Naming (in)justice: an exploration of some conversations from the Global South

by Caroline Wickens.

What does justice look like through someone else’s eyes? That question engaged me when I worked as a mission partner in Zambia and Kenya, teaching alongside African theologians as they explored what justice meant for them. Over the years since, I’ve continued to benefit from listening in on conversations which begin from places outside my own experience. I hope these voices may help us in British Methodism to reflect on justice, injustice and walking with Micah.

Almost all African countries experienced colonial take-over by a European power. The mother of African women’s theologies, Ghanaian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, comments:

In practice, racism was central to the relationship between African and European. The chief reasons for this were ethnocentricity and greed.

The colonial past is still with contemporary Africa. Memories of violence are keen. Colonial languages continue to dominate. Western styles of clothing are popular, often via trade in second-hand clothes which threatens local enterprise. There is capacity for extracting raw materials but still very little to process it into manufactured goods, and in recent years the same economic approach has fuelled a complex relationship with China.

Independence brought celebration but also fresh injustice. A senior Kenyan theologian, JNK Mugambi, describes how the Cold War was fought by proxy in numerous African states. More recently, the Bretton-Woods institutions imposed ‘structural adjustment programmes’ on states with unmanageable levels of Western debt. The impact on basic health-care and education was appalling. Mugambi sees globalisation as the latest version of the West’s attempt to dominate Africa. Technological advances promote a Euro-American way of life and glorify white Western culture, sometimes described as Cocacolanisation.

And then HIV/AIDS struck. From Rwanda, Michel Kamanzi provides statistics from 2006: 24.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; some countries in south central Africa with prevalence above 20%; children infected or orphaned. ARVs have improved the situation, but HIV/AIDS continues to wound society. Despite this, African governments find themselves under pressure once again to pay debts to the West rather than spend on health and education.

Yet the conversations focus on hope, not despair. From the DRC, Ghislain Tshikendwa Matadi writes on Job in the time of HIV/AIDS. He discerns the possibility of justice even in a pandemic:

‘In the midst of absurd suffering, we are invited to maintain just and loving relationships with our fellow human beings and with God who identified with human weakness by adopting human form precisely in order to save the human race’.

From Benin, Valentin Dedji comments that African leaders’ first step is to collaborate to reconstruct African people’s broken human dignity. From Botswana, feminist theologian Musa Dube writes about mama Africa, a princess with a palace at Great Zimbabwe and a summer residence in the golden sands of Egypt, who finds herself sick and bleeding after the years of colonial imperialism. She turns to Dr.Neo-Colonialism and Dr.Global Village for help but finds none, then finds herself struck down by HIV/AIDS, burying her children. Her story ends like this:

When she called out, “Who is there? Who is there?”, she was told, “Jesus Christ, the healer of all diseases, is passing by.” She heard that Jesus is on his way to heal a little girl who is already dead, the daughter of Jairus.

Mama Africa is standing up. She is not talking. She is not asking. She is not offering any more money – for none is left. Mama Africa is coming behind Jesus. She is pushing through a strong human barricade of crowds. Weak and still bleeding but determined, she is stretching out her hands. If only she can touch the garments of Jesus Christ…

African theologians give voice to a passion to rebalance life away from deep injustice. The reflections above help in naming injustice:

  • When economic or military power removes agency from indigenous leaders
  • When human flourishing is restricted through lack of access to resources that are widely available elsewhere, ranging from COVID-19 vaccination to reliable food supplies and clean water
  • When local or global cultural assumptions identify some ways of life as valuable and right, while disparaging others and despising those who live in those ways, whether or not by their own choice

Naming injustice in this way clarifies the challenge: what needs to change so that we can walk with Micah and do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God?

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/

10 thoughts on “Naming (in)justice: an exploration of some conversations from the Global South

  1. In conversation with a black African many years ago at a conference I remember him being very afraid of the then-growing European Union. From his perspective, with the memory and present effects of colonial history, he thought that the industrialised nations already had too much power. There was already too much imbalance.

    How does the behaviour you describe differ from that of loan sharks, who begin by ‘helping’ with small loans which then become huge debts?

    From my perspective there is one human race, yet we continue to behave as though skin colour and accident of birth must be forever what defines a human being.

    Lead on, Micah. It is uphill.

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  2. I wasn’t going to comment this week because I aways feel right out of my depth when it comes to political stuff, but I just had to say this:
    Re the paragraph which starts ‘Mama Africa is standing up……………………’
    These words have spoken more clearly and powerfully to me about the plight of the African nations than all the years of angry ranting by the woke warriors who always give the impression they want to bash our brains out with their placards.
    Still feel out of my depth, still feel bewildered about what I could possibly do to make a difference, but I now have in my brain the image of ‘Mama Africa’ reaching out to touch the garments of Jesus, silently pleading for mercy and compassion.
    It’s a start. Thank you, Caroline.

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  3. Thank you Caroline. I found the image in Musa Dube’s writing very powerful. When you add climate change to the whole picture the situation is even more stark.

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  4. Reading about the appalling injustice of colonialism or poverty invariably makes me feel a deep sense of personal guilt. What right have I to food, warmth and shelter when my fellow human beings are struggling to survive? I do not know how to deal with this ruined time. I cannot forgive myself even though it is not my fault. The only thing I can do is express my solidarity with the victims. At one time I/we could protest but even that privilege is denied us now. I seek forgiveness, but that is impossible in these circumstances. We have the prospect of ruined time with the energy crisis on top of the economic downturn, so are now living in ruined time. All this anxiety and melancholy keeps me awake at night and I do not know how to deal with it.

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    1. In the church context we spend a lot of time talking about God’s forgiveness of us and the importance of forgiving others, as exemplified in the Lord’s Prayer. For some people, however, the most difficult thing is to be able to forgive oneself.

      We get things wrong; we keep messing up. That’s what humans do. God accepts that and we have to accept too that we are only human. If we keep blaming ourselves for things that have gone wrong, even when we are not directly responsible, we end up trapped inside a circle of blame, shame, and guilt.

      Jesus proclaimed freedom. The spiritual freedom that Jesus offered – and still offers – is to break away, with God’s help, from the unhealthy memories, attitudes and obsessions that chain us to the negative aspects of our past. People who are spiritually whole can accept themselves for what they are and recognize what they might yet become with the help of the spirit of God within them. We need to ask God to replace any feelings of guilt or bitterness with the empowering love that enables us to realise our full potential as human beings. It is taking this spirit of love into our lives that will enable us to live life in all its fullness.
      _________________________

      Father God,
      It’s never easy to let go of the past in our own strength. But you have shown us through the life of Jesus that we can be freed with your help. We ask for healing of our spiritual wounds and for the help to make a fresh start, to look forward to the future with the peace of mind and hope that come from journeying with you as disciples of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Amen

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      1. Many thanks Pavel. Bit difficult to express this. Yes, I find forgiveness for my own sins, errors, faults, and I forgive, often with some difficulty, those who have offended me. I forgive and try to forget the offences and in doing so find the empowering love of God that promises me a new start with the relationship. My issue is with “structural sin” where I reap the benefits of an unjust and unfair capitalist economic system. It is not my fault and yet I feel it would be inauthentic, delusional, even callous to forgive and forget this “sin”, pretending it never happened. And what sort of “new start” would it be for those who suffer and suffered from our offences if I/we did forgive ourselves and forget! We could say this is “political” and we just need some restorative justice, but that is just avoiding the issue. I feel there is something deeply spiritual here about love for our neighbour that transcends forgiveness. In reaching out to those who suffer and suffered, an ethical melancholy arises that transcends reduction to objectivity, cognition and self-interest, and actually brings about a heightened sense of the essential goodness of life, and of God. On reflection I now feel that this melancholy draws together the offenders and those who are offended, bringing us hope of a new relationship that transcends forgiveness in this situation. What do you think?

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  5. It can be unhealthy to take on inherited guilt. If we have had no part in what went on and if we have no way of changing the past, we can end up in a state of melancholy to which there seems no clear solution. It is far better to focus on the present and the future and to do what we can to improve current and future situations. A lot of people in this country, including in your neighbourhood, and also across the world are going to need help this autumn and winter. If you feel the need to do penance for the past, there will be plenty of opportunities for that. Rumour has it that severe cuts in overseas aid are planned. So how might we support families in those countries which will lose grants, for example? Many of the poorest countries will be hit by climate change which they did not cause and again this is not high on this country’s agenda. There is plenty of campaigning to be done.
    I am not minimising the wrong that has been done in the past; I’m just suggesting that it is far more positive and productive to put our energies and our thoughts into what we can try to do something about that will improve lives now and in the years to come.

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