We Have a Lot to Learn and Even More to Do Through Imbizo

What Wesley Got Wrong - United Methodist Insight

Some of the questions proposed to everyone before he (she) is admitted among us may be to this effect: —

1. Have you the forgiveness of your sins?

2. Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ?

3. Have you the witness of God’s Spirit with your spirit, that you are a child of God?

4. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?

5. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?

6. Do you desire to be told of your faults?

7. Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?

8. Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his (her) heart concerning you?

9. Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?

10. Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?

11. Is it your desire and design to be on this, and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?

John Wesley, “Rules of the Band-Societies, Drawn Up December 25th, 1738,” in The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition, Vol. 8 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Edition), 292-93; The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Rupert E. Davies ed., Vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989) 77-78.


Are We REALLY Ready to Hear?

Home - Black Lives Matter

Some efforts really push people to places of despair where hope seems difficult to embrace. The recent events around George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery serve as recent examples of an enduring struggle with racism not only in the USA, but in its varying expressions around the globe. We are in the kind of cauldron of pain where the claims of #blacklivesmatter really need to be heeded, echoed, and championed.

I hear those exhausted by the ongoing struggle. While I hope justice might be done in the ensuing trials, I am deeply aware that previous judicial processes do not serve an adequate predictor. Nevertheless the recent events expose to us once again a need to work at a much deeper level in our society to begin to heal the pain. And I suspect there will be future examples of injustice, insensitivity, and missteps along the way. Saying black lives matter will not be enough, it has never been enough. We also have to listen and ask, “what next?”

Like Wesley’s admonition, we need to hear the challenge, are you really ready to hear of all your faults… plain and home? We have a lot to learn and even more to do.

Truthfully, turning 65 years of age this summer, I recognize my white generation has failed, absolutely failed, in handling a trust that started with the Civil Rights movement when courageous African Americans like Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall gave us an opportunity we really did not deserve. That trust, that possibility to be better than our ancestors, quickly devolved into the suppression of African Americans here in the USA through more subtle versions of control documented by authors like Michele Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, and Ibram X. Kendi. While the overt expressions of slavery and apartheid provide a stark memory, the more recent divisions in our current society serve as a reminder just how tribal and divisive our country has become.

Once more we are being invited to listen, but will we hear and what will we do?

I don’t pretend to speak with a lot of expertise in this matter. My own journey has been a challenge and I am grateful for friends and former students along the way who are far wiser and innovative. Often my role has been that of facilitator, hoping to grow with those listening as much as teaching out of my limited ability. Still, sometimes I do join my voice (as we all should) to speak to the people who might first need to hear what I say if only to set the ground for those whose wisdom really exceeds my limited reach. This post provides such an example.

Gabriel Benjiman

Over the years I have struggled with others who are white over learning how to listen well without once again colonizing the space as a white person. In a series of very transparent conversations a colleague and friend, Dr. Gabriel Benjiman, Regional Education Coordinator for Africa, Gabe offered wisdom from a South African era of apartheid that might help us in the USA in our struggle.

We joined in writing an academic article where we thought to open up the problem of white fragility as a means to introduce a Black African process known as imbizo to provide a way forward for White people to truly learn to hear. While the paper was written with an academic audience in mind (and under review at this time). I am going to offer both excerpts of the problem (white fragility) and the proposed solution (imbizo) that really reflects my honesty in struggling with the social location of white folk like myself and another “gift” given through the research and experiential understanding of my friend, Gabe Benjiman. The first part of the paper leans heavily in quotes by Robin D’Angelo because (something I normally abhor in academic work) because, frankly, I need to hear these words as well. The second part of the paper emerges from Gabriel’s narrating imbizo as a theological reality alongside its practical application. Imbizo represents a kind of grass roots movement that apartheid South Africans “allowed” under oppression. However imbizo became more than what white South Africans imagined, particularly when you hear the power within the process that only black Africans truly understood. Imbizo provides not only a way to hear but also a practice, a work, that needs to be done.

White Initiative and White Fragility:
The Danger of Engaging Racism from White Perspective

Despite Robert Jones’ writing of the end of White Christian America, attempts by white theologians and ministers to confront their own racial location in interracial discourse remain fraught with missteps and disappointments.[1] Often the challenge entails confronting one’s own systemic white bias while creating space for “people of color” to express their marginalization in light of white racism.[2] Often, when wedded with American exceptionalism, this approach leads many American Christians to feel the need to “take the initiative” to apologize for their complicity in racism, apartheid, and other marginal actions of oppression. Yet the very “initiative” by whites to apologize can reveal white fragility when “people of color” rightfully respond with greater confrontation rather than merely extend expected forgiveness.[3] D’Angelo defines white fragility as a culture power of control as she writes

Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable — the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress – inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage. Summarizing the familiar patterns of white people’s responses to racial discomfort as white fragility has resonated for many people. The sensibility is so familiar because whereas our personal narratives vary, we are all swimming in the same racial water. For me, the recognition has come through my work.[4]

In truth, White Christians do need to confront their own implicit biases, often guided by whites who can open the door by their own efforts to “witness whiteness.”[5] D’Angelo, herself white, writes of this challenge:

I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms. But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity — a necessary antidote to white fragility. This raises another issue rooted in identity politics: in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice  I have not found a way around this dilemma , for as an insider I can speak to the white experience in ways that may be harder to deny . So, though I am centering the white voice, I am also using my insider status to challenge racism. To not use my position this way is to uphold racism, and that is unacceptable; it is a “both / and” that I must live with. I would never suggest that mine is the only voice that should be heard, only that it is one of the many pieces needed to solve the overall puzzle.[6]

D’Angelo names two interwoven dynamics that provide a continuing challenge, naming whiteness but in doing so, privileging whiteness as both initiator and object of study in the task of unmasking racism. This “double bind” will undoubtedly appear in the future. Perhaps imbizo provides a response.

Imbizo: The History and Cultural Expression

The African concept of imbizo provides a clue for future encounters. The word imbizo refers to a public community gathering, often under grassroots leadership. The term, derived from a Zulu word ukubiza, means “to call or summon.”[6] Historically an imbizo describes both rural and urban gatherings, often on the margins of power, to provide identity, belonging, and community to ordinary persons.[7] In addition, these gatherings, seen as grassroots political gatherings or local courts distributing justice, afford a custom where people can raise concerns and aspirations about social, economic, and political displacement. Often functioning amid inequality, imbizo gatherings nevertheless provide a framework for interaction with community leadership as well as feedback and accountability to public officials who often merely stand as witness to the events at hand.

To be certain, imbizo gatherings under South African apartheid were permitted primarily to provide social control apart expending resources from Dutch white law. Wilson notes that often imbizo courts, reflected in the idea of tribal law, often included punishments based on restorative justice or retribution depending on the crime and the response of the guilty. [8] Wilson notes that pre and post-apartheid imbizo courts also tended to function differently from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which appeared to be operating by Dutch law). Imbizo courts sometimes harmed, and other times protected collaborators under the banner of popular justice.[9]

However, Wilson’s appraisal of the use of imbizo courts affords only one function of imbizo, often serving as a needed counterbalance to the oppression of the apartheid Dutch legal system. Other researchers note both limitations and strengths of this communal gathering particularly following the 2000 decision “that the imbizo would become a style of interactive governance for which communication and direct interaction of political figures would lead to the stimulation of dialogue between Government and ordinary citizens of South Africa,” alongside other forms of active public participation.[10]

Yet imbizo, as a social entity, proved to be much more. Imbizo gatherings served both as a community forum as well as a public court. Imbizo gatherings provided humanity, identity, community, social cohesion, social capital, accountability, stability, and inclusiveness as people of all ages, ethnicities, and even foreigners, brought grievances and sought support.[11] Apart from the external research “over” this body, to truly understand imbizo, one must visit the dynamics of the community’s practice from “within” to see how witness, judgment and wisdom interact.

Imbizo: Human Witness, Equity, and Wisdom

The practice of imbizo draws people into an agreed upon space and time for the purposes of finding solution and a shared vision as preferred by the community. The clan leaders within the tribe or the izinduna (the captains of each clan within the tribe) form a senior cabinet assembled by the leader.  This advisory council invited all stakeholders into conversation. The izinduna represented all clans’ and people.[12]  In the orality-based cultures, witness is not presented as a systematic documentary of carefully worded perspectives. Rather, it is a person recognized as human emerging as witness, presenting their reality and the scars they bear.  This invitation allows for the dominant and the dominated to enter into a discussion and ultimately decision to move forward. Until then, the invitation to imbizo must interrupt the ‘business as usual’ approach.  Rationality must make way for pragmatism and an eager follow through to change the status quo.  It allows for a person to present self and reality for feeling and healing as opposed to presenting a paper argument for discussion and equal valuing. 

Traditional, communal meetings such as the imbizo places a higher premium on equity rather than primarily seeking the equality of individuals. Equity involves bringing the disadvantaged individuals into a wholeness through restitution. In other words, previously dispossessed indigenous people who were dislocated from their land and subsequently their identity and dignity must first experience justice in the form of restitution as a way of re-humanizing these people for conversation as equals.[13]   

This approach allows for emotion and reason to share center stage. This innate sense of justice brings healing to one’s person as a whole and restitution to original things, such as recognition of language, land, and other basic dignities. This healing and restoration stems from the concept of ubuntu rather than an estimation of acquired western education, articulation and eloquence.  Herein rests the call for the recognition of a person’s witness and humanity.  Ubuntu is the recognition of that which makes all people recognizable as people, as human first. The recent discussion in South Africa about the utterances of former State President F.W. De Klerk illustrates the need for addressing equity before calling for equality.  Essentially, the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate denied that apartheid was a crime against humanity.[14] De Klerk agreed that apartheid was atrocious and reprehensible, but it was not a crime against humanity even though the UN declared it as such. Not wanting to recognize some ethnicities as human allows this kind of thinking to flourish, and racism to continue.

The imbizo therefore, pivoting upon ubuntu, fundamentally humanizes those who were dehumanized.  “The African philosophy of ubuntu is typically characterized as a communitarian philosophy that emphasizes virtues such as compassion, tolerance and harmony.”[15]  The literal meaning of ubuntu is: I am human because you recognise me to be so.[16] African values such as those espoused by Nelson Mandela were ubuntu values. This set of values emanates from the concept of justice, forgiveness, humility, relationship, clear communication and respect. To speak of “tribal values” is to really address the idea of community. To supply justice is not simply to afford a common meeting place to be heard.  It is an invitation from human to human to be affirmed as such. Leading in community in South Africa calls for interdependency, authenticity and transparency.

While I (Gabriel Benjiman) cherish the idea of being invited to address theological issues affecting the global church, the invitation seeks to consider my presentation and contribution as one which can be measured equally against other contributions.  There is a prevailing presupposition that all beings present will be given equal value and equal opportunity. However, the reality is that, before I even get to present as an equal, I must be first seen as human. That is not a privilege many brown people have had in the colonialists’ world.  Equity, equipping and equivalency must preface the invitation to share ideas.  Some like myself (Gabriel Benjiman) do not show up with a theological paper but rather we show up as a form of theology, desiring first to be seen through ubuntu eyes.  An imbizo recognizes the human in the middle and offers worthiness before it offers a critical listening ear. That approach provides a measure of equitable justice and perhaps a means of God’s “humanizing” grace.  Justice in the extreme calls for unorthodox-business-unusual methods to break a past injustice before it proceeds to create a new normal. 

Practicing Imbizo: Hope for the Future?

Using imbizo as a cultural form of gathering, governed by those on the margins of power, white Christians may well discover a framework for their role as “witnesses” as they stand observant to the true work of racial retribution and reconciliation anchored in the humanity and wisdom of those who experience racism and social oppression,  To be honest, the need for whites, as whites, to deal with their own racism and participation in structures of white supremacy remains a key challenge. Imbizo gatherings should not be solely the “work” of people of color.  D’Angelo writes

The expectation that people of color should teach white people about racism is another aspect of white racial innocence that reinforces several problematic racial assumptions. First, it implies that racism is something that happens to people of color and has nothing to do with us and that we consequently cannot be expected to have any knowledge of it. This framework denies that racism is a relationship in which both groups are involved. By leaving it to people of color to tackle racial issues, we offload the tensions and social dangers of speaking openly onto them. We can ignore the risks ourselves and remain silent on questions of our own culpability. Second, this request requires nothing of us and reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of color to do our work. There are copious resources available on the subject generated by people of color who are willing to share the information; why haven’t we sought it out before this conversation? Third, the request ignores the historical dimensions of race relations. It disregards how often people of color have indeed tried to tell us what racism is like for them and how often they have been dismissed. To ask people of color to tell us how they experience racism without first building a trusting relationship and being willing to meet them halfway by also being vulnerable shows that we are not racially aware and that this exchange will probably be invalidating for them.[17]

Still, imbizio gatherings afford an opportunity to compel white people to deal with their whiteness in a manner that requires their witness to supremacy, experience the equity and judgment of other human beings, and seek restitution appropriate to the issue of race. In this sense “witness” serves as both a form of internal accountability as well as forced recognition of participating in a system that requires ongoing work for the sake of both reconciliation and reparation. White people must “witness” the humanity of others while standing as a “witness” of the social system that marginalizes those same human beings.

In each generation, the basic formation of in-group and out-group classification begins at an early age.[18] Racism, while a social construction, remains a powerful cultural force as children enter into the logic of a white society. It takes community, and particularly human, interracial encounters, to change the affective and cognitive challenges embedded in racist logic. Yet whites much not take the “lead” in those multi-ethnic encounters. Instead, they stand as witnesses.

When equity for all, even more than equal individual rights, govern the conversation, imbizo may require people of power to stand silent and hear the humanity of voices from the margin. Silence often proves difficult for those who feel it “right” to speak, even to apologize, in the face of inequity. To witness may require not only naming one’s culpability but also be willing to allow the “other,” as a human being, to define the moment. As a closing case in point, people steeped in Wesleyan sacramentalism (as I, Dean Blevins) may be quick to acknowledge and echo Gabe Benjiman’s note that imbizo serves as a humanizing, prudential, means of grace. Yet to do so may tempt participants to see this uniquely African gift reduced to a White Man’s theology, even if Wesley is from the 18th century. Perhaps accountability serves as the more important Wesleyan category in this context and for the future. To be willing to allow another human being to serve as the agent to tell one’s faults, and hear others fears, “plain and home,” may require a new form of Wesleyan accountability anchored in the practice of imbizo.

May we be willing to hear, and work, through imbizo

[1] Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon and Shuster Reprint, 2017)

[2] Joe R. Feagin, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 1994/ 2013).

[3] D’Angelo, White Fragility, iv-vi. D’Angelo uses the term “people of color” yet admits the phrase serves as an inappropriate term that flattens ethnic diversity.

[4] D’Angelo, White Fragility, 2. Authors’ note: the large block quotes by D’Angelo prove intentional to allow D’Angelo to serve as the primary critical voice to this particular context rather than Dr. Blevins (as a white author) or Dr. Benjiman (as an international scholar). We both value this external witness as giving way to “listening and being inclusive” of D’ Angelo’s voice.

[5] Shelly Tochluk, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It, Second Edition (Lanham, MD: R&L Education, Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). See also Tochluk’s website (accessed online, 1/24/2020) at http://witnessingwhiteness.com/

[6] D’Angelo, White Fragility, xiv

[7] Raymond Simangaliso Kumalo “Christianity and Political Engagement in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Political Theology, 15:3 (April 2015), 22, DOI: 10.1179/1462317X13Z.00000000055.

[8] Michael Knipe, “Imbizo is the Voice of Rural Concerns,” The Times (United Kingdom, February 15, 2004), 11.

[9] Richard Wilson, “Reconciliation, Retribution, and Revenge” in The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State (London: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 188-190.

[10] Odette Harslief, “The Presidential Public Participation Programme (Imbizo) as Participatory Policy Making” MA Thesis (University of Johannesburg, 2008), 6.

[11] Kumalo, Christianity and Political Engagement, 221.

[12]  Mzi Mngadi (Educator and ethno-cultural consultant) in conversation with Gabriel Benjiman (February 2020).

[13] Retribution or reparation reflects a necessary component since it enacts justice, confessional witness, admission and the opportunity to participate in imbizo without offering words but action prior to gathering for imbizo.  (Dr. Benjiman: I often illustrate this by saying: “If you steal my BMW and later on in the year you come and say Gabe, come on, let’s be friends, let’s talk.  HOWEVER, IF you still keep my BMW, then it makes no room for us to engage on any level. Until we deal with the aspects of restitution, the invitations have no other place but to make us uncomfortable that the “business as usual” approach is not even an option.) 

[14] SABC NEWS, “Former President FW de Klerk on unbanning of political parties and Mandela’s release” YOUTUBE, 2 Feb 2020.  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBE844vDkx4

[15] Andrew West, “Ubuntu and Business Ethics”.  Journal of Business Ethics, (2014).  121(1), 47-61. Retrieved from http://www.econis.eu/PPNSET?PPN=788364723

[16] Wilson, “Reconciliation, Retribution, and Revenge,” 188-190.

[17] D’Angelo, White Fragility, 64

[18] D’Angelo, White Fragility, 47; Lawrence A. Hirschfeld, Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture, and the Child’s Construction of Human Kinds (Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/ The MIT Press, 1996).

About Dean G. Blevins

Dr. Dean G. Blevins currently serves as Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary. An ordained elder, Dean has ministered in diverse settings and currently also serves at the USA Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene. A prolific author, Dr. Blevins recently co-wrote the textbook Discovering Discipleship and edits Didache: Faithful Teaching, a journal for Wesleyan Education.
This entry was posted in Clergy, Discipleship, Leadership, Pedagogy, Race, Religious Education, Wesley. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s