Not many people traveling in southern Africa consider Venda in the northern Limpopo Province a worthy touristic or project partnership visit. For years visitors to the South African Development Community have seen this more isolated, beautiful mountainous area of northern South Africa as a shortcut to Kruger National Park or to/from Pretoria and Johannesburg en route to the wonders of the 1,000-year-old Great Zimbabwe ruin or majestic Victoria Falls.
Perhaps a quick stop was worthy on the Musina-Beitbridge border to photograph the “great, green, greasy Limpopo River” made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “How The Elephant Got His Trunk.” Not much else would interrupt the dash on the N1, similar to America’s own Route 1 from Canada to Florida.
Big mistake! As I found out when saying ill-advisedly to our travelling companions that “there really is nothing to see or stop for in the area … and we do have an important dinner appointment in Pretoria.” The twofold result was a serious late night ”domestic” with my more adventurous and intuitive wife, Karen, and secondly, a necessary, more open-minded review of the unexplored albeit minimalist pages on the Venda Region section of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebooks. Alas the travel guides seemed to have the same misperception as my 30-year-old wisdom.
“Come to the living God … Come to stand alongside those who suffer
Come to those who seek freedom … Come to resist all that offends God’s justice
Come to Jesus as He hangs on the Cross … Come to the living disturbing God.”
DURBAN, South Africa — A precursor to Easter sunrise and call to commitment is the now 30-year ritual Good Friday packing of the International Exhibition Center with 3,000+ ecumenical congregants participating (with dance, choir, prayers, and prophetic preaching) in the call to “Arise – Act for a Just Society.” Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip set the scene with a moving historical reminder of the reason for the 1985 first march to the central prison. It was to protest the silencing of the 16 Durban “treason trialists” (including congregational deacon Archie Gumede, and Frank Chikane, post-apartheid member of the first multiracial Assembly, Apostolic pastor, and future President Nelson Mandela staff chief). Family members of the incarcerated and current elected leaders carried a cross to city hall, calling all to love mercy and act justly. We paused to give thanks for their courage at the one remaining wall of the prison now in the front plaza of the iconic convention center. When the first march 30 years ago stopped to sing and pray, “voices were heard from inside the prison joining in the singing of Good Friday hymns.”
While reflecting upon and celebrating Easter, I did quite a bit of thinking about the controversies surrounding so-called “religious freedom” bills that have been popping up recently, most notably Indiana and Arkansas. In a recent interview on the Family Research Council radio program, “ Washington Watch with Tony Perkins," former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee discussed the backlash against these two pieces of legislation.
Huckabee asserted that gay-rights activists are seeking the eradication of Christian churches. According to Huckabee, “It won’t stop until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel.”
Christianity has been and continues to be the dominant form of religious practice and expression in America. Often the rhetoric used by members of dominant groups insinuates that when people outside of their dominant group ask for equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in American life, they are actually seeking to eradicate the existence of that dominant group.
Editor's Note: Since original publication of this piece, Indiana lawmakers have announced changes to the Indiana RFRA legislation that includes anti-discrimination language.
Last week Indiana found itself at the center of the news cycle for all the wrong reasons. With Gov. Pence’s signing of the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, our nation once again found itself taking sides in the debate over LGBTQ rights.
Honestly, I’m torn over this issue. I understand that the Indiana bill was fashioned after the 1993 bill that was signed into federal law by Bill Clinton. I know that 19 other states have RFRA legislation. And, as a pastor, I support religious freedom, not just for Christians, but for Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and yes, even Westboro Baptists. I think most Americans support protecting individuals' rights to conscientiously practice their faith. Freedom of religion is one of the things that makes this country great, and that freedom is worth protecting. But this bill, supposedly enacted to protect those freedoms, has caused quite the stir. Even more interesting to me are the people I follow on social media who are much more interested and knowledgeable than me in politics who say Indiana’s RFRA won’t amount to significant change. This raises the very simple question, “Then why pass the bill?”
RECENTLY, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH moved toward beatifying Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was martyred while presiding at a Mass in El Salvador in 1980. Romero preached that, for the love of God, soldiers and paramilitary forces must stop murdering their brothers and sisters—and he paid with his life. Many have since honored his witness during El Salvador’s civil war as “a voice for the voiceless.” Without a doubt, more of us should take on that mantle.
And yet. Sometimes we are notcalled to be a voice for the voiceless. Sometimes we are called to listen carefully and discover the voices in our midst. Sometimes we are called to consider whether weare the ones preventing voices from being heard.
We are almost 25 years beyond the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while access is still not all it should be, we need to move beyond the wheelchair ramp. We need to listen to those living with disabilities—as fully human, as fallen and holy, as friends of Christ, as people with abilities, as disciples on the Way.
What is disability? This simple question is not easily answered. There are people living with impairments, a loss of expected physiological form or function. A person missing a leg. A person whose optic nerve did not develop correctly. A person who has sustained a brain injury. The disability refers to the consequences of an impairment: loss of walking, blindness, memory issues. Handicap, in turn, refers to the societal disadvantage resulting from an impairment.
But when talking to people living with disabilities, those clear-cut categories become muddy. Some embrace the term “disability” as a simple aspect of who they are, a way of describing their lives and advocating for societal change. Others reject the term, saying they perceive no negative consequences from their impairments, only positives. Others fear the term and simply do not use it.
In the last several days, our country has witnessed and experienced, yet again, the effects of the unresolved issues of racism. We cannot rest complacent, convincing ourselves that everything is and will be all right on its own. That is a lie. The racial divide in the United States is boiling — we see the big cloud that rises over the roaring mountain. If we don’t act, the volcano will eventually explode. Our all-gracious God is calling us to turn from our wrong path.
Above other civic institutions, the church is responsible to do the work of healing. Our nation is desperately in need of healing. The sins of racism, classism, violence, and ideological intransigency are violently shaking and destroying the soul of our nation.
Where are the godly leaders in our country who are ready and willing to strip their souls of religious and ideological allegiances and surrender without fear, to seek the path that the Holy Spirit is eager to show us?
There is a way forward. We know that Jesus the Christ came to show us that way. We need to quit insisting that the way forward is my way. It is not my way — it is Christ’s way. No one Christian leader can claim to speak for God. Neither does God need any one of us to make the way clear — God can speak for God’s self.
There is one condition necessary for us to hear God’s voice: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14.)
Someone once said that change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right. There is no virtue in sticking to our allegiances. Our allegiances should not be to the right or the left or even the center. If we follow Jesus, our allegiances are to repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Our life and our only hope are found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thomas Merton wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
The truth is that we do know what is happening, and we know what is going on. Our individual and collective sins are robbing us of our dignity. We, the Christian leaders of this country, can choose to wage war with the weapons of our ideological, denominational, and theological perspectives and convictions. Or we can choose to “recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”