John de Gruchy 9/11 sermon focussing on Steve Biko and Beyers Naude

St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town

9thSeptember 2011

Exodus 20:1-20; Romans 14:5-12; Matthew18-21-35

 

On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, a day so
deeply etched in our memories, we have listened again to the words of Holy
Scripture.  We must now ask whether
within these ancient texts there is any word from the Lord that speaks to us
today that should shape our lives as Christians and inform our witness as the
church of Jesus Christ in a world wracked by injustice and poverty, terror,
violence and war.

The first reading, from Exodus 20, tells us
that soon after the Hebrew slaves were liberated from bondage in Egypt God gave
them Ten Commandments to guide them on their journey to the Promised Land and
into the future as a liberated people. Without a moral compass the Promised
Land would never be reached, nor could it endure when settled.  Unless there is a moral basis to public life
and political decision making, policies, actions and reactions, are doomed from
the start.  Liberation, and the exercise
of power, without a commitment to law breeds greed, crime, corruption, violence
and anarchy.  The Ten Commandments raise
boundary markers beyond which we transgress at our peril.  Freedom requires moral responsibility

In the second reading, St. Paul addresses a
congregation of Christians, many of them former slaves, located in Rome, the
capital of imperial power.  How are they
to behave as they bear witness in that alien world where obedience to Christ
means persecution and martyrdom?   Do not judge one another, Paul says, but keep
in mind that “each of us will be accountable to God.”  That small congregation of the largely
marginalized would not have had much opportunity to speak truth to imperial
power except by the quality of their lives.
An alternative way of being and acting in the world that refused to obey
the dictates of Caesar when these compromised their loyalty to Jesus.  Their witness was the offering of an
alternative way of being and acting in the world.  And for this they were accountable to God
alone.

We turn to the gospel reading for today
which tells us something fundamental about this alternative way of living and
being in the world. Jesus instructs his followers to forgive others
unconditionally, seventy times, he says.
And to reinforce his message, he tells a parable about God’s kingdom or
way in the world that connects forgiveness with moral responsibility and
accountability to God.  We will return to
the parable in a moment.

How do we connect the message of these
texts of Scripture and Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and the kingdom of God
to the world in which we now live, a world so dramatically shaped by the events
of “9/11” and the past ten years of the “war on terror”?  And how do we relate them to the many
conflict situations in Africa, and more especially to our own situation in
South Africa now that the honeymoon of the ending of apartheid has ended and
the Promised Land of “milk and honey” has not yet been reached?

Is Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness a
realistic option to break the cycles of violence and retribution unleashed by
“9/11” or overcome centuries of colonial exploitation and apartheid?  Is it not more realistic to believe that we
humans are by nature destined to exploit and oppress one another, and end up
killing each other by acts of terror or crusades of vengeance?  Is this propensity for slaughter not part of
our human nature, and Jesus’ way a pipe-dream that might work in personal
relations but can’t possibly do so in the social and political arena?   Was it
even thinkable that those who lost loved ones that awful day in New York ten
years ago could have heeded Jesus’ words to forgive those terrorists, let alone
seventy times?  Was not retribution and vengeance
the only possible reaction to consider?
How would we have responded?  How
are we responding within our own context as followers of Jesus, as his church? We
must not judge others, Paul tells us, but we need to know that we are
accountable to God in responding.

Jesus teaching about forgiveness does not
rescind the moral imperative of the Commandments, and therefore accountability
to the norms of law and ultimately to God.
These require that perpetrators of crimes against humanity have to be
brought to book; they also demand that war to be in any way just has to be a
last resort not a vengeful gut reaction.
You can’t simply ignore the gross violation of human rights by dictators,
war mongers and their lackeys, anymore than you can excuse suicide bombers and
those who send them on their deadly missions.
In the same way, we cannot and should not try to brush under the carpet
the crimes of apartheid with a superficial policy of “forgive and forget” and
let’s move forward, as though that is the teaching of Jesus.  So of what use then is the teaching of Jesus
about forgiveness?  Yes, in healing
interpersonal relations forgiveness is obviously relevant, but what about the
world of power and politics, poverty, violence and war, the world in which
Steve Biko and Beyers Naudé were engaged in the struggle against apartheid?

In founding the Black Consciousness
Movement, Biko, drawing deeply on his Christian formation, injected a new
dynamism into the struggle against apartheid by calling on black people to
assert their dignity as human beings.  This
eventually sparked off the Soweto Uprising, a peaceful protest of school
children met by unprecedented violence by the state.  In reacting violently, the power of the state
was severely dented, the protesters gained the moral high ground, and the
struggle against apartheid entered a new phase. On the 12th
September, 1977, Biko died in police custody, a martyr in the cause of
liberation not through acts of violence and vengeance, but by asserting human
dignity and refusing to be dehumanized.
It was only by finding an alternative way to respond to oppression, the
claiming of the moral high-ground, that apartheid could be defeated, justice established
and the process of reconciliation begun.

Beyers Naudé, a white DRC dominee and a
prophet without honour in his own community, was the moral conscience of white
Christianity in the same struggle. He it was who challenged those of us who are
white to break with racism, forgo our privileges and express solidarity with
black South Africans in the struggle for justice and freedom for all.  He it was who proclaimed obedience to God
rather than an unjust state, and reminded his fellows that they were
accountable to God for their actions.  Within
a month of Biko’s death Naudé was banned for seven years, but his prophetic witness
was not silenced.  We salute him today
because he spoke truth to power and helped to bring down the mighty from their
seats. But he did so because he took seriously Jesus’ teaching about finding an
alternative way to respond to state terror and violence.

Jesus’ words about forgiveness preface his
parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
Having been forgiven, the servant refuses to cancel the dehumanizing
debt of his fellow labourer. He does not recognize that being forgiven carried
with it a responsibility to his fellow labourer and accountability to his
master.  Instead of forgiving and thereby
breaking the cycle of indebtedness, he entrenches it and brings on himself
severe punishment.  The parable tells us
is that forgiveness breaks the cycle that leads from violence to vengeance and yet
more violence. Such forgiveness is not cheap and easy; it is not sweeping the
legacy of apartheid under the carpet of our consciousness, forgetful of the
hurt, pain and suffering caused by past injustice.  Instead of wreaking havoc through revenge and
retaliation, we have to find ways, as Biko and Naudé did, that actually bring
about an end to violence not its perpetuation.
As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to inject into the maelstrom
and rhetoric of retribution, vengeance and war mongering a different way of
being and acting, an alternative to the gut reactions of unforgiving servants.

Nothing can excuse the violent terror of
“9/11.”  It was an evil deed made worse
by being executed in the name of religion. The pain and suffering, along with
the heroism of that day, must be acknowledged without qualification.  But the gut reaction of vengeance, the illegal
war on Iraq, and ten years of the “war on terror” have not brought about an end
to terrorism.  The cycle of suicide
bombing and retribution continues with deadly effect. Billions of dollars have
been spent on armaments, mistrust and alienation has deepened, and the human
and social cost is beyond measure, but the underlying causes of terrorism and
“9/11” remain and are being further entrenched and exacerbated.  As long as there is no genuine justice and
peace in Palestine and Israel, there will be resentment, anger, protest within
the Arab and Muslim world, and there will be extremists who resort to terror.  As long as there is no economic justice in
the world and our own country, there will be uprisings and violent protests.
These are the fundamental issues we and our political leaders have to face in
being accountable to God

So what if the leaders of the Western world
had paused for a moment in the wake of 9/11, taken a deep breath, and asked
some searching questions of themselves about the root causes of terror before
embarking on a crusade and yet another all-out war in which tens of thousands –
not just three thousand – people have died?
Yes, we have to combat terrorism,
and there is not easy solution or quick fix to the problem.  Yes, there are dictators that must be
challenged and brought to justice.  But
what if some of the billions spent on armaments and killing were used to build
bridges of understanding, to fight poverty, to establish justice, to develop
failing states?  What if the so-called
Christian West said: let us demonstrate to our Muslim friends and critics alike
that we Christians recognize that we are accountable to God for whatever
actions we take, that war has to be a just last resort and not just an act of
retribution, and that vengeance belongs to God and not to us?  What if we acted in such a way that  reconciliation and peace became more likely
rather than made impossible?  These are
the questions our biblical texts and the examples of Biko and Naudé confront us
with today as we speak truth to power, not judging one another and
acknowledging our own fallibility, but also acknowledging that we are all
accountable to God.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed

 

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