I Corinthians 5:16-19; Matthew 5:21-24
Twenty years ago this year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and mandated by Parliament to spearhead the process of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. Soon the TRC attracted global interest, and was daily referred to in the media here and abroad. It was meant to complete its work in two years, but only did so in six when, in 2002, it submitted its final report to President Mbeki. While it continued to attract attention, especially among scholars, many of them beyond our borders, by then most South Africans seemed to have lost interest and tired of the subject, many victims who gave evidence at its hearings were disillusioned, perpetrators were desperately trying to get amnesty for themselves, and the government was not taking some of its main recommendations seriously. The process of reconciliation seemed to stagnate. We can’t blame the TRC for this. Rather as South Africans we, especially those of us who are white along with the government, must blame ourselves for failing to grasp the opportunity the TRC gave us. It would have saved much anguish today if we hadn’t. But instead, the impetus towards reconciliation weakened and the word, like the Rand, was devalued.
So now, twenty years later, reconciliation has become a dirty word for many angry young blacks who regard all talk about reconciliation as cheap talk, and have concluded that whites who say they are for reconciliation are not really serious. Reconciliation-talk, for them, simply benefits those who have made it in the new South Africa rather than contributing to significant changes on the ground for those who are poor or unemployed, young, black and uneducated. Nothing has really changed they chant. Some have even turned their backs on the national icons of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, saying that they sold them down the river.
These young people, for whom reconciliation has become a symbol of oppression rather than transformation, are almost all “born-frees.” They did not grow up under apartheid, nor did they participate in the struggle against it. Many are college or university students who, like young people the world over are critical of their elders, and articulate in their criticism. At one level they have come of age like young people everywhere. But they are not without cause. They may not have grown up under apartheid, but they experience its legacy in too many ways. They are daily aware of the gap between rich and poor, between the growing middle-class and the unemployed, between the skilled and unskilled, the educated and less educated, the well-housed and shack dwellers — inequities that largely mirror the divide between black people and white, or those who have benefitted from Black Economic Empowerment and those who have not. Reconciliation for them, has simply come to mean that whites and blacks can now be friends on Face Book, play in the same rugby teams to fill quotas, go to the same restaurants and churches if they wish, ride on the same trains, and even intermarry. So reconciliation-talk has become suspect, and the word itself is becoming unusable along with the words “God” and “Christianity” with which it is usually associated. It is much like Donald Trump telling us that he is a Presbyterian and proud of it! I doubt that many Presbyterians welcome his affirmation, but in saying this Trump has debased the word. This is what has happened to the term “reconciliation.” It now conveys to many young and angry blacks what is wrong with South Africa, not what is right.
I am not pessimistic about the reconciliation process. I think we have come a long way in the past twenty years, but it is not nearly far enough to meet the expectations of many people, not least young blacks. So all of us who believe in and work for reconciliation have to sit up and take notice of their anger and the bored yawns of those who have lost interest or are indifferent. This is a particularly urgent challenge for us Christians for whom reconciliation is the core message of the gospel which, as St. Paul tells us, has been entrusted to us.
When Paul wrote that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,” he was not just speaking about Jesus’ death on the cross, but reminding us that throughout his ministry Jesus was the agent of God’s work of reconciliation. He is saying that in Jesus, God took the initiative to reconcile and heal the world. In Jesus’ every act of healing, every protest against injustice, every challenge to the hypocritical religious elite of his day, as well as to the rich and powerful, every parable about the coming of God’s reign of justice, every embrace of the outsider, the despised and the vulnerable, God was at work “reconciling the world to himself.” And it was because of this costly ministry of reconciliation in which Jesus confronted the dehumanising and destructive powers of evil, that he was crucified. This is what the gospel of reconciliation is about, and why it is costly, not cheap. For cheap reconciliation is no reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just being nice to one another, though that always helps! It is about the deep healing of broken relationships and enmities through grace and forgiveness; it is about the deep healing of society through working for justice and therefore social and economic transformation.
Jesus tells us that we cannot worship God if we are estranged from other people because of what we have done to them. Like the prophets of old, he tells us that faith in God is meaningless unless we love our neighbours and seek God’s justice in the world. So when we say that the church exists in order to witness to God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ, this is what we are committed to doing. It is the only promising way into the future, not just for us in South Africa, but for the world, as becomes ever more obvious each day as we watch the news on TV. And that is why we here at Volmoed continue to be inspired in our ministry by the story that gave birth to the Community of the Cross of Nails to which we belong.
During the Second World War, Coventry Cathedral in England was totally destroyed by German bombs. In retaliation, in an act of vengeance that had no strategic importance, the Royal Air Force destroyed the German city of Dresden. After the war, as an expression of penitence and reconciliation, the Dean of Coventry invited young Germans from Dresden to come to Coventry where they worked alongside local young people to clear the ruins of the Cathedral. In doing so, they discovered some Medieval roof nails lying in the rubble. They made a cross from two of them and placed it on the damaged altar as a sign of the process of reconciliation to which they were committing themselves. So the Community of the Cross of Nails was born, which now has over two hundred affiliates across the world including Volmoed, each working for justice and peace in places of conflict, enmity and violence. Today we reaffirm our core conviction: that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” and renew our commitment to “the message of reconciliation” he has entrusted to us. And as a sign of that commitment we say the Litany which every community associated with the Community of the Cross of Nails says every week.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God
the hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.
the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own.
the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth.
our envy of the welfare and happiness of others.
our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee.
the lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children.
the pride that leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 28th January 2016