In American political life, there is an issue about which we hear endless talk dealing with surfaces, and very little movement deep down in the body politic. Unless faced, it will prevent us from realizing our potential as a pluralistic democracy with a growing economy, and, instead, it will foster a poisonous resentment, even a hatred, that kills much of life's joy. The subject is race. Frequently, Americans have been unable to see deeper than skin color or eye shape to the heart and individuality of all our citizens. There were times when we allowed destructive impulses to triumph over our deeper awareness that we are all God's children. Occasionally, the violence of the few elicited the fears and seething anger of the many and prevented the possibility of racial harmony. It's an old story, and a sad one, too.
In 1963, four African-American girls in white dresses were talking prior to Sunday services in the ladies lounge of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Suddenly, the church was ripped apart by a bomb that killed the young girls instantly. There had been other bombings in Birmingham aimed at halting blacks' progress toward racial equality but they had not penetrated the national consciousness. After that Sunday's explosion, people of all races and all political persuasions throughout the country were sickened in spirit.
Coming 18 days after Martin Luther King Jr. had shared his dream for America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the bombing was a stark reminder of how violently some Americans resisted racial healing. Yet the sense of multiracial outrage and solidarity that came out of this tragedy--combined with the seminal leadership of President Lyndon Johnson--led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to the hope that the search for racial equality could lead to the emergence of a spiritually transformed America.
For generations which begat generations, the Bible has been translated into the languages of the people. Soon to follow were commentaries to aid in interpretation. Since the "language" of our day—the medium of communication—is visual, the popularity of biblical resources on video cassettes is not surprising.
What may surprise us is the quality. Excellent at setting the context and naming the basic principles of scripture, the following two video series should be viewed by clergy and lay alike.
Bill Moyers and Public Affairs Television are offering a gem, a pearl of great price if you will, this fall. Genesis: A Living Conversation is a tremendous social contribution to biblical studies, both in substance and in style.
Each one-hour segment of the 10-part series opens with a relevant introduction by Moyers and a retelling of the Genesis story discussed in the section—Cain killing Abel, Sarah mistreating Hagar, Jacob stealing from Esau, Adam blaming Eve—by expert storytellers (and actors) Mandy Patinkin and Alfre Woodard. The discussions—with Sojourners' contributing editors Roberta Hestenes, Eugene Rivers, and Walter Brueggemann featured prominently—are driven by their diversity. Difference of opinion, and even civil conflict, are viewed as a positive, and so open the possibility for creativity to emerge. In several instances the participation of people of different faith traditions brings new clarity for all involved. For instance, the Muslim view of Potiphar's wife in the Joseph narrative allows the discussion to take a step further for all those of Christian or Jewish background.
Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize when this article appeared, was interviewed at his home in Bishopscourt outside Cape Town.
Jim Wallis: We would very much like to hear your perspective on what people speak of as the new era for the church in South Africa, the new level in the struggle against apartheid as the church moves to the front lines.
Desmond Tutu: In many ways the church—perhaps less spectacularly in the past—has been involved in this struggle for some time. Church people have been responsible for bringing the Namibian issue [South Africa's illegal occupation of neighboring Namibia] before the United Nations. And they have brought the plight of squatters very much to the fore.
For instance, the church was involved over the issue of forced population removals, particularly in Mogopa, one of the villages that the government "moved." The South African Council of Churches, with a number of church leaders, was there. We went and stood with the people to try to support them at a time when they were under threat.
Perhaps the government had not yet learned how to be thoroughly repressive so that the church did not need, in many ways, to be quite so spectacular. There were other avenues available for people, avenues that were more explicitly political.
What is different, perhaps, now is that the government has progressively eliminated most of the other organizations which legitimately could have been around to articulate the people's concern. And their repression has intensified. They have chosen the military option.