Boesak to Baptists: Reconciliation is Not Pretty

"If we are not ready to live reconciliation as a revolutionary movement of our time, we should not speak of it."

That was South African anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak's message to Baptists gathered in Atlanta on June 26, 2014 at a luncheon hosted by the New Baptist Covenant. It took place during the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Boesak is currently the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University, and throughout his life has served in many positions of influence within South Africa and internationally. He is best known for his long-time involvement in the civil rights movement of South Africa and particularly the anti-apartheid struggle.

The New Baptist Covenant is an association of Baptists that is less than 10 years old. Citing Luke 4:18-19, it is focused on bringing Baptists together across differences and joining hands to carry out the work and ministry of justice and peace. Besides Boesak, the stage was occupied by leaders from both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and American Baptist Churches, USA.

Boesak began by saying that the New Baptist Covenant movement gives him hope. Though of the Dutch Reformed tradition himself, Boesak said that he is greatly encouraged by the existence and efforts of the group.

But he quickly went on to shatter any pleasant and comfortable notions surrounding the word "reconciliation." "The Jesus of reconciliation is not the Jesus the church has been preaching because that Jesus has kept us comfortable," he said.

Boesak told the group that reconciliation requires an uncomfortable encounter, not only with the other person but also with the self.

Boesak also said, "Reconciliation is not possible without a shift in power and equality."

Segregated Entrance, Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Rob, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
He knows this all too well. His friend Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa's first president in 1994 after a decades-long fight to end apartheid. Mandela and his people, the black majority in South Africa, had been oppressed in every way possible. Mandela's autobiography details the relentless way in which the white government stacked the cards against the black people at every possible opportunity, systematically taking away all their rights and opportunities. They were imprisoned for pretentious reasons, sometimes in conditions unbecoming of animals. Mandela himself spent 27 years behind bars.

When Mandela came to power, he faced pressure from his black colleagues and friends to play payback. They wanted revenge (or, as some in the U.S. call it, "justice"). But he chose the path of reconciliation. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and did something almost unheard of: he fully included his former oppressors in the healing process and the formation of a new democratic government.

Boesak saw this firsthand. He saw how power and position could be used as a balm or an axe, and he saw the sheer grace of God it took to come face to face with former oppressors and say, against all emotional instincts, "Let's be on the same side now."

I think of the victim-offender mediation programs that are gaining popularity around the United States. It's a process in which trained mediators facilitate conversation and healing between, say, a murderer and a close family member of the victim. Such a thing doesn't even sound warm and fuzzy, and as those who are close to the process can tell you, it's not.

So whether it be something like that here at home or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, the work of reconciliation, to which the apostle Paul says God has called us (2 Cor 5:18-19), can be grueling. It can and must involve coming to terms with one's self, letting go of what one can't control, and lots of listening. The offender/oppressor must be willing to hear the anger, grief, etc. of the victim, and the victim must be ready to hear the offender's story to start to see him/her as a person. If it's not gut-wrenching, it's not reconciliation. This was that of which Boesak was speaking in front of that room of Baptists.

In fact, Boesak said that his highest hopes for South Africa have not been realized because of an insufficient commitment to true reconciliation. "The gap between rich and poor is bigger than ever in South Africa because we did not take reconciliation seriously enough."

For Boesak, it was a choice to try to live as South Africans, not the other labels that were used to divide and disenfranchise. "The choice of retribution or reconciliation was in every respect," he said, "a choice between chaos or community." This kind of unity might sound nice, but it's also historically rare; the reason being that it does not allow us to maintain our clear and self-vindicating categories. It's more ambiguous, it requires more tolerance for diversity, and, as Amy Butler recently wrote, it requires recognizing how quickly we ourselves can join "the camp of the litmus-testers."
It can happen so quickly, so innocently; you might not even notice you’ve crossed the line until you find yourself, like me, nursing indignant self-righteousness, so determined you’re right that your ability to love in the way of Jesus becomes severely hobbled. It’s the great irony: just when you think you know the lay of the land, the gospel invites you to love harder.
This is why Boesak issued a stern warning against selective justice and reconciliation. "We dare not claim God for one kind of justice but turn our back on that same God for another group," he said.

What a far cry reconciliation is from realities we witness today at home and abroad. I can think of too many examples of people funding and fighting for the exact opposite of this. Instead of reconciliation with those who have wronged us or we have wronged, we see battle lines drawn between people who are supposed to be on the same side. I can see why Boesak saw this message to be so important. It seems to be a disease here in the U.S. From personal relationships to religious groups and political parties to ethnic groups, time and again we find ourselves doing division instead of multiplication; creating more litmus tests and drawing more boundaries.

"If we are not ready to live reconciliation as a revolutionary movement of our time, we should not speak of it," Boesak said. I pray we would be found courageous for the task.

No comments:

Post a Comment