An annual “snow bird” sojourn to South Africa was convicting. The constant news highlighted the American political “silly season” along with the drumbeat reports of President Jacob Zuma’s illegal brutish behavior. An African storekeeper exclaimed, “Do Republicans not see the Trump antics are undermining the good feelings we have because of President Obama’s accomplishments? We are afraid for all of us.”
That feeling is found throughout poorly governed states in Africa and probably the rest of the world. When political and national life is dark and frightening in stressed locations, experience shows that developing world people look to America for signs of hope and the promise of a better tomorrow.
Hope has often been personified in admired, even if not perfect, political leaders such as commendable kings, prime ministers, and, more recently, in American presidents. People who travel widely report that in the poorest country’s humblest huts in the most despairing villages, one sees the photos of loved monarchs and presidents — often side by side with pictures of Jesus.
The Psalm 72 prayer of David for King Solomon is pertinent:
“Endow the king with your justice, O God,
He will defend the afflicted … and
Save the children of the needy…
The afflicted who have no one to help,
He will take pity
[and] will rescue them from oppression and violence…
For precious is their blood in his sight.
All nations will be blessed through him.”
— Psalm 72: excerpts from vs. 1-13
In a recent off-the-record Johannesburg meeting, eight senior former and current American foreign service officers and eight South African ruling coalition and business executives met to seek deeper understanding of each others’ crisis of national leadership, especially in light of anxieties about pivotal upcoming elections. Unanimity was around the longing for rising leaders who might focus on the needs of the poor, marginalized, and abused. The desire was eloquently expressed for a new generation of politicians who are not seeking perpetuity of office or feathering their and colleagues’ financial nests by playing on fears — leaders who desire to serve on behalf of those being left behind in our societies. Both nations are faced with massive immigration and refugee issues and the despond of economic disparity.
One senior South African leader told of the restive concerns of the young people and their demands for change. Recently, while driving his 14-year-old son to school, the boy asked him how he is going to vote in the upcoming local and provincial elections. Taken aback, the well-known official tried to deflect given his position. The teenager persisted and demanded, “You must not vote for the corrupt leaders of the ANC. They do not any longer deserve your support.” I asked a similar question of my 16-year-old African grandson. He said, “This government is corrupt to the core and my parents cannot in good conscience any longer vote for the party of Mandela … it has lost its way.”
One can imagine, even hope for, similar conversations in America with the young concerned about extremist approaches of presidential candidates.
Half the population of South Africa, soon 30 million people, are like the above activist young people who are organizing in their high schools and universities. They are the “born frees” whose advent came after Nelson Mandela was released. They are now engaged in their own “anti-apartheid” freedom struggle by holding their elders accountable while taking to the street as their elders did in the last century.
Fortunately, South Africa, like the United States, has solid institutions like the principled judiciary of the Constitutional High Court for Human Rights, and the courageous staff in the public protector office who work within the legal system to challenge the fraudulent behavior of officials. Many young people are driven by their residual spiritual understandings in a society, which still has deep social justice religious roots. They are being led by new emerging prophetic leaders, some of whom have been influenced by Sojourners, as well as European and Israeli NGOs.
One of the similar strengths in America has been a strong social justice mobilization in and through the major monotheistic faith institutions. Recent Pew polling indicates, however, that many conservative Christians have had their heads turned by bigoted authoritarian candidates who manipulate fears resulting in irrational political mass rallies, often departing from scriptural admonitions about slander and violence, instead of mobilizing for those who have no one to stand up for them.
The South African leaders in 1970s-1990s — like Desmond Tutu, Alan Boesak, Beyers Naude, and Dennis Hurley — led South Africa through a dangerous journey marked by the morass of potential mass hysteria to the brink of civil war. A new age of understanding and mutual action resulted under the bright light of the Freedom Charter. Younger leaders are now harkening in similar ways toward social justice and racial equanimity in an equally dangerous era, embracing all as equals with the Ubuntu awareness that “I exist because you do.”
The Psalmist suggests where justice rules, “it spreads throughout the world.”
One hopes that the millennials here in America will mobilize in a similar manner to bring change in part by voting in higher percentages than in the recent past. Likewise, elder generations of evangelical believers in America are seeking the Luke 4 understanding of Jesus ministry to the oppressed. Together we can offer alternatives to our fellows attracted to an authoritarianism marked by hate and violence. All are encouraged to care more for those on the margins, especially the racial and religious minorities and refugees. The bright searching beams of the humanitarian lighthouse must seek out and support public servants who model loving neighbors rather than hating the “other.”
In a similar desperate time in the last century, Philippine believers interceded with a prayer resonant this Easter season:
Lord in these times
When we fear we are losing hope
Or feel our efforts are futile,
Let us see in our hearts and minds
The image of your resurrection,
And let that be the source of courage and strength.
With that, and in your company,
Help us to face challenges and struggle
Against all that is born of injustice. Amen.
— Iona Prayer Book