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Racism presents itself everywhere in our society. We may blame others for it, e.g. the past, the politicians, those profiting and those in power, the opposition and those whom we wish to make our enemies. The reality however is that racism is sin. This is not the case because a political party says so or because people are trying to capitalize on events in our society, but because it is contrary to the Gospel. Racism takes many forms, but in its essence lies an attitude of superiority, the contempt of people just because they belong to a particular race, prejudice, generalized assumptions, disrespect, ignorance, envy, abuse and humiliation. Racism therefore can be a thought pattern, a way of life that may prevail and be nurtured by people of all races.
In contrast to this the Gospel teaches that God loves all people. All people are created in the image of God. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus already banned all superiority beyond the borders of his kingdom. Through his parables, miracles, example and suffering He teaches that respect, compassion, listening and caring across borders, is the style and are the values of His kingdom. There is no place for racism in the kingdom of Jesus.
The art of living in South Africa is to remember that superiority has good friends in the self, in the personal view on matters, in a single minded perspective, in the emphasis on personal benefit and in the desire for self-preservation. With such friends, one has to be careful that superiority, in whatever form, does not easily walk in through the front door of your own life. Whether we call it chauvinism or patriarchy, or male dominance, or contempt and indifference or whether we scorn at the sick or disabled people, or practice homophobia or racism, superiority lurks close to all our piety and good intentions.
Of course we can always try to explain superiority. Or we can mitigate it. We could, for example, explain that our intentions definitely are not meant to be superiority or dismantling or disregard or injustice. But the standard of living in the Kingdom, a life in close relationship with Jesus, brings us not only to assess our intentions, but to in fact assess the impact of our words and actions and assumptions and prejudices on the self-understanding of others. “I” and my intentions are as a criterion always subordinate to the experience of my neighbour, how others feel, what they believe about themselves, and what they understand about themselves when we part from each other.
South African society is largely characterized by inequality. The gap between rich and poor is growing. The fact that the political reforms of recent decades gave black people access to the best opportunities, does not tell the whole story of the struggle of people to break out of the culture of poverty and illiteracy. For example, the chances of children who grew up in poverty, to gain access to further training and to ultimately get a job with a sustainable income that can lift them out of their poverty culture are still very slim. The unemployment rate for black South Africans is currently 28.8%. The income of many of those who have jobs, does not necessarily ensure a life above the breadline.
Because of the country’s political history and the factors of inequality white South Africans should have real understanding for black people’s sensitivity about racism. That which for white people may seem to be the defence of important principles, all too often is understood as prejudice and denial by people who come from a background of poverty and injustice.
However, the most important reality is that the battle for resources in South Africa often manifests in racial tension. The economy is growing slower than the population. Investment from abroad is at a low level. As a result the distribution of wealth can usually only be done by taking away from those who have and by giving to those who do not have. In the South African context this is a recipe for racial tension. Everyone, including the government, agrees that training (education) has an important part to play in the solution of the systemic inequalities of our economy. Training generates entrepreneurs and the latter creates jobs. However, our country simply does not provide enough training opportunities. Consequently, more and more is demanded from the limited training opportunities that do exist in South Africa. The lack of opportunities for skills development increases the pressure on tertiary institutions. The competition for the sources of knowledge therefore grows by the day. The battle for student fees is actually a struggle for access to this source. As a result of people’s legitimate aspirations many areas of society experience similar tensions.
When in these days the interests of the entire population of the country is at stake, Christians are called to set an example of tolerance and good judgment. The transformation of the economy is an obligation imposed on all of us, in the interest of everyone. If one suffers, all suffer, says the Gospel. This applies just as much to the country as it does to the church. Let us therefore engage with one another with real understanding of the story of our country and the needs of our people, as well as for people’s striving towards economic independence. Let us listen to each other with understanding and compassion. Let us hear each other and help each other and take hands in the pursuit of each other’s interests. Let us veer away from generalizations without really trying to understand what lies behind people’s protest and their demand to be heard. Let us Christians be the bearers of the message of justice, of serving love and care. May we in this way be those that help restore people’s dignity and free them of the forces of poverty or contempt and self-doubt.
The DRC is so serious about human dignity that we joined our family churches to devise a Season of Human Dignity. The values that this season in particular promotes are to respect, to listen, to embrace and to love.
In Church and Society (1990, par 110-115), the DRC already gave a clear warning against the consequences of racism. It was then stated that racism is contrary to the Word of God and no one should defend or practice it. Since 1990, the DRC regularly rendered public testimonies against racism. Amongst others the publications Kerkbode and Kruisgewys were used to wage the fight against racism. Many other publications have also appeared in this regard. A list of these is available on the Season of Human Dignity’s website at www.menswaardigheid.co.za Through preaching ministers regularly highlight the matter. In 2008 the Moderamen of the DRC also urgently appealed to all to combat this evil. It is however clear that in order to further our progress with this matter a lot of work remains to be done in all our communities.
The Season of Human Dignity, inter alia, assists in the process through a publication of Jesus stories with spiritual guidance. Another publication, “Walking Together”, provides a 15-week program in which people from different backgrounds listen to each other and together discover the wonders of diversity in our cultures and preferences. These publications will soon be available at Bible Media. “Woman at the Well” is yet another publication that sheds light on the matter, with Bible studies on John 4 about Jesus in conversation with the Samaritan woman.
We trust that each minister of our Church is sensitive to the dangers of racism and understands that the DRC has a huge responsibility to eradicate this evil. Let us continue to provide guidance and to offer direction in this process of liberation from all forms of racial prejudice, so that in this respect the people of our church will be worthy citizens of South Africa and above all of Jesus’ Kingdom.
Nelis Janse van Rensburg
Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Moderamen Dutch Reformed Church