Apartheid and the Ideas about God that Upheld It

This is a blog post from 2 years ago. As I travel Germany and am confronted by the many monuments that remember the holocaust and persecuted minorities, I am again aware of the fundamental role that dominant religions often play in oppressive regimes. May we never forget. 

I still remember the feeling of stifling hot air hitting my face as we disembarked from our long journey at Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo International Airport), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the early 70’s. State President J.J. Fouché, Prime Minister B.J. Forster, and the National Party were in power. We had started our arduous trek from Frankfurt, Germany, after many months of preparation to migrate to this southernmost African Republic. For a tiny seven year old, the world had just become a whole lot bigger.

IMG_1351Mum and I – Durban, South Africa

Amidst the many new experiences, language gaps, huge learning curves and cultural differences, one phenomenon stood head and shoulders above all others: Apartheid. Apartheid was a political and social system that protected the dominant rule of the 20% white minority through racial segregation. The term literally means ‘apartness’.  Although racial discrimination has deep roots in South Africa, it was D.F. Malan and the National Party who formerly established the racist system when they swept into power in 1948md1. It was toppled in 1994, with the appointment of South Africa’s first democratically elected, black President, Nelson Mandela.

The injustice of a system that discriminated people by the colour of their skin felt like a cultural tsunami to freshly arrived, wide-eyed immigrants. Yet for many people who had lived in and under that system, especially those who benefitted from it, it seemed a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. The memories of what I witnessed under apartheid do not diminish with time: the beating of a man until he was bloodied, bruised and motionless, by a neighbour who thought he should not be in the ‘white’ part of town; the anger directed at my friends of colour when they stepped too close to the drinking fountains that were designated ‘whites only’; and the squalid, overcrowded townships with their tiny ‘match box houses’.

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South Africa came under the rule of the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. Christianity played a major role in the shaping of colonised South Africa. But it was in the twentieth century that many churches started actively promoting racial division. The largest of the various denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk – NGK), became the ‘official religion’ of the National Party during the apartheid era. Fear ruled the day. A white minority began to increasingly feel that their own existence was threatened. Church doctrine and beliefs were fashioned to uphold a political ideology of segregation.

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The Bible became the central tool for apartheid dogma. Genesis 11 was used to argue that God divided humanity into different races, with the white race being superior. Difficult Bible verses such as Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul presents the Gospel as breaking down barriers of division, were adapted to claim that he was addressing spiritual, not physical, equality. This teaching became so entrenched that many believed that South Africa’s apartheid was God’s will, that races should be kept apart, that whites had better opportunities because they were ‘favoured’ by God, and that above all, God was the ‘Great Divider’. One of the first laws to come into legislation under the apartheid regime was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, banning the marriage of a white person to a person of any other colour. It was believed that these relationships were sinful, an idea that had been fuelled by the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and that of other races. During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, enthusiasm for apartheid theology began to wane amongst followers, yet many church leaders remained fervent adherers to the apartheid doctrine. At this point, it is also important to mention that there were numerous churches and church leaders who stood in fierce opposition to apartheid.

Gradually societal paradigms began to shift. The work and words of many anti-apartheid advocates was beginning to fall on more receptive ears. The effect of having black South Africans form the majority in all church denominations, except the Dutch Reformed Church, cannot be underestimated. Slowly, and facing much criticism, more church leaders began to speak out against apartheid. The South African Council of Churches became one of the most effective anti-apartheid organisation. Pentecostal churches tended to be more conservative than the older, more established, churches. They expressed vague ideas about the racial dilemma, indicating that God was the only hope for the future.

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The Conservative Right, concerned about the growing acceptance of anti-apartheid ideology and the effect of foreign investment boycotts, organised themselves into new groups, like the ‘Christian Forum’, to protest sanctions. The founder of ‘Open Door Ministry’, Brother Andrew, distributed comic tracts in English and Afrikaans to South African defence troops, claiming  that the anti-apartheid struggle was an invasion of ‘communism’ against ‘democracy’, and the final contest between Christ and the Anti-Christ. His ideas, that South Africa had a mission to evangelise all of Africa, and that the international movement for economic sanctions was a ploy of Satan “to isolate South Africa to prevent it from fulfilling its divine commission”, resonated with many. Of course, it is important to remember that pro-apartheid support was also found amongst many high-profiled Christians in the USA, such as President Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. To this day there are still pro-apartheid advocates who argue that the struggle against apartheid was sinful, and that people who were involved need to ‘repent or face the wrath of God’.

At the heart of it all, apartheid was a radical survival plan. It was the construction of a deeply nationalistic and religious Afrikaner minority group who were terrified of being subjugated by another people and culturally swamped by black Africans. It was this fear that gave apartheid its impetus. The renown Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, supported apartheid because he, like many others, believed that integration meant Afrikaner National suicide. Fear propaganda reached fever pitch as the walls of segregation began to tumble rather quickly in the late 80’s. Pro-apartheid arguments became shrill and hysterical, a rather common occurrence when dominating powers begin to fall.

The rise and fall of apartheid shows the social and political power of religious movements. God is often claimed and ordained by the various religious voices seeking to present their perspective as right and true. “God is on my side” is perhaps one of the most comforting and often deceptive notions of the religious faithful. Deceptive, especially when it propagates oppression, violence and discrimination against other people in the name of God, claiming their suffering is unavoidable and “for the greater good”.

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Apartheid, at one stage in earlier South African history, was just an idea. An idea to control a large people group. An idea that would have been difficult to embody without the assistance of religion. Religion provided the ‘divine mandate’ that the idea needed to become a force – a force that brought years of injustice. We need to consider that Christianity, or an ideology based on Christianity, played a central role in this oppressive regime. This is rather ironic considering that Christianity itself began not as a religion, but with a persecuted minority group desperately trying to follow the teaching of a lowly carpenter. A man who became such a threat to the dominant social and political order that he was executed. It was not until Constantine that Christianity became acquainted with political power and a dramatic change occurred. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Overnight the Church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas.” Christianity became the religion of the empire and was no longer at the very bottom of society,  which is the best vantage point to “understand the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and society.” With power, wealth and nobility, Christianity began to deviate from the simple teaching of Christ, whose concern for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised, was evident in his ministry. Apartheid serves as an example of what happens when our ideas about God are driven by an agenda of control and dominion, conveniently hidden under religious robes of moral piety.

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This is a most chilling lesson indeed, that if we are not careful, our very notions about God can be misplaced, and instead of bringing life and freedom, become a tool in the hand of the oppressor. History is not short of examples.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela

 

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Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
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I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
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Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex

 

There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)

 

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