Towards shalom in my neighbourhood…

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. (Ecc 4:1, ESV)

The above quote has been key for my us in our journey as we have recognized that it is both the rich and the poor who require God’s kingdom to bring shalom into and through their lives. My wife and I and my five children relocated to Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa in May 2012. On our website we have stated the reason for our move as follows:

“We are a rather ordinary family doing some extraordinary things. We believe as Christians that God is extremely concerned with the brokenness in our city and nation and that He has called each one of us to get involved in making a difference. To bring change, we need to see the future, prepare for the future and then become the future… or in the words of Gandhi “we must become the change we want to see in the world. We want to see a world in which the rich do not tolerate extreme poverty and inequality. We want to see many people actually laying down their lives of comfort and convenience for the sake of bettering the lives of others. Seeing people freed from poverty, inequality, racism and exploitation is more important than fulfilling our lust for more things! We want to be part of a society in which people are valued more than things. We want to see the god of consumerism in South Africa bowing its knee to a love motivated revolution which results in freedom from oppression and exploitation. We want to see this for all people, regardless of class, citizenship, race or religion. We dream of equality in every sector of society. We believe that if the education system is not OK for a rich kid, it is not OK for a poor kid. The same goes with healthcare, housing, security. The same goes for rural kids and inner city kids. The same for black kids and white kids. We are not more valuable than the least valued in our society. We are doing our lives in a new way. We are going to live our dream and see this reality briefly described above happening around us. We hope others will join us and this will happen around them too. Who knows, very soon, the world can be a different place!”

In a sense the above describes our vision of Shalom for our community that developed out of our journey of considering what God’s will would look, smell, taste, sound and feel like if fully done in our community. The reasons for us developing this vision have been rooted in our understanding of the brokenness existing in our neighbourhood in the context of South Africa’s history. I would like to begin therefore by explaining some of this context and history so we can understand what salvation would look like in our community. Hillbrow is a one square kilometre area that formed part of the original Johannesburg. Johannesburg’s history stretches back to a Sunday in March, 1886, when Australian, George Harrison, stumbled upon surface outcrops of gold-rich conglomerate on a farm-land near the centre of Johannesburg. Gold changed the face of Johannesburg. Before 1886, it had been a struggling Boer republic, but 10 years later, it was the richest gold mining area in the world. As news of the gold find spread throughout South Africa and the rest of the world, men made their way to Johannesburg. President Paul Kruger appointed a commission to survey a site for a township to service the new goldfields. A triangular two-and-a-half square kilometre piece of “uitvalgrond” (ground left over) from the three Boer farms – Braamfontein, Turfontein and Doornfontein was identified and duly mapped out. The booming mining town required cheap, unskilled labour and so within just a few years, many thousands of men were leaving their homes from all over the world to join the unskilled migrant workers who flocked to Johannesburg for the low wages on offer. From its early beginnings, white “Randlords” (a term used at the time to describe the entrepreneurs who controlled the diamond and gold industries in South Africa in its pioneer phase) lived in opulence while the predominantly black Mineworkers were subjected to humiliating, degrading and exploitative conditions.

Many historians argue that the system of racial discrimination is rooted in the migrant labour system. The popular song by Jazz musician Hugh Masekela, entitled Stimela (the coal train) describes quite well these tumultuous times and what they must have meant for the men who flooded to Johannesburg: 

“There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi. There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe, There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland, From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. This train carries young and old, African men who are conscripted to come and work on contract in the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg and its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay. Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth when they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone, or when they dish that mish mesh mush food into their iron plates with the iron shank; or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy, flea-ridden barracks and hostels. They think about the loved ones they may never see again because they might have already been forcibly removed from where they last left them or wantonly murdered in the dead of night by roving, marauding gangs of no particular origin, we are told. They think about their lands, their herds that were taken away from them with a gun, bomb, teargas and the cannon and when they hear that Choo-Choo train they always curse, curse the coal train, the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg”

Over 125 years later and they continue to come, migrant workers flock to “eGoli” (the city of gold). For many who flock to South Africa, the city centre of Johannesburg, and in particular Hillbrow, is the starting point. Many who come are fleeing economic meltdowns, poverty and conflicts which have besieged the African continent. While gold is no longer mined close to the centre of Johannesburg, its bedfellow, the South African Rand, still lures men from across the continent. Many of the remnants of the multi-tentacled legacy of the migrant labour system still linger and have left the city and its people scarred.

Our city has also not been birthed in a vacuum. It has grown and developed within the context of a brutal and dehumanising apartheid system. Even after almost 20 years into our democracy it too has left our nation and land scarred. As a nation, we face significant challenges in the following nine areas, according to the recent national planning commission set up by the South Africa presidency:

  1. Poor Educational Outcomes;
  2. High Disease Burden;
  3. Divided Communities;
  4. Uneven Public Service;
  5. Spatial Patterns which marginalise the poor;
  6. Too few South Africans are employed;
  7. Corruption;
  8. A Resource Intensive Economy and 
  9. Crumbling Infrastructure. 

Underpinning all of these, they argue, are the two root challenges of a) Poverty and b) Inequality. Regarding poverty in Sub Saharan Africa, this region is the only region in the world where the number of poor people (people living below the poverty line) is increasing. Regarding inequality: the levels of inequality in South Africa have rapidly increased since 1994. Economists now tell us that South Africa has the dubious distinction of being labelled as the most unequal society in the world. This means both the number of poor and the gap between rich and poor has been getting worse, not better in South Africa since 1994. The issues we face as a nation are huge and are going to require considerable effort to overcome.

And so with this background, let me now share the father of modern South Africa’s vision for shalom in our nation which he shared upon acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1993:

“At the southern tip of the continent of Africa, a rich reward in the making, an invaluable gift is in the preparation for those who suffered in the name of all humanity when they sacrificed everything – for liberty, peace, human dignity and human fulfilment. This reward will not be measured in money. Nor can it be reckoned in the collective price of the rare metals and precious stones that rest in the bowels of the African soil we tread in the footsteps of our ancestors. It will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures. The children must, at last, play in the open veld, no longer tortured by the pangs of hunger or ravaged by disease or threatened with the scourge of ignorance, molestation and abuse, and no longer required to engage in deeds whose gravity exceeds the demands of their tender years. In front of this distinguished audience, we commit the new South Africa to the relentless pursuit of the purposes defined in the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. The reward of which we have spoken will and must also be measured by the happiness and welfare of the mothers and fathers of these children, who must walk the earth without fear of being robbed, killed for political or material profit, or spat upon because they are beggars. They too must be relieved of the heavy burden of despair which they carry in their hearts, born of hunger, homelessness and unemployment. The value of that gift to all who have suffered will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of all the people of our country, who will have torn down the inhuman walls that divide them.” (Nelson Mandela, Oslo, 1993)

As I dream of Shalom for my community, I am guided by these words of Nelson Mandela and cognisant of the haunting voices from our history, reminding me that forces larger than I have for centuries been at work dehumanising, violating, destabilising, demonising, and opposing God’s vision of Shalom. Living in Hillbrow, at this strategic time in our nation I realise that God wants me to become the answer to my prayers for Shalom. Surely God’s vision for shalom, starts in me. It starts as a tiny seed, a seed of hope. The dream I have for my community may in my lifetime never be attained, but in my life others will hopefully catch a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom could look like if we embraced it. We are the weapon God wishes to use in setting the oppressed free, and in breaking the back of extreme poverty, inequality and injustice. When I look at the life of Jesus, and weigh up all of the stories recorded in Scripture, I notice (and I am not trying to ruffle feathers by saying this) that while Jesus did indeed spend time praying, that was not the focus of what is recorded about his life on this planet. The main focus of Jesus’ life was demonstrating practically what the world would look like around us if God was king. I have come to believe that these kingdom life demonstrations of Jesus should be at the heart of our spiritual warfare as well. This in my view is the role of the true prophets – to become a sign of the age to come. We need Christians who will see the future, prepare for the future, and courageously become signs of the future pointing to a kingdom birthed in our lives but not yet fully evident in the world. As NT Wright says

“When God saves people in this life, by working through his spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus and discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they ought to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future… In other words… The work of salvation, in its full sense, is 1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; 2) about the present, not simply the future; and 3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.” (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p200-201)

We need to do this in every area of our lives. In the book of Revelation, John says “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev 11:15, NIV) As we allow God to take authority of every area of our lives and allow that authority to be demonstrated in every area of our lives, we make the Scripture a reality. We can then begin to demonstrate this authority in our family, our community, our nation and the world. The diagram below represents this thinking as I dream of Shalom for my community. It reflects for me the process by which we bring shalom (from demonstrating it in our lives and then into our family, community, nation and the nations and how we do this in every area of our lives.  



Diagram 1: A vision for transformation


To embrace this vision therefore I have to take up a calling to be the prophetic voice declaring the vision of God for my community, nation and world through my life. I need to live in a counter-culture manner, putting down greed, racism, selfishness, materialism, separation and other societal values and practices that are directly opposed to God’s shalom for my community. In a sense when we gave up our 6-bedroom home in the suburbs and “moved into the neighborhood”, our lives began to declare God’s Kingdom and will for a more shared caring economy. When we live in this way, we will begin to see signs of the new world breaking in all around us.

And so, In conclusion, I would like to quote from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church which for many is his magnus opus on ecclesiology. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10, NIV). It is my view that one of the things we cannot put down in order to bring about God’s will fully into our neighborhoods is the church. In all her brokenness, with all of her selfish ways, as divided as she stands, she is still God’s vehicle through which we must confront the powers of this age.


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