Wednesday, January 20, 2016

From Apartheid to Accompaniment States of America (Brian E. Konkol)

This reflection was written from South Africa, where I was co-teaching "The Struggle to Be Well", a study-away course offered by Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minn.) in companionship with local activists and intellectuals, which sought to examine the political, economical, ecological, racial, and religious factors that contribute to both individual and communal wellbeing. 

The following was published by The Huffington Post on January 19, 2016 and can be found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/from-apartheid-to-accompa_b_9007904.html

When Frederick Douglas assembled with other representatives at the National Colored Convention of 1853, they collectively condemned the nationwide epidemic of racial discrimination in the so-called United States of America. As the gathering intended to discuss the circumstances and possibilities of “coloreds” (as they were called then), they recognized the various ways that “scorn and contempt” were heaped upon them — for no justifiable reason — by the white-skinned racial majority. Douglas stated:

A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influences of a nation’s scorn and contempt.

Nearly 200 years after Frederick Douglas was born we recognize that racial ignorance continues to exist in the U.S., and among other things, it leads to a disturbing level of collective indifference and injustice. With all other demographic factors being equal (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), those with white skin tend to enjoy higher levels of income, better forms of education, more advanced access to healthcare, less interaction with the criminal justice system, and many other areas of social opportunity when compared to those whose skin is either black or brown. While there are many reasons that one can cite for such inequality, we can begin with the sociological fact that many racial groups continue to reside in physical isolation. While apartheid is typically used to describe pre-democracy South Africa, the term (which means, “separateness”) can also illustrate contemporary life in the U.S., for racial integration is — for the most part — alarmingly rare.  

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits all forms of housing discrimination, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that millions of instances occur each year, thus apartheid continues to be a common facet of U.S. life. Segregated neighborhoods are often reinforced by the practice of racial “steering” by real estate agents, or when landlords deceive potential tenants about the availability of housing or perhaps require conditions that are not required of white applicants. In addition, lending institutions often treat mortgage applicants differently when buying homes in non-white neighborhoods in comparison to their attempt to purchase in white neighborhoods. Furthermore, equivalent housing in white areas commands a higher rent than others, and through the process of bidding-up the costs of housing, many white neighborhoods effectively shut-out people of color, because those without white skin are more often unwilling (or unable) to pay the premium price to buy entry into such white neighborhoods. In total, as a result of such apartheid, not only do we witness a rise in racial ignorance and indifference, but it also leads to increased injustice in the form of disproportionate personal and public hostility directed at people of color.

In response to the ongoing realities of apartheid in the U.S., our response is to affirm that we are created to be connected as companions in community.

As a theological foundation of Christian faith is the affirmation that all people are created by God, a sociological implication is that every member of humankind shares a sacred identity, and a result is a spiritual connection that is expressed through companionship in community (Genesis 2:18). Therefore, whereas isolation leads to ignorance, indifference, and injustice, those who embrace being created to be connected as companions in community move past apartheid and instead accompany others in solidarity and mutuality for the pursuit of serving a common good. Those who affirm being created to be connected as companions in community are more likely to understand than ignore, serve rather than sever, and advocate instead of overlook. The implications of such affirmations are both countless and crucial.

While apartheid has no simple solution (as has been proven over the past twenty years in South Africa), one can argue that some steps are quite straightforward. In order for equity to become a reality, we must be committed to reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, and such movements cannot take place unless people move from apartheid to accompaniment. Those with children in the same schools, appointments with the same doctors, walks in the same parks, carts in the same shopping aisles, jobs in the same office buildings, homes in the same streets, and seats in the same churches are more likely to put aside the labels of “us” and “them” and instead see others for who they truly are: Children of God. In order to broaden and redefine the “we” so fondly found in “We the People”, a key point is to move past our isolation and embrace companionship for the sake of restoring our communities and promoting life in its fullness.


The United States of America was founded as an apartheid state, and we continue to wander in the wildness as a consequence of this national original sin. But thanks be to God, life can follow death, thus the time is upon us to move past so-called racial tolerance, go beyond our traditional comfort zones, and actively seek out interactions and relationships that embody truth and reconciliation for the sake of justice-seeking accompanying communities. As we learn to accompany one another across racial lines through the twists and turns of daily life, we experience God as alive and well in the midst of our conflicts and searches for resolution, and the result is various opportunities to join together in ways that replaces exclusion and isolation with embrace and companionship for the promotion of open and free opportunity. In order to take these important steps from alternative to apartheid, we are called to transform the present, empower each other for the future, and through a commitment to companionship, boldly restore the human community into that which God has created us to be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Season of Advent: In Hopeful Anticipation of Conflict Transformation (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by The Huffington Post on December 8, 2015, and can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/the-season-of-advent-in-h_b_8733794.html

In a few weeks I will help lead a group of students for a study abroad opportunity in South Africa. While much will be learned then and there, much can also be learned here and now. For example, at a time when the North American political, racial, and religious context is bursting with conflict yet also yearning for transformation, the variety of lessons to be learned from the recent history of South Africa - especially during this liturgical Season of Advent - are truly remarkable. One of these profound lessons will be relearned on December 16th, a date that has come to symbolize the power of conflict transformation in the context of difficult struggle.

Our lesson begins during the early 19th century when a multitude of Afrikaners - a South African ethnic group including descendants from Dutch, French, and German settlers - left the cape region and moved hundreds of miles inland. Among the Afrikaners was the Voortrekkers, an assembly that sought to establish independent republics on uninhabited land in protest against British colonialism. As to be expected, the land sought by the Voortrekkers was by no means vacant, and clashes with South Africa's indigenous people were inevitable.

In 1837, the Voortrekker leadership engaged in land negotiations with the Zulu king. While historians argue over the exact details of the bargaining process, most agree that both sides attempted to display their force as an instrument of influence. All together, the Voortrekkers and Zulus eventually agreed upon terms for land distribution, and together they signed a treaty in February of 1838. However, during a truce ceremony the Voortrekker entourage was killed by the Zulus (for reasons that continue to be debated), an ensuing battle lasted months, and numerous lives on both sides of the conflict were lost.

As the warfare persisted, about ten-thousand Zulu warriors attacked the Voortrekkers on December 16, 1838, but the severely outnumbered Voortrekkers - with the advantage of gun powder - warded off the Zulu army. According to some historical accounts, while only three Voortrekkers were wounded, more than three-thousand Zulus were killed. As a result of the Voortrekker victory, and because of promises they reportedly made to God before the battle, December 16th was later instituted by the South African Apartheid-era government as a national public holiday, known as the "Day of the Vow".

On the other side of the South African political and racial spectrum, and in more recent times, December 16th is also remembered as the historical anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Umkhonto we Sizwe, often known as "MK", was co-founded by Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC, and they carried out the bombings of civilian, industrial, and infrastructural sites as a form of civil disobedience against the Afrikaner-controlled apartheid-era government. While the tactics of MK were initially geared toward sabotage, they gradually expanded as ANC members engaged in urban guerilla warfare. All together, MK was classified as a banned terrorist organization by the South African government (and United States) until August of 1990.

December 16th could be remembered as a date of extreme violence and deep conflict within South Africa. Whether it was the Day of the Vow in 1838 or the start of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, both occasions could symbolize deep cruelty and harsh brutality. However, with the advent of democracy in 1994, while December 16th retained is status as a national public holiday, it did so with a transformed purpose. Instead of celebrating a victory in war or recognizing the founding of an armed unit, South Africa renamed December 16th as "The Day of Reconciliation" for the purpose of national unity. In what can now be described as a dramatic conversion of symbolism, the newly redefined public holiday was first recognized on December 16, 1995, and will soon be celebrated for the twentieth time.

The December 16th Day of Reconciliation is appropriately placed within the Christian liturgical Season of Advent, for this period of conflict and yearning for Jesus' birth is a reminder of the ways that God's presence exposes and heals wounds and redefines the roles of our relationships. As the people of South Africa renovated their national holiday to embrace a transformed national identity, the Season of Advent prepares us to be made new through the birth of Jesus, and thus moves us to promote the restoration of our communities through the spiritual practices of compassion and hospitality. As is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation".

While the Season of Advent is viewed in various ways, one method is to perceive it in hopeful anticipation of conflict transformation, for such personal and public transformation is dearly needed in our present day and age. While we live in the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics, ecology, etc., we also dwell in arguably the most aggressively divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we recognize gross levels of fear, alienation, and apathy, as well as violence, discrimination, and the justification of institutionalized hatred. In the midst of our various and dangerous personal and public conflicts, we seek the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who soothes our ongoing hopeful anticipation with a full dosage of divine resistance and renovation.

In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. While much will be learned then and there, much can also be learned here and now. This is a gift of the Season of Advent. We can recognize that conflict is by no means inherently harmful or beneficial, yet we may confirm that our world is increasingly filled with its most toxic manifestation, thus we can affirm the need for dramatic repentance and effective transformation. This season reminds us that despite all the evidence to the contrary, violence and estrangement can indeed turn into peace and hospitality, division into unity, and fear into faith. With this hopeful anticipation of such conflict transformation, we can await the coming of the Prince of Peace, seek to bring a renewed measure of joy into our too often troubled world, and trust that - by God's grace - the world is indeed about to turn.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Domination of Black Friday-ism (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by The Huffington Post on November 24, 2015, and can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/the-domination-of-black-f_b_8633356.html

One of the dominant ideologies that now surrounds Black Friday seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to produce and consume.
We are dominated by "Black Friday-ism".

"Black Friday-ism" is a social system in which the value of human life is determined exclusively by rates of production and consumption. We notice this condition most often, of course, on Black Friday. Yet this phenomenon continues to grow in both reach and depth, as Black Friday-ism breeds chronic and hyperactive economic activity which in turn tempts us to believe that supply and demand are the sole dictators of our society.

In other words, Black Friday-ism is the predominant religion of this holiday season and beyond. As Victor Lebow states, "Our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption."

To appraise human value based solely upon production and consumption, as Black Friday-ism does, is an explicit form of dehumanization. Our dogmatic obedience to the so-called invisible hand of the market has a direct impact upon our sense of personal value (not to mention our public health), for the desire to belong and be validated in society seems directly related to whether or not we contribute to the gods of gross domestic product. Economic participation seems to be the accepted price of our admission into the human community. And so, because the highest rates of selling and spending typically occur during this time of year, and due in part to our longing for communal belonging, the season surrounding Black Friday is, in many ways, a period of gross domestic dehumanization.

While economic activity is indeed a significant characteristic of human life, such activity does not define human lives, despite what our Black Friday-ism too often declares. People of all traditions, not just Christianity, should be concerned with the ways in which such a dehumanizing ideology is spreading, for not only does it all seek to crucify Christmas and Hanukkah (and increasingly so, Thanksgiving), but it also oppresses all of us who participate in its imperial process. 

In other words, Black Friday-ism breeds domination -- even in a so-called free country, for in our search to produce and consume beyond our natural limits, such a search ultimately owns us, and in the process we are the ones who end up being both produced and consumed. As mourned by the writer Emile Gauvreau, "I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don't want, to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like."

The time is upon us to embrace what it truly means to be human and resist the dehumanizing pressures of our Black Friday-ism. While it may be tempting to kneel at the altars of acquisition and assembly, in doing so we forget who we truly are, lose track of what matters most in life and in turn decay our collective conceptions of human value.

Perhaps the time has come to journey toward the close of the calendar year not with a culturally conforming outpouring of economic activity, but with authentic acts of compassion and generosity that affirm the humanity of others in response to the assurance that all people, including ourselves, are of infinite value. Perhaps the time is upon us to recognize the critical difference between human needs and wants, and in doing so, want to embrace the crucial need of life-giving deeds that build up rather than tear down. Perhaps the time is upon us to affirm the life-freeing reality that we do not need valuable things in order to be valuable beings, nor do we need to produce more goods in order to be more affirmed as good. And ultimately, perhaps the time is finally upon us to to have the security, strength and genuine freedom to refuse the desire to always produce and consume something new, but instead live inspired this holiday season and beyond, and in doing so, always be made new.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Do Not Be Afraid? A Homily from Christ Chapel (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following transcript is from a homily given in Christ Chapel, based on Matthew 14:27, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minn.) on September 21, 2015. Please not that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices (which are preserved below in full) were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid? How can we not be afraid?!?!

The next excruciating exam is right around the proverbial academic corner. The next game, the next race, the next match, the next opponent is on its way. The next week-day. The next week-end. The next difficult decision. The next cultural collision.

How can we not be afraid? How can we not be afraid?

The first year of college. The last year of college! The twists and turns infused throughout four years of college. The questions and concerns about what is supposed to happen after college!
My oh my! How can we not be afraid?!?!

The questions. The concerns. The pressures to learn. Am I smart enough? Am I cool enough? Are my jeans skinny enough? Does my supervisor like me? Do my colleagues respect me? Does anyone like me? Do I like me? Do I know me? Who is me? Is that even a properly stated question?

How can we not be afraid?!?! How can we not be afraid?!?!

On and off campus, and across campus, and within campus. Discrimination, prejudice and exploitation. Ignorance. Indifference. Injustice. Indignation. Warfare, both near and far. Conceal and carry, on the street and even in our cars. Violence, both visible and in secret, both large and small. And of course, Presidential Debates, Lord have mercy! The most terrifying of it all!

How can we not be afraid? How can we not?!?!?!

How can we not be afraid, when the world so often seems to be a terrifying place? How can we not be afraid, when we are surrounded with terrified and terrifying people? How can we not be afraid, when fear surrounds us? How can we not be afraid, when fear sinks deep within us?

Today, here and now. To all gathered here in the center of campus: Faculty, Staff, Students, Administrators, Community Members. In the quiet depths of your own hearts and minds, I propose that the key question is not “if” you are afraid, but rather the real question is “what” you are afraid of. At this time. In this place. Deep in the private places and secret spaces of your heart and mind: What are you afraid of, here, and now? What are you afraid of?

Perhaps you are afraid of the next test, whether it is in the classroom or not, whether it is expected or not. Perhaps you are afraid of what the scoreboard might reveal, whether it is on the playing field or not, whether you emerge victorious or not. Perhaps you are afraid of not being respected, whether it even matters or not. Deep down. It is not a matter of “if”. It is a matter of “what”. So the question is: What is it?

Perhaps you are worried about financial debt? Perhaps there are relationships that are not going to way you wish? Perhaps you are afraid of whether or not you will have a job after June 1st? Perhaps you are afraid of having your beliefs changed or your opinions altered? Perhaps you are afraid of just being wrong or having to say “sorry”? Perhaps you are afraid of what everyone else might say about you? Perhaps you are afraid to pause for a moment, because of what the silence may reveal about you? Perhaps you are simply afraid of what might happen if you do not make your life count, or even worse, you are afraid because you have no idea what that even means.

And as we ponder such questions in the confines of this chapel that bears the name of Christ, some would say that doubt is the opposite of faith, yet I am convinced that such is not the case. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, as fear is the more natural and dangerous antithesis, as fear is not only that which paralyzes us, but in doing so, fear so often guides and directs a vast amount of our decisions on a day-to-day basis.

You know it, and I know it. Deep down. If we pause from our crazy busy insanity to actually consider why we are so "crazy busy", we would recognize that our daily decisions are not merely guided by our core values, but what we do each day is so often in response to our core fears.

Because fear is the fuel that so often moves us all.

For example, if one were to conduct a campus-wide survey to learn our most common fear, it is safe to conclude that failure would be near the top of the list. The fear of failure. Our most common and debilitating of fears, and thus, the source of so many of our everyday actions. Which is quite odd, as most of us do have firsthand experience of the fear of failure. I know I have! As Dr. David Obermiller reminded the Class of 2019 at the President’s Dinner a few weeks ago, “We are products of our many spectacular failures”. And to this, I say, “Amen”. And I say, “Amen” because we all have experienced numerous bouts of spectacular failure, yet the irony is that, although we all have experienced it, we remain quite frightened of it, despite knowing full well that perfection is a destination that cannot be attained.

Yet, in daily life, we fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and perhaps most of all, because we know all too well, that communities are often far too unforgiving and both passively and aggressively judgmental, we sometimes lose sleep from the potential social shame of failure-induced embarrassment. In other words, we are afraid of failure more many reasons, but perhaps most of all, we are afraid because far too many communities shame failure, especially those such as college campuses, in which the walls do seem to speak.

Yet our brief Gospel text for this morning pierces into us and makes our hearts burn, as it shares four simple yet powerful words that are as countercultural and revolutionary as ever:

“Do Not be Afraid”.

And in such words we receive an affirmation this day, that at a time in which we fear failure, to be faithful in response to the prospects of failure is truly a revolutionary act.

So the question emerges. Once we name and claim our fears, what if we dared to embody such faithful fearlessness?

What if we, as a campus community, made a collective commitment to give up the fear of failure? What if we decided that we would no longer be afraid? And in doing so, what if we encouraged one another to do the same? From athletes to artists to administrators to academics to activists. Can we imagine it? What would it take? What would it mean? What if we were not afraid to risk being the most authentic versions of ourselves? What if we were not afraid to let our lives more fully speak? What if we were not afraid to say what we mean and actually mean what we say? What if we refused to allow the passive whispers and aggressive shouts of colleagues and classmates to prevent us from taking the chances required to live into our vocational pursuits? What if support replaced shame when someone among us inevitably fell short?

What if we were not afraid? What if?

How would it impact our decisions? How would it shape our identity? How would it alter our values? How would it transform our lives?

Or, if we examine the context of our short yet stirring bible text for this day, like a foolishly faithful disciple stepping out of the boat and onto the water, what if we too could one day realize that failure it not when we sink, but failure is when we are too afraid to step out of the boat in the first place.

Which means, as those that promote excellence and community, perhaps today we can radically recognize that our collective pursuit of excellence is not about winning or achievement or being better than someone else (as that is actually quite easy to do), but rather, to be EXCELLENT means being a community that encourages one another to not be AFRAID, and in doing so, display a willingness to step out of our own boats of secluded and deluded safety to see what the future might bring, and in doing so, provide others with the strength and encouragement to do the same.

It means NOT being afraid of the next exam, next game, the next race, the next match. It means NOT being afraid to laugh and cry and confess and forgive. It means NOT being afraid of the opportunity or responsibility around each corner. It means NOT being afraid of those ideas, and those people, that are different from you. It means NOT be afraid of taking the first step, even when we do not know where they journey may lead. It means NOT being afraid to love openly and dance through life as if no one was looking! It means NOT being afraid to actually stand up for what you believe in.

And perhaps most of all, it means NOT being afraid to let the light of God burn bright in each and every one of us.

And so, as we depart this sacred space this day, we hear the words of Jesus, who says: “Do not be afraid”, because the light of God shines bright through your life, your thoughts, and your aspirations.

Do not be afraid!

No matter who you are. Where you are, or how you are. By God’s grace, you are enough, as you are.

Do not be afraid!

From the classroom to the boardroom to the recital hall to the court to the field to the course. No matter what you have done. No matter what you have left undone. No matter where you are going. No matter where you have been.

Do not be afraid.

Because the Good News of Jesus Christ is that, ultimately, there is no grade.

Because you are free to be you this day, and by God’s abundant and amazing grace, no one, and no-thing, can take you away from being most fully you.

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.


Thanks be to God. This day and always. Amen.