By: Thomas R. Getman
During his election campaign President Barack Obama spoke of “being on the right side of history”. It was a call for all to choose civil society movements that promote a more just, peaceful and humane world for the poor and oppressed
This was a prophetic reminder to nations and individuals, after the tragedies and violence of the 20th century, as well as the misjudgments and costly mistakes of the first decade of the 21st century. Inherent in the appeal was a clear warning to avoid the negative self-interested side of the historic record.
Now once again I am writing from South Africa remembering the painful realities I witnessed during the apartheid era. Today it is rare to find people who admit to having been willing supporters of the racist National Party policies of the mid 20th century. Thankfully, the so-called “miracle” continues here because people are reaching out across racial, economic and religious boundaries to continue the healing process. The inclination for the formerly oppressed to become the oppressors is checked by lively civil debate as well as journalistic and religious accountability and a growing more unified political opposition to check the drift toward a one party state and “kleptocracy” through graft by those in power.
Easter and Passover messages of transformation and hope indicate a society making progress, especially in light of the crime which appears to be from disgruntled employees who continue to be mistreated. An editorial in the English “Farmers Weekly” during Lent reminded farmers to be fair, generous and caring to their employees to reduce the danger of hostile recriminations. There is still some crime against those white farmers, such as Eugene Terre Blanche, who did support the apartheid philosophy of racial purity. But messages of calm and reconciliation are prevailing, led by President Jacob Zuma, and even the leaders of the AWB (the Afrikaans parallel to the Ku Klux Klan). Once again, as with Nelson Mandela in previous times of precipice-like crisis, South Africans are showing no lack of courage in seeking to bridge divides created by nearly 400 years of violence and dead end politics of intolerance.
On April 5 the “Durban Mercury” editor wisely said in part:
While the murder of any person…must be condemned, let us not fall into the trap that this is a defining moment in our democracy. It is not. It is Easter 2010, with a democratic government firmly in place and with the overwhelming majority of South Africans of all races committed to making this country work.
We have moved on and remain convinced that the remnants of right wing extremism, will not take root among Afrikaners, just as left wing extremism has failed to find fertile ground among the majority of citizens who want to live in peace and prosperity is a great country.
…Let those of us occupying the middle ground turn our attention to the real challenges facing this country – fighting poverty, joblessness, crime and inequality.
We worshipped Easter Sunday in the Anglican St. John the Baptist Church in Pinetown with our daughter Eliza and her family. This church, which is still not the norm, models transformation with a multi- racial, multi-generational congregation…something we rarely experienced before the democratic transition except in Archbishop Tutu’s St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Probably half the population of South Africa is under 20 and so most have no personal memory of the apartheid crimes. One joyous picture of this will live with us. As we were leaving our pew for the Eucharist our 4 year old grandson Luke saw his black Sunday School playmate across the aisle and with a joyous smile gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up sign. One guesthouse owner where we stayed in a recent two-week 1000-mile drive around the Eastern Cape Province said of her black coworkers “we have become friends as we have become partners”!
A respected mentor, a British born South African student of history, noted the direction of history in the great colonial expansion had the seeds of collapse even as early as Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival with the Dutch East India Company to colonize South Africa in 1652, because of its evil motivations and methods. Inevitably the enterprise would bring the liberation “miracle” for the oppressed, which captivated the world in 1990 with Nelson Mandela’s release and his election in 1994. The overwhelming reality is that people and nations must support the just direction of history or oppose it…participate in it or obstruct it. For heretical manifest-destiny theology, which gave rise to the tragic ethnic cleansing or enslavement of native aboriginal peoples, in the Americas, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere, did ultimately collapse under the laws of God and man.
As University of Chicago church historian, Martin Marty, said at the Jerusalem Hebrew University in 1997:
“Idolatry of the land which replaces worship of God results in xenophobia that makes one people less than human and allows rationalization of heinous crimes”.
It has recently become more apparent one first world nation still clings fearfully to the “wrong side of history” narrative…with less and less support from the wider world. We noticed a full-page ad in the venerable South African “Mail and Guardian” newspaper on Good Friday sponsored by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, declaring “Will You Help the Palestinians Achieve Justice?” in a call for boycotts against Israel, an end to the occupation and lifting of the Gaza siege. Details: www.endtheoccupation.org.za
Sixty diverse respected South Africa religious leaders also have signed a widely circulated supporting statement for the recent Palestinian Kairos document of liberation struggle non-violent priorities. Information: www.kairospalestine.ps
It is an encouragement that South Africans who experienced the evils of apartheid now rise up in support of others who are suffering war crimes, ethnic cleansing and separation walls and fences. Even while their budding new order of constitutional democracy is still a work in progress they exercise a critical reminder to other nations stuck in the “wrong side of history”.
In this holy Passover-Easter Season may we all likewise seek to be squarely on the “right side of history” by opposing apartheid in our own lives and wherever it exists. For once again we have witnessed the truth of the Psalmist’s declarations (140:12): “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.”