Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “repentance”

Christian witness: God is love, and He hates you

What do you when street preachers appear proclaiming a message of hate?

Jackrabbit’s response was to distribute “Love” signs among the audience.

Jackrabbit Goes Down the Rabbit Hole: Fear, Loathing, and “The Laramie Project”: Jackrabbit vs. the Street Preacher:

By the time I got back, the hate preachers were in full force, and I suddenly went from wet-my-pants terrified to extremely determined, which was totally a God thing. I started by working the crowd with my big yellow signs, handing them out to anybody who wanted one, and then stood on the top of the amphitheater in the middle of the quad with a huge LOVE poster.

Isn’t repentance important? Indeed it is, but I’m not sure that this is the best witness to the need for repentance:

… when a girl in a very short plaid skirt bent over to talk to her friends, he pulled out a camera and basically up-skirted her. He did all this while wearing a “no porn” button on his shirt. I found this very interesting for a man who claimed that he had stopped sinning the moment he accepted Jesus.

I think I prefer the examples of repentance of wicked politicians like John Profumo and 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!

Niehaus: journos twist the knife — and the facts

When journos get the knife in, they really twist it (and the facts), and stab again and again.

Consider this report about the former ANC spokesman

News – South Africa: Niehaus has no degree: report:

Former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus does not have a doctor’s degree in theology as claimed, a newspaper reported on Tuesday.

According to Beeld newspaper, Niehaus did not get a doctor’s degree in theology from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, as he had claimed. This was during his stint as South Africa’s ambassador in Den Haag.

Note that the body of the story says that he didn’t have a doctors degree from Utrecht, but the headline suggests that that he has no degree at all, which seems to be a deliberate attempt to mislead.

Now perhaps that is because there’s a general election coming up, and the media believe that all’s fair in love, war and politics. If your political opponent is down, kick, kick and kick again. If he’s done one thing wrong, make it look as though he’s done everything wrong, and nothing right.

Max du Preez, a well-known journalist, goes even further, and is more specific: “He lied about having a degree and a doctorate… he apparently only has a matric certificate behind his name” (Pretoria News, 19 Feb 2009).

Now when Carl Niehaus was released from prison he visited the Missiology Department at Unisa (on 26 March 1991) and all the department staff gathered in David Bosch’s office to meet him. He was a student in the department, and was one of the very few to have been allowed to study for a Masters degree in prison. Willem Saayman, his supervisor, described the hoops he had to jump through to deal with all the red tape in order to visit him in prison to discuss his studies. I don’t know if Carl Niehaus was ever awarded the Masters degree, summa cum laude or not, but he would certainly not have been allowed to register for such a degree at all if he had “no degree” as the media are now claiming.

On the Emerging Africa blog there is a discussion on whether the important questions today are about authority, identity, morality or something else. And I would say that at this point in our history, with a general election coming up, and all sorts of stories circulating about corruption among politicians, that morality probably tops the list. I’m as disturbed as some journalists that people in the ANC seem not only to support people who have been involved in corruption, but also to approve of their behaviour (the demonstrations in support of Tony Yengeni are a case in point). Going to jail for fighting for truth and justice is one thing, going to jail for fraud and corruption is another.

But morality is also an issue for journalists. Carl Niehaus may have lied about some of his past achievements, but some journalists have also apparently lied about Carl Niehaus.

Greed, which used to be regarded as one of the seven deadly sins, is now regarded as a virtue by many of our political leaders, and that makes morality a hot issue.

And for those of us who are neither politicians nor the journalists who write about them, St Paul’s advice applies, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor 10:12). In ten days Great Lent begins, and we pray the prayer of St Ephraim:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages.

Reconciliation and forgiveness

Yesterday was the Day of Reconciliation, a public holiday in South Africa. Perhaps it is one of those “happy holidays” that Americans talk about. And today I came across a quotation from Laurens van der Post’s book Venture to the interior, which I first read more than 40 years ago. He wrote about the suffering in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902:

It has always been one of the more frightening ironies of Afrikaner life that people like my father, who with Smuts and Botha had fought and actually suffered in the war, could forgive and begin anew, whereas others, alive today, who were never in the heart of the conflict, can still find it so hard to forgive an injury that was not even done to them, and how can there be any real beginning without forgiveness?

I noticed something similar in my experience with War Crimes officers, who had neither suffered internment under the Japanese, nor even fought against them. They were more revengeful and bitter about our treatment and our suffering in prison than we were ourselves.

I have so often noticed that the suffering which is most difficult, if not impossible to forgive, is unreal, imagined suffering. There is no power on earth like imagination, and the worst, most obstinate grievances are imagined ones.

That passage struck me at the time, and I commented on it in my journal when I first read the book, on 4 June 1966

This seems to touch on the core of a rather big question of human behaviour, One is that we so often find it easier to forgive those who injure us than those who injure others; and this imagination business. Reading about life in Nazi Germany conjures up all sorts of horrors, but they are imaginary horrors, I have never experienced them. In South Africa there are probably the same horrors, but one gets used to them. This is why so many people emphatically deny that South Africa is a police state, because it does not fit their mental image of a police state. But Germans probably felt the same 30 years ago.

I seem to recollect Trevor Huddleston in his book Naught for your comfort saying how much harder it was to forgive things done to other people, because one can only imagine how they feel. And John Aitchison, questioning the value of Liberal Party rural meetings, because you know that you go to encourage them in the face of SB intimidation, but by going you only encourage the SB to step up their campaign of intimidation. But it is a selfish martyrdom attitude — a sort of “I alone can bear the suffering” kick. But they too must bear their share of suffering — we are not the ones to deny it to them. It is their privilege as members of God’s kingdom.

It is so also among the Jews. The ones who keep harping on the Nazi concentration camps are not the ones who suffered there, but those whose relatives did. In a way this is the root of altruism — a willingness to suffer for others. But it can also be selfish and self-glorifying.

That is one reason I am sceptical about demands that people should apologise today for deeds committed by other people in generations past, such as, for example, the demand by Anglican bishops that Tony Blair should apologise for the slave trade.

The same applies, of course, to recent conflicts in the Balkans, which still have repercussions today in the demand for independence for Kosovo. One of the best comments on that is at Notes from a Common-place Book: Remember the Balkans?. Perhaps the Balkans need a Day of Reconciliation.

There is another entry from my journal, though this time more recent, from an Orthodox mission conference in Athens on 6 May 2000:

The next speaker was Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch, who spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy.

These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West — there is talk of “ancestral hatred”, but it is not “ancestral hatred” that is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of “ancestral hatred”. If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the
more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity.

He suggested some preliminaries for a theological consideration of these things:

(1) respect for other religions;
(2) listen and learn;
(3) give thanks for manifestations of the Logos in other religious traditions;
(4) Pray over insurmountable differences.

The mystery of the Trinity as the answer for those who think that the Father has no Son, and those who think that the Son inevitably kills the Father. Orthodox Christians and Muslims need to seek ways of preventing the use of religious symbols in support of conflicts. Human rights: despite emphasis on their universality, they can be applied selectively. Human rights abuses are emphasised when the victims are members of our own communities, but ignored when others are victims. The contemporary discourse about religion drawing bloody borders between people is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which Orthodox Christians must resist.

It is not ancient hatreds that cause war: it is war that causes ancient hatreds. And we can overcome ancient hatreds by forgiveness and reconciliation.

Courageous COWARDism: What would you do…?

Courageous COWARDism: What would you do…? discusses a common hypothetical moral dilemma that militarists pose to pacifists, or proponents of non-violence:

Those of us “pacifists” who have gone the conscientious objection route have heard all too much of the familiar question: “What would you do if…?” For those of you who are in the dark, let me reconstruct the argument used to challenge the nonviolence as a viable means of conflict resolution.

The accuser begins by placing you in a hypothetical situation in which you a faced with a choice of killing an aggressor that threatens the life of a loved one. You, the subject, hold the power to decide between one life and another. For example; your grandmother, sister, niece, or mother is held captive, a gun to her head (it seems arrogantly patriarchal that the victim consistently is portrayed by a feminine figure…), and you have the power to prevent the crime. Many accusers also insert the stipulation that death is the only thing that will stay the attackers hand. The great responsibility of choosing the moral necessity of killing the attacker rests upon you. What would you do?

The argument typifies so much of what seems wrong with the Western mindset from an Orthodox point of view. I’m not concerned to analyse the argument and discuss all its flaws — the original blogger whom I’ve quoted does that quite well, and also points out some of the flaws in the assumptions on which the argument is based. The main assumption, of course, is that moral principles should always be sacrificed to self-interest. It is the idea of the just war writ small — the just homicide. And there lies the core of the problem — Western theology is obsessed with justification: not merely justifying sinners, but justifying war, and homicide. It is the same kind of argument that is used to justify the killing of doctors and nurses at abortion clinics — think of all the babies one is saving.

The Orthodox understanding is somewhat different. It is not so wedded to sets of moral principles, which one is obliged to apply with instant omniscient wisdom when someone has decided to murder one’s grandmother. Christos Yannaras wrote about The freedom of morality, which includes the freedom from the necessity to justify. One may, perhaps, kill the would-be murderer of one’s grandmother, and thereby save her. But one would not attempt to justify the deed. No, if one killed such a person, far from attempting to justify it, one would repent, and confess the killing as a sin.

Orthodoxy has had both those who have fought in wars and those who have refused to fight, and honours as saints some among the first and likewise some among the second. In this world, wars happen. But they are never just.

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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Jacob Zuma found not guilty of rape

Jacob Zuma has been found not guilty of rape.

  • Zuma poised for a comeback
  • Outcome a setback for women, say activists
  • Daughter’s testimony saves the day
  • President Mbeki, political parties accept verdict
  • Supporters celebrate as Zuma is acquitted
  • 1000 celebrate with him at his Forest Town home
  • Acquittal doesn’t mean the battle is over yet
  • Drama of the Zuma camp versus the Mbeki camp has not been fully played out

So read the headlines.

And the editorial and op-ed pages:

  • Judge did a fine job in Zuma trial
  • Not guilty, but not fit to lead

No, he wasn’t guilty of rape. But he was guilty of adultery.

I’ve skipped reading most of the press reporting of the trial, which has often meant starting the newspaper on page 5. The bits I did see didn’t seem very edifying. When the accusation first appeared, it seemed like a put-up job, coming soon after the decision to prosecute him as a spin-off of the Shaik trial.

So he wasn’t guilty of rape. But neither was Profumo, who died recently. Neither was John Prescott, whose behaviour was similar, and led to similar consequences. Should Prescott and Profumo have been reinstated since they were not found guilty of rape?

Zuma was guilty of adultery, but Jesus said of a woman caught in adultery, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Many still condemn Zuma, even though he was found not guilty of rape. But how many people can truthfully claim to be absolutely blameless of any sexual misconduct?

Judge Willem van der Merwe confined his moralising to a Kiplingesque comment, “If you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you’re a man, my son.”

But it might be worth going back a bit earlier in Kipling’s poem, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

The fact is that we live in a society in which controlling sexual urges is, with a few exceptions, seen as unfashionable, and many seem to argue that it is cruel even to think such a thing. Among the exceptions are those who say that the outcome is a “setback for women”. This seems tantamount to saying that any woman who makes false accusations should be believed.

We live in a society in which sexual morality has become increasingly contradictory, with increasinly harsh penalties demanded for an ever-narrowing range of offences. If you can control your sexual urges when all about you are losing all control, and urge that you do too… you’ll be a freak.

And Jacob Zuma headed up the Moral Regeneration Movement. So what is moral regeneration? Committing adultery and saying that that’s cool, as long as it’s consensual and you have a shower afterwards to prevent Aids?

We may not all be able to control our sexual urges all the time. But the biggest failure is not having a sense of failure when we do fail to control them. Moral regeneration surely starts with repentance — confessing our failure and recognising that it is a failure.

An image of repentance

Yesterday the news media were reporting the death of John Profumo at the age of 91. For those under the age of 50 or so, who probably won’t remember it, John Profumo was the British Minister of War who was forced to resign in 1963 after a the biggest political sex scandal of the 20th century. He was sleeping with a prostitute who was also sleeping with a Russian spy, and that was a big no-no in the days of the Cold War.

I remember some of the jokes that went around at the time, when rumours of the scandal first started circulating, and Profumo was denying them. “Nil combustibus Profumo — there’s no smoke without fire” was one of the wittier ones.

Unlike the present day, politicians who resigned in those days could not easily return to a political career through the back door. Profumo did not return to politics, but spent the next 40 years working among the poor in the East End of London, supported by his wife, who was willing to forgive his adultery.

In reporting his death, the news media dwelt mainly on the juicier aspects of the scandal that led to his downfall, and mentioned his good works only in passing. As Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Nevertheless, Profumo’s later life was an image of repentance, and an example that some of our present-day politicians would do well to follow. Perhaps our own ex-Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, could profit by the example, considering that the media are making as big a fuss over his sex life as they did over Profumo’s.

For those who might like to know more about the more important part of his life, his work at Toynbee Hall can truly be said to be an image of repentance.

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