On Angelic Troublemakers

In recent years I have stumbled across the names of remarkable individuals whose lives have been all but hidden in the vaults of history. They are the people who have worked tirelessly alongside some of the biggest activists and social revolutionaries of our time. They are the myriad people around the world who have demonstrated that “long obedience in the same direction”, without critical acclaim.

We are a people of celebrity. We like our social heroes big and loud. We think that the true weight of social action is found in fanfare: clergy climbing over police barricades, moving speeches, and dramatic arrests. I am convinced that there is a right and fitting place for all of these, that the “theater of social action” is necessary in particular in the face of brazen injustice and evil.

But behind each of those actions are a thousand acts of mundanity and unremarkable revolt.

We all know of Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington in 1963. Few of us have heard of the man who organized that march – Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin organized transportation rosters for the thousands bussing in to the march, ensured off-duty police officers were trained and prepared to serve as marshals, put people in place to direct traffic, and scheduled the podium presentations. At the time, he received no credit for his role; as a black gay man who had already received scathing criticism and been targeted for his sexuality, he was deemed a liability to the success of the march. Nevertheless, he continued to serve in the background, acting as deputy director of the march.

A year after the March on Washington, Rustin was again asked to coordinate a public protest, this time a citywide boycott of New York public schools over segregation. That march involved 400,000 participants and became known as “the largest civil rights demonstration” in American history.

Bayard Rustin wrote,

“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

Bayard Rustin

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who will speak loudly in the public sphere and halls of politics. They must also include those who will speak boldly in the personal realm, at family dinners and in groups of friends.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who march and stage sit-ins on golf courses and hold banners outside parliament and shut down streets and maybe even throw a little manure around (yes, some of our most cherished institutions could do with a little creative compost to help them flourish). They must also include those who run spreadsheets, draft press releases, put together volunteer rosters, make food, plan transport schedules and buy the paint to rename streets.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who boycott school anthems and boycott sports. These groups must also include those who boycott slavery, oppression and environmental degradation by changing their household buying habits.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who bring lawsuits against city bylaws that discriminate against the poor and vulnerable. They must include those who produce powerful social theater against the scourge of gender based violence. They must also include those who chop vegetables five hours a day, seven days a week to feed the hungry in defiance of State gazettes, those who work to establish local food chain supplies that are just and accessible, those who plant gardens on street corners, and those who stage hunger strikes – not eating lunch until all can eat lunch.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who practice civil disobedience, and refuse to pay taxes that fund a violent police force. They must also include those who practice social disobedience, and refuse to  pay anything less than a living wage, even when neighbours complain that doing so ‘drives up the price’ of human labour. They must include those who practice religious disobedience, refusing to buy into the politics of hate that exclude the other on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or money.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who stand in front of weapons of war – in front of tanks, guns, bulldozers, the army, the police, and parliamentarians. They must also include those who wash the feet of the racist farmer whose toes are caked with the soil of his stolen land and who wash the dead feet of the refugee with no land to call home, who hung himself from a street pole in Sea Point. They must include those who name and call out death-dealing conditions, and those who cut strips of cloth to prepare bodies for burial.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who tear down statues of slave holders and throw them in rivers. They must also include those who tear down racist mindsets and perceptions and worldviews. They must include artists and poets and musicians and dancers who make the unfathomable understandable and who unflinchingly bring us face-to-face with the unconscionable.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must act in boardrooms and church vestries, in school classrooms and staff rooms and courtrooms and bedrooms, in homes and streets, in public spaces and private spaces, in the halls of government, the halls of (in)justice, the halls of power and the halls of abandoned buildings,  on stock market floors and in corner stores.

We may call these individuals angelic troublemakers or ordinary radicals or unconventional saints. The writer Flannery O’Connor writes,

Trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus…the Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire.

Flannery O’Connor

Here’s to those who will take their bodies – their bleeding, weeping, thinking bodies – and step out into a world of loss and fire and tuck their bodies in places so that wheels don’t turn and it’s no longer business as usual.


On the labourers at the side of the road

For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wealthy man who was making renovations to his house and drove down Rosmead Avenue at 7am on a Tuesday morning. He found some men sitting on the side of the road waiting for work. Pulling over, he called over to a man holding a paint roller, another holding a chainsaw and a third sitting next to a box of tools. He agreed to pay them R300 each for the day’s labour – a daily wage twice as large as the minimum wage set by the government. He set them to work at his home.

A few hours later, around 10 in the morning, he drove back down Rosmead and finding a few more men, agreed to the same rate and set them to work. When he went back down at midday, he saw a man who had been waiting for work since 6 am. The man was looking down at his shoes, dejection found in the line of his slumped shoulders. He was so engrossed in looking at the ground that he didn’t even notice the bakkie which had pulled up. Quickly recognizing the call for work, he jumped in the bakkie cab. When they returned to the house the others were already eating lunch. The wealthy man beckoned to the newly arrived worker, telling him to get out and join the others in their meal before starting work. Once more, around 4pm, the wealthy man was driving down Rosmead and found still more men sitting on the side of the road.

He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He ushered them into the vehicle and they too joined the workers on the construction site.

At around 5pm it was time for the workers to leave. A few of the wealthy man’s guests arrived and were sitting around in the garden drinking cocktails as the man gathered the workers and paid them each the wage of R300. The guests looked on in amazement. One of the guests, a lady, began questioning the workers: “Are you not angry that you who worked from early in the morning, skilled labourers who brought your own tools, received the same wage as the men who came an hour before the end of the work day? Isn’t that unfair? And what of the man who arrived at lunch time who shared the food that should have been all yours? He hadn’t even worked yet, before he was sitting down, putting his feet up and having tea!” The more she asked, the angrier she became. The workers didn’t respond, but thanking the wealthy man for the work, went together on their way.

When the workers had left, the wealthy man joined his friends. The woman who had been questioning the workers was furious. She was planning some house renovations and asked her friend whether he wasn’t ashamed that he was flaunting his wealth and driving labour costs up for all the rest of them. Others chimed in: “Now all labourers will expect R300?” “Don’t you think they’ll just stop by the shebeen on the way home and drink it away?” “I can’t afford to pay R300/day. What am I supposed to do now?” “You know they would have worked for you for half that amount. These people don’t need that much – they make do on much less.” “If you pay unskilled labourers the same as skilled labourers, there’s no incentive for people to improve themselves? Wage tiers are put in place for a reason.”

On and on the friends went. Eventually the wealthy man had enough. “What is it to you how I spend my money? You’re angry because my generosity highlights your stinginess. You accuse me, to justify yourselves. You snakes, trying to get away with the bare minimum required by law and hoarding up wealth, gorging yourselves on the labour of others.”

Sullenly, the guests got up to leave. As they went away they murmured amongst themselves, listing out the things they do for poor people and hating the wealthy man’s arrogance.

“Just like him, to try guilt-trip us into giving away everything we have. Well, just wait, because when he’s squandered his wealth away, those men are still going to be sitting day in and day out on the side of the road waiting for work. And then they’ll be forced to take anything they can get,” the lady grumbled.

on the Geography of Justice

As husband-man and I have returned to South Africa we’ve begun thinking about where we want to root ourselves and how the space we choose to be in might best reflect our desire to love our neighbors well, to be part of reconciliation in this beautiful land, to rebuild and repair. As we’ve begun to speak about where we might land, I have been profoundly struck by how our society still reflects the history of our country.

So much of South Africa’s neighborhoods are still sharply racially and class segregated and this is no wonder. Apartheid was in large part upheld by the spatial engineering of physical space and geographies. Land was zoned according to ethnicity/race and groups were assigned demarcated areas to live in. Buffer zones of natural landscape features and man-made infrastructure were employed as physical barriers to keep people apart. Transportation, electricity, and water infrastructure as well as centers of commerce were by extension inaccessible to many persons of color who were often assigned land on the very outskirts of cities/towns.

In South Africa, we don’t have metaphorical walls keeping us separate and disconnected; we have physical demarcations of division. Train lines, roads, rivers, mountains, and scrubland are still the tangible expressions and reproductions of our separation.

Apartheid was not only a political, legal and economic dispensation – it was a spatial dispensation.

The inequitable distribution of resources, services and access in South African communities is still largely one of the physical legacies of apartheid.  As Edward Soja puts it, justice has a geography. Injustice is graphically manifested. Our spaces remain imbued with the remnants of the historical project, with power and with privilege or with the lack of both. We are positioned and continue to re-position in ways that reproduce and reinforce inequality.

How can we begin asking the hard questions about the socio-spatial distributions of wants and needs in our cities – access to job opportunities, to health care, to good air quality? How might we begin to recognize that the morality of place and physicality of space – accessibility, walkability, transport equity – is not solely the mandate of government; it is the explicit remit of the church.

“Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you.” Jeremiah 29:7. The peace that is required here is shalom. Not merely the absence of conflict but the flourishing of life.  From the dust of the land we were created and to the dust of the land we will return. Our beginning and end is with the earth, place, space. The use of land not only reflects equitableness, but our relationship to it imbues our sense of placement, home, rootedness, safety, flourishing, and survival. “In whose image is space created?” asks David Harvey. Does space in South Africa reflect the image of God reconciling mankind to one another? Is the Kingdom reflected on earth; is “thy will be done” mirrored back to heaven? Does place and space reflect our shalom imperative?

If our separateness had such an intentionality and physicality behind its formation, then surely our reconciliation has to be both intentional and physical. We cannot be content with merely reaching over the invisible walls; we have to begin crossing the visible streets. What are the tangible ways we can spatially re-engineer our lives to create geographies of justice? How would we tread if we really believed that this ground, the ground, is holy ground?

Husband-man and I we are wrestling with whether breaking down the physical demarcations of our division might mean moving in to the places we’re still socially (if no longer legally) not supposed to be in.

Let’s take off our shoes, and walk as though we believe in the sacredness of place.

geography of my soul