“BETWEEN US AND DESPAIR”
Sermon Preached at the African National Congress Centenary Celebrations Service of Thanksgiving, Beacon Hill Community Church, Atlantis Western Cape, 12 February, 2012
Dr Allan A Boesak
Romans 15: 5, 13, 33; 16:20:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit… The God of peace be with you… The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet.
In my reading of history during this centenary year I came across the powerful words of Sol Plaatje, one time Secretary-General of the ANC, remarkable scholar and leader with his strong Christian convictions, spoken in 1916: “The only thing that stands between us and despair is the thought that Heaven has not yet failed us.”
Those were dark, bitter times.
The year 1910 saw the establishment of the Union of South Africa, the realization of a dream for white South Africa, but a deal which excluded the vast majority of our people from the political dispensation. We argued, pleaded, petitioned British the Crown, trying to make them understand what an unmitigated disaster this would be, and how much such an unjust, politically short-sighted, and morally wrong arrangement would come to cost this country. All to no avail.
For the next eighty-four years – till 1994 – this fraudulent pact of white racist solidarity, white political domination and white economic interests would seal and determine the fate of the democratic ideal in South Africa.
In 1913 came the first land Act, the first legalization of dispossession and land theft on a grand scale that began in 1652 with the dispossession and decimation of the first nations of South Africa, the Khoi and the San, and would end up in the establishment of the Bantustans
Between 1914 and 1915 came the so-called Boer rebellions, the armed uprisings of the Boers who sought the re-establishment of the Boer Republics as they were before the South Africa War, and the restoration of “their land”. The irony could not have been greater. Here they have just legalised one of the grandest schemes of land theft in modern history, and now they were fighting for their “God-given” land, without a thought that the land they were fighting for in fact did not even belong to them. The real victims of dispossession, from the cape Colony to the Far North were left, completely irrelevant to this struggle, their rightful ownership to the land of their ancestors unremembered, unheard, unacknowledged.
By 1916, Sol Plaatje surveyed the consequences of all this: the devastation of dispossession, the slow strangulation of creeping impoverishment, the deadly grip of political oppression, economic exploitation and the dehumanization caused by legalized violence and state terror. And we know he was right: “The only thing that stands between us and despair is the thought that heaven has not yet failed us.” In the midst of all the chaos and pain of injustice, our people knew that the God of steadfastness and encouragement is there, standing between us and total despair.
Even then we knew that this was going to be a long, hard, bitter, and bloody struggle against relentless powers. But we know also that this struggle had started much earlier already. It started with the onset of colonization and the onslaught on the first peoples of this land, with the dispossession of the Khoi and the San, decimated by war and genocide, destroyed by diseases they did not know and had no defence against, dehumanized, estranged from themselves through the destruction of their culture and religion, and later on even more dehumanized by slavery.
Even then we knew that without faith, we would not be able to hold out, to endure, to fight for a dream we could see but could not grasp.
For what is it that makes us endure? What gives us hope? What makes you stand up when you fall? What makes you go on when you are dragged down? What makes you believe that justice and peace shall become a reality; that no matter how hard the battle, no matter how long the road, no matter how deep the pain or how dark the night – we shall overcome?
It is the belief, the absolute conviction that there is a God of justice, that that God is on our side, and that that God calls us to join the struggle for justice and liberation. That God will give us the strength to fight on until we have crushed Satan under our feet. It is the conviction that God’s light shines in the darkness and that the darkness shall not overcome it.
We knew all along that what keeps us strong, what keeps us fighting, is the thought that God has not yet failed us.
We are talking about the god of liberation who said to Moses, “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt, I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Ex.3:7,8)
This is the God who said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”
This is the God of Hannah: “For not by might shall one prevail.” (1 Sam. 1:9)
It is the God of Isaiah: “Only a short while, and the tyrant shall be no more!” (Is. 29:20)
It is the God of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:9)
It is the God of Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4;16-19)
It is the God of whom Paul testifies: the god of steadfastness and encouragement, the God of hope, and the God of peace who shall shortly crush Satan under our feet.
This is the God in whose name we are gathered here today for this celebration.
There is a big debate in South Africa today on the role of faith in our struggle for liberation. Some argue that where we are today is solely the result of political strategy, military struggle, and skillful negotiations.
I am the last person to deny the important contribution of each of those elements – each in their own way. But it would be a tragic distortion of history to deny, or even to diminish the role of faith in the struggle. The evidence is clear, and the history of the ANC testifies to it – if it had not been for the presence, the courage, the contribution of faith, both in the leadership and in the people, we would not be where we are today. We thank God for strong, faithful men and women of faith in every phase of the struggle to the final stages in the 1970s and 1980s. We praise god for the religious leadership who understood the truth that faith calls to struggles for justice, who at the time of the United Democratic Front stepped from their pulpit into the streets to face the apartheid might together with our people; who reminded us, in the darkest of days, that we should not give up, that the struggle continues, that hope is alive because between us and despair is the truth that God has not yet failed us.
In the 1980s when we had to choose between the toxic temptations of the Tri-cameral Parliament system and justice and democracy for all our people, we made the right choice, not just a political choice, following one or another ideological belief, but a moral choice, because we believed that the God who calls us to sacrificial struggle for justice would not fail us.
When the struggle was on because we took sides; when our schools became battle grounds and our streets killing fields; our churches became sites of struggle and sanctuaries of spiritual empowerment; when our prayer meetings were disrupted and tear gas polluted our holy places, we knew: “The only thing between us and despair is the thought that God has not yet failed us…”
When we mourned for Hector Petersen of Soweto and we cried for Bernard Fortuin of Elsies River –
When they murdered Solomon Mahlangu and executed Ashley Kriel –
When they assassinated Dulcie September and bombed Ruth First –
When we called, “How long, Lord”, and we sang “Senzenina” –
When we went from funeral to funeral and from mother to mother we understood that every grave of a fallen comrade was a step closer to the grave of apartheid, because we knew: “The only thing between us and despair is the thought that God has not yet failed us…”
For such it was in the darkest of our days
There was sunrise, but no dawn of hope;
Morning and noon, but no light of day
For the sun had hidden its face behind our clouds of pain.
Holding back its light, ashamed of what it might reveal.
There was dusk and evening
But no nights of rest
For night was as day and our struggle had no end.
We battled our fears and faced our doubts; we struggled and bled, endured prison and torture, suffered abuse and humiliation. Too many sacrificed their lives. But we refused to give up and because of this faith we are where we are today.
Looking back over one hundred years of struggle and seventeen years of democracy, we must not belittle our achievements or diminish our victories, nor must we trivialize our successes. And we must praise God for what has been achieved. But we must not trample upon the hopes of our people, spit on their sacrifices, scorn their faith by acting as if our struggles are over. Our challenges are still great.
South Africa’s inequalities are greater than ever, and the gap between the rich and the poor makes us one of the most unequal societies in the world. Disillusionment and anger are growing like never before since democracy. Like toxic sediment at the bottom of a stream, our people’s anger lies waiting to be stirred up by vengeful, toy-toying feet. Continuing impoverishment is like a devouring beast; our people are stalked by illness and premature death, hunger and the indignity of government handouts have replaced the dignity of decent work.
We have much to do and the struggle for true justice and equality is far from over. In too many ways, government has not fulfilled its promises.
It is true that God has not yet failed us, but as a church we have, since the coming of democracy, certainly failed the people and in failing the people we have failed our God. The church has not nearly been as prophetically vocal, prophetically clear, prophetically faithful as we were during the years of the struggle. Instead of being the incarnation of a compassionate God in society, we have become the impersonation of sycophancy. In the struggle we were, in the words of Frank Chikane, “the church of the streets”, leading our people in the protest against injustice. Now we have become a church of guarded, self-obsessed inwardness. We are more concerned about building our own little kingdoms than proclaiming the kingdom of God. We lose credibility because we have so little to say, and we are irrelevant because we cling to a mindless conservatism, fearful of the neo-fundamentalist onslaught against which we seem to have no defence. But we have no defence because we have lost our biblical truthfulness which comes from prophetic faithfulness. We lose every argument because we are too arrogant to acknowledge that need to learn anything new. We speak out of custom but not out of conviction. We do not have power because we have lost our authority; we have no authority because we have lost our Holy Spirit power. We are a pitiful church!
This morning I say to you: we have much to do – the struggle is far from over. But as a church we must reclaim our prophetic courage and responsibility. To our people we must say: do not give up this faith, do not forget the road by which we have come, do not let go of the God of endurance and encouragement, of hope and peace and justice. To our liberation movement we say: return to the rock from which you have been hewed. Rediscover those values, ideals and dreams that made you the vessel of the hopes of a whole people and of a noble struggle. Disentangle yourself from the stranglehold of those who which our people nothing but ill; return to the embrace of the people in whom you find your true destiny.
There are too many who are trying to take our people back to Egypt – to the enslaving mindset of complacency, complicity and conscienceless compliance. There are too many recklessly stoking the fires of racism, ethnocentrism and tribalism, uncaring of what that does to our dream of a non-racial democracy. There are too many who are growing fat from eating from the flesh pots of corruption, whose eyes and heart, as the prophet Jeremiah says, “are only on dishonest gain.” (Jer. 22:17) And the Apostle Paul says of them, “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame.” (Phil. 3:19)
There are too many ready to dishonour our struggle through their greed, their lust for power and instant gratification, and their schemes of political expedience. There are too many who take our children’s trust for granted, who make them drink from the poisoned wells of entitlement, making self-indulgence a virtue, and turning mediocrity into a benchmark of achievement. There are too many who make abuse and oppression of women into an act of patriarchal grace.
Let us fight them together, let us bring justice to all. Let us give each child of God the dignity they deserve.
In 1938, Reverend James Calata, another strong, Christian leader of the ANC, spurring the masses and their organization on not to lose hope, but to continue to work for justice, said these memorable words, “The handle that turns the wheels of the universe is in the hands of God, and because of that hand a new world is about to be begotten.”
That is the faith we are called to cling to, now more than ever.
Not all injustices have been overcome; not all diseases cured. Poverty is still an outrage and corruption is a stain upon our body politic. Not all oppression has been conquered and violence in it many forms, subtle and unsubtle, private, personal and systemic, is still stalking the innocent and the vulnerable. Not all ideals have been realized and not all dreams have been fulfilled. But there is a hand…
If you feel discouraged and that all your hard work has been in vain, remember: there is a hand.
If hopelessness threatens to engulf you and cynicism threatens to imprison you, remember, there is a hand…
When your closes allies revile and desert you because your politics is about honour and service and not about self-enrichment, remember: there is a hand…
When your body is tired, your mind overwhelmed and tour spirit feels like fleeing, remember, there is a hand…
Let us take hold of that hand, let us help turn the wheels of the universe toward justice, peace and fulfillment for all our people. Let us, in all we do, remain faithful to the God of steadfastness and encouragement, so that we, steadfast and encouraged, will continue to work for the day when the God of peace shall completely crush Satan under our feet.
Afrikaans article on “Kairos consciousness” and Kairos Palestine for DIE BURGER 29 February 2012
Soos die Suid Afrikaanse Kairos Dokument uit 1985, ontlok die Palestynse Kairos Dokument van 2009 ook wonderlike reaksies vanoor die hele wêreld. Oral ontdek Christene en ander gelowiges die belangrikheid van ‘n “kairos bewussyn”, die vermoë (en begeerte!) om in situasies van onderdrukking en verontmensliking die “tekens van die tye te onderskei”, daardie tekens te lees deur die oё van die verdruktes en lydendes, en te trag om die stem van God in die stem van die slagoffers te hoor. Dit is die stem wat ons aanspoor tot die doen van deernisvolle geregtigheid, om te staan waar God staan, naamlik by die stemloses en verontregtes in hul stryd om geregtigheid. Maar so ‘n kairos bewussyn begin altyd by die (h)erkenning van die pyn van die ander, die slagoffers van ons geweld, van ons kwaadaardige vernalatiging, ons selfsugtige onverskilligheid, ons eie skuldige betrokkenheid by die lyding van ander. Dáár, ten minste, begin Kairos VSA, ‘n groeiende aantal Christene vanuit alle hoeke van die Amerikaanse ekumene wat soos die Palestyne vandag en ons destyds, in die huidige situasie in Palestina ‘n “oomblik van waarheid” erken.
“Jesus het ‘n God van liefde geopenbaar en die koninkryk van God verkondig waarin toewyding tot deernis, geregtigheid en gelykheid die definiёrende en ewige missie is”, skryf hulle. “Maar die land waarin Jesus geleef, gesterf en opgestaan het is nou ‘n plek van geweld, ongelykheid en lyding. Palestyne en Jode is vasgevang in ‘n geweldsiklus wat hul menslikheid vernietig, hul lewensbronne verspil, hul kinders doodmaak en hul toekoms verwoes. Palestyne is gevangenes in hul eie land – onteien, ontmagtig, hul toekoms verlore terwyl die Israeliese program van annekasasie en kolonisasie voortgaan. Israelis is onderworpe aan vyf oorloë en terreuraanslae, en lewe met ‘n ononderbroke insekuriteit.” Kairos VSA erken die rol van Amerika in die voortslepende onreg, maar bely ook “dat ons as enkelinge en kerke die sisteme van oorheersing, obgelykheid en verdrukking goedpraat deur die misbruik van die Skrifte en ons stilsywe…”
Kairos VSA praat ook namens ons. Ons praat oor “die heilige land” met ‘n swymende romantiese pieteit asof ons nie weet dat die heil van die land nie deur bloedvergieting gewaarborg kan word nie; oor die via dolorosa asof die lydensweg van die onskuldiges ‘n uitgetrapte stofpad is wat nooit ons pelgrimstog kruis nie; oor die “land probleem” asof die boek van Josua goddelike kaart en transport is en onteiening en landroof God se wil is.
Maar volgende week is “Israeli Apartheidsweek” en Suid Afrikaners sal genooi word om saam met miljoene oor die wêreld na te dink oor die ooreenkomste tussen ons pynlike verlede en die Palestynse pynigende hede. Ook in Stellenbosch sal ‘n groepie op hul tog na die hekke van die Teologie fakulteit vra om na die stemme van die stemmeloses te luister, na te dink oor hierdie Palestynse kairosmoment, om te besluit waar ons staan in hierdie oomblik van waarheid en ons eie respons op die Palestynse Kairos te bepaal. Dalk is daar tussen al die woorde van die Woordfees ‘n verposinkie vir ‘n daad van liefde en geregtigheid.