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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
Here are the details of the 5th Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture:. . The invitation is open to all.
Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany, and a close friend of Steve’s, will give the Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture, on Tuesday 1st March 2016 at 7 pm at the Rondebosch United Church, Belmont Road. He will speak on the refugee crisis in Europe and the situation in the Middle East.
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
I had a dream. Once long ago in a land far away, there lived a beautiful people. Some of the people were purple others blue, some of them were orange others crimson, and some pink and vermillion. There were also green people and yellow people, in fact people of every colour of the rainbow. They were beautiful as individuals, but when they were all together on special occasions they made a spectacular sight. Their colours blended in rich harmony as they acknowledged each other as part of a tapestry in which each was necessary, none superior, each an important part of the whole, but none insignificant on their own. They were known far and wide as the rainbow people. Unlike other nations, there were no white people or black people, for those colours are absent from the rainbow, only people of all colours, shapes, shades and sizes, like pieces in a magnificent jigsaw puzzle. Each piece was necessary to complete the picture, none more special than any other, but when each piece linked arms the picture was stunning even though while still incomplete.
Then I woke up. It had been a wonderful dream, but it was not reality on the ground, certainly not if you scratched beneath the surface. How could it be when for centuries all people saw was black and white, and when laws insisted that they should never mingle, never form a rainbow, and laws, guns and dogs were used to keep them apart. Water-canons were also used to suppress their protests and wash all the colours down the gutter. So only black and white remained to make sure that everyone knew who they were, that all that mattered was that you were white or black. From childhood we learnt we all learnt that we were not part of a rainbow. but as different as daylight and midnight, some superior others inferior, some privileged others oppressed. Most whites imbibed this belief with their mother’s milk and their father’s talk who, in turn, learnt this from their ancestors who lived over the seas and thought blacks were alien creatures inhabiting a dark continent alongside strange beasts.
Many thought that this was just how God intended it to be, that it had been like this since the foundation of the world. Some were predestined to rule and others to serve, some were intelligent and could play cricket because they were white, and others dumb and could only play soccer because they were black. Yes, everything was in black and white, like the laws written down to ensure that they remained separate and knew their place. Scholars and politicians thought long and hard how to describe this and eventually they found a word that seemed to fit. They called it “race” and insisted there was a white race and a black race, even though we know that there is only the human race made up of many cultures of all colours. So racism was born and racism ruled. In protest black became beautiful and white the colour of oppression.
But things don’t work well in black and white. It is like watching old movies where people are not only black and white, cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad, who shoot each other but never talk to each other. Just like living in a colourless world makes you ill, so racism was a disease which made society sick. People lost their humanity, and committed crimes against humanity. And even though not everyone had the disease, it affected everyone, for when some are in bondage to racism all are in bondage and end up doing hurtful things to each other. So people began to dream of and struggle for a non-racial nation, a nation made whole.
After many years, too many deaths and much suffering, enough people came to their senses and helped construct a rainbow. Their dream became reality. And they all settled down to live happily ever after. Except for one thing. They did not take into account that the racism virus, like the plague, had not been eradicated, it was only dormant waiting its chance to reappear and infect the fragile rainbow. Too little had been done to get rid of the virus; it had only been brushed under the carpet. Too few acknowledged that establishing a non-racial society could not be achieved by the stroke of pen. Human nature had to change, and that is a tough call.
So twenty years after the rainbow nation was born, and much achieved, the reality of racism cannot be ignored or denied. Its symptoms keep showing themselves, both crude and subtle, for not everyone is afflicted to the same degree. Some forms are mild like the common cold, others as violent, abusive and deadly as Ebola. Everyone knows a crude racist when they see one or hears them speak. But subtle racism is more difficult to detect, and even those who are afflicted do not always acknowledge that they have the disease, and sometimes vehemently deny it. So they are taken by surprise when someone calls them racists. “Who, me?” they ask in shock.
There is no easy cure for racism, no antibiotic. But we do know that unlike Ebola and the plague, it can’t be dealt with by isolation. Isolation only strengthens the virus. The way to overcome the disease is through contact, through discovering that people who are different are just like oneself; that we are all human beings, all of the same human race. We belong together because God has made us so and history has brought us together. It is only as we learn to respect each other so that our differences actually enrich each of us, that the virus can be contained and eventually overcome. It is a long, hard battle, because racism has perverted justice and robbed people of their land. But we have to start somewhere, and we can and must begin with ourselves. We can acknowledge that the virus is real and not deny its reality. So we have to be careful about what we say about others, about the attitudes we have, the way we act, the off-the-cuff comments we post on Facebook. This is not all that is required to build a rainbow nation, but without this we haven’t begun.
Oh, and by the way, Jesus gave us a golden rule to deal with the racism virus. Do to others what you would want them to do to you and therefore MMspeak about them in ways that you would like them to speak about you. Imagine such a world! Is it only be a dream? Or can we make it a reality?
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 21 January 2016
Everyone from my grandchildren to my wife is nagging me to start blogging. I have succumbed but I really do not know what I am doing so anyone who reads this will have to be patient as I learn the art. But I just wanted you to know that I will soon be up and running with bits and pieces that may be of interest. I have headed this Christian humanist and woodworker just in case the theologian bit in my title puts you off. Why Christian humanist, then? Well I am a Christian but I don’t like the media image and long ago became disenchanted with fundamentalism of all kinds. So I wrote a book to tell my story. It was called Being Human: Confessions of a Christian Humanist (2006) and lots of people said they liked what I had to say because it resonated with their own experience. But what about the woodworker bit? Well I am passionate about turning wood in bowls and making furniture for friends and family. You can read about that too in my recent book Sawdust and Soul (2014) which is a conversation with my friend Bill Everett about spirituality and working with wood. So if you would like more of my musings tell me or else I will quietly withdraw from blogging and take up croquet..