On a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, I became aware of how predominant the issue of race still is there. On my previous trips I somehow missed the fact that while legal barriers of (apartheid) racial segregation have been eliminated, most of those barriers still stand in the minds, conversations, and lives of people. Pastors of different races must deal daily with the history of hurt and the wounds so prone to be reopened by reminders of inequalities past and present.
Yet some pastors are pioneering reconciliation at a personal level and community service at the church level. Because of my friendship with a white pastor and a black pastor modeling reconciliation, I was invited to give the keynote address at the inauguration of the National Institute for Church Development. In that context, church development is the key to community development. There, pastors and Christian leaders are the most likely, most connected change agents of the communities and ultimately of political systems. More than 200 pastors from one of the poorest townships attended, determined to lead their community’s transformation.
Why did they come to hear a white guy from the United States? Perhaps it was because I have a pastoral connection with our African-American president. The headlines of the newspaper that goes out to the black communities summed it up: “Service with Obama’s Man.”
I had never thought of myself in those terms, but apparently that’s who they needed me to be on that day. It is difficult to overstate the inspirational effect of President Barack Obama on the poor and marginalized of the world. That someone who looks like them could become the president of the mightiest nation of the world says to the poorest black child living in a hut of corrugated steel that he or she is no longer limited simply by race.
I was glad to bring the pastors the greetings of the president. And then we focused on the real Power that transforms lives and communities.
Not surprisingly, the whole experience made me think of our own country.
Of course it is an inadequate analogy, but there is no doubt that we are in the barrier-building mode. Think about the hyper-partisanship, the coarse and accusatory language, the fear-provoking warnings of losing our country as we know it if the right political group doesn’t win. When the struggle is for political power instead of justice (there’s that suspicious but biblical word), when it comes down to an “us or them” mentality, when we build a system that separates and ranks people by category, is that not the definition of apartheid thinking? Are parties (Republican, Democrat, tea) becoming just another name for permanent divisiveness?
Our system of government was built for the deliberation of differences, and when the debates are characterized by respect and civility the results are the betterment of our country. The question for us, as it is for the South Africans, is whether we have the pioneers in faith communities to intentionally focus on people and needs—even though using simplistic categories requires less thinking and empathy. Are there Christian leaders who will risk their own jobs, whether political or pastoral, by focusing on solutions rather than suspicions?
It all comes down to this: Apartheid is a system that makes us see stereotypes, not people; threats, not needs. And whether it is a legal or a mental system, it makes us prone to suspicion instead of service. Who are the Christian leaders in our country that will forgo the self-righteousness of personal resentment in favor of community redemption?
Joel C. Hunter is pastor of Northland: A Church Distributed in Orlando, Florida.