Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Identity and Tradition

Lately I have found that it seems that some of the most challenging and fruitful periods of time that have occurred are when I have been able to get completely away from what others think, from expectations and daily demands, and gain perspective on why I am really here. The time alone in my flat in the rural area of Loskop, especially the last couple days, has really allowed me to think over the last few weeks.

I recently had the opportunity to travel with my local pastor deep into the rural areas, about 50km from the community I have been working in, to do house visits and spend some time with people who were no longer physically able to go to church on Sundays due to age, illness, or other physical conditions. We drove from one house to another, sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion and just spending time with elderly people who most likely do not have regular visitors. While I did not understand most of the conversations, there was always the time when the pastor would explain who I was and what I was doing and at that moment there was a certain shared feeling and bond between myself and whomever we were visiting with. Usually it came through in the form of a great smile and a thank you; not that I was the one needing thanks, I should have been doing the thanking for the blessing I received in those moments.

It was very powerful to spend time with these folks but one thing that stuck with me even more than the house visit itself was one of the conversations we had while driving from one location to another. While we were driving along we got talking about some of the most common and important struggles that he faces in the 12 congregations that he serves. Living in a rural environment has its challenges. The same government that can build beautiful multi million dollar stadiums and host a fantastic World Cup soccer tournament often ignores the most basic needs of rural communities, such as wells from which people can pump water, so that it can focus the majority of its attention on building up and maintaining large cities such as Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. It is in the rural areas, much like the Loskop area that I serve in, where the majority of South Africans live. The issues of the community that were brought up by the pastor included lack of proper education or below standard education, heath care, unemployment, water, and sanitation. In addition, while it wasn’t brought up in the conversation with the pastor, it has been brought up before in talking with other folks that many people in the rural areas feel as if they are no better off than where they were 20 years ago; which is a profound statement considering the apartheid laws at the time and the conditions in which people were forced to live.

Out of all the struggles of the congregations within which he works, the one struggle that struck me most was around the topic of identity; specifically, the identity of young Christian Zulu adults. The rural areas have a significant number of people who still embrace and practice traditional Zulu healing and other spiritual practices, thus Christians in the rural communities experience a large tension between their indigenous identity and the “western” Christian faith. To get a scale on how great this tension is, the local pastor estimates that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the people who attend a Christian worship service on Sundays and identify themselves as Christians also visit a Sangoma, or a traditional healer in times of crisis or to pray to their ancestors.

The identity crisis, or the uncertainty and confusion in which people are struggling with, lies within the question of whether it is possible to be a Christian and still practice traditional beliefs. While I have no answer to this question, I will try to voice the opinions of those in my community and within my church in an effort to put some understanding behind this major issue in the Christian church in Southern Africa. From my understanding, based on the conversation with the pastor, Church has adopted the viewpoint that people can essentially do what they want in terms of traditional practice and still be considered an active participant within the Christian faith and church. But is this really what Christ calls us to do?

To try and put some perspective on this issue, lets look at one of the most important and significant ways in which one identifies with someone or something which usually is through the use of names. The use of name is always a sign of ones identity. Whenever someone asks who you are the first thing you say is your name; it is the fundamental part of who we are. Yet if you look at times in the Bible when people come to know God, there are many examples of them receiving a new name (GE 32:28). This is symbolic to them leaving their old way of life behind and becoming a follower of Christ. Therefore, shouldn’t someone upon starting a life with Christ leave their old ways behind and only follow the way of life that Christ put forth for them? And wouldn’t this include leaving behind cultural practices that call upon ancestors and traditional healers in times of crisis in an effort to only rely and serve Christ? After all, God’s commands are found in scripture and are binding. The traditions of elders are not biblical and therefore are not authoritative. There is even a warning against following certain cultural traditions found in Mark 7:8: “You have let go of the commands of god and are holding on to the traditions of men.” There is a strong argument that upon getting to know and follow Christ, one must denounce their past ways of life and take up a new life in the eyes of God.

Yet, one would think there must be a way to preserve cultural practices without having it be a way of worship or a way of putting trust in a higher power other than the Lord in times of struggle or crisis. As Christians we are supposed to put our faith in Christ alone and not with anyone else. I think there is a way to acknowledge the Zulu traditions and to keep them within the Zulu culture such that one does not lose their heritage and their way of life. I don’t have the solution to this problem nor do I know if this is really the direction people should go in general. Or is there even a reason that someone should not practice their traditional beliefs, visit healers, and consult their ancestors if they are believers in Christ. Is there really something wrong about that or is it really just a unique expression of faith within a different culture that should be encouraged? The bottom line is that there are solid arguments in favor of both sides of the picture and it is a major struggle for people, as they don’t know who they are within their cultural heritage and their Christian faith.

In addition, I have found that in order to try and understand the identity of others one must understand their true identity first. This identity crisis is seen within our own culture as well. It is not so much of an identity crisis between being American and being a Christian, rather the crisis lies within being part of the secular American culture and being a Christian. I know I am guilty of treading the line between acting in a secular and in a “Christian” way almost on a daily basis. Whether it is the music I listen too, the books I read, the difference between catching me on a bad day and on a good, how I treat others, and generally how I carry myself, it is a constant struggle to identify with the Christian faith within the secular American culture that surrounds me each day. While the question for my Zulu brothers focus on whether or not a Christian can visit a Sangoma, my fellow American brothers struggle with questions such as: can I be a Christian and still listen to the popular filth that comes out of our radios these days, can I got to that party and have a few beers, can I watch that violent movie, can I support a government and a president that is actively facilitating wars in two countries?

It seems to me it would be a horrible thing to have to profess a set of beliefs against traditional and cultural ties, in order to remain in ones religion. Maybe I am too liberal in my religious thought, too worldly, or just confused as to what Christ asks of us. Yet, I have found that in the long run, it does not help to act as though I were something I am not. For my fellow brother and sisters here in rural SA, they are Zulus and they are Christians, and for me that is the bottom line. If the church tells them that they must denounce cultural practices in favor of the western viewpoint of Christianity there are going to be problems in the long run. What is most important is that everyone must try to permit themselves to understand the issues of identity within the Christian faith throughout the world so that we might really understand our fellow brothers and sisters and so that that understanding might change us and how we think. The bottom line is that as soon as a fellow brother or sister becomes a Christian their identity must change in some form or fashion. The question remains though how does that change reflect cultural ties and the deeper meaning who one is as a person within faith and traditional culture.

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