This headline caught my eye this morning:
South Africans head to the polls tomorrow in the fourth elections since the end of apartheid in 1994. More than 23 million people have registered to vote in what is being billed as one of most important elections in the country’s history.
I visited South Africa in the months leading up to that first historic election in 1994. I remember sitting in the living room in a township where a man who shared seventeen years in prison with Nelson Mandela hosted me and my best friend, Julie, for two nights. He had gathered the young leaders from his community, a passionate group of young men, and while Julie and I had expected to sip tea and ask them questions, we instead faced what we later called “the Inquisition”. The group sat, on the edges of their chairs, one after the other asking us questions about our nation’s foreign policy and our own awareness of what South Africa had endured and continued to endure to that day. It was perhaps the most challenging night of my life.
During our tour we met with religious and political leaders, as well as leaders in the financial sector who were projecting then much of what we see happening in the nation of South Africa now, post-Apartheid. The article highlights “high unemployment, one of the highest crime rates in the world and the highest number of HIV infections globally” as the backdrop for these elections, and I can’t help but remember how my global ignorance and inactivity felt that night in a township living room: the issues and battles are different now, but the overwhelming volume of suffering and loss of life continues.
I have been thinking a great deal lately about God’s global mission, and the scriptures assure us that God’s intention from the beginning is to see all nations blessed. And so I find myself wondering, what exactly does it look like to be partners, participants, servants of that mission? For there is certainly no exemption clause for those who profess allegiance to the Christ! Yet it is all too easy to sit and grow numb and opt for the kind of safe ignorance that a group of young men confronted in me fifteen years ago.
The other morning I lay in a hospital bed watching three different reality TV shows. We don’t have cable, so this was my chance to see firsthand three shows I had heard people talk about. It was alluring, I admit, to enter the intimate space of these peoples’ lives, as choreographed as much of it surely was. And I was reminded of something Dick Staub wrote in his most recent book, The Culturally Savvy Christian:
“Humans sit in front of television sets, passively watching human misery unfold, while just outside their door, down the street, or in an apartment next door, a real person faces the same problem and there is no one to help them because we’re all preoccupied withour favorite characters on reality TV.
When diversion is a way of life, we avoid the very issues to which we shouldbe most attentive. We are diverted from the grim, unpleasant truth that our lives lack meaning withouit God, that consumption does not satisfy, that the differential between wealth and poverty is unjust, that our neighbor is in need, and that the appropriate human response to poeple in need is sleeves-rolled-up service, not simply watching.”
Which takes me back to needs and challenges of South Africa. Part of the good news, in fact the center of the good news, is the truth of what Isaiah speaks in chapter nine: That “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” At first reading, that verse seems to describe “those people”; the ones suffering; the ones living in darkness; the ones I pity or maybe despise. But perhaps the verses instead describe those like me.
Verse five continues: “Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be feul for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Battles and bloodshed do not have the final word; not in South Africa where disease and poverty are king, or in those countries where we or any other power wrestles to rule. The final word is that word spoken from the beginning; an unlikely word; a child. And for us to be followers of that Word in our world is not a responsibility we can avoid, deny or reject.