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The disruptive power of words


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The disruptive power of words

Fr Peter-John Pearson
Fr Peter-John Pearson

21st July 2023

By: Terence Creamer
Creamer Media Editor


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In his speech at the launch of the book ‘Reluctant Prophet: Tributes to Albert Nolan OP’, Fr Peter-John Pearson reflected that, how even in death, Nolan had again provided words to disrupt complacency and to offer sustenance to those continuing the “venerable tradition of raising the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones and righting human wrong”. Pearson, who is director of the Parliamentary Liaison Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, delivered this address at St Michael’s Church, Rondebosch, on July 8.

I marvelled, as I read these chapters, at just how we were drawn almost effortlessly into the utterly remarkable life of Albert; how the words gave us the shapes, shadows and the substance of his life; gave us a glimpse into the rich legacy of his ideas, into the courage of his activism, the depth of his pastoral commitments and the complexity and contradictions of the theological burden that he carried in his heart. I dared to think, as I read the book, that maybe for the second time in Dominican history the Order has birthed another Albert the Great.


But I marvelled even more at the way this book, the testimony of these words, also handed us an incendiary torch; how even in death Albert gave us words, gave us a book that would disturb us, disrupt our complacency and allow us to continue that venerable tradition of raising the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones and righting human wrong. Albert understood well the disruptive power of words. I thought often, as I read this work, of Wole Soyinka’s insight, I think from his 1986 Nobel speech, that ‘books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to supress the truth.’

As I read and was further enthralled, I moved further and further from the task I was given for these few minutes, and I found myself not so much reflecting on what was new about Albert for me but about what I was learning anew about Albert’s legacy.


My one lesson, as I read, was that Albert’s legacy of the need for what Lenin called the ‘permanent revolution’, and what the Church has called ‘semper reformanda’, is indispensable for our very conflicted, contested times as we retreat deeper and deeper into political depravity and delinquency, the theft of land and livelihoods, and the existence of cultures of cruel exclusion.

Bertolt Brecht captures it magnificently: ‘There are those who struggle for a day, and they are good. There are those who struggle for a year, and they are better. There are people who struggle for many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.’ 

A close reading of our text leaves me with the indelible impression that the challenge of life-long struggle, of solidarity, of the occupancy of the barricades, is for our times. Following Brecht, the most basic of human vocations is to be on the barricades, it’s to be in the places of contestation, it’s to be in the places of struggle, it’s to be in the places of burgeoning hope, it’s to be in the places of resistance and resilience, and in places where we say loudly: No, not in my name!

From the pages, Albert bids us not be afraid of lifelong struggle, not to be afraid of using words to disrupt what is wrong, what does not favour justice. It is the only chance we have of making a difference.

James Lowell in the midst of the NYC race riots and as a protest against the American-Mexican war penned that hymn about the decisiveness of taking sides, opting for the poor or in Pope Francis’ words being a church of the poor for the poor. James Lowell wrote at that time, being the protester that he was, the intellectual giant that he was, the person of deep faith that he was, he wrote (and just excuse the gender-exclusive language):

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And 'tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

As I read what was written in this book, intuited what was not written and interpreted the spaces in between, I began to feel that part of Albert’s gift (and re-reading Jesus Before Christianity underlined this) was the challenge to do the heavy lifting theologically, and to excavate for our moment in history those dangerous memories that keep our anger at human wrong alive, that keep us seething – and beginning with that anger, to hold tentatively at the same time a struggling narrative of hope. St Augustine had written centuries before that ‘hope has two beautiful daughters- their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain that way’.

Here, I want to believe, is a clue to Albert’s theology, here is the strand that runs throughout this book. The excavation must find the theology, the pastoral practices that are not the story of the victors and thus the recorders of history, as Marcuse put it. The theology that turns upside down the belief that the way things are for the victors of our struggles are in fact the way things should be. It is blatantly not so. Everything is not right, everything is not just, and we see the litany of those injustices and betrayals of human decency all around us every day in this country that was so courageously fought for.

We need to heed Albert’s challenge to retrieve those ‘dangerous memories’ – those subversive memories of the victims of history. Kept alive by the narrative retelling of communities who witnessed the lives, struggles and deaths of the defeated, these unofficial memories [and this for me is the point of hope] keep the possibility open that reality, institutions and societies could be other than they are currently.

This is what we owe people like Albert but more so, much more so, the long ranks of unemployed who line the roads from before dawn, the poor who have been rendered poorer by every act of corruption and corporate greed, and every woman whose life has been battered and whose bones have been broken by the demonic power of guttered masculinity. We owe it to them and indeed to ourselves to retrieve those memories so that the possibilities for a better world and a nobler future can dawn. To tell the stories of those who resisted and died emboldens us who remain to pick up the standards and agendas of the fallen and advance them once more. ‘They are dangerous memories, dangerous to those in positions of power because they are the seeds of resistance and change and they are the markers of identity, personhood, agency and hope to the marginalised.’ (See Candace Maclean of Portland University).

This is surely our theological and pastoral project. We need to fight. It is Brecht again: ‘He who fights can lose but he who does not fight has lost already.’ Herein lies our hope.

It is probably a bit incongruous to quote Robert Kennedy amidst the likes of Soyinka, Marcuse, Brecht, and Albert, but in the very darkest days of apartheid not even a kilometre from here in what was then the Jameson Hall, Robert Francis Kennedy spoke those words that inspired a generation in an era also dark with moral collapse and injustice. We may do well to hear it again: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

That for me is something we need to learn anew from Albert Nolan.


The ‘Reluctant Prophet: Tributes to Albert Nolan OP’ – edited by Mike Deeb OP, Mark James OP and Philippe Denis OP, and published by ATF Press – can be bought at the Pauline Book & Media Centre in Johannesburg and Durban, as well as the Catholic Bookshop in Cape Town and online through the UJ Press. For buyers outside South Africa, the book is available at ATF Press


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