Sisters and Brothers,
At the start of her ministry, one of my friends was called to a congregation in Namibia. A lot her work consisted of visiting some of the congregants – farmers. She would travel far and once she arrived, would have to open one gate after the other to get to the farmhouse. It was quite cumbersome. Stop. Get out of the car. Open the gate. Drive through. Get out of the car. Close the gate. Get back in the car. She had to repeat this process about three times before the farmhouse was reached.
I visited some of those people a few years ago with her and I took part in this process: it was my job to open and close the gates. I realized what the purpose of the many gates were: they are entry points to different camps. The fences or walls they are connected to, separate the different livestock (age and type) and they keep anything out that is not supposed to be there or can be perceived as a danger to the animals. Furthermore, the gates and the fences they are connected to, demarcate different people’s property and function as border or boundary lines. They identify who’s who and what belongs to whom and therefore they keep in, as much as they keep out.
In a sense, then, gates and walls or fences are dialectic and ambivalent in nature: they are both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. This dialectic nature of gates, walls and stricter immigration control, is a hot global topic and a phenomenon which itself is a dividing factor. I attended a conference last year during which one of the participants was making a case towards a theological ethics of immigration. He said that advocates of borders ground their theological arguments on a type of natural theology and the doctrine of divine providence: you are born as you are and with that comes certain natural, identifying aspects which distinguish you from others. Borders mark difference. He argued however that borders are perceived protection and not actual protection, and therefore that erecting borders is mostly creating a ‘preferential option for your own people’.
Africa and South-Africa have not escaped the arguments surrounding the ambivalent nature of borders. Recent violent clashes with law enforcement, that took place in our own backyard, illustrate the deep-rooted place that borders/boundaries and gates have in our collective memory, identity and psyche. ‘The Other’, who-ever that may be, is not a comfortable presence, and more often than not, challenges our pre-conceived and nurtured concepts about space and place, about relationships and ethics, about hospitality and love.
We are here today to mark a 100 year long history and 100 year long journey. We will soon hereafter make our way to the outside of the Faculty of Theology, to engage in a ritual to mark an aspect of this history and journey of the Faculty – something it is hoped will become the identifying characteristic of the Faculty, namely, Open Gates.
As I stated previously, gates and walls are much more ambivalent than they might appear at first glance. It is not as simple as opening up closed gates. Open gates can be closed again. In light of my previous remarks, one could ask, what are gates and walls doing there in the first place? Is the community of believers, the church, contrary to the world, not a borderless society? This was something that demanded serious consideration from me in my preparation for this sermon. After many days and weeks spent pondering this, I came to the conclusion that gates and walls, entry points to God, are null and void. A gate and a wall to keep people from God, cannot be created. Because it is not possible to keep people away from God in this manner.
The broken human condition, however, did manage and manages it all the time, to erect walls and fences and instate gates. This is the reality of human history. The reality of the human condition is also such that property –and country borders exist. If borders and gates, simultaneously include and exclude, how is humanity to find a way to reconcile diversity? Or stated slightly differently, Can boundaries become symbols of reconciling diversity?
Celebrating 100 years of theology at the University of Pretoria is an ambivalent and dialectic undertaking by its very nature. When you celebrate, you look backwards and forwards, simultaneously. It is not for nothing that Greek and Roman mythology illustrated the boundary of one year and the beginning of the next with the Janus-face: a face consisting of two separate, but joined faces, looking in opposite directions. The faculty of Theology is doing the same thing: we are looking back and reflecting on the ‘way’ or ‘path’ that has brought us here and in so doing, reflecting on a ‘way’ or ‘path’ to the next 100 years of theology. The gates are the metaphor for the manner and method of the journey.
In Israel’s tradition, wisdom was of such existential importance, that it was personified in female form as a woman’s name: Hokma in Hebrew and Sophia in Greek. Life as a ‘way’ or ‘path’ was the central metaphor in the wisdom tradition. The verses of the poem we read are a viaticum – a provision or currency for a journey, given to someone about to embark on the journey of life. The poem is an instruction. The instructor claims to give directions and lead the way, but does not really do so.
The instructor does however set out different options. Two ways are contrasted: the way of the good, which is the way of wisdom; and the way of the bad, which is the way of the wicked. It might seem like a simple or even easy choice. If the way of wisdom is the one without obstacles, the one on which you will not stumble, what choice is there? The way of wisdom, obviously, is the one that should be chosen.
It is however not a decision based on what would seem to be self-evident truths. Further on in the poem, the metaphor of ‘the way’ is expanded by the use of another metaphor, namely, light/darkness. The instructor describes the way of wisdom as one on which you can see where you are going. The way of the wicked is described as a way in which you make your journey in darkness, not seeing anything. No destination is mentioned and it becomes clear that one way will not lead to a better outcome that another because the outcomes are simply not mentioned. Only the manner of travel is described: seeing or not seeing; knowing or not knowing.
If you have light when you travel, you can see what is on the way. If you walk, your step will not be impeded and if you run, you will not stumble. If you have darkness when you travel, you won’t know what you may stumble over. Obstacles, hurdles (and might we say gates and walls), are a reality on the way. The poem does not promise a way which is without obstacles. The difference is that the obstacles on the way, which is life, will be illuminated. You will be able to see them. And therefore be able to circumnavigate them. The contrast in the end is not about two separate paths, it is rather about two ways of taking the same path, two ways of travelling on the path – the path which is life. The way does not does not lead to life, the way is life.
The path that is life is not smooth, therefore it is important to have light to be able to see. If the way of wisdom is chosen, you are still going to walk a difficult path, but God’s light, wisdom personified, will illuminate the way. In this regard, wisdom is a convergence of human effort and a Divine gift. Wisdom comes from God, but has to be practiced by human hands. Belief in God’s decisive influence in the world and knowing the wisdom of God must be expressed in concrete behaviour in the world.
In other words, knowledge, belief and action are the provisions, the currency given to us by God at the start of a journey. These provisions see us through when we encounter closed gates on the journey. So it was for Peter on his journey. In Acts we read about many apostles taking a long journey that started in Jerusalem and ended in Rome. On his part of this journey, Peter found himself imprisoned. He was imprisoned because he followed the way of Jesus. There were three gates between him and continuing on this way. Two in the prison itself, and the third – an iron gate, which led to the city. Human hands created and closed the gates. Peter however followed the light that appeared in the prison, continued forward under the guidance of the Lord (followed the way) and the barriers on his path dissolved by themselves. God had opened the gates. Peter had the provisions: knowledge, belief and action, to continue on the way of Jesus – the way of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being.
‘And iron the gates opened by themselves …’. The text I chose for the theological reflection on inclusivity this morning. Because in essence, this is what we at the Faculty of Theology are doing this year, with our faces pointed, ‘Janus-like’ both backwards and forwards. We are reflecting on the hospitality of our theology. If we acknowledge that the gates open by themselves, because it is God’s doing and not ours, we must acknowledge at the same time that an entry point to God, serves no purpose and is void. God is open. But because we heed the instruction of the teacher of Proverbs, we must also acknowledge that even though God can circumnavigate any type of barrier, the human condition nevertheless keep on creating barriers. These obstacles are found on the way that is life.
A west-African folktale tells the story of a young boy, a woman and an old man. Once there was a woman and her young child working the fields in scorching sun. One day she collapses from utter fatigue. Her small boy tries everything he can to revive her, because he knows that when the slave drivers reach them, they will punish him and his mother severely. While he keeps on trying to shake her awake, an old man comes closer to stand by them. Amongst the slaves this man was known as a prophet and preacher and the sight of him scares the child further. ‘Is it time?’…Is it that time?’, the child cries out.
The old man replies, ‘Yes, it is time, but not the time that you are frightened of’. The man bends down and whispers in the ears of the woman, ‘Cooleebah! Cooleebah! Instantaneously the woman stands up, an air of dignity in her stance. She takes her son’s hand in hers and looks up to the heavens and start to fly! The slave drivers rush toward, confused.
In the meantime, the old man runs to all the slaves and calls to them, ‘Cooleebah! Cooleebah! The moment the call is heard, one after the other the slaves start flying. The slave drivers are extremely anxious now. They grab the old man and violently try and force him to bring the slaves back. Amidst the blows he smiles and says to them, ‘I can’t bring them back’. The slave drivers start pleading with him, because they are going to be in trouble with the owners of the slaves, ‘Please, bring them back’, they cry. ‘I have said that I can’t’, the old man replies. ‘Why not?!’, they demand. ‘The Word is in them. Because the Word is in them, it can never be taken away from them and they can never be separated from the Word’.
They ask the old man, ‘Which Word?’. He replies: Cooleebah. A West-African word that has given them dignity. From now on they can fly. ‘But what does “Cooleebah” mean’, the slave drivers ask.
The old man smiles and answers: ‘God!’
Similar sentiments are expressed by the poet of Psalm 31: ‘…You have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities, you have not delivered me into enemy-hands …Rather, you have set my feet in a broad place.
The Word is in us. We have a broad place. It cannot be taken away. It makes us fly – far above and beyond humanly created borders. The challenge for us at the Faculty, the church and beyond is to acknowledge that God will always open the gates. God’s openness, the broad living space of the Trinitarian God, will continue to encompass and to include.
There should not be entry points to God. But the history of the human condition, the church and the faculty bear witness to the creation and closure of entry points to God on the grounds of otherness: gender, class, race, sexuality, religion and country of birth. A minister in my church once said, ‘the price of freedom is constant vigilance. In years past, these words have been my constant companion and reminder to see injustice where it occurs and to expose it. The only way for gates and borders to become symbols of reconciling diversity is to guard their openness as if your life depended on it. Because it does. The way of wisdom personified, God, is the way of justice. It is not an option. It is the necessity of life.
God’s openness, God’s tolerance, brings us all to a Kairos moment, a moment in which we are confronted with a choice. Challenges remain. But the future is open.
So, let’s fly!
Dr Tanya van Wyk
Universiteit van Pretoria/University of Pretoria
6 Maart/March 2017