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Archive for the tag “Adriaan Vlok”

All Saints: making it personal

The Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints Sunday in the Orthodox Church (which means that yesterday was Halloween)

Antioch Abouna: For All the Saints …:

The saints personalise Christianity. There are versions of Christianity around which reduce Church life to a set of doctrines, good in themselves, but because they are not enfleshed in the lives of real people, such Christianity remains, abstract, dry, formal, conceptual. Think back to your time at school. I guess it’s not the lessons you remember directly, rather the teachers who, for you, embodied and made accessible what they taught. So it is with saints. If you want to know who the Holy Spirit is, read the account of Motovilov’s conversation with Fr. Seraphim. If you want to understand the place of monasticism in the life of the Church, read St. Athanasios’ Life of St. Antony the Great. If you value the healing work of God, don’t even read about it, just invoke the prayers of St. Panteleimon, St. Swithun or some other unmercenary healer. The saints make real, vivid and personal what we believe and how we live by those beliefs.

Last week at the Amahoro Conference I met Adriaan Vlok, who had been Minister of Law and Order in the apartheid regime. Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet: Khanya:

When he was Minister, Mr Vlok’s underlings had attempted to poison Frank Chikane, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and Adriaan Vlok had appeared before the Truth and Reconciliatian Commission and later the Amnesty Committee and had apologised for that and other things. But he said that no one seemed to hear him, and in 2006 several things he read or heard convinced him that he needed to go beyond making a general apology, and apologise to a person, and Frank Chikane seemed to be one of those people. So he had gone to his office and washed his feet.

Adriaan Vlok told this story at the Amahoro Gathering and there was a sequel Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet: Khanya:

the person sitting next to him on the podium, Sean Callaghan, said he had been a member of Koevoet, one of the most vicious units of the apartheid security forces, who were, in effect, hired killers. He and others had had to have psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress, and his counsellor had told him he should not just curse the system, but a person to focus his anger on, thd the person he had chosen to do that was Adriaan Vlok. So he wanted to wask Vlok’s feet, and in the end the both washed each other’s feet, right there on the podium.

I found that quite scary. It was one thing to make repentance personal, as Vlok had done with Frank Chikane. It was quite another, in my mind, to make hatred personal. Sometimes we say “Love the sinner, hate the sin”, but here was a psychotherapist urging someone to hate the sinner, namely Adriaan Vlok.

So I’ve been wondering at my own reaction. Why do I think that it’s OK to personify virtues in the cult of the saints, but that it is not OK to personify vices in the execration of sinners?

My mind also goes back to the apartheid time, long before Adriaan Vlok was minister, under one of his predecessors, B.J. Vorster. Vorster passed a lot of repressive legislation to crush opposition to apartheid. He introduced detention without trial for 90 days (which Tony Blair wanted introduce in Britain, and Gordon Brown still wants to). It became personal when a friend of mine, Stephen Gawe, was detained. A few years later I was banned by another of Vlok’s predecessors, as were several of my friends and acquaintances. I was then an Anglican, and the Anglican Church celebrated St Peter’s Chains on 1 August, also called Lammas (in the Orthodox Church it is celebrated on 16 January). This celebrates the incident in Acts 12:1-11 in which St Peter was arrested, and the church prayed, and he was miraculously freed from prison. I regarded this as the patronal festival of all people who were banned or detained without trial, and was quite shocked when the Anglican Church’s Liturgical Committee announced that they planned to abolish its observance. I regarded this as a slap in the face for all Anglicans who were banned or detained, and wrote to the chairman of the liturgical committee, Bishop Philip Russell, pleading with them to change their minds.

This led to quite a protracted correspondence. In those days, among Western Christians at least, “relevance” was regarded as one of the greatest virtues, and “irrelevance” one the greatest vices.[1] Bishop Russell was one of those who regarded “relevance” as very important and said that the Liturgical Committee regarded the feast of St Peter’s Chains as irrelevant in our modern age. I was astounded that they could not see its relevance to South Africa, where people were being detained without trial regularly and every year more and more repressive legislation was being passed to enable them to be detained for longer periods and with fewer legal safeguards. I prayed that God would preserve the church from relevant priests.

Eventually Bishop Russell offered, as a consolation prize, a commemoration of Martyrs and Confessors of the Twentieth Century, which was introduced in 1975, commemorated on 8 November. The equivalent of the Synaxarion for the day explicitly mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King (neither of whom were Anglicans, though of course, neither was St Peter).

The implication was that I could consider myself among the “countless men and women of our time” who faced “misunderstanding, social ostracism, imprisonment and even death” for the sake of “the changeless truths of God”. And it seemed to miss the point altogether. The commemoration of St Peter’s Chain’s was important to me because it was a concrete example of how the Lord “executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind” as the Psalmist says. The point about St Peter’s Chains is not so much that men imprisoned him as that God set him free, and that it was therefore an image of hope to those in prison. But that was not “relevant” enough for the twentieth century theologians of relevance.

No, it is better to personify good, and to depersonify evil, or to personify it only in the person of the devil. Apartheid made prisoners of us all, even Adriaan Vlok, and it is better to curse the system than to demonify a person, because that makes demons of us all.

And I wonder what the world would have been like today if George Bush and Saddam Hussein had washed one another’s feet, and if Robert Mugabe washed the feet of the Zimbabwean refugees who sleep in doorways in Johannesburg.

But there were saints who did such things and more. They were irrelevant in the eyes of the world, and even in the eyes of some theologians, but not in the eyes of God.


[1] Colin Morris, a Methodist minister who worked in Zambia, wrote in his book Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward

(Karl Barth writes ‘Jesus is immanent in the Church only because He transcends it’. In everyday speech this is like saying that something is wet only because it is dry, near only because it is far away, and relevant only because it is irrelevant…

… Ah, breathes the theologian. That is paradox and, therefore, profound.

… Ah, says the man in the pew, it’s beyond me but I’ll take the parson’s word that it means something.

… So what? says the man in the street, it has nothing to do with the price of fish! — a remark calculated to touch a theologian on the raw; say that he’s unintelligible and he will take it as a compliment, but suggest that he is also irrelevant and he will sue you!

Apologise, apologise, apologise

A couple of days ago I commented on the mixed reaction to Adriaan Vlok’s apology to Frank Chikane for the way he had treated him when he was Minister of Police. My comment was to the effect that it was better for people to apologise for their own misdeeds than for those of other people a long time in the past.

And so my attention was drawn to demands that the Roman Pope apologise for the Inquisition, and that led me to this site, Why Shouldn’t the Pope Apologize for the Inquisition?

It seems odd.

Why does it seem so fashionable to demand that some people should apologise for other people’s sins, usually in the remote past, where both perpetrators and victims are dead? And yet there is so little sign of apology by living people for their misdeeds against the living, and some even find such things offensive on the rare occasions when it does happen?

Yesterday I went to the archives and had a look at my Security Police file; that was before Vlok was in charge, of course, but it does illustrate the kind of thing he was apologising for. I wouldn’t expect him to apologise for that, any more than I would expect him to apologise for the atrocities of Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. Apologies from Kurt Dahlmann, Frans van Zyl and Jurgen Meinert (newspaper editors and proprietor of Windhoek) might be appropriate, though.

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Repentance, reconciliation and Adriaan Vlok

A few days ago I commented on Adriaan Vlok’s repentance and washing of Frank Chikane’s feet in my LiveJournal.

Now the Weekly Mail & Guardian has an interview with Vlok, in which he casts additional light on his time as the apartheid regime’s chief cop.

And he described former president PW Botha’s “intense interest” in security and central role in getting police to maak ’n plan (sort out) unrest. Botha had congratulated Vlok for police operations, including the bombing of the South African Council of Churches’ Khotso House headquarters in Johannesburg.

And it emerged this week that he had extended his journey of repentance by washing the feet of 10 widows and mothers of the “Mamelodi 10”, who were lured to their deaths by police agent Joe Mamasela. Their bodies were burned and buried in a field in Winterveld, near Pretoria, where the remains were recently found and identified by the National Prosecuting Agency.

But the M&G goes on to say that Vlok’s action had sparked off an atonement debate in South Africa.

The thorny issue of white atonement for apartheid has been thrown under the South African spotlight after a former white hard-line minister washed the feet of a black preacher his forces once tried to kill.

The furore erupted last month when it emerged that Adriaan Vlok, a minister of law and order under apartheid, had apologised to Reverend Frank Chikane, a prominent anti-apartheid activist and a trusted adviser to President Thabo Mbeki.

Vlok also washed Chikane’s feet, a hugely symbolic act in a country where many people count themselves as devout Christians — and where the sores of the recent past remain raw.

Chikane accepted Vlok’s apology and show of humility but many commentators have been sceptical about the actions of a man they hold responsible for past atrocities.

And it is a debate that should probably go far beyond South Africa. Will we be seeing Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic doing the same for the widows and mothers of the former Yugoslavia, for example? Leaving aside people like Osama bin Laden and Ehud Olmert, for the moment, since they aren’t Christian, and presumably Christians have more common ground in such matters than others, how do we respond? As I noted in my LiveJournal post, at least one person found Vlok’s action “deeply offensive”, and others seem to take a similar view:

“That Chikane allowed this man to wash his feet was the sickest thing ever heard in this new South Africa,” wrote columnist Justice Malala in the Sowetan, a leading black daily.

“Our people do not want a man like Vlok to wash one leader’s feet and expect absolution. They want the truth,” he said, referring to Vlok’s alleged failure to tell everything he knew about the actions of his security forces.

Vlok, the only former apartheid Cabinet minister to testify before the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, received amnesty from prosecution for a series of bombings.

There is also something rather disturbing in the Mail & Guardian’s reporting, when they refer to “white atonement”. While Vlok was white, they have still generalised it into a racist assumption. Joe Mamasela, the police agent who lured the “Mamelodi 10” to their deaths, was black. Do people like him not need to repent? It seems that the M&G slips too easily into the assumption that all the victims of the National Party regime were black, and that all the perpetrators were white, and then to go on to imply that all whites were perpetrators, and all blacks were victims. If one does that, the ideology has triumphed after all. As Paolo Freire points out, the oppressed internalises the image of the oppressor, and though the oppressor is overthrown, the image lives on, and oppression triumphs in the end.

And, to paraphrase Alexander Solzhenitsin, the line between good and evil is not drawn between East and West, between communists and capitalists, between black and white, between secularists and Muslims, or between Christians and Wiccans. It is drawn through every human heart.

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