An "Alternative" Annual Report from Rhodes Scholars

Last week, a group of Rhodes Scholars released a report they had compiled to honour an approach to “fighting the world’s fight” that is often less visible than traditionally celebrated forms of success or making a difference: working with God. Some scholars felt that donating wealth was becoming, if not the only work being recognized in the Rhodes community, than at least that which received the most public attention, particularly during the Rhodes Trust's recent fundraising efforts.

Jess Auerbach (South-Africa-at-large and St Antony’s 2009), gathered scholars who wanted to see a wider and more diverse recognition of good work. They chose a theme and began interviewing scholars who had taken a vow to “commit their lives to God, who explicitly saw their way of fighting the world’s fight as being shaped by or articulated through a religious conviction that was not only personal but vocational.” An excerpt from Auerbach’s explanatory note is published below.


You can access the full report here.   

Illustration by Paul Manning

Illustration by Paul Manning

 “I would like to acknowledge the school teachers amongst us who year after year commit their energies to ensuring the stability and continuity of citizens across the world” I wrote in my original email. “I would like us to appreciate those who are on the front-lines of the ebola outbreak, who are giving their all addressing the wrenching power of ISIS, who are trying to get back the missing Nigerian students, or to get justice for those who were assassinated in Mexico or are working to address the ever-stronger reach of climate change. Who was there at Ferguson? Who in our community is currently in prison for standing against injustice? Where are the nurses and the spiritual teachers and the small-business entrepreneurs? We know who gave money, but we do not know this, and it troubles me.”

The response was overwhelming: more than 120 people replied, expressing support and offering to contribute to the curation of a publication that did something to profile those in our community who commit themselves each day to the world’s fight for reasons that go deeper than remuneration. There is nothing wrong with wealth of course: but it is not the only thing that should get public recognition and attention in a community like ours. A long and thought-provoking conversation ensued across the internet, and in time we settled on a plan: I would shepherd the first “Alternative Report” into existence, and in future, if others wanted to take it on as a rolling project, it could continue. What you read now is the result - if and how it moves forward is up to you.

What it might mean to “fight the world’s fight” is a question with as many answers as Rhodes Scholars, both living and dead and still to be born. Nonetheless, we needed a focus, and it emerged that I was not the only one who remembered Kittisaro. His was also not the only name to be suggested in the field of religious work, and slowly a question appeared from amongst the collective: we would like to know about the Rhodes Scholars who have chosen to work with God. How to define “working with God” of course was an immediate challenge: hundreds of us feel we work with God in different ways all of the time, but a “who is the most humble/religious/observant” discussion would not have taken us very far. We therefore decided to limit the pool of enquiry into those who took a vow of some kind to commit their lives to God, who explicitly saw their way of fighting the world’s fight as being shaped by or articulated through a religious conviction that was not only personal but also vocational.

We tried very hard to find a representative sample of scholars, and succeeded only partially: this begs important questions that resonate with the #RhodesMustFall movement now coursing through South Africa’s tertiary education sector. All but one of those profiled are white, all but one (not the same one!) come from the global North, there is no Indian Rhodes Scholar in this group, no Barbadan, no Zambian, - and surely this is not because God figures less in these constituencies! Rather, now more than ever we are asked to think of how political economy shapes life choices, and shapes vocation. We are also forced to interrogate how the Internet links us unevenly: we could “find” those with digital footprints as never before, but we are aware that many members of our community choose not to plug in but quietly, and humbly, fight the world’s fight without seeking (and perhaps explicitly avoiding) any form of community recognition - or at least not from this community, Rhodes Scholars, whatever that might mean. Nonetheless, the pool from which we drew is such that even with a sample size of seven, we gain insight into the lifeworlds of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and we see how each of these faith traditions ask that the best in us be nurtured, to the betterment of all.

In the process of the interviews, we came to realize that God and Social Justice efforts writ large were never far apart from one another - and indeed, in every single case, inseparable. Given the particular expressions of the moment against structural inequality and violence, racism and the colonization of thought, fundamentalism of both religion and market forces, it seemed particularly important to give space ample space for reflections on social justice writ large, and it raises an important question as to the spirit - not the letter - of the scholarship. Through these profiles, we hope to give examples of ways that this spirit has been embodied through lifetimes of work, spiritual practice, and reflection, and we hope that they mark the beginning of a new kind of discussion that is closely aligned with the new spirit of our times.

Access the full report here.