Saturday, January 19, 2019

“South Africa: The Gift of Truth and Reconciliation” - January 20, 2019

Matthew 18:15-22

            Forgiveness can be hard on everybody.  I’m talking about real forgiveness, not only the simple type, like when you bump into someone and say, “Excuse me,” and they say, “Sure.”  I’m talking about the kind where someone has either intentionally or unthinkingly done something that has harmed another person, maybe even a whole community, in a way that leaves a scar and cannot simply be undone.

            Jesus outlined a way to do that, and it begins with an act of courage by the person who was hurt.  It doesn’t start with somebody offering an apology.  It starts with someone saying, “I think you owe me an apology.”  Jesus said,

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” [Matthew 18:15]

That takes guts.  It is an act of vulnerability that exposes one of your weak points to someone who has hurt you, which means that if there is anything malicious there, you’re telling them exactly how they could hurt you again.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  You’ve heard that?  Jesus’ teaching tells you to take that risk.  He expects us to expect the best of others, looking for us to approach the one who has hurt us with a presumption of trust and a desire to remain in relationship.

            An assumption – maybe it would be better to say, “a hope” – built into the process is that a believer (since he’s speaking here of what can happen within the family of faith) will be open to the idea that he or she can go wrong and that the reproof of another believer is to be taken seriously.  Not every time someone points out a fault or a failing is a personal attack.  It could be an opportunity that someone is offering you or me to become a better person.

            That’s why it’s best to talk over anything serious face-to-face or privately and one-on-one.  If you hear how hard it is for someone to tell you something, you know that it is something important, not done lightly.  The sound of a voice conveys things that other forms of communication do not always get across.  Sometimes, but not always, it can be useful to write a note instead, if you feel a need to choose your words, and that can help someone who might have a knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness (confession time: I’m thinking of myself here) to react right away and then to come back to it with a clearer head in five minutes or five days.  Again, it’s a risk, but

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” [Matthew 18:15]

 Jesus even goes as far as to say to keep on trying if that doesn’t work, but to take back-up. 

“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”  [Matthew 18:16]

You can sort of sense a situation that is becoming more tightly wound, where you need people to help do the listening, because there is often a point where people are so busy planning out a rebuttal in their heads that they miss an apology when it happens.  It helps to have someone else there who is able to say, “I heard what you did,” but maybe also, “I think you missed the explanation.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” [Matthew 5:9]

            In one of his old Prarie Home Companion monologues, Garrison Keilor told a story about a theological split that had taken place among the believers with whom he grew up, the Sanctified Brethren.  His grandfather was leader of one party, and held that the leader of the other side had reached the point where the next step needed to be invoked:

“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector,” [Matthew 18:17]

which was just fine with the other man.  The day came, though, when theological diplomacy brought them together to the supper table, which was a major achievement.  Only, who would say grace?  There was a danger that prayer might turn into preaching, and that could bring it all down.  So they decided to share in silent prayer.  Everyone bowed their heads and prayed.  And prayed.  And prayed.  Who was more pious?  Surely the one who spent longest with the Lord.   The fervor and zeal of the silence grew.  Then came the voice of Keilor’s grandmother: “Lord, we thank you, but the chicken is getting cold.  Amen.”  And in the laughter, the healing began.

            Yet not every situation is simple, and some involve so many people, patterns of injustice so deeply engrained, wrongs committed over such stretches of time, that they seem immune to Jesus’ cure.  What then? 

            One of the great gifts that comes to the world from the Christians of South Africa is an example of an entire nation at least trying – and often succeeding – to have that kind of honest assessment of the damage done by apartheid (their word; ours are slavery and segregation) and to set up a framework of one-on-one sharing where the oppressed could be heard and others could realize their own involvement in ways that could lead to true repentance and responsibility.  It consciously sought to adapt Jesus’ own way on a huge scale.  This overall “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” divided its work to both identify human rights violations and to determine where to go from there. 

            According to the South African government’s mandate,
“The task of the [Human Rights Violations] Committee was to investigate human rights abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994, based on statements made to the TRC. The Committee established the identity of the victims, their fate or present whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they have suffered; and whether the violations were the result of deliberate planning by the state or any other organisation, group or individual. Once victims of gross human rights violations are identified, they are referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. … 

The enabling act empowered the [Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee] to provide victim support to ensure that the Truth Commission process restores victims' dignity; and to formulate policy proposals and recommendations on rehabilitation and healing of survivors, their families and communities at large. The envisaged overall function of all recommendations is to ensure non repetition, healing and healthy co-existence.”[1]

In our setting, that kind of process needs to take a different shape, but it is still the work of Christ.

            Buried in a very long newsletter that appears weekly in my inbox was a notice about how United Methodists in our part of the world are going about it, and I’ll leave you with an invitation to be part of that.  The announcement says:

“A South District Initiative is pulling together a diverse group of laity and clergy across the district for discussions about race and racism. In response to the 2016 Call to Action, this dinner discussion group was formed during the South District’s Tools for Ministry Training in 2017. Now, on average, ten guests share a meal and accounts of unchecked racism, white privilege, and internalized oppression in intimate home settings.

I enjoy the dinners. What’s most unique is that the dinners are house gatherings. We’ve been able to connect inside the privacy and comfort of someone’s home without feeling obligated to the formalities of a church meeting. It’s a healing experience- we can be open and honest. Also, we can express concern and even applaud growth. The unique set up allows for us to hear one another more clearly and love each other better. – Krystl Johnson, St. Daniel’s UMC

Dinners have been hosted in West Chester, Oxford, and Schwenksville. Within the next few months, group dinners will be expanding to new locations as most guests have committed to hosting their own private dinners throughout the district. With the mission statement being Supper and Sharing: Fostering Intercultural Competence and Authentic Community One Meal at a Time and with the initiative reaching a 2-year milestone, the Dinner Discussion Group hopes to make more room at the table for all of you in the South District. So, stay tuned for further updates and announcements.”

I have the phone number for the coordinator and can get you connected, if this is on your heart.  Truth and reconciliation are big topics, and deep thinkers have brought their wisdom to it, all of them saying that it has to begin with people simply doing what they can and what they must.

            Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War was winding up and his own assassination was weeks away, had reflected on the cost of setting great wrongs right.  He knew it would be work as difficult as the war had been, but that it was part of the work of reconciliation among people that he saw as the divine call.  Lincoln said,

“Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”[2]


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