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Lessons from South Africa

25 June 2021

In his new book, Ian Cowley reflects on the experience in the country’s University Christian Movement in the 1970s which changed his life


Desmond Tutu, then Archbishop of Cape Town, dances in August 1989 at the sixth birthday party of the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalition of religious and civic organisations in South Africa

Desmond Tutu, then Archbishop of Cape Town, dances in August 1989 at the sixth birthday party of the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalit...

WE TRULY discover our vocation in life when we choose to live for the purpose for which God created us and to become the person, and people, that he has intended us to be. Black consciousness articulated the need for black people to step away from the white liberals in the churches and universities in order to be themselves and to be able to speak freely. They saw “white liberals” as people with a sense of guilt or shame over their privileged position but who, none the less, continued to exercise power and control.

My experience of meeting with black students at UCM and the Anglican Students’ Federation gatherings enabled me to hear for myself the pain and the oppression of black people in South Africa. This led me directly to the call to follow Jesus Christ in radical discipleship. What I quickly discovered was that radical discipleship means always being to some degree out of step with institutional religion and its power structures. In South Africa, the temptation for white Christians was to escape into prayer and conventional religion when we ought to have been facing issues and taking action.


IF WE recognise Jesus as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14.6), we acknowledge him as the source of all truth, righteousness, and holiness. To live in the truth is to live as Jesus lived. To know Jesus and to follow him is to be changed into his likeness. This inner transformation leads directly to outward obedience and action. The two must go together. Both spirituality and activism are essential and indispensable components of true Christian discipleship.

In South Africa, this has long been a distinguishing feature of the struggle for liberation. Many of the greatest leaders of the liberation struggle were committed Christians, including Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, and Oliver and Adelaide Tambo. It is impossible to fully understand the history of the struggle for justice in South Africa without an understanding of the role of Christian leaders, individuals, and organisations.

Certainly the Christian Church has much in its history which has actively supported and even directly caused the oppression of black people. But alongside this there is the story of leaders like Trevor Huddleston, Beyers Naudé, Desmond Tutu, and many, many others, who stood — often at great cost — for truth and for justice.


THE importance of holding a depth of Christian spirituality together with radical activism and obedience was recognised by Desmond Tutu when he became Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.

Together with the Revd Francis Cull, the Archbishop set up the Institute for Christian Spirituality, which was based at Bishopscourt, the Archbishop’s home in Cape Town. Denise Ackermann, a member of the core team at the Institute, describes Desmond Tutu’s rationale for establishing it in these words, “If we can only get the clergy back at prayer, we will win the day.”

Ackermann goes on to say that she did not for a moment believe that the Archbishop was saying that the clergy had given up on prayer: “What he had in mind was an enduring truth for the life of the Church.

“During the turbulent time of the ’80s (and for that matter at all times), the Church was/is called to stand for an alternative way of being a human community. As wave upon wave of repression, fuelled by states of emergency, were the order of the day in the 1980s, as people’s human dignity was trampled on by the forces of the state, the Church, as the body of Christ, has a prophetic witness to proclaim tolerance, love, justice, and the affirmation of the inviolable worth and dignity of all people. This required people of faith to draw deeply on their spiritual and moral resources.

“The Arch, with unfaltering wisdom, knew that the Church, in order to live up to its prophetic task, needed members who could live creatively between the tension of vital public actions of protest against injustice on the one hand, and times of quiet withdrawal for prayer, on the other” (Denise M. Ackermann, from a talk given at the 20-year celebration of the Centre, Stellenbosch, August 2007).


ARCHBISHOP TUTU understood the importance, particularly for clergy and Christian leaders, of both contemplation and the struggle for justice. These are both imperatives of the gospel. The Church in every generation needs leaders and people who are able to creatively hold these two together in their own lives. This is what then becomes the contemplative struggle.

Tutu and Cull also recognised the dangers of pursuing one of these and neglecting the other, as Ackermann says: “Both knew that burnout was too easily the lot of political and social activism. Both understood that withdrawal into a privatised world of self-involved spirituality was contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Both knew that activism can be engaged more easily than taking time off to be with God.

“I believe that what the Arch and Francis had in mind was to assist the Church — its clergy and its laity — to find the balance between active participation in the cause of justice and the life of prayer. In other words, we were to engage in the business of nurturing Christian spirituality in the life of the Church.”


THE question that many of us are wrestling with is this: what does it mean to be held firm in Christ in the centre of our being and to live with integrity in the 21st century? In the life of Jesus himself, we see both regular withdrawal into solitude and prayer — the contemplative dimension — and radical action to heal and save people who were suffering and oppressed. This led him directly into conflict and struggle, and to his arrest, trial, and death on a cross.

As I look at the issues of climate change, racism, poverty and inequality, and war, and reflect on the pressure that many people are dealing with each day because of digital technology and the age of acceleration, it seems to me that there is much that we can learn, in facing the challenges of our own time, from the experience of those who have already been through the fire of struggle and testing.

The South African struggle for justice and liberation has much to teach us as we make our way through the enormous global challenges of life in the 21st century.


This is an abridged extract from The Contemplative Struggle: Radical discipleship in a broken world — A South African journey by Ian Cowley, published by BRF at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-85746-982-3.

Read a review of the book here.

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