You remember Jesus and the blind man? Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and asks him, “Can you see?” The man says, “Yes, I can see people, they look like trees walking.” Jesus touches his eyes again and this time he sees clearly. (Mark 8:22-26) ssss
In South Africa we needed that second touch. Lots of people could tell how they had first met Jesus and how Jesus had changed their lives and saved their souls. What they needed was the second touch that would free them of their blindness toward their fellows, brought about by 300 years of privilege—the blindness that made other human beings “walking trees” for them.
We had to be given eyes in South Africa to rescue us from self-absorption, and to begin to see the hurts we were capable of.
New Ears to Hear
Second, we had to be given new ears to hear. To hear whom? The voice of God through the humble of the earth … especially those whom we had alienated. That is why those of us who were sent into places of poverty and oppression—such as the ghetto of District Six— were the fortunate ones.
Scripture and doctrine alone are not always enough to transform people. In South Africa, the very people who were responsible for policies of oppression sat in church on Sundays and prayed: “Help us to hear with joy what you have to say to us today.” It doesn’t work that way. Most of us need the additive of a transforming experience, and it was the relationship with suffering black Christians that changed so many whites.
The reconciling power of our faith and all its elements only broke through to us in South Africa when we began to listen to the Gospel as taught us by those we had despised. Christians changed when they met those they were alienated from. This is why Jesus says, “Please go to the least of my sisters and brothers. Listen to them. You might hear me.”
Hearts to Repent
Third, we had to be given hearts to repent our power.
Although my forbears arrived in South Africa in 1820, we regarded our cultural roots and heritage as British and were proud of it. I was an adult before I first visited England and made my pilgrimage to that heart of British culture and spirituality, Westminster Abbey. This was something I had looked forward to for so long. I walked in and I began to look around. I read one plaque and memorial after another. Somewhere, I don’t know where it was, I began to weep.
So many of them memorialized generals and admirals and armies—people who had killed people somewhere in the world! They were a litany of conquest and human brutality—the brutality of empire. It was there that I knew I had to repent of my heritage. I had to repent being powerful. It is such a dangerous thing. And while those days were in the past, the legacy remains. It is built into our personalities. There are many of my black friends in South Africa who will certainly confirm that the arrogance of that powerful heritage still comes through.
When we look around at the might of the American empire we see today, it may be hard to believe, but all empires must sooner or later be repented of. Unfortunately that repentance usually waits until the damage has been done, the power has waned, and the glorious myths of invincibility are gone.
In 1971, a plaque was placed on the wall of our church in District Six:
That was the first monument in South Africa to the victims of apartheid. It was put up, torn down by the police, and put up again. There were many things that we had to do at that time. There were people to pastor, there were statements to be made, there were protests to be engaged in…. But, looking back, there are few things I feel more right about than the action of that congregation who put that plaque on the wall and asked for God’s forgiveness. Because, you see, they were people of color. It’s a strange thing: There is a sense in which the very people who suffer in the world are the ones who have to teach us to repent.
I invite you to get serious about that debate between flag and altar. And I invite you to search with Jesus and with those who live outside this bubble for that higher patriotism that can never be forced on anybody by an act of Congress, but which is built in the human heart. It is the patriotism that says, “I love my country. I love it so much that I am determined it will do what God wants it to do and it will be servant to the world.”
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