I can’t breathe!” Doing theology amidst Covid-19 and many other pandemics!

Arundhati Roy writes about Covid-19, saying, the pandemic is

a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Covid-19 surfaces societal fault lines in ways that are clear, visible and disarming, to the eye that can see, and the ear that can hear – socio-economic inequality, environmental disaster, inappropriate health and educational infrastructure, and institutional ineptitudes.

It emphasizes that if we continue to do life and theology as usual, it might be to our own peril, and that of the earth and global humanity. This is indeed a portal time – an invitation – offering us an opportunity to engage our old baggage head-on and discard it where required, bravely so; and then, in hearing the words of Jesus, taking up a burden, a yoke, but one that is different, and light – in its heaviness – because it comes from a place of deep conviction, that another world is not just possible, but is demanded.

During this time, we organized, on behalf of our Faculty of Theology and Religion, a three-part conversation series, titled “’I can’t breathe’! Doing theology amidst and beyond Covid-19: fault lines, intersections, opportunities”. The aim of this series is to discern what theology might have to look like amidst and beyond Covid-19.

Through the pandemic – combined with the #BlackLives Matter protests, responding to resurgent forms of personal and institutionalized racism, as well as the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in various forms, and a growing awakening to the cries of the earth – we acknowledge the intersectionality of systemic violence and global woundedness.

Not only was “I can’t breathe” the last words of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which reverberated throughout the world; these might have been the last words also of Robyn Montsumi who died in custody in the Mowbray Police Station in Cape Town at the beginning of lockdown; or Petrus Miggels in Ravensmead after being beaten up by police; or the woman or child beaten to a pulp by an abusive husband or father; or those feeling trapped in oppressive institutional spaces; or the forests dying around the globe; or Christ, after his final loud cry, breathing his last.

What is the Spirit longing to breathe into our theological actions and reflections, at a time when the earth and humanity alike, gasp for breath? How should we do theology at this moment in time? Do we dare continue as usual, or are the cries of our times, prompting us to deep conversions?

Not only is this a time of crisis and threat; but, perhaps, if we discern well together, it might be(come) a time of new opportunity, and new resurrections, forged from resistances that breathe new life, erupting tenaciously, outwitting death. Covid-19 and the intersectional cries for life, are suggestive of a longing for futures – institutionally, relationally, economically, environmentally and politically – that will be radically different from what we now know.

The Centre for Faith and Community, in the past months, partnered closely with the Tshwane Homelessness Forum, various NGOs and the City of Tshwane in a Homelessness Task Team, responding to the vulnerability of homeless

persons during the Covid-19 lockdown. A crisis was turned into an opportunity, as 1,800 people were provided temporary shelter within a two-week period; two new housing facilities opened up providing permanent accommodation to older homeless persons; primary health care was made available to every person in every shelter; new organizational synergies were forged and institutional barriers overcome to provide optimal care. Housing as a priority to overcome homelessness, and homelessness as a public health issue, are both well-established insights among those advocating for ending homelessness globally, but the penny dropped in clearer ways than before in the City of Tshwane. The gains made during this period are now being formalized, and a 10-point plan was crafted to provide progressive solutions to street homelessness in South Africa’s capital city. Theologically speaking, this is an attempt to flesh out what a preferential option for the poor might look like in practice.

Street homelessness, substance use, environmental disaster, informal settlement upgrading, public parks, pervasive corruption, gender-based violence, access to quality health care, and economic inequality and exclusion, all need bold, innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to turn crises into opportunities; and death into life.

No real and lasting transformation would be possible without broad-based and brave collaboration between a range of partners. It raises questions as to the nature of our theological discourse and praxis. Can we step out into brave new spaces, to do theology on the streets and in the fractures of our city, with activists, public health workers, homeless persons, city officials, architects, accountants, lawyers, urban planners – joining hands in portals, where there is deep yearning for the breath of life; pushing to escape, and creating escape, from tentacles of death, for masses of vulnerable people, for ourselves, for our earth and our toxic, impotent and soul-wrenching institutions.

As the passionate plea of that old Keith Green song goes:

Rushing wind blow through this temple, blowing out the dust within.

The dust, the death, the decay, the devastation, the denial, the despair; capturing our hearts and minds and temples and institutions and cities.

And then, when the portal of expectation and yearning opens up, then breathe on us, Creator Spirit; breathe into us, Wind of Life; breathe through us, and lift us up, Risen Christ, not only to imagine, but to participate with you and many others in making a brave new world.

Stephan de Beer
CFC Director