Author: Moss Ntlha, General Secretary of TEASA
The race question in South Africa refuses to go away. In recent times it has surfaced in the public media with some frequency, commanding airtime on radio shows, social media and television, not to mention in the schools and in homes. Some examples:
It is like a social ill tormenting our society and for which there appears to be no cure, except perhaps in the gospel and the true Church of Jesus Christ. But there again, there does not appear to be adequate reason to harbour hope. Christian theology has often been used to mask, rather than uncover racism. At worst, it has been used to give theological legitimation to it.
For example, some may say that there is only one race, the human race. While we would agree with that in theory, it is clear that that is not the reality, and that racist thoughts, actions and behaviour are still present in many people’s lives. We are particularly concerned that the idea that one person is superior over others because of the colour of their skin is still present in many Christian’s lives, thoughts and behaviour. It is this that needs to be addressed and excorcised in a systematic way.
Did we learn anything from the TRC?
One of the things that came out at the TRC is that Churches confessed their sin of complicity with racism and apartheid. Even English speaking churches, who are more liberal by disposition, confessed their complicity with apartheid and benefitted from it. Most all the churches confessed that they were less than faithful to Jesus and His gospel on the matter of race, racism and the injury suffered by black South Africa.
Bishop Nuttal, confessing on behalf of his Church at the TRC, “acknowledged that there were occasions when, through the silence of its leadership or its parishes, or their actions in acquiescing with apartheid laws where they believed it to be in the interests of the church, deep wrong was done to those who bore the brunt of the onslaught of apartheid.
This moral lethargy had been bolstered in part by the fact that the church had, over the years, developed its own pattern of racial inequality and discrimination.
It was all too easy to pass resolutions or make lofty pronouncements condemning apartheid. It was all too easy to point a morally superior finger at Afrikaner nationalist prejudice and pride.”
Addressing black South Africa, the bishop went on to say:” the church’s chief apology had to be to its black congregants, who comprised the overwhelming majority of its members.White parishes had, like white business, benefited from apartheid.”TRC report
A commitment was made to repent and commit to building a South Africa in which racism would be history. 20 years later, that commitment remains to be realised.
We succeeded in rewriting our laws and constitution, and eradicating racism in our public institutions.
South Africa is a different place from what it was in Apartheid years. Racism is no longer the basis of of our political and public institutions. Changes have been far reaching in our national, educational, cultural and economic lives. Even in the way we do business, labour relations has changed. Transformation has been the dominant conversation over the last 20 years. More can and must still be done to remedy the ills and patterns of the past.
There was an assumption that there was no need to bother about racism in the churches, because after all the church would be the light of the world and show everyone how to do it. Brothers and sisters in Christ would know to stop hurting each other. They would voluntarily dismantle theologies, habits and structures in their churches and spheres of influence that drive and sustain racism. That, quite clearly was a big mistake. It did not happen.
But why bother?
As Christians it is important to think theologically about these things. We are bothered because:
It matters to Jesus. “A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34 ­35. Jesus radicalises this further when he suggests that even worshiping God can wait, if there are issues between you and your fellow believers. Matthew 5:23
It matters to the integrity of His gospel. There are many who reject the gospel because those who are its messengers behave in ways that contradict it. It is for this reason that Paul counsels Timothy “to take heed to yourself and to your teaching…because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” 1 Tim 4:16. A case could be made that many of the world’s unreached people are resistant to the gospel of Christ, not because of its own merits, or because of satanic strongholds, but because of the chauvinism, racism and cultural imperialism of Christians. We are scoring own goals.
It matters to the people of South Africa. The father of the South African nation, Nelson Mandela, is a symbol of how much sacrifice South Africans had to pay to end racism. Mandela put it this way:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
What can be done about persistent racism?
The South African Christian Leadership Initiative, launched in April 2014, with the support of TEASA, SACC , African Enterprise and Kairos South Africa is inviting eminent white pastors to provide leadership in this regard. The process will hopefully include:
1.Identifying and naming the sin of racism and the patterns and habits that sustain it in the churches.
2. Analysing the root causes and the pillars that sustain it.
3. Clarifying the rationalisations ­ theologically and otherwise ­ of racism and its manifestations in the church.
4. A determination to dismantling racism
5. Creating spaces for real conversations in churches about race issues and what reconciliation and restitution might look like in South Africa today.
A decade of anti racism. 2016 – 2026
Racism dies hard. Short of an earnest long term and sustained effort to wage war against racism, there will be very little result. A ten year period of sustained effort is a good way to start the journey. It is important that such an effort be seen to be led by leaders. If anything, this will have the effect of not only stigmatising racism, but will provide inspiration and covering for the effort.
A good seed sown in the South African soil.
Nothing is served by shouting the racists down. They will only go underground and continue to do damage. It is better to sow and nurture the seeds of the good tree of reconciliation. God will grow them into a mighty forest, and future generations will reap the good fruit of human solidarity.