By Simon Peters, United Reformed Church
I’m not really a breakfast person, but as I sat amongst a group of young, black South Africans eating cereal over a discussion about what they would do if they could re-write their history or influence their future, I was glad I had made the effort. Despite the official Apartheid ending over twenty years ago, finishing the formal separation of black, ‘coloured’ and white people in South Africa, racial inequality, injustice, tension and division remains rife across the nation. Whilst opinion varied on how to proceed, the group quickly reached the consensus that ‘empire’, along with its associated power imbalances, continues to marginalise and neglect the needs of the most vulnerable in society.
Little did I realise that this early morning encounter was to kick off one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life, as young people gathered in Johannesburg from around the globe to participate in the Council for World Mission (CWM) Global Youth Forum, the first such gathering in at least thirty years. Looking at ‘Building Disciples in the Context of Empire’, the conference brought participants face to face with the realities of what happens when certain groups grow in power, wealth and influence, rising above others, whether it’s rich vs poor, government vs citizens, black vs white or even religion vs humanity.
We heard from Taiwanese students about their occupation of the Legislative Juan in Taipei to demand justice when the government failed to follow appropriate procedure in taking forward its plans for a trade agreement with China. We shared stories with young people working to overcome the barriers and boundaries established by the caste system in India, which brands many as ‘Dalit’ or ‘untouchable’, preventing them from accessing the goods, education and services they need to live healthy, prosperous lives. We saw images of the devastation which climate change is causing in the South Pacific islands, which the rest of the world is causing through its greed and selfishness, resulting in innocent families losing their homes, their livelihoods and, piece by piece, their very nations. We saw the valiant efforts of young artists in the Caribbean to raise awareness and demand action on a range of issues affecting the region, including the continuing crisis of human trafficking.
Visits to Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto and the Hector Pieterson museum, along with cultural presentations from each of the regions represented, further reminded participants of the struggles which people around the globe have suffered, and continue to suffer, in the fight for global justice.
These people really know what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. When scripture tells them that ‘If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles’ (Matthew 5:41), they know that this refers to the patience and resilience they must show when faced with the ignorance, aggression or neglect of the rich and powerful around them. When they read that ‘whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:27), they know that they are required to sacrifice their own happiness, fulfilment and sometimes even lives, for the benefit of others, if we are to truly build the Kingdom of God on earth.
As a Briton who has spent time living in the Netherlands, one of the most challenging realisations came from the fact that many of the problems and issues faced by many across our worldwide family arise from the occupation and colonisation of nations by the British and Dutch Empires. This was made even more poignant when images of the Calais ‘jungle’ were put on display. If it were not enough that European nations hold major responsibility for the world’s current situation, we also fail to welcome those who suffer as a result of this with the dignity and compassion they so richly deserve.
If we were operating according to visceral human nature, I should have been seen as the enemy. However, I wasn’t. We were establishing what it means to be a disciple of Christ and, for the young people present, in the midst of their suffering and pain, that meant forgiveness, reconciliation and moving forward, hand in hand, together. This was exceptionally moving.
As we worshipped, participants brought songs of joy, praise and strength to the table. There was no sense of worry, regret, sadness or pessimism, only love, hope and happiness as we focused on the presence of God with us and all that we could achieve if we only accepted God’s invitation to follow as faithful disciples.
Just in case we didn’t feel motivated enough by all we had heard and seen, the official word of encouragement from CWM, delivered by its General Secretary, Rev Dr Collin Cowan, reminded us that it is not the will of God for us to stand still in the face of empire, but to stand firm and do whatever it takes to break through the traditions, structures, institutions and barriers which empire builds around us. As young people, he said, we are well placed, with our energy, audacity, resilience and passion, to do this. We must not shy away from God’s call to action.
The United Reformed Church is about to embark on a new adventure with ‘Walking the Way: Living the Life of Jesus Today’. This theme focus will aim to help everyone in the denomination and beyond to build their identity in Christ and to recognise their personal value in mission, using their gifts and talents to serve God whoever and wherever they are. The CWM Global Youth Forum leaves us with vital questions to ask. Where does power lie where we are? If it sits with governments and authorities, how can the people reclaim it? If power is held by the Church how can Christians ensure that it is used responsibly? If we hold power ourselves, how can we share it more equally?
As we all calm down from the experience and share our experiences more widely, there will be much to unpack and consider further. What is immediately clear, however, is that ‘empire’ is not a distant, historical memory. It is a constant, growing, living threat to peace, compassion, justice and all that the Kingdom of God stands for. As disciples of Christ, we must remain ever vigilant to the balances of power around us and keep our commitment to building a world of equality and freedom for all God’s children.
God is calling us. The young people of CWM have given their affirmative answer. How will we respond?