In a long essay in Perspectives magazine, David A. Hoekema makes an impressive case for the success of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was created in 1995 to begin to unravel the tangled, brutal tale of what had really happened under apartheid. The stories that were told were uniformly horrible, and while that racist political system had to be blamed for its systemic violence, bloody death left both the black and white (and, in S.A. "colored") communities in pain and anger.
Hoekema says that the proceedings of the TRC felt almost like, well, church: "Commissioners filed into the hearing rooms in a clery-like procession, and a candle was lit to signify the opening of the session," for instance. Archbishop Desmond Tutu started the very first session by praying.
On my one-and-only trip to South Africa, I remember some white South Africans telling me that they believed the "new South Africa" could succeed (post-apartheid) in part because SA was such a Christian nation. They didn't mean "Christian nation" the way some of the religious right mean "Christian nation"; what they meant is that so many--black and white and coloured--were, in fact, Christians.
Hoekema tells a Tutu story in his essay that I can't forget. You see, SA's Jews and Muslims and agnostics objected to Tutu's opening the meetings with prayer. Tutu, respecting their wishes and conceding that SA wasn't a "Christian nation," stopped the practice.
However, after not praying for some time, he started up again, despite the protests, because--or so he told the audience--he simply couldn't stop himself: "he could not bear to listen to the testimony before the panel without first acknowledging God's justice and God's mercy," Hoekema explains. "He begged the indulgence of Jews, Muslims and agnostics for this personal weakness of his."
There's something so telling about that story.
I will confess I have problems with the Christian right in this country, and one of the reasons is made clear to me by Tutu's apology. It would be good for Christian America to confess, once in awhile, that prayer is weakness. Too often here, it's not. It's a weapon.
You can find David Hoekema's Perspectives article on line at http://www.rca.org/Page.aspx?pid=5404 .