It’s been an incredibly rich day today. I can honestly say that if the trip ended tomorrow with the two-day trip home, it would feel complete. There’s no way to even mention all of the moments that prompted reflection today, but I’ll share two major highlights of God’s Word for me today. They were on two ends of a spectrum.
The Face of Evil
We visited Robben Island, where Mandela and many others who were leading the people to challenge the racist policies of the Apartheid system were imprisoned for decades, and several of us visited the District 6 Museum, which remembers an entire community wiped out by the race-based relocations of Apartheid. We learned a good deal of detail about how institutionalized racism oppressed all people in South Africa, including those brave leaders who spoke and acted in defiance of the system. One telling tidbit: prisoners were clothed differently and fed different diets based on their race. Upon arrival, ‘coloreds’ (neither white nor black) were given long pants to wear, but blacks were given shorts (because that’s what young boys wear in South Africa; black men in South Africa, as in segregationist America, were called ‘boy’). Note the difference in diet from this Robben Island display:
The story of District 6 was disturbing in a different way–instead of individual abuse, it was an example of abuse of an entire community at once. In the guise of ‘wise urban development’, the government declared in a 1950 law that the races should live in separate areas of the city, and in the years that followed, systematically declared the desirable land whites-only area. This involved forcibly relocating all the non-whites who lived in these areas to much less-desirable regions on the outskirts of the city and then tearing down every single home and business in their community to make room for new homes and businesses for whites. District 6 was one of those neighborhoods: a vibrant center of commerce and community for people of color for generations, until the government declared it illegal for the residents to live there and forced them out of the city. As I mentioned yesterday (and posted a photo), it remains desolate today–an empty scar on the face of the city and on the soul of the people. This plaque is on the outside of a Methodist Church on the edge of that neighborhood that has been converted to a museum, preserving the memory of the community that was destroyed in the name of government-enforced racial segregation and white supremacy:
Today I heard descriptions of this particular face of evil, this idea that the races are on a spectrum of human-ness, with whites most human and blacks least human, and that the races should have separate and unequal lives. This face of evil that systematically sought to dehumanize everyone without European-white skin and subjugate them in every way to white people. This face of evil that declared it proper and God’s order that white people were intended to dominate and manage non-whites for their benefit. This was the face of evil in apartheid, at its peak in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Today I made the connection for the first time that it was this very same evil that was thriving in the Nazi regime and in legalized racial segregation in America, too, also in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Segregation in America, Nazism in Europe, and Apartheid in South Africa. Three different manifestations of institutionalized racism, all the same face of evil. And, of course, this face of evil is not new in the 20th century! Chilling.
(Note, by the way, that I’m not saying the people themselves who built these racist policies or carried out the brutality required to enforce them were evil. All people involved on both sides of these systems were victims of the evil in the ideology and the systems and the acts of racial hatred and dehumanization. That’s why I call it ‘a face’, rather than many faces; it’s one thing in many places and acts. This is the sort of thing I think Paul was talking about when he used the terms ‘principalities and powers’.)
Also chilling: taking seriously that the churches (a vast majority, across all denominations) were complicit in these horrific systems by either explicit support or by silence. We all want to claim kinship with those few churches that stood courageously with the oppressed, working for justice, but the reality is that most churches either justified the unjust systems (scripture can be an easy tool for such work) or turned their heads and refused to notice or speak up as people were being slowly destroyed.
All this raises the very serious questions: where is this face of evil today? Where is racial prejudice at work? Where is the voice proclaiming separation of ‘different’ people whispering its hateful message sweetly? Where is separate-and-unequal being justified in terms of race?
I’m mindful today that looking back is easy; looking in the mirror is hard.
The Faces of Hope
I’ll close with a quick glimpse of God’s encouraging voice. I had a great conversation with Murad Velshi today at lunch. (I wrote about him yesterday: he’s the husband of our travel director; he’s an Indian Muslim, born and raised in South Africa, was driven out by the injustices of apartheid and settled in Canada, where he has served in Parliament, among other impressive accomplishments.) I was asking Murad a variety of questions about where he sees injustice and oppression today, and listening, after a morning at Robben Island, left me feeling sad and a little hopeless about the state of society. Then it hit me: ask him where he sees hope. So I did. He thought for a moment and said:
I see hope in the religious communities that seek peace, and in young preachers like you who preach peace to a hundred people today, because that hundred becomes ten thousand.
My hair stood on end and I was immediately reminded why I do this work. I do this work because I share Murad’s hope (most days). Communities of people seeking the Kingdom of God, in which all people have dignity, worth, and enough to eat, are the way God brings about shalom (wholeness, completeness, peace). And I want nothing more in my life than to be able to join in God’s work bringing about reconciliation and peace, one congregation at a time.