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Challenging the politics of empire


Mpho Putu, a pastor at a Vineyard church in Soweto (right), and Cobus van Wyngaard, a pastor from the Dutch Reformed church (left) participants who gathered for first ever theological forum held by the Anabaptist Network in South Africa  (ANiSA).  Putu and van Wyngaard are members of the ANiSA steering commmittee.

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Mennonite Church Canada/Anabaptist Network in Southern Africa joint release
May 16, 2011
-Andrew Suderman

SOUTH AFRICA — As a young Christian man actively involved in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Mpho Putu knew that some of the movement’s protest songs included themes of revenge killing that posed challenges to what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Today, Mpho Putu is a pastor at a Vineyard church in Soweto and was one of the presenters at the first ever theological forum held by the Anabaptist Network in South Africa  (ANiSA). Putu understands that Jesus, in a radical display of God’s love for humanity, challenged the empire of his day and was sucked into the vortex of its political reality. Jesus ultimately died as a political prisoner.

 How Jesus’ example should be understood in light of the new globalization of empire we experience today was the main topic of discussion at the April 30, 2011 forum. The theme, “Discipleship amidst Empire” drew participants from a variety of backgrounds in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area who gathered at the Mondeor Community Church to wrestle with the topic.

What does discipleship look like in the midst of today’s context where the boundaries of nation-states have become more permeable and sovereignty, power, and control, are taking shape in new ways and under new conditions? What must disciples of Christ do in the midst of a globalized empire, where sovereignty has been up-scaled from the nation-state to the global? How does one live as a faithful disciple of Jesus in the midst of this new reality?

Cobus van Wyngaard, a pastor from the Dutch Reformed church, and Mpho Putu, both members of the ANiSA Steering Committee, presented their insights.

Putu observed that while Jesus died as a political prisoner of the Empire of his day, “Today… the church in South Africa is silent during times of injustice.” This does not reflect the model of Jesus whose life countered the accepted political reality of the day with a higher calling – and ultimately lost his life when this higher calling was understood as a challenge to the powers of the empire.

Putu, in defining “politics” as “being that which pertains to matters of the people,” noted that we are all involved in politics. The difference is that the politics of disciples of Jesus are shaped by the identity of the one they follow. “A disciple’s identity is shaped by God.” This determines how one participates in political realities, he said, reflecting on his inability to sing violent protest songs as a young man during Apratheid.

Cobus van Wyngaard offered a definition of Empire used by Albert Nolan, author and priest in the Dominican Order: “Empire is the structure of power that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.” Nolan chose to stay in South Africa during the apartheid era even though he was offered a post at the order’s Rome headquarters.

Said van Wyngaard, “We regularly take notice of the obvious examples of Empire, but we also need to take heed of the small demonstrations of Empire as well, which often go unnoticed.”

Van Wyngaard defined discipleship as that which “challenges the myths of empire by providing an alternative example in the face of these myths.”

In this regard, van Wyngaard looked at the contribution made by the Anabaptist movement as it has provided a distinct and visible understanding of church that provides an alternative example in the face of empire, whether influenced by Christendom or not.

The aim of the ANiSA theological forum is to explore issues of faith that impact daily living in Southern Africa and beyond, encouraging and challenging participants to explore, embrace, and embody a radical lifestyle centered around God’s reconciling vision for the world.

Andrew and Karen Suderman are Mennonite Church Canada workers in South Africa who are grateful for the financial support of Mennonite Church Canada congregations as they work to grow the Anabaptist Network in South Africa. ANiSA seeks to walk with, support, and grow communities of peace, justice, and reconciliation within South Africa.