Grace is “that absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving.”
The consistently most humbling thing about my continuous exercise of first-world privilege – by way of travelling, by way of going-to-places-I’m-not-meant-to-be – is that those who could and perhaps should resent me for this privilege, nevertheless exercise a hospitality that I don’t, in my (structural) position, merit. It’s a tremendous reminder of the ethos of hospitality that survives – even thrives, if my experience of the generosity and kindness of my Afghan students and colleagues is an indication – in the corners of the world where white/Westerners have historically abused it. Hospitality is a variety of grace – a goodness that exceeds expectation, a generosity that exceeds means, a kindness that exceeds merit.
“There is nothing more astonishing than a human face…. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”
As a thought experiment in my transnational/African immigrant literature class, I take the opportunity to ask my students whether or not America has a culture or ethos of hospitality; the answer is invariably a reflexive ‘no.’
I push further: what would it mean if we did? What about our culture would need to change? What would we need to be willing to do for an unknown other? What kind of reflexive generosity would we need to prepared to offer?
What stands in the way of our throwing open our arms, our homes, our lives to an/other, someone we can’t know in advance other than to trust our instincts to offer hospitality?
Religious faiths, ideologies, philosophies attempt to inculcate this – everyone you meet is the Buddha, after all, or Jesus, or another sinner or fellow-traveler or comrade.
But there’s an individualism, an absolute faith in liberty and autonomy, in the American cultural imaginary that frustrates the exercise of hospitality. There is also a lot of ignorance and fear, a willingness to believe that the Other is a reflexive threat, fed by a never-ending news cycle that thrives on generating terror. Terror sells. Hope is too hard to maintain, and we can be relied upon, it seems, to generate fresh horror on the hour, every hour.
We could shake off the overblown fears of loss of culture, the fug of competition, and fear, and anger. But it’ll take a supreme and collective effort. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the revered Madiba, Nelson Mandela, espoused a philosophy of Ubuntu – an autochthonous African philosophy of communal interdependence and ethics – in the wake of the violent, protracted, and venomous apartheid years in South Africa. And this philosophy – from the peoples of Southern Africa, including the Ndebele – understands that the strength of a people is in its ability to extend help to the least among us, and insist on the uplift of all, and which acknowledges that interdependence entails ethical attention to forgiveness. For all of the disappointment writ large in the reflections of Zimbabweans, for all of the heartbreak, the concern they have is a concern that does battle against cynicism, that insists on change. I admire this immensely: it is a country that hasn’t given up, and won’t.
“The people living here are poor. Their lives when the rail fails are hungry. But surely it is better to be poor here, in this sunlight, this beauty, than, let’s say, Bradford or Leeds. There ought to be different words for poverty that grimes and chills and darkens, and this poverty where people live in splendour, lifted up on to the Altitude into ringing windy sun-scoured skies.”
The biggest problem facing Zimbabweans today is a surfeit of Grace.
“International NGOs Too Scared to Aid Us, Grace Says.”
“Grace’s Insatiable Appetite for Wealth Is Shocking.”
“Grace Spend R45million On Mansion in Jo’Burg Suburb.”
“Grace Accused of Beating Jo’Burg Woman With Extension Cord.”
(Photo courtesy Toronto Star.)
I don’t agree with Lessing’s assessment; poverty and deprivation are poverty and deprivation wherever you find them. Certainly, cultural constraints and ideologies shape the appearance of poverty, its apparent palatability, but I don’t hold any truck with what Christopher Breu calls the “avatar fetishism” of the nobly suffering Other, or the trade in ersatz-third-world suffering, as I’ve made mention of in my own academic writing. Imagining that poverty is ennobling is a fundamental mistake, one that enables the status quo, and recirculates pain.
“My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand on one’s faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same.”
In a probing and critical essay, “Grace Mugabe and the Myth of Joyful Impoverishment,” Tafi Mhaka tackles this most pressing problem. He reflects on his own experiences of Zimbabwean poverty in the midst of a political rhetoric that defiantly claims that poverty is somehow a credit to the vigor and resilience of the country:
“I once visited a rural homestead in Murehwa for a brand research exercise and came eye to eye with frightening and unquantifiable destitution. A frail looking woman welcomed me into her humble household for half a day. My lone takeaway from that leisurely and warm-hearted experience was profound bitterness at how substantial and debilitating poverty has become in Zimbabwe. Perhaps this seemingly institutionalised deficiency is larger than politics? What kind of civilisation have we built so far when a few distinguished people have so much property and money and the majority have inconsequential material and monetary assets?”
He remarks that Zimbabwe has too little in the way of social services and a safety net for the impoverished and the elderly; for the rural and the poor. What kind of civilization, writ large, produces both the darkening, the griming and chilling poverty, and “this poverty where people live in splendour”?
Grace, by this other name, has come to figure an avarice, a bold and grasping self-celebration, an iron fist and a withering glare. Can grace be saved from Grace?
(Photo courtesy of The Southern Eye.)
You can’t just walk up to someone here and ask a question. I stopped into a tour agency office, hoping to locate a particular bookstore.
“Hi, do you know where the Indaba Book Cafe is?” I breathlessly asked a smiling woman with ringlets and glasses framing a round face. I’d been tromping around in circles where I thought it should be.
She looked at me, not blankly, and said, “Hello.”
I repeated, “Right, hi. Do you know where the Indaba Book Cafe is? I thought it was on this block.”
Once more, she looked at me: “Hello,” she said, kindly and patiently as if explaining something to a child. “How are you?” She inquired, tilting her head slightly in interest.
I felt the breath leave me for a second, and my sunpinked face flushed further. I took an actual deep breath, the kind that recenters and calms. I exhaled, and smiled; my shoulders fell, and I willed the tension out of my neck. I bent my knees slightly, feeling the change in posture change my attitude. “Yessssss,” I lispingly breathed. “I am sorry,” I said; more slowly, “I am well, thanks,” the scripts for kindness and interaction-with-strangers re-filling me from some primeval kindergarten brain.
She, too, relaxed further. “Yesssssss,” she said smilingly, “I am good. God is great, yeah?”
I heard the strains of shouted gospel music and rhythmic clapping from the Adventist church next door. “Yes, he is,” I said, feeling it more than I meant it, and feeling okay with that, too.
“What is your name?” she asked; “where are you from?”
“I’m James, and I’m from the US – from America.”
“Oh, how lovely! And how do you like Zimbabwe?”
I paused and smiled: “Quite a lot, thank you. Everyone is so friendly,” I said, and added shyly and slyly, “like you,” and smiled wider.
“My name is Louise,” and she grinned and extended her hand. Picking up the thread she’d let drop, she continued, “I know the place you are looking for; follow me,” as she led me back onto the street and into the sun. She waved and wove her hand, miming skirting the monolithic building at the end of the block, and walked me through precise directions to the Cafe. Of course it was exactly as she said – and of course it should be exactly as she did.
Grace abounds, even for the godless souls like me.
Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.