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.

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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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A Tribute to the Exiles Past and Present


“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” – Mahmoud Darwish

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I remember those in exile from my childhood days. They became outcasts because they protested when people were oppressed and marginalised because of the colour of their skin.
They were mocked and ridiculed as they marched.
The government and church set its face against them. People were persuaded by the lies and slander: “These people will destroy our land as we know it, our families, our homes, our future …” Fear ruled the day.

Many of these exiles never saw liberation. They died with only hope for a different tomorrow.
They fought for justice that they would never see.
We remember those exiled to the margins. We will not forget their tears.

This is my tribute to the exiles both past and present.

The marginalised ones. The forgotten ones. The ones held in contempt. The invisible ones. The ones who have been colonised, murdered, exterminated, raped and beaten, in the hope that they will lose or forget their song and story. The ones who have been displaced and rejected. The ones who have been used as footballs by those in politics and used as scapegoats by those in the business of religion.

This post is to remember those who had a dream: that all people are created equal. It is to remind those who are tired and weary from pleading with deaf ears and stone hearts that every step towards inclusion of people groups that were once socially exiled, both in sacred text and throughout history, was met with great resistance. It takes a long time for the walls of ignorance to crumble. Every privileged generation finds it hard to let go of the safeguards they have set in place that determines who is in and who is out, who is valuable and who is not, who belongs and who is exiled.

To live in exile is to live in a space that does not feel like home. It is standing on the outside looking in. It is yearning for belonging, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood. It is to suffer the disappointment of empty promises. It is to be the target of passive aggressive language by those who become offended when their lukewarm acknowledgement is not met with accolades of adoration from those who carry deep wounds and scars.

This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.

It is to remind you that the margins are sacred, that the Divine sings over those who lament in exile. That the One from whom people hide their faces, who was despised and rejected, familiar with suffering, that very One stands as a prophetic witness amongst the exiled ones to testify to their pain and walk alongside them. You are not forgotten.

This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.

May your path be blessed. Blessed in the truest sense, not the plastic gimmick modernity calls ‘blessing’.
As you are exhausted, with no place to turn, may you be blessed.
As you have lost so much, all that has been dear, may you be blessed.
As you walk with humility, may you be blessed.
As you show mercy to those who showed you no mercy, may you be blessed.
As you seek peace amidst inflated egos of entitlement, may you be blessed.
As you are persecuted for seeking justice, may you be blessed.

This is a tribute to the exiles past and present. You will not be forgotten.

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” – Brennan Manning

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Lazarus at Our Gate

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In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story to his predominantly devout Jewish listeners. It is a story of a rich man, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Jesus draws a strong contrast in his story between this rich man and a beggar by the name of Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate. “He was covered in sores and longed to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” Jesus continues the story and describes their respective deaths. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. Despite his pleas, the rich man was shown no mercy. “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you”, explains Abraham in the story. The rich man was beyond rescue.

The story leaves me uncomfortable. It is a relief to hear that the character of Lazarus is now in a place of peace. However, the rich man … this is a steep price to pay for being rich?! Wait a minute! Was that the problem? His opulent riches? Then, how the heck, did Abraham sidestep Hades? Abraham was describes as VERY wealthy. He had ample livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 13:1). It seems to me, that having riches alone is not the problem here. Perhaps the point of the story is that the rich man, with all his wealth, had the ability to help a dying beggar at his gate, but did NOTHING about it.

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In fact, it seems that the rich man’s ailment was the same as that of the pious and pristine religious leaders of that day. They went to great length to protect their pedigree, orthodoxy and pious devotion and missed the whole damn point! “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24).” The rich man, like the religious lobby group of Jesus’ day, became blind amidst their power and wealth, and failed to notice the beggar at their gate with his horrific injuries.

I can identify with the rich man. I, too, live in opulence in comparison to over 80% of the world. I cannot recall a day in my life that I went hungry, or when I was thirsty, or cold and did not have extra clothes to put on. When I get sick, I find a doctor and buy medicine. At night I sleep in a warm house and a warm bed. In so many ways, I represent the ‘rich man’. This reality is brought home to me every single day – when I see the faces of distraught asylum seekers, when I notice the plight of my city’s homeless, when I study the horrific statistics provided by UNICEF – that 29,000 children under five die every single day due to poverty, when I talk to friends and others who suffer from mental health disorders, struggling to receive adequate care, daily facing discrimination from so many sectors of society, and as I listen to the stories of my LGBTIQ friends, marginalised by their churches and often rejected by their families who attend those churches. In comparison to the rest of the world, I am that ‘rich man’. The only question left to answer is how I will respond to Lazarus at MY gate.

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So is there an antidote to ‘rich man blindness’? Are we doomed to live our lives in compassion paralysis as we hoard our goods and safeguard our assets? Do we keep making excuses for our lack of involvement in the fate of Lazarus at our gate? Perhaps we can pretend Lazarus is a threat? Some ‘other’ that has come to invade our peace and quiet. Maybe we can change the language by describing a broken, destitute man as an ‘illegal gate squatter’. That will make us feel like we have a right to ignore his needs. It would even be better if we can dump him at our neighbour’s gate and let him become their problem while we safeguard our own borders. And while we tell ourselves all these lies, the rot continues to grow inside of us. But there is another way …

Woven through the sacred text is the virtue of Generosity. Not only is it a virtue, it is the very essence of the Divine. The offence of the rich man is that another human being lay suffering at his very gate and he withheld generosity and mercy. Generosity is displayed in so many ways – our connection to others; our willingness to listen, to understand, to help; the way we see, talk and behave towards those who are on the margins of society; how we treat all of God’s creatures; and the consideration we show to our planet. The list goes on. In a culture of fear and paranoia, to live with a spirit of generosity towards others is indeed an anomaly.

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In a world dominated by greed and violence, where the rich become richer, whilst feeling threatened and ‘persecuted’, and the poor continue to languish at the expense of our lusts, the story that Jesus told snaps us to attention. We need to consider our ways. Dr. Charles Birch once said that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live. When we develop a generous heart and way of life we usher in a different tomorrow, one that brings healing to the wounded and hope to those in despair. Generosity, my friend, comes to us at the price of self-sacrifice. Just like the rich man we have a choice: fear or generosity. May we choose that which brings life.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
— Simone Weil

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