God grant us...
The only downside to skipping out on Saturday with the Pilgrimage to Peace group was that we missed hearing from the Rev. Michael Lapsley (ENS' Matthew Davies did an excellent story on his presentation here
). Michael is an Anglican priest and director of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town. A native New Zealander, he became a tireless and prophetic advocate for the end of Apartheid upon moving to South Africa in 1973 -- continuing even after the government expelled him from the country a few years later. In April, 1990, he came back from a trip abroad and opened a magazine that had come in the mail. The magazine contained a bomb. The explosion took both of his hands, an eye and shattered his eardrums.
This morning, the P2P crowd got a chance to meet with him in a small group and +Marc Andrus invited me to tag along. Powerful doesn't even begin to describe the experience, but I'll try to convey his talk in as many of his words as possible.
He framed his talk with the serenity prayer. You know it:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
And through telling his story he talked about doing just that ... and how that process helped change the course of a nation, the world, and his life.
Michael Lapsley never thought he'd end up in South Africa. He never particularly wanted to. He had joined a religious order and when it was time for him to be sent out he asked to go to Japan ... but they sent him here. He talked about what he expected to find:
“I assumed that when I got to South Africa that I would find three groups. The oppressed, the oppressors and the third group – the human race – that I would belong to.”
“The day I arrived in South Africa, I stopped being a human being and became a white man. Because every single part of my life was determined by the color of my skin. I lived in my white suburb because by law that was the only place I could live.”
There were lots of examples. Bathrooms labeled "whites only" and "non-whites." Restaurants where whites ate inside and blacks had food passed to them out the window. And then there was the greatest icon for him, the elevators he saw when he went to the university -- one labeled "whites only" and the other "freight and non-whites." If you weren't white you weren't even considered human.
In South Africa, being white decided everything. And as much as he hated what his color meant, his color was one of the things he could not change.
"My color meant that I was part of the oppressor group regardless of whether I wanted to be or chose to be. I could choose to fight against it, but I would fight it from the side of the beneficiary.
He did have a choice -- between two options. A pretty simple one, as he saw it:
Beat 'em or join 'em.
And with that choice began what he called a long "journey of accompaniment" with the people of black South Africa.
"Apartheid had turned me into an oppressor, but I wanted to be a human being. So fighting it was not first to do something for other people but to free myself in solidarity with others."
He noted that parallels have been drawn between the U.S. civil rights movement and the battle against Apartheid. That doesn't do the anti-Apartheid struggle justice. In America, the civil rights movement was about asserting rights under the constitution. In South Africa, the constitution was part of the problem. This was about people who were non-entities, for whom the constitution did not apply. This was not a civil rights struggle but a struggle for national liberation.
As I've heard about the struggle against Apartheid the past few days, I keep coming back to Bishop Peter Lee of Christ the King Diocese telling me how South Africa is 85 percent Christian ... and that is how so much of the reconciliation was able to happen, because of that basic commonality.
But if that is true in the aftermath of Apartheid, in the truth and reconciliation process, it means it was also true during Apartheid.
In 1976, children -- young teenagers, 13, 14 and 15 years old began protesting in Soweto. Protesting bad schools. Protesting having to learn lessons in Afrikaans.
And in the streets of Soweto, these children began to be shot. All in all more than a thousand of them were shot.
And for Michael, in addition to the horror, with that came a revelation. That “those who shot children went to church on Sunday, read the Bible every day and shot kids.” Apartheid and the brutalism it supported was being carried out by people under the banner of Christ -- even though it was in direct opposition to the Gospel of Christ.
The church has a long history of association with oppression. That we are here talking about the Millennium Development Goals as a Christian body has to include an acknowledgment that these goals are necessary in large part because of the actions of largely Christian western societies. Marching as the oppressor under the banner of Christ is nothing new. But it is a life of great dissonance.
Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, and he said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Yet oppression prevents us from living that great commandment, that "love commandment" because it prevents the relationship of neighbor.
This realization led Michael to join the African National Congress, an organization not looking to substitute oppression of whites for oppression of blacks, but looking for a South Africa without oppression. The vision of the ANC was simple – South Africa belongs to all South Africa
"Freedom has to be for everybody or it is for nobody."
"Apartheid was a choice for death carried out in the name of the gospel of life. It was an issue of faith to say no to Apartheid. At stake in South Africa was the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because either the Gospel was true or Apartheid was true."
As far as the ANC's uses of violence, Michael had this to say:
“The only automatic weapon I’ve ever used is the one I’m using now – my tongue. Eventually they were so stupid that they took away my hands, which I didn’t need to shoot, and they left my weapon working reasonably well.”
Struggles over fundamental issues of justice and human rights are not unique, but what made a difference was how South Africa's struggle became a global struggle.
"Most western governments supported apartheid even though they said different. But they were brought kicking and screaming by their populations. By people of conscience around the world. People realized there was something in South Africa that concerned the humanness of all of us."
And something else was happening:
"In South Africa, the struggle was getting younger and younger. Desmond Tutu called it 'A generation of young people that had iron in their souls that could face the bullets and go on'"
And the struggle began to work. Through pressure brought on by people of conscience rising to demand their leaders listen and act. Michael began to be more in demand as a speaker to rally the world for the cause. And it was in coming back from one such trip (to Canada, I believe) that he went to his desk and opened the magazine that would change his life forever.
The blast maimed him permanently. He stood before us with hooks where his hands used to be and only one functioning eye. But he holds to the memory with more than just pain.
"It’s important that I remember the moment not to remember the pain but to remember the strong sense that God was with me… That the great promise of scripture had been kept … Lo I am with you always even to the end of the age."
It also gave him a choice. If he chose to give in to despair they would have won. If he chose to continue to embrace life and the mission God had called him to, the Gospel would remain victorious.
But it was not easy.
"I could not have made a lifegiving response by myself without the community of prayer and support."
And that was another lesson. We don't make lifegiving choices from death-producing situations by ourselves. We need each other. We have each other.
"The peoples of the world walked beside me on my journey of healing. God was calling me to walk beside others on their jouyrney of healing."
And so as Michael healed and Apartheid fell, he began to ask the Quo Vadimus question. "Where are we going?"
For South Africa, the answer was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- a work of grace and genius credited for helping a country transition out of Apartheid without the bloodbath that had been almost universally predicted.
But what people don't often recognize is that the TRC only heard the most extreme cases - murder and rape. Sure, 22,000 people gave testimony before the TRC. But South Africa is a nation of 43 million people. Those who got to participate in the process were only an icon for those who did not.
And that's where the Institute for the Healing of Memories began. It's a place where people can come in groups to "take the first step on the road to healing." It's a place to start. And the work he is doing there is being replicated around the globe, for as Michael says:
"Each country in the world is different, each country has different histories. But pain is pain is pain."
As I write about this, I think of last November when I sat in the Waverly, Iowa dining room of Kathryn Koob. Kate Koob was one of 52 Americans held for 444 days in Iran from 1979-81. And yet today she teaches reconciliation at Wartburg College.
In two days I will get on a plane for Kigali and spend a week in a land where a dozen years ago one group of people, as part of a cycle of oppression going back more than a century, rose up and slaughtered nearly a million of their fellow countrymen and women. And yet through a process similar to the TRC, they are rebuilding their nation.
The human capacity to embrace reconciliation is beyond amazing. And we need it.