A Nation Divided:
4200kms of driving. 6 different provinces. Sleeping in 8 different towns/cities. I’ve been all over the country in the last 2 weeks. What an unbelievably beautiful and diverse country we live in! I’m supposed to be rested after my annual leave, but my heart is in a state of unrest. It’s in a state of unrest because on my trip I didn’t just witness beautiful diversity, I also repeatedly encountered an ugly disunity pervading every town, every city, and so much of the conversation I listened in on.
I came back to Cape Town to find social media ablaze with emotionally and racially charged discussion about #BlackMonday adding to my unease. I sat in a Sunday afternoon traffic jam (yes, Sunday afternoon!) in the city centre watching people of all stripes being ridiculously selfish and blatantly disregarding each other in an attempt to get ahead. The city I love is running out of water. The blame game is intensifying as a slow panic starts to rise up in people. My neighbourhood Facebook group is still the usual mess of racial profiling, senseless crime, nimbyism, and selective outrage. There almost isn’t a part of my life right now that isn’t emotionally charged to some degree with warring factions on all sides. We are a nation divided
An Ordinary Solution:
As a Christian pastor I’m tasked with helping people to think biblically about their lives on this planet, in this country, in this city. I’m tasked with demonstrating how the gospel makes a difference. But it’s hard to do that when things are so divided. It’s hard to point to Christ as our solution when along the road I saw as many crosses on hills overlooking little dorpies, as I saw neighbourhoods neatly divided into white, black and coloured. It’s hard.
It’s at this point, in a piece of writing of this nature, that I should give you my hot take on how to solve our nation’s issues. It should be edgy and radical. And look, I have plenty of strong opinions about some of these issues that would simultaneously get me a ton of likes, and a super long comment thread underneath ready to devour me. But what if another edgy hot take is not the solution to our problems? What if the solution is more ordinary? What if the ordinary is actually radical?
Let me put on my pastor’s hat for a moment and give you four ordinary Biblical injunctions that aren’t really that controversial, but could change everything with a bit of consistent application.
1. Never forget that the story of humanity starts with the image of God
In the Genesis account of creation Adam and Eve are said to be created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). When God looks to represent himself in this complex and diverse creation he places his image upon one creature only: the human being. And when he does that he affords that creature a special dignity, a special worth, an incalculable value. It’s the defining feature of being human and it’s common to all humans. God affords dignity to humanity not on the basis of race, gender or even achievement, and yet we so quickly turn to these categories in our estimations of our fellow human beings. Dignity is given by God to his image bearers apart from tribal distinctions – Christians who divide over race, ethnicity, or any other external feature do violence to the creative intent of the very God they claim to worship. You can’t love God and devalue what he values at the same time.
2. Suspect yourself
It’s so easy for us to sit in our lofty positions and point out each other’s ills. We’re also so often quick to be absolutely positive that the other person’s critique of us is dead wrong. And yet aren’t we Christians supposed to be the very people who believe that “the heart is deceitful above all things”? (Jer 17:9). Don’t we believe that our sin has so alienated us from God, and wrecked this world, that nothing less than the substitutionary death of the Son of God himself can redeem us? Why then do we, so assuredly and gratuitously, dish out numerous opinions regarding the most complex of issues? Has social media somehow sanctified us? Surely utmost humility and slowness of speech is the way forward? Surely we ought to listen to a thousand words before we offer one? Surely we ought to suspect our own motives and actions all the way through our engagement with these divisive issues?
3. Develop a deep empathy for people not like you
When God came to this earth in the person of Jesus Christ he was called “rabbi” by many who followed him. He was designated a religious leader and yet he spent most of his time away from religious leaders. He spent most of his time with people the religious leaders refused to associate with: sinners, tax-collectors, prostitutes, drunkards, the unclean. And when he opened his mouth to pronounce his golden rule he uttered these words, “…in everything do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matt 7:12) That’s a call for deep empathy. Christ says you cannot live well in regard to your fellow human being until you truly put yourself in their shoes.
In a divided society the cultural and social pressure is on you to constantly empathize with those who are already like you. It’s easier to do that, it feels more natural, but friends I promise you, it will impoverish you and diminish your humanity. So many of the false myths we feed ourselves, so much of the misunderstanding that frustrates us, would be eradicated if we empathized more with people not like us. You need to deliberately break yourself out of your homogenous social and cultural bubbles and enter into the stories of other social and cultural groups. We were consciously and deliberately divided by a powerful political and ideological system, that divide will require conscious deliberate action to be overcome.
4. Joyfully and willingly endure cost
At the centre of the Christian faith is our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ who, “for the joy set before him endured the cross.” (Heb 12:2). He willingly embraced immeasurable cost from a disposition of great joy as he sought to redeem humanity. If we claim that redemption for ourselves, through faith in his sacrificial work, then surely we must also embrace the model he sets out for us in the manner by which he secures our salvation. If I want our nation to be more unified but am not prepared to embrace cost to see that come about then I am actually an agent of division.
Why? Well because at the heart of the division in this country is a massive imbalance of power, social capital, and economics. You can’t move things from the one column to the other without the first column depreciating. There is a cost to justice. There was a cost paid so that a just God might forgive a corrupt humanity, there will be a cost paid if we are to be vehicles of justice in the present. But surely any cost endured for the sake of justice is a cost wrapped up in joy? The sort of joy that delights in restoration, healing, the wiping away of tears, and renewed intimacy.
Ordinary can be Radical:
I know these four things are not particularly radical, but they are all deeply embedded in the pages of Scripture. What would be radical is if we consistently lived them out, day to day, hour to hour – in our families, in our neighbourhoods, in our cities, in our schools, on our university campuses, in our churches, in our rate-payers’ associations, in real life, and even on Facebook.
For some people these injunctions are probably not radical enough, and I’ll grant that in some instances, because the situation is so dire, these injunctions might not radical enough for the moment. But if we deliberately and consciously implemented them into the fabric of our thoughts, our motives, and our behavior then in the end we might not need anything more radical. Ordinary can be radical.