Michael Neocosmos argues that there is a politics beyond the state and that, within this form of politics, lies the true and trustworthy alternative to the status quo. This ‘politics beyond the state’ is carried out by active citizens who think, and who engage themselves in politics as militants rather than as politicians. In Neocosmos’ words, citizenship, from an emancipatory perspective, “is not about subjects bearing rights conferred by the state, as in human rights discourse, but rather about people who think becoming agents through their engagement in politics as militants/activists and not politicians”.
The ‘politics’ which emerges from active citizenship is completely different from that of the state and the political parties. It is a politics which requires communal thinking, direct engagement, and new (different) style of leadership. It is a politics where everyone is important because every idea matters. By contrast, the politics of the state is a politics which requires only “opinions” concerning “ideas” thought by other people, intellectuals, NGO, churches and so on.
Several features of this concept of active citizenship which can be traced in the intellectual work and praxis of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM):
Firstly, Active Citizenship is inclusive. In a context of struggle, distinctions are made on the basis of the devotion to the struggle and not on the bases of other categories such as classes, races or religious beliefs.
Secondly, Active Citizenship enables the right to think by suggesting the possibility of something different to one way thought. It is the thinking done in the community and with the community that opens spaces for new possibilities that are completely different from the status quo. The aim of this communal sharing of ideas is not to grab power but to transform it.
Thirdly, Active Citizenship enables the formation of a moral community of active citizens where “one’s duty to the community is connected directly to actively engaging in political activity for the common good” (Neocosmos, 3).
“The Children of the Resurrection”
We have observed that the process of struggle is of pivotal importance. It is within this process that people become aware of their dignity, ontological goodness and possibilities. Fanon argues that “the ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” (Fanon, 1963: 36). It is through the struggle that people discover that it is possible to fight oppression and challenge power.
The rise of AbM struggle therefore, can and must also be understood theologically. We need to find theological categories which might help us to read these striking signs of our times. The fact that impoverished people come together to fight oppression and cry out to the world that they are human beings able to think and determine their own future, is the verification that a ‘politics beyond’ the state is possible. It is the proof that the AbM embodies the idea of an active citizenship and this is the main thing which has to challenge and inform theology.
The rise of AbM, their struggle and their politics, can be read with the theological category of Resurrection. Surely, the paschal mystery of Jesus as a whole, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, helps to understand theologically the rise, praxis and politics of the movement. It is also impossible to separate and comprehend only one of the events in the sequence without taking into account the others. Nonetheless, the particular experience of AbM, and its understanding of politics and its humanity, encourage us to stress Jesus’ victory over death.
A theology which has as its starting point the Resurrection and not the Calvary, stresses Jesus’ final victory over every evil force. It is clear however, that the dimension of people’s suffering is not diminished - shack dwellers suffer because of fire, floods, violence, insecurity… - but this suffering, as the struggle of AbM has demonstrated, is not the last word.
Jesus’ resurrection stands as an analogy to the struggle of the people. As Jesus did not remain silent in the tomb, so too have people from various settlements of kwaZulu Natal not been overcome by their suffering and pain. As Jesus did not remain nailed on the cross, so too have ‘bahlali started to break the chains of their oppression.
When we recognise people who are involved in the struggle as “children of the resurrection” (Lk 20:36b) - and not as poor people nailed on the cross - the ‘usual’ ways of the church relating to them are completely disrupted. There is something of a crisis when it is realised that they cannot be cast as the beneficiaries of our charity; when it is no longer possible to assume that they are ‘voiceless’ people to whom some intellectual or church lends their voice. They are, on the contrary, the moving principle of every church action and a source of inspiration for society. They are the embodiment of the Reign of God because they are sacrament of Christ’s victory over evil.
When we say that this theology starts with the resurrection and not at Calvary, we say that these people have something to teach and that they are not students; we say that they are a gift for the church and for society, and that they are not people who need someone else to defend and represent their rights on their behalf.
In this way then, people’s struggle represents the “Upper Room” because it is the theological site where the crucified and risen Lord manifests Himself as the Lamb who overcomes death, misery and oppression.
Reading people’s struggle with the theological category of the resurrection, allow us to understand that people’s attempts to resist oppression and to found goodness and justice, is a response of faith to God’s project. God’s project for humanity has been made manifest in Jesus, and it is therefore in Jesus that we find the model of the new humanity. Jesus’ life remains the ultimate example for Christians and, in our specific case, for people involved in the struggle. When we look at Jesus’ life from the perspective of the struggle for a dignified life, we understand in a new way God’s project for the world. The rise of AbM helps us to understand that when God manifested Himself or Herself in Jesus, S/he revealed a God who dreams a society of equals where goods are shared among people and where every person is important. Utimately, God dreams happiness for His/Her people. ‘Bahlali from several settlements have discovered this image of God. They have unveiled a God who dreams something different from oppression. This is a very powerful discovery and, it is this breakthrough that reveals to churches and society at large a new face of God. This is the God of the poor. This God, the God revealed in Kennedy Road, is a God who bears scars of suffering and pain but also expresses Joy - a subversive Joy which streams out of the awareness that evil can be defeated. Thus, paraphrasing Fanon words, we can say that through the struggle the “thing” not only becomes man but also becomes aware that God’s project is a project of happiness and joy and not a project of suffering and alienation.
God’s intention and project is ‘the Reign’, and the Reign is made real and present whenever Christ overcomes the power of evil. To consider people involved in struggle as “children of the Resurrection” is to assert that, through their struggle, they are collaborating in establishing the Reign of God. It is within the process of struggle that the Reign is built and discovered as a gift from God. Holloway affirms that “In the process of struggle-against, relations are formed which are not the mirror image of the relations of power against which the struggle is directed: relations of comradeship, of solidarity, of love, relations which prefigure the sort of society we are struggling for” (2005:143). These new relations that are forged in the process of struggle, and their more general and decisive impact in the community and individuals, are therefore a sacrament of the risen Lord.
One of the most beautiful things that the struggle, through the individuals involved in it, does, is to historicize eschatology and the Reign of God. Thanks to the process of struggle and the individuals involved in it, we rediscover that the Reign of God must be understood as a historical reality. The Reign of God is something in which human beings are called to cooperate with now, in this world, and in this time. AbM has shown this mystery of this collaboration with God. The work AbM has been doing is like the work of the man of the parable (Mk 4:26-29) who scatters seeds on the land but the sprouting and growing of the seeds is God’s work. The Movement has only the task of harvesting them and welcoming the fruits as God’s gift. Understanding the Reign of God as a historical reality therefore also makes clear that the Reign is God’s gift to humanity. It is in the fidelity to this gift that humanity can discover its freedom. Consequently, the struggle of AbM, their cooperation with God, is gift and prophecy for the world and the churches because they are collaborating with God in making this world a better and more just place to live in. The astonishing fact is that all these things are happening now, in our present time. Of course, in and through these struggles of movements, the Reign is not realized in its fullness. The scars of a life lived in a shack remain. The suffering and pain is not cancelled. The way ahead is still long. But now they have shown that God’s dream is possible, that Jesus’ resurrection is not a pious religious fact but an event able to transform history and people’s life. That is why the ordinary struggles of ordinary people, become sacrament of God’s presence and proclamation of resurrection. When the struggles of oppressed people are understood as part of salvation history, they become the way to overcome the sin of the world, the instrument of God’s restoration and a practical way of understanding resurrection. This is why Marcelo Barros says that in situation of oppression “resurrection means insurrection”.
Jesus’ resurrection from the death is an attestation of God’s fidelity. The resurrection from the death in fact, is not something that Jesus does out of his own will or action. On the contrary, Jesus wins over death because the Father remains faithful to the crucifix, to His/Her son, to the man of Galilee. Once Jesus is nailed on the cross, the only thing He can do is to commit His spirit in the Father’s hands. Jesus dies believing that the Father will resurrect Him; and the Father fulfills His promise by bringing Jesus back from the death.
In our context we see God’s fidelity realized in what is happening in the struggle of AbM. As the Father remained faithful to Jesus, in the same way He is faithful to people’s suffering. It is possible to affirm that, when people come together to fight for a better life, as in the case of AbM movement, the Father’s fidelity takes flesh in them and, in this way, God’s action of resurrecting Jesus becomes a concrete fact in history. The rise of AbM is the proof therefore, that death and suffering are not the last words. As the Father raised Jesus to new life, so S/he is taking care, in fidelity to his/her being, to the people in struggle. The story and praxis of the movement therefore, tells us that God will never forget his/her children - as the prophet Isaiah says: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the waters, I shall be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, you will not suffer, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Liberator. (…) Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Is 43:1-5).
Finally, we see a strong link between what Neocosmos described as a truly emancipatory politics and Jesus’ praxis. Jesus’ critique of earthly powers (the Temple, Religion, Empire…) was not aimed at some reforms. Jesus did not occupy any form of position but started His movement from the margins, from a despised place such as Galilee.
Moreover, Jesus’ critique of power is evident in several accounts, especially in John 6:15 “Jesus, as he realized that they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, fled back to the hills alone”. Jesus proclaimed a “New Jerusalem”, and a “New Heaven and the New Earth” which do not come from the centre but from the periphery. The Reign of God is not something that is given from above but, on the contrary, it is built up from the bottom. What really matters in this action of building up from the bottom is the popular-democratic-participative method which the builders employ.
From this point of view therefore, it is not important for the oppressed to gain power and position on the terms established by the existing orders of power. In a profound sense, the oppressed who struggle are already living out what they are demanding. This is the Reign of a God that is not a solitude but a communion in relationship.
To understand the concept of ‘Event’ as the radical French philosopher-activist, Alain Badiou, has articulated it, it is important to start with the question of agency. Badiou argues that “it is not so much a question of how a subject can initiate an action in an autonomous manner, but rather how a subject emerges through an autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation” (2007:15). According to Badiou therefore, it is not everyday actions and decisions that provide evidence of agency but those extraordinary events which isolate an actor from their context. Those actions which show that a human being can be a free agent are important and a sign of agency. As a result, Badiou affirms that ‘not every human being is always a subject, yet some human beings become subjects; those who act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event which disrupts the situation they find themselves in’ (2007:15). Thus, there is no universal conception of an ethics founded on human subjects; and that is why there cannot be projects, like the State or the human rights discourse, founded on human beings.
Badiou describes the Event as something which points to alternatives to what it is. The Event is the possibility of something different. Moreover, an Event names the void, the absence, what was considered simply impossible, that which is not imaginable from within the situation. The Event, therefore is something which radicalizes and transforms people into militants or seekers of truth. An example from our context may help to clarify the concept of Event: S’bu Zikode, in referring to the famous road blockade (WHEN?), affirmed that “the struggle that started in Kennedy Road was the beginning of a new era”. (‘The Third Force’).
Speaking a different language
To understand the idea of the Event theologically, we turn to pneumatology. It is the Spirit in fact, that transforms people and situations. The iconic Spirit action is the Pentecost event. (Acts 2:1-13)
Firstly, accounts of the Pentecost event make plain that the Spirit is given to a community of people and not to someone special. It is all the community of Jesus’ disciples that receive the gift of the Spirit. The fact that the Spirit is a gift to a community and not to select individuals, is in turn reflected in the praxis and politics of the movement that the Event establishes. The style of leadership, the efforts at wider inclusion of all the residents, and the particular popular democracy, are signs of a communitarian action.
Secondly, it is the gift of the Spirit which transformed frightened and dispirited people into bold witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Through the gift of the Spirit, the apostles were able to think the impossible, to name the ‘void’ and thus go out to proclaim the good news of the risen Lord.
Thirdly, the gift of the spirit enables the apostles of Jesus to speak new languages, languages which can be understood by everyone. The spirit did not transform fishermen into scholars but gave them the possibility of speaking a kind of language which everyone can understand, a language which speaks directly to people’s hearts. It is not a difficult language; on the contrary it is a language of hope which everyone waits for. This is the language of possibilities which point to alternatives.
Lastly, the gift of the spirit is a threat to the status quo: “Some, however, laughed it off. ‘They have been drinking too much new wine’, they said” (Acts 22:2:13). Frightened people, according to society, must always remain frightened people; that is the way it works. It has always been like that. It is very difficult to accept that marginalized and oppressed groups could raise their voice and speak new languages. Thus, the system tries to bring order back through criminalization, repression and other methods.
A theology which starts in the Upper Room where the Spirit was poured onto the disciples, and that tries to be relevant within the rebellion of shackdwellers’ communities, speaks of Gratuitousness, Epiphany, and Transformation.
It speaks of the Gratuitousness of God, because the spirit is first of all a gift and this gift speaks of God’s love. God’s fidelity to the people therefore, is not something abstract and far-away but concrete and historical. The promise that God will not leave the people alone becomes concrete in the struggle of AbM. The fact that people organize themselves, speak together with one voice and make their ideas heard, is proof that God has not forgotten his/her people. Moreover, God becomes their companion in the journey towards a better future pouring onto them his/her spirit. That is why the struggle can be considered also an act of love, the love of God towards the people and the love of the people towards other fellow human beings. It is a love which arises from the conflicts of the struggle, from the comradeship created in the many difficult moments and from the sharing of the burden of thorny decisions. The Love which arises from the struggle is therefore a subversive Love, a Love which prefigures the form of society we are struggling for.
Our theology speaks of epiphany, because we understand the struggle as a revelation of God. If it is because of the gift of the spirit that people are able to struggle and speak for themselves, the struggle itself becomes a manifestation of God. God reveals his/her loving face in the rising people of Kennedy Road and all the other “… Road” in rebellion. As God the Father revealed himself in the Event of Israel’s liberation from slavery and as Jesus revealed his healing power amongst the poor, excluded and oppressed, so the same love and caring is been made manifest in the struggle of AbM. It is the being of God that is revealed. In fact, God is also struggle for liberation. Reflecting/Acting theologically from the viewpoint of people’s struggle helps to discover God’s radical call to freedom.
Our theology speaks of social and personal transformation because it is the spirit which makes all things new. God’s work in history is carried out by the action of the spirit. However, the spirit does not act as a demiurge. The spirit is manifest only in through the people’s collaboration and availability. The struggle of AbM is a typical example of such a collaboration. This kind of struggle, as a matter of fact, is a spiritual struggle in the sense that the spirit struggles within/with people and thus transforms society in order to make the world a better place to leave in.
However, the struggle of AbM has also highlighted the fact that the transformation brought by the spirit is also a personal one. The spirit allows people in the struggle to recognize their ontological goodness and the fact that they are created in God’s image. It is the spirit, through people involved in the struggle, which reminds us of the presence of the divine person in the concrete history of creation. In this sense too, we again stress that the struggle, to a certain extent, is a self-communication of God. People in the struggle recognize that the Son became incarnate in order to divinize human beings, and that the Spirit dwells in us in order to unify all things and to lead all creation to the Reign of the Trinity.
The vacuum named by the spirit is this divinization of the human being. Marginalized, oppressed, poor people recognized that their destiny is to be drawn in the Trinitarian life and this fact opens up new possibilities of commitment, inspiration and critique for the context they live in.
Fidelity in Badiou’s theorization is the attempt to sustain the consequences of the event in thought. It is a refusal to return to the “status quo ante”, to return to the idea that what happened was impossible. Fidelity to the event is not something granted and obvious. It requires a “disinterested-interest” on behalf of the participants. Therefore, the perseverance of the “being-subject” remains uncertain. A being, in order to be transformed in subject, has to remain true to disinterest. There is no certainty in this process. The Stalinists, the vanguards, ‘know’ the way ahead - we don’t. We believe that the “alternative, the direction of our struggle, will come out of the thinking that we do in our communities” (S’bu Zikode, ‘The greatest threat to future stability in our country Vs The greatest strength of Abahlali baseMjondolo movement s.a.’).
According to Badiou, “politics begins when one decides not to represent the victims but to be faithful to those events during which victims politically assert themselves” (Neocosmos, 2007:18). This is the uncertain way of fidelity to the Event.
“…He made his face firm to Jerusalem…”
The theological category which expresses this fidelity is the Cross. In order to understand this we have first of all to highlight some classical interpretations of such category. These are interpretations which were developed in the past and that, within a context of struggle, are no longer useful, and do not help to read this particular reality.
Firstly, throughout history Jesus’ death has been interpreted as an expiatory sacrifice for the sins of his people. According to this theory no human sacrifice suffices to placate God’s wrath. Then the incarnation created the possibility of a perfect, spotless sacrifice that would win God’s entire pleasure. Jesus undertook to be the sacrifice that would represent all people before God. We have to admit that, this theory presents a vindictive aspect of God. This image of God does not fit very well with the image of a merciful God revealed by Jesus Christ. A second theory presents the death of Jesus as redemption as ransom. According to this model Christ’s death is regarded as the price demanded by God in ransom for all human beings held in Satan’s snare. The shortcoming of this model resides in the underpinned vision of human beings, understood only as mere spectators. They are not participants, they are not considered as inserted in history. A third theory considers the death of Christ as vicarious satisfaction. According to this theory, human beings, through sin, have violated the order of creation and thereby offended God. The divine justice demands that this order should be healed and restored, but how can a finite human being make an infinite reparation before an infinite God? Only God can achieve infinite satisfaction. Therefore, God must become a human being and, as human being, God will be able to do what a human being must do: make reparation. Jesus’ death healed the scar of sin and restored the order of the universe. The shortcoming of this theory is the one of portraying a vindictive, cruel and sanguinary God.
In all these theories the elements of Jesus’ life and praxis is practically absent. Jesus’ death is not seen as a consequence of his life. On the contrary, the good news is that Jesus died because of his life, his option for the poor, his fidelity to the Kingdom and his radical solidarity with human beings. Also according to Paul, the Cross is a symbol of the full story of Christ’s becoming human, suffering and dying. That is the good news! Jesus remained faithful to the project of the Kingdom and in this way entered in solidarity with all those who are bearing a Cross for their fidelity, love and liberating actions. This is the meaning of the Cross! In his death, Jesus transformed the cross from an instrument of humiliation into an instrument of struggle against slavery, oppression and death. This can also be seen in Luke’s Gospel. The evangelist centers his Gospel on Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. Lk 9:51 is the turning point of the Gospel: “When the days drew near for Him to be received up, He made His face firm to Jerusalem”. This journey towards the centre of political and religious power symbolizes Jesus’ fidelity to the Father’s project and this is what led Him to die.
Therefore, the cross of Jesus can be understood as a consequence of His fidelity. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples are called to follow Him along this path. It is very meaningful that immediately after Jesus’ resolution, Luke tells us of some “would-be” followers of Jesus: “As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’. Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another to whom he said, ‘follow me’, replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you Sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Lk 9-5762). In this passage are described the hardships of the discipleship and the cost of Fidelity. We do not know if these people had followed Jesus or not, but this is not the point. What is important is to understand that following Jesus means to assume His project and carry the heavy burden of a cross which results from the fidelity to the Reign. The way to Jerusalem is the way of the cross, the way of the rebel and this journey requires renunciation, courage, fidelity, truth, commitment and love.
It should be clear by now, that there are two different kinds of suffering: that provoked by oppression and that provoked by the struggle to overcome such oppression. Only this second can be understood as Cross. This idea should be made clearer by the fact that the cross was the instrument that the empire used to execute political rebels. Thus, the Cross opposes two logics: that of the empire (the state, civil society, human rights discourse…) and that of the reign (politics beyond the state…). When militants, subjects, act in fidelity to the Event usually face repression, pain and suffering. It is at this point that they become the embodiment of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and with Him they challenge earthly powers, unmask false images of God and disclose their truth to the world. Jesus’ subversive journey becomes theirs.