Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Only one faculty meeting stands forever in my Faculty Meeting Hall of Fame, and that one happened years ago at a date I can almost pinpoint--it had to be early to mid-80's.  South African apartheid hadn't failed yet, although undoubtedly it failed the moment it was implemented.  The president of Dordt College, Rev. B. J. Haan, had been offered an honorary doctorate from an Afrikaner university, Potchefstroom, a nice gesture on their part. Whether Haan was worthy wasn't the question.  What was on the table that night was whether he should take their offer.  

The forces on either side were daunting.  On the left stood those who believed that his accepting the honorary doctorate would give the granting institution and the apartheid system a kind of legitimacy they did not deserve. To stand with the Afrikaner authors of apartheid, segregationist apartheid, would be to wed the forces of Satan, argued faculty on the left. 

On the the right stood those who saw Afrikaners as fellow children of the Lord, laborers in the vineyard, men and women with whom we could pray, people who needed our help in finding their way, not the back of our hand. We didn't have to stop hating apartheid to love them, to respect them, the conservative side argued.

Dr. James Skillen, a man who went on the devote his life to the interface of politics and the Christian faith, spoke for those who were asking Haan not to accept the doctorate.  Of the two spokesman, he was the less passionate, but most convincing.  Any dalliance with the Afrikaners was a dance of death, he argued, because those offering the President this honorary doctorate were only looking for political goodwill.  He told the President that, should he take the honor, he'd be a pawn in the bloody racial struggle being waged in South Africa.  Even little Dordt College would be scratched up on the wall of those who were fighting for apartheid.  

On the other side stood Rev. Dr. E. L. Hebden Taylor, an Englishman, an Anglican priest and eccentric scholar no alum will ever forget. The son of South African missionaries, he'd grown up there and knew South Africans like no one else.  That familial relationship was the foundation for his argument--you don't slap confessional brothers and sisters in the face when they're offering respect and love.  He'd prayed with Afrikaners. The President simply had to go, so said the Englishman. Of the two, Taylor spoke most passionately.  South Africa was, to him, itself a homeland.

There was no rancor, despite the fact that the sides were deeply divided.  Both men laid out arguments plainly and powerfully, even personally; but neither condemned the other.  What went to war that night was two very strong arguments, neither of which was evil, both of which carried inherent righteousness.

When it was over, the President stood up, thanked Skillen and Taylor, and said he'd decided not to go to apartheid South Africa, that the possibility of being used at this particular moment in history was just too great.

I took the liberal side in that argument that night, but at heart I was a conservative, haunted by the idea that giving every single citizen of South Africa the vote would create another Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Democracy, in South Africa, would be the end of apartheid, but the beginning of bloody chaos. 

On that score, I was dead wrong; but then, even as a believer, I had vastly underestimated the sheer power of forgiveness because all that good talk and the arguments thoughtfully created by both sides were made forever moot by a South African named Nelson Mandela, whose most powerful political weapon was, of all things, forgiveness. 

Among all these good Christian people, who could have imagined such a thing?  Forgiveness. Who among believers around the world could have thought forgiveness had that much clout? 

It's worth mentioning that the political theory of Abraham Kuyper, the patron saint of Dordt College, was complicit in the creation and establishment of apartheid. I'm not proud to say that, but it's true.  Somewhere in Kuyper's explanation of what he called "sphere soverignity" there lay enough latitude for Afrikaners to create a system in which, theoretically, each tribe and people could prosper in their own individual ways. Kuyper wasn't to blame for apartheid, but those of us who follow him need to acknowledge his theoretical role in the horror.

But it was Kuyper who taught me, somewhere in Near Unto God, that good Christian people who desire to come close to the Lord will get there best by practicing what God almighty does himself.  Take forgiveness, for example. When we forgive, Kuyper says, we'll come closer to God than we might in any other moment in time because we are doing what we know he does.

Not simply South Africa, but the entire world, walked behind Mandela down the paths of the righteousness when he determined the only was to live in the new South Africa or anywhere at all was to forgive. The man brought the world near unto God.

Yesterday, the day Mandela died, South Africa's President Zuma said, "Our people have lost a father."

He is not wrong.

But what he might have said is that the world has lost a father.


HelenMac said...

A candid and beautiful statement.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post James. Touching to read this history in more detail. I suppose if Dordt had not taken been vocal wrt to South Africa, I would not have been set on the path to go there. As it happened I spent one year of tumultuous change in South Africa and witnessed Mandela's release in Cape Town. With all those I had met there and been touched by my life was changed. The miracle that happened in South Africa had a lot to do with prayer and following the principles of biblical justice and reconciliation. "Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other." Psalm 85:10
- Mark Venema

Anonymous said...

Jim, I remember that faculty meeting, too, so it had to have been held in the spring of 1983, at the latest.

I remember that John Vander Stelt and/or John Van Dyke were very vocal in that conversation, too.

Good work, to bring that conversation back into view.

James Vanden Bosch

jfschuu said...

Nicely done Jim. The piece weaves the "bit" -- the relatively unimportant little college tucked off on the windy plains -- into the large tapestry of pivotal times and stories. This all was important and the debate you describe would have pleased Mandela, I think.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear he made that decision. I believe it was the correct one.

Al Mulder said...

Thanks for the history. In the trial resulting in his imprisonment Mandela said he would rather die than concede to apartheid. What a gift to the world that God to live in opposition to it. What a mighty work of God. Today Haan's decision seems a no-brainer.

Anonymous said...

Articles like these, Jim, with your keen and honest perspectives, are why you must keep writing these special insights that most of us are addicted to viewing every day!

Anonymous said...

It's good to hear what Souixlanders feel about forgiveness. Its good that the South Africans let Mandela live in prison for a few years and didn't just kill him outright and then continue to control all the native peoples and their lands.

Anonymous said...

There is quite a lot of academic literature on the role of Calvinist theology and philosophy in Afrikaner nationalism. It's deeper roots are in the kinds of Volksnationalist theology and philosophy popular in the Germanic world as a form of theopolitical Hegelianism. Kuyper, whom Bratt says was unable to think of history outside a Hegelian frame, could be said to have bent Calvinism to fit that frame.

You may or may not know Barth criticized this type of thinking and the South African situation very early on and along with various international colleagues kept up a critical dialogue over the decades. I recall an anecdote that I think was sent at Pochesfstroom where Barth asked a prominent theological defender of apartheid what he would do if the holy spirit convicted him tomorrow that the gospel said no to apartheid? Could this even be a possibility to him? Maybe the point was that you can't be open to grace if you are certain you are right and that you know where history is going. This is part of Barth's point when his discusses providence and chastises the idea of a Christian worldview or philosophy, warning it is an enabler of dark old chthonic forces of blood and soil.

In some ways Kuyper may have been more than complicit in apartheid. As Vince Bacote said when he was at Dordt, "the man was a racist," referring to his belief in European race theory/white supremacism, but you can still (as Bacote does) "love Kuyper anyway."

Mark Noll has put the matter of Kuyper's complicity in apartheid as being like early stage cancer that became malignant when exported to South Africa. This suggests Kuyper can't be blamed because he did not himself operate in South Africa, just his ideas and words did. This is a rather fine distinction, especially given the man's view on race, his hostility toward uncooperative Jewish populations in the Netherlands, etc. It is fair to say he is responsible in a foundational way. The story of apartheid can't be told without reference to Kuyper and Dutch Calvinism. That is the situation in the academic literature, at any rate, and I would say it is fair.

I have wondered how Kuyper could ever have failed to see himself in the victimized minority's position. His political experience, the vexing historical relationship between Britain and the Netherlands---presidents McKinley and Roosevelt both subscribed to similar ethno-nationalist views and felt the English were the stronger breed who should be allowed to prevail in South Africa. Why would Kuyper's agonized reaction to that reality not make him more sympathetic to the notion that cultural and political hegemony are prone to be goals at odds with justice and the gospel?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reference to Bart, especially the last paragraph as it relates to Native Americans.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Barth.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your 4:25 response, especially the last paragraph that relates to Native Americans.

Mark Poehner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Poehner said...

The paradigm that views all political conflict or justice problems in terms of Left vs. Right creates a possible justification for Apartheid, or for Bible-based genocide (as the US Army practiced on the Native Americans). You must abandon this fallacy of Liberal/Conservative, or Left/Right. It does not apply. Liberalism is based in French Revolutionary thinking, Free Market Capitalism and individualism. In the USA we have all - with the exception of communists, some Nazis and some anarchists - bought into Liberalism, whether we're Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, or whatever. Apartheid is intolerable, and the genocide perpetrated on the Native Americans is unforgiveable.