To the Editor: My heart and mind have been in South Africa this week. Monday I awoke to an avalanche of news from my friends and members of former congregations in Durban and Johannesburg about the country ‘going up in flames’ due to mass protests, looting, arson, vandalism, and violence of all sorts. Why? Well, it begins with 400 years of imperialism and colonialism – in and of themselves, looting sprees of entire peoples on a global scale by force of violence. Second, it continues with the imposition of Apartheid, white supremacy in South Africa – again by force of violence.
These historical legacies created in South Africa one of the, if not the greatest, income disparity indexes in the world, whereby the vast majority of the country have the least and a small elite minority have most of the country’s land and wealth. The ingredients of historic violence and theft combined with massive economic inequalities baked-in led to a context whereby a catalyst just needs to spark a conflagration. That catalyst is ‘political intrigue’ by a corrupt, ethnocentric, populist, and narcissistic president (Jacob Zuma) who after repeatedly ignoring his own country’s laws and failed to respect the rulings of its judicial system let loose anarchy in order to ‘win’ his legitimacy. Yet, the protests and looting quickly departed the realm of politics and became for the poor far more about bread (“Give us our daily bread,” Matthew 6:11). Grocery stores were the hardest hit during the chaos as people are hungry.
The United States and South Africa both have constitutional democracies that are fragile and must be protected. The two countries share histories of colonialism and white supremacy. The United States’ income disparity trajectory is headed in the same direction as South Africa’s. Both have had leaders of the executive branch who do not respect the judiciary and who are willing to propose, incite, and facilitate insurrection using populist passions and fears in order to preserve power (“fight like hell”).
If I read the biblical gospels, I read of imperial domination (Romans); I read of massive income inequalities (Lazarus at the Rich Man’s gate, Luke 16:19-31); I read of populist passions (“Crucify Him”, Luke 23:21); I read of self-serving leaders who interests are not the people’s (Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, Matthew 2:16-18); I read of violence and death (crucifixion, Mark 15:15). Cry the Beloved Country (Alan Paton). Cry the beloved countries (South Africa, the United States of America, and Palestine). “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).