On the 22nd January 2020, a growing group of concerned faith leaders called gathered at Gatesville Mosque to share their vision of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration, launched in 2019. This is a response to the current crisis experienced in the poorer neighborhoods of Cape Town, including gangsterism, gender based violence, refugee-ism, xenophobia and addiction.
Leaders of Christian churches, Islamic communities, other religious communities, the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and the Police commissioner of the Western Cape, Ms. Yolisa Matakata were hosted by Shaykh Abdurrahman Alexander and his team at Masjidal Quds. Notably absent was Wilfed Alcock, the main driver of the document and its community, who sadly is gravely ill at this moment.
I was asked to share a perspective on the Document, its community, and its process. Here is what I said
A response to and assessment of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration
Nic Paton, Cape Town Interfaith Initiative
I am humbled by and grateful for the invitation given to me to comment on the CFID of 2019. This pithy statement somehow encapsulates the best of what our society represents: united aspirations, a shared view of the immediate problems, and a willingness to wholeheartedly and practically collaborate across the boundaries and categories of race, economics and religion.
Above all, we are indebted to Wilfred Alcock of SAWUSA for his role in originating, articulating and energetically promoting the document. We think of him now and wish him the recovery that would enable him to partake in the fruits of his visionary work.
The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration is reminiscent of earlier famous commitments emerging from the South African process, such as the Belhar Confession of 1982 (only 5 km from here), and the Kairos document, issued in 1985 by South African churches under apartheid (Kairos is Greek for “special moment”). But while these addressed a divided Christian church, in which “Both oppressor and oppressed claim loyalty to the same church” we now find ourselves in a new post-apartheid context, but facing issues both abiding and new and including gangsterism, gender based violence, addiction, refugeeism and inequitable wealth distribution to name a few.
It is also important to bring to mind the “Charter for Compassion”, a widely-subscribed international declaration originating in 2009, to which the City of Cape Town is committed. Key here is that the principle that compassion is central to all religion, and impels us to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures. Happily, it would appear that the CFID is in line with this approach.
The declaration is already making its mark. For example, in his khutbah (sermon) on Jan 3rd, Imam Dr Rashied Omar of Claremont Main Road Mosque said:
“The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration initiative has provided much needed comfort and pastoral support to grieving and traumatised communities on the Cape Flats. In addition the interfaith solidarity movement has also sought to strengthen civil society’s efforts to address the socio-economic roots of violence and crime, to hold our local and national governments accountable for their constitutional responsibility to provide safety and security to all of its citizens and to change the Cape Flats narrative by highlighting its many positive stories”.
In appraising any text, it is critical that we fully grasp its context. No text aspiring towards real change exists in an academic or theoretical vacuum; or finds itself divorced from its origin, its community, the causes it is addressing, and all connections to the broader surrounding reality. It is my feeling and observation that this context has been wonderfully integrated into its wording. The trust, hospitality and honesty of Declaration’s holding community is apparent for all to see, and an enactment of the famous biblical injunction
“let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds, and glorify your Father in Heaven”.
What is clear from the CFI declaration is that is a significantly bottom-up approach to the specific problems of the Cape Flats. It is both “yours” – as residents here – and “ours” – including the wider society – in that it acknowledges as point 1, the united aspiration of the broader society to collaborate. Being “bottom-up” is a relatively new understanding, articulated by liberation theology in recent times. Instead of taking orders from “above”, the people discover and own the process they find themselves in, and the solutions to their problems are not imposed but emerge from their midst. This does not preclude any top-down support, as they declaration itself commits to working in partnership with government institutions (point 7).
Neither does this negate our religious traditions, which do tend to create precepts which we take upon ourselves to obey. However, in the name of both top down and bottom up, let us broaden our view of this sacred duty, this “din” (Arabic for religious commitment): “Be doers of the Word” should be balanced with “Be Worders of the Do”.
Being a “Worder of the Do” is precisely what the CFID is about. Instead of creating yet more precepts, and recommendations, it is more of a wording, an articulation, of already existing compassion, in the context of righteous relationships, and a shared reality of Ubuntu: “I am what I am through you”.
Point 2 – “to experience, practice and pursue community” – is for me the heart of the declaration. As I see it 2 major impediments exist here. Firstly, the hard truth of spacial apartheid which is not as “easily” erased as its legislative counterpart, means that we do not live in or share the same neighbourhoods. Secondly, society at large lacks the will to overcome the inertia, be it through shellshock, denial, or the soporific effects of comforts and the media. Nonetheless, the pursuit of community in these terms remains a cardinal calling.
I have been very inspired of late by the Islamic notion of “tawhid” – oneness. In the words of Ibn Arabi, a great mystic in the Sufi tradition,
My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles and a cloister for Christian monks,
A temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba,
And the tables of the torah and the book of the Qur’an.
I follow the religion of love: whatever way love’s camels take,
That is my religion and my faith.
Ibn Arabi, like all mystics, transcended the orthodoxies of his time, to discover the “religion of love”, which I believe lies at the heart of every path. What I see in this declaration is an expression of this heart. And I ask myself is my heart “capable of every form”?
In this call to breadth and generosity of heart, let us consciously remain open to those universes not yet fully represented here. The majority of us are from the Abrahamic traditions, but there are emerging expressions of spirituality who may feel excluded by this unless we constantly affirm and grow our inclusion. For example, many of my “tribe” consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, but have tremendous energies of compassionate service to offer.
In Mark Nepo’s powerful book “More together than alone – the power of community” (here with Oprah Winfrey), he states:
In the Hindu Upanishads, there’s a passage that speaks to how those who become wise lose their names in the Great Oneness, the way rivers lose their names when they flow into the sea. In this transformation from the solitary to the communal, there’s a mysterious physics that each generation has to relearn regarding what is possible when we can work together.
Time and again, we’re asked to discover, through love and suffering, that we are at heart the same. How do we come to this knowledge in our lives, in our families, and in our communities? What brings us together and what throws us apart? How do we inhabit what we have in common as well as what makes us unique in ways that deepen our daily practice of service and compassion?
These practices of service, struggle, restoration, advocacy and so forth, are brilliantly articulated in the Declaration. There is no shortage it would appear, of activists here. However we should always be on the lookout for a balanced and vital connection between those who act and those who reflect.
Now, one way in which I serve, is to ask questions, to find angles and perspectives that others with different gifts and orientations might miss.
American “post-evangelical” Brian McLaren stated in 2009 at the Amahoro conference held in Gauteng, “Statements lead to a state, questions lead to a quest.” Now our text is indeed, a statement. But what I’d like to explore is what the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration might look like posing as a question.
While many of us may belong to religious establishments where certainty and order are highly valued, I am part of a path which holds questioning as primary. I am not here criticising structures that work, belief systems that nurture, or practices that bring calm and healing. Part of our practicing community across divides includes the divide between orthodoxies and heterodoxy, priesthood and prophethood, between the temple and the wilderness, between settledness and adventures of pilgrimage.
Let us then embark upon an exercise, a conversation with our text. For each point of declaration – each statement – let us respond with a question that might fuel our quest.
(NB: I will be posting a full copy of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration soon)
|1. We are united in aspiring and collaborating to eradicate the social ills on the Cape Flats and the broader South African society.
||Who are “we”?
What are the values that bind us?
What will create sustainable unity?
How united are we; can we own and identify any disunity?
How relevant is the message to the broader society?
|2. We will experience, practice and pursue community with one another, across our religious divide, around the common goals and objectives in the fight against gangsterism, crime and violence.
||What IS our religious divide; can we honestly articulate our similarities and differences?
Are we fighting against of working for something?
What impediments are there to community?
Do we implement the Golden Rule – “Treat others as you would have them treat you”?
What makes us different, unique, outstanding?
|3. We stand by our people in depressed communities in any form of suffering and need.
||What is a “depressed community”?
How do we measure our stand? What does it look like?
Who can help us? How can we bolster our core strength?
What is the root cause that is below the surface?
Does religion evolve?
Can we say “no!” placing limits on our energies and making our practice sustainable?
|4. We give of ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another and our people.
||Can we give of ourselves/celebrate in crisis? (“How can we dance while the world is turning, how can we sleep while our beds are burning” – Midnight Oil 1987)
What form might our celebration take? (street dikr)
How do we support ourselves to facilitate/refresh ourselves to sustain our giving?
|5. We witness and strive against any form of injustice, so that righteousness, love, peace and harmony amongst all people may roll down like waters, and virtue like an everflowing stream.
|Could we refine, even perfect, “peacework” as an intentional practice?
|6. We build and sustain partnerships with government officials and government institutions with trust and cooperation.
||What partnerships, beyond government, might we desire?
What about partnerships with other faith groups not commonly represented?
|7. We protect the rights of all religious communities to carry out religious ceremonies and sacraments and stand united against those who wish to pursue practices of intolerance, prejudice, chauvinism and bigotry.
||Can we confess to intolerance, prejudice, chauvinism (excessive patriotism/ blind devotion to a cause), bigotry (intolerance towards different opinions), sexism, inside our own traditions?
In “standing against”, should one be “outing” bigots/oppressors/ violent people/the corrupt?
Can we do more than just “tolerate”? (see Dr. Omar kutbah)
How can we be more relational than institutional?
Can we forgive ourselves and each other?
|8. We pray in unison and join hands together to fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.
||How deep does interfaith prayer go as opposed to our own prayer?
How well can we manage the competing claims to followers and adherents loyalties?
|9. We collectively pray and seek God’s forgiveness and healing as a nation and his grace in our time of need.
||Can we regularly “confess” to one another?