Race is an issue that’s always simmering below the surface in South Africa. One of the ugliest aspects of the recent wave of looting and violence was the killing of people based on their race in a neighbourhood in the port city of Durban. It was a reminder that the internalised apartheid stereotypes and beliefs are still firmly in place.
A consolidated identity has become one of the most worrying South African realities and needs to be attended to as a matter of urgency.
Churches still reflect these social divisions, with Sunday mornings being the most divided time. Churches still exist on cultural and racial lines as “all black” or “all white” churches which can be seen as exclusive or inaccessible. Race, ethnicity and national identity remain as unfinished business for the church.
In a paper published in 2017 I looked at the role that churches – particularly multicultural churches – can play in addressing this problem.
South African churches remain mono-cultural to a large extent. They still largely reflect the social divisions of a society. But there are some – albeit a small number – that have successfully reached across racial and cultural divides to attract new members.
In South African, Christians are in the majority. They made up 62% of the South African population in 2015.
In my article I discusses the reconciliation potential of multicultural churches in that they are able to accommodate multiple racial groups, in a society where religious life remains overwhelmingly segregated.
This isn’t new in South Africa. Religious communities played a critical role in the transition to democracy. Christian churches have condemned apartheid and have contributed to the process of nation-building through civic education and for example, participating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was set up to uncover the truth about apartheid-era human rights abuses. But it’s also true that some church traditions in the country were complicit in racism and have not fully dealt with their own apartheid legacy.
I conclude in my paper that what’s needed now is that churches deepen this reconciliation potential. Religious organisations have the potential to draw people out of their private, racially segregated lives, into a safe social space where human interactions can be more intimate so as to get to know each other.
Breaking the dividing lines
My research included positive examples of churches from across the spectrum; Anglicans that were at one stage the forerunners of the Apartheid struggle that were mostly racially integrated to Pentecostal churches seeking that ‘born-again’ experience, wanting to incorporate members from a range of racial and social backgrounds. These churches reach across racial and cultural divides to attract new members. They build social capital – shared values, that act as a glue, to work towards a common goal in society.
These multicultural churches are a new, growing phenomenon in urban areas. They are successfully bringing together Christians from various race groups, in a society where religious life remains overwhelmingly segregated.
My research shows that these types of congregations can articulate powerful, messages about social reconciliation. This makes them excellent laboratories for reconciliation.
Importantly these new interracial relationships that are created, can become a model of social cohesion and can play a role in building a humane society.
These multicultural churches aim to be intentionally inclusive which means more than just tolerance or assimilation into the dominant culture. It is also not a superficial coming together which is reduced to demographics. Space and opportunity are created to hear each other’s stories to help shatters racial stereotypes and beliefs that have acted as a dividing wall.
Empathic, courageous conversations allow members to transcend differences. This is not an uncritical kind of cohesion; it unpacks and deconstructs dominant teachings and practices that perpetuate inequality or injustice. This type of critical multiculturalism is an inter-cultural engagement that focuses on relationship building (not survival), deep connections, interactions, respect, and learning from one another.
No doubt there is a tremendous complexity in dealing with matters of racial integration especially when one considers the churches pronounced silence on the race issue and the power issues at play. But churches will have to consider how to deepen social interaction as religious communities.
Resources are needed to help church members assess their own passive and active contributions to disunity. In addition they can evaluate the individual, social and structural factors that impede true reconciliation in congregations and develop strategic interventions to dismantle these factors and build unity.
To date churches have played a critical role in the transition to democracy in South Africa; what this research highlights is that there are churches that are deepening reconciliation and more churches should likewise do so, thereby playing a key role in advancing racial transformation in the country.
Churches must be confronted to truly transform by being visionary challengers of the status quo. They need to urgently distinguish between cultural captivity and nationalism, as the Methodist bishop Peter Storey suggests,
it comes down to a choice about which of our identities is primary – our baptism or our tribalism?
Professor Practical Theology, University of South Africa