Padkos: How many of us must die?

How many of us must die?

Reminder to come to the Padkos Bioscope (@ CLP offices) at 1pm on Tuesday, 30 April. We’ll be watching: “La Via Campesina in movement: … Food Sovereignty Now!”, a 20-minute documentary produced by the global movement of peasants and the landless, La Via Campesina.

Around Easter this year there were good reasons to be thinking about death and its meanings. For Christians there is a focus on the execution of Jesus, even if the story is ultimately of resurrection. But the hope of resurrection is properly meaningful only in light of the stark truth of the death that precedes it.

No amount of heretical spiritualising should ever hide the political character of Jesus’ execution. Here was a militant who refused to know his place in the politico-religious order of the day. Even more dangerous, he rallied many others behind the idea that they too were not predestined to servitude and oppression – they too should take their rightful place as the daughters and sons of God no less! And so those for whom this scandalous logic of egalitarianism is deeply threatening, plotted to kill him. And they killed Cícero Guedes of Brazil in January; and they killed Andries Tatane of Meqheleng in 2011, and they killed family members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) leaders of KwaNdengezi in 2013 – and then Abahlali says:

“on the eve of Easter when Christians remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have one question to poor people struggling across the country: How many of us must die before we rise up, defeat the forces of oppression and their politic of fear and death and build a new society that recognises the full and equal dignity of every person? We will not stop our struggle until the land, wealth and power of this world are shared fairly”
(Abahlali baseMjondolo, ‘Murder in kwaNdengezi’, 30 March 2013).

In this edition of Padkos we have consolidated three short and powerful pieces:

* the above-mentioned statement from the South African shack-dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM)
* a statement from the Landless Peoples Movement (MST) of Brazil on the death of Cícero Guedes
* an editorial from the City Press newspaper on the failure to convict Andries Tatane’s killers.

Apart from the appalling fact that they have clearly been targeted for violent elimination, there are other important and disturbing parallels in the stories of Guedes, of Tatane, and of the leaders of AbM in kwaNdengezi. First, like so many heroes of freedom, they too refused their ‘place’ of servitude and insisted on their fundamental humanity. Refusing to be mere objects of the elites that trample, insult and exploit, they became subjects of their own and their communities’ history. The rhetorical claim that our societies value active citizenship and selfless commitment to the people is, in fact, a cruel lie. It is perfectly clear that, on the contrary, those who put these values into practice risk their own and their families’ lives. Some decades ago we in South Africa might have entertained the hope that this fact was characteristic only of dictatorial and undemocratic regimes – but both Brazil and South Africa are hailed as ‘democratic’ countries.

But these deaths take us back to conclusions we drew in an earlier piece on ‘The Dark Corners of the State We’re In’ (CLP 2011) that brought together insights and reflections after the attack on AbM in Kennedy Road in 2009:

In the mythology of liberal democracy, the rights and freedoms of citizens are held to be the frame within which we all work together to solve our common problems and build a common, better future. AbM’s struggle has repeatedly spelt out a number of those challenges that really do need urgent and collective resolution if the harsh realities of life of the poor are to be put behind us. But, as one participant put it:

‘even if it was possible to do something about the legal, the economic, the environmental, the basic support services, that is, the immediate practical problems, there is something even more disturbing shadowing them – the strong suggestion that recent events show that those who attempt seriously to confront these problems will not be allowed to do so. That the more successful the attempt to solve the problems of poverty, the more those who hold power, or seek power, feel threatened’.

Thus it is not simply that ‘democracy’ does not exist for the poor. It is violently denied the poor when they abandon their allocated places as passive and silent objects of others’ projects, and assume instead their place as subjects of their own life” (CLP 2011).

The Gospel of Mark (in chapter 3) tells the story of Jesus’ healing encounter with “The Man with a Withered Hand”.

Again he [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Why does this set of actions lead so immediately to a conspiracy – between Pharisees and Herodians who usually detested each other – to kill Jesus? First, it’s important to see the architecture of ritual and elite power that marks out space in the synagogue where the story unfolds. That architecture, and the rubric of the clean and the unclean, was all about reserving any access to power, or the mediation of power, to the class of religio-political experts and rulers. Condensed into the Gospel account above is a series of systematic and deliberate violations of all those codes of religious orthodoxy by Jesus – an explicit refusal to know his place. That he’s entered the synagogue at all is worth noting – and he proceeds to work on the sabbath presuming to act in the name of God’s power. The man with a withered hand falls into the category of the unclean. Instead of preserving the order of things, Jesus instructs him to ‘come forward’ into the centre of the synagogue – the refusal of place is not reserved for leaders and celebrity-activists, it is universal and egalitarian. And then of course the ‘miracle’ is achieved by simply telling the guy: “Do the thing you’re not allowed to do”.

So we register our outrage at the killings and recommit to the scandalous promise of the resurrection.

Action note: Soon after Guedes’ killing, another MST militant, Regina dos Santos Pinho, was brutally murdered in February in the settlement Zumbi dos Palmares, state of Rio de Janeiro. In response, the MST have initiated a “Campaign against Impunity” with an online petition (here).