After the 1992 riots following the first Rodney King verdict, I joined a delegation of international church leaders to Los Angeles.
What is happening in South Africa is not just a conflict between church on the one hand and state on the other. There is a conflict within the church between those reactionary forces that continue to seek to domesticate the church and those forces within the church, represented by people such as Desmond and Allan and Frank, who are affirming the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a struggle for the soul of the church.
It is very important to ask, if Desmond and Allan and Frank do not represent the entire church, as P.W. Botha charges, why is it that they are perceived as such a significant danger to the status quo and to the state? I believe P.W. Botha is absolutely right when he says they are a danger to the state--for three reasons.
First, they are articulating a message that is instinctively understood and responded to by the majority of the oppressed people, who make up the majority of the church. They recognize that message to be, in fact, the message of the residual gospel of liberation which has been suppressed for so long within the life of the church. It's the gospel they read about in the New Testament, even if it's not proclaimed within their pulpits.
Second, what we are experiencing within the life of the church today is an organization, a mobilization, of the church of the poor and the oppressed in a way that we've never seen before. For the first time in South Africa, there is an overt and explicit attempt, by recognized church leaders to mobilize the oppressed within the churches to be on the side of the broad liberation struggle.
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.
An Interview with Catherine Meeks