Many of you are aware that I spent a couple of weeks in South Africa recently. I went with eleven other doctoral students from Columbia Theological Seminary as part of a Travel Seminar led by Dr. Mark Douglas, Ethics professor, that sought to do “theological interpretation of social change.”
As you are aware, South Africa has undergone radical change in the last 20 years with the ending of apartheid and the birth of a new nation – a new, democratic nation. Though names like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are well known as leaders in South Africa’s transition out of atrocity and into equality, our preparations for the trip and our time there immersed us in a grand, complex narrative of justice and reconciliation that was led by countless men, women, and children whose names will rarely be spoken outside of their immediate family and friends.
Our time there allowed us to understand a bit more about the role the church played in either supporting, critiquing, or ending the unjust system of apartheid. We also had many conversations about the role of the church as a continuing voice for social justice in a nation still bruised and broken by dehumanizing racism and severe poverty. We learned of the churches that gave theological backing for the system of apartheid defending it as God’s will. We learned of churches that were troubled by the system but chose to silently worship even though children of God were oppressed and robbed of their dignity as bearers of God’s image. We learned of churches that risked their lives so stand up on behalf of the oppressed.
There is no way to summarize this experience in a post like this. The issues are too complex, the stories too weighty, and the conversation too important for a simple “moral of the story” kind of statement. My hope is to find a way in the coming months to host a series of lessons about the topic of this seminar: “theological interpretations of social change.” In this I will want to share about South Africa, but the most important questions is not how/what the church did there/then. The most important conversation is about what the church (you and me) is doing here and now so that “justice may roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). So, when the time comes I hope you will join me for some searching and challenging conversations about being the church that God intends as salt and light in a world that greed and oppression seeks to spoil and where the darkness of injustice seeks to rob so many of their dignity as image-of-God-bearers.
*The image above is me standing outside the cell of the infamous former prisoner 466/64, Nelson Mandela, at Robben Island.