[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
While listening to one of our national public radio stations, the topic of ‘social cohesion’ and the possibility of criminalising racism came up.
Not surprisingly, very soon into the discussion, the inevitable happened. It soon became a mudslinging contest with various ethnicities accusing others of double standards, blind racism, race-based electioneering and more. The conversation about curtailing hate speech was fast becoming a conversation IN hate speech.
In contrast, a ‘white’ friend recently commented on the inescapable reality of her white privilege growing up in pre-1994 South Africa, the blind spots she has, and how willing to embrace the new South Africa black South Africans have been on the whole, right after the worst that apartheid threw at them. (Don’t worry, my friend is quite aware and unhappy about government corruption, maladministration and more in post 1994 South Africa.)
Then another friend handed me a newspaper article, written presumably by a black South African, about the pillaging ‘contribution’ of several African despots that we often turn a blind eye to, in the midst of recounting the legacy of one Cecil John Rhodes. Such honesty by both individuals is extremely vulnerable, extremely rare and extremely needed in our nation.
Planks and specks
Jesus teaches us a powerful truth about human nature in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in Matthew 7:3-5. He said to his hearers and to us: Mt 7:3-5 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Jesus teaches us that left to ourselves, we are all hypocrites. We are able to find so much as a speck of sawdust in our brother’s eye, blind to the plank in our own. We must therefore deal first with our own blind spots before trying to deal with others. We are so quick to point out the plank in the other, but Jesus only mentions the plank in us, and the speck in our brother.
Ironically, I believe that it is a pair of planks, namely the Cross of Christ, that helps us see clearly. The cross starts with us as individuals, nailing our pride (whether it comes from the self-acclaimed competence of “look at what we have built” or the self-acclaimed innocence of “we are never as racist as them”). Whatever we pride ourselves in is seen for what it is through the lens of the cross. Here, we come with nothing except our guilt and need for forgiveness. Yes, there is something beautiful and praiseworthy in every culture and ethnicity, but without the humbling power of the Cross, these redemptive features are not the gifts they were created to be.
Wonderfully, through the Cross we also receive a new identity. Our primary identity is now a child of God, based on what Jesus has done. This has radical implications. If we take this to heart, it means that despite the pre and post apartheid classifications we have built up according to ‘race’, that this is not our PRIMARY identity. We do not lose this identity, but it is no longer primary.
Living in South Africa, where almost everything is seen through the lens of race, I think I should repeat this. One’s ‘race’ is not one’s ‘primary’ identity. Being a child of God is our primary identity. Here’s how it can help us: if we define ourselves in this new way, it gives us a much stronger identity that is given to us by the grace of God and not our achievement, an identity that could more honestly look at the issues and faults within one’s ethnicity, confess them and seek forgiveness for them, without trying to be defensive and blaming others.
Knowing our identity, we must then come out of our enclaves to become ministers of reconciliation, and try to work through the planks and specks in our nation. I have heard of a number of churches that have encouraged this level of interaction, as we try to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’, going down to grassroots level. This is the most underestimated area in which real change is yet to happen, and that the media will most likely overlook as it doesn’t grab the negative headlines.
Church leader Rick Joyner once lamented that nine o’clock on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Unfortunately, in many ways this still remains the case here as well. We can and must preach: be reconciled to God. But it cannot end there for the gospel to really impact our nation. We have to preach: be reconciled to one another as well.
Respected pastor, John Piper similarly writes on how their church has decided to take deliberate steps to preach and live this message: Some years ago a 23-member team at our church took over a year to draw up a vision statement for our church that included six fresh initiatives. Number three reads like this: Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church.
If we could allow the Cross of Christ to start with the plank in our eyes, and take our primary identity from the finished work of Jesus, we could preach and live a two-fold message of reconciliation to God and our fellow man in a time that our nation urgently needs it.