Bishop Joao Rodrigues, Diocese of Tzaneen

Reflection on Race by Bishop João Noé Rodrigues of South Africa

‘The Church should not be a place where racists can find a home’

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In the Preamble of the South African constitution we read:

“The people of South Africa,
Recognize the injustices of our past;
Honor those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country;
and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. We, therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to ­Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations. May God protect our people”.

It is important to note that the constitution does not say “We, the White people of South Africa”, or “We, the Black people of South Africa,” but it clearly declares that South Africa belongs to “all who live in it, united in our diversity.” The people of South Africa are proudly multi-colored, multicultural, and multilingual. However, because of its colonial past and the more recent crime against humanity called “apartheid,” the people of European origins (Whites) enjoyed all the benefits from the oppressive and unjust laws imposed on the Black African majority who suffered terrible indignities. Black people and their cultures were marginalized and considered to be inferior by the oppressive regime. Unfortunately, White superiority and Black inferiority attitudes were passed on to successive generations in South Africa, and these attitudes were reinforced by the demonic laws of apartheid.

After a long and painful struggle against apartheid, the doors for healing, for social justice and equal human rights were finally opened for us on Freedom Day on 27 April 1994. So even though we live in a new democratic non-racial South Africa, we all carry the wounds of the past and inherit the spiritual and psychological complexes of our ancestors be they Black or White. We are called to take part in this new struggle for healing, for justice and equality and it is an on-going struggle for everyone in South Africa to work on. It is a complex struggle and requires constant evaluation and vigilance and planning within the various political, civil, and religious and economic organizations to which we all belong.  And every victory in this new struggle, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is a vital contribution towards the building of a truly united and democratic South Africa protected by God in the family of nations.

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” Mark 2:22

Although we established a wonderful new constitution which took effect from 1997 onwards, it has been difficult to live by it. We are like old wine in a new wineskin bottle! The constitution is new but we are still like the old South African generations in our prejudiced attitudes and behavior. Of course, I am generalizing because there are many wonderful South Africans who are genuine heroes of this new struggle as well as many more ordinary South Africans who go about their daily tasks with a genuine attitude of respect and inclusivity irrespective of the color or culture of people in their relationships. But we also have to be honest and face the uncomfortable truth that because life is hard and challenging, in certain instances of crisis or pain, we easily retreat into our old racial attitudes and blame people who are different from our own color and culture for all our problems. And this is racism. And this also indicates that there is still much healing needed in our lives.

Racism is certainly a sin before our Creator because the revelation we have received from our Creator is that all human beings are created in the same image and likeness of God. There are no two different images of God! And from a human point of view racism is a terrible sickness in the mind and spirit of a human being because it denies one’s basic common humanity with everyone else. From a justice point of view, any expression of racism is a crime and should be punished by law. Racists suffer from a deep spiritual sickness of perceiving another person as inferior to themselves. They see themselves as superior and of greater dignity than others who are different from themselves.

Being healed of racism does not mean simply seeing people “as equal” because even thieves can regard themselves as equal to other thieves! This sense of undignified equality does not bring healing but in fact, deepens the sickness in people’s minds and spirit. To be healed of racism means having an understanding of the profound dignity of one’s humanity and realizing that this same profound dignity exists in everyone else irrespective of their culture or color or origins.  And this profound understanding and attitude is possible if we are healed by the Spirit of Christ Jesus so that we can sense that profound Christ-like dignity in ourselves and by extension in all others. God can forgive and heal racists as long as they acknowledge their sin of racism and repent and seek healing.

A Church community is called to be a place where healing happens – healing from the wounds of being a victim of racial violence. The church should not be a place where racists can find a home! Rather racists should be confronted by the Gospel of Christ Jesus and challenged to repent and believe in order to be accepted by the Church community. All the Sacraments call us to conversion in order to receive the Spirit of Christ and live accordingly.

In conclusion, I do need to also consider the healing of the victims of racism. The trauma of suffering from racist violence needs to be healed and this is possible if the victim revisits that painful past and places that pain prayerfully and in faith before Jesus Christ for healing. Unfortunately, many victims have learned to repress the painful memories and by so doing they remain wounded which has a continual negative impact in their present relationships and attitude in life. You will know you are healed when you can recall those hurtful experiences in your life yet remain at peace in yourself. The Lord Jesus was treated badly, abandoned by all, tortured and crucified to death although he had no sin or guilt. Yet the first words of the Risen Jesus to his disciples were: Peace be with you. (John 20,19). The Lord Jesus revealed his glory and victory over sin and all the powers of death. Victims of racism can also experience victory over the trauma of the past by sharing their trauma with the Lord Jesus in faith and imploring his glorious Spirit to heal them of their pain so that they can enjoy the peace of Christ in their own spirits. You will know you are healed when you can share the past bad and painful experiences and see in them new strength and personal victory because it no longer holds you hostage with its previous unbearable pain.

You no longer act with bitterness or a feeling of wanting revenge every time you remember the past suffering and injustices. Instead, because you are healed, you are able to act with dignity and offer your family, community, nation, and the world a better way of relating to self and others which is inspired by the Spirit of Christ.

You remember the bad experiences and the suffering but without reviving the pain of it all. You are at peace within yourself now in spite of the bad past experiences. This is what the Lord Jesus Christ can do in the lives of the victims of racism. And this gives us real hope for new South Africa for “New wine in new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)

By Bishop Joao Rodrigues, Diocese of Tzaneen
29 July 2020, St Martha memorial.

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