to make our way to the cross – if you get to the cross, you would have lost power. When you relinquish power, that's a protest.

We need to think about the language of Black Lives Matter. The majority of the world is Asian, not Black – and the Black and Brown labels are terms rooted in the US situation specifically. If I were in Asia, I would not be saying “Black lives matter,” even though I mean it. I would be asking, whose life is not mattering here? Their life matters too. You have a history in Australia of whose lives didn’t matter, whose voice didn’t matter, whether it's an Aboriginal voice or a woman’s voice, so make up your own slogans. Start your own campaign, but hitch it to a global conversation because it is a global conversation.

In Jeremiah chapter 18, Jeremiah writes “The Spirit of the Lord told me to go to the potter’s house, and when I got there I saw him sitting at the wheel, but the image he was moulding was marred”, and so the potter reshaped it to make something else. Sometimes that marring of the image (of God) is so devastatingly engrained, in my own superiority complex, that there needs to be a reshaping of what's marred in me so that I can be formed into something new. Allowing yourself to be reshaped by the hand and the narrative of another requires a relinquishing of power.

We’re striving to be transformed in the midst of pain and oppression and injustice. So that how we live through it is witness to the transforming power of Jesus.

René August

What keeps you persevering in working for justice and equality when it's a really long and slow road?

One of the helpful things is that I see God doing that work in scripture: God, who can do anything, bringing justice – yet injustice is not entirely eradicated. So maybe working for eradication is not the point. Rather, the ability to live present, engaged, with integrity; to live an embodied life and to take the next step towards faithfulness – is what I see in the lives of all these people in scripture. Who, as the writer of Hebrews says, all of these people died before seeing the fulfilment of what was promised them. Why? Because they lived by faith. I don’t have small faith, I have big faith – that major injustices will be redeemed – but I don't have to see it to believe it. I don't have to see an end to it, because my life’s work is to do what's in front of me, and do it faithfully.

I pray “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” If Jesus prayed that prayer, and taught his disciples to pray that prayer, and I'm praying that prayer – my goodness! We're not striving for utopia. We’re striving to be transformed in the midst of pain and oppression and injustice. So that how we live through it is witness to the transforming power of Jesus. That I get to live into that is a privilege.


Reverend René August is strategist, thought leader, disciple maker, speaker, author, co-conspirator, trainer, reconciler and friend. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and works at The Warehouse, which supports churches to live out the peace and justice of God for the world. René is part of The Justice Conference South Africa team. Melody Murton is the Content Lead at TEAR Australia.