Acceptance Speech: Award to Dutch Reformed Church for Contribution
Worcester Hope and Reconciliation Process
6 August 2015
Father Michael Lapsley tells the story of the man who stole a bicycle. After a while he started feeling guilty and decided to go to the man and confess and ask for his forgiveness. He went and said that he was sorry and asked for forgiveness, but he kept the bicycle! This is how he illustrates what restitution means – it is saying sorry and giving back. Saying sorry is meaningless unless we do sorry!
The active involvement of the pastors and members of the DRC in the Worcester Hope and Reconciliation process signifies a pocket of hope within a church where words of sorry have been spoken repeatedly, but I often despair at the lack of reconciliatory intent and action in our members, as well as the resistance to the idea of restitution.
Of course the DRC is involved in many other community initiatives. But I have to ask myself: What makes it so difficult for the majority of DRC members, Afrikaner and white people to give back? I think it has a lot to do with the effect of privilege. Privilege is a lot like running with the wind from behind – you do not notice the wind while it helps you along until you turn back and hit the wall of South Easter which had been blowing all along. Privilege blinds us from its presence and its effect on our lives. It is therefore very difficult for us to understand the ways in which we, as white people, have benefitted (and continue to benefit) from the injustice of the past. Our privileged position gave us a sense of entitlement so that when we lost some power and privilege such as political power and faced difficulties in terms of employment and promotion we very quickly became the victims/the oppressed in our own eyes. Furthermore privilege operates within an ethic of control – the world of 5 year plans, of setting goals and achieving them, of working hard and getting instant, predicted results. The work in poor and marginalized communities requires an ethic of risk according to Sharon Welch, theologian and ethicist, where you take one step forward and two steps back, where surprises, disappointment and disillusionment and often despair is part and parcel of the process. This is where middle-class people who are so used to having things under control and of having all the answers often give up and start blaming the victims for a lack of results. “These people will never change!” Within an ethic of risk we work and try no matter the setbacks, we keep on trying.
This work is a selfless endeavour which involves our bodies. Denise Ackerman points out that the work of justice and healing is ‘”body work”. Under apartheid our bodies defined whether we were stigmatized or advantaged. Bodies were involved in making bombs and planting it. Bodies were left lifeless and injured. Bodies carry the memories of pain and trauma. Now the healing and building of our hope in this traumatized society requires the willing, loving, caring, selfless and hardworking bodies of people. The Synod of the Western Cape embraces the Confession of Belhar with its emphasis on unity, justice and reconciliation. The bigger DRC, together with URCSA, RCA and the DRC in Africa, is currently in a Season of Human Dignity. Your work here in Worcester provides an embodied experience of the confession of Belhar and Season of Human dignity. You make it come to life. At the beginning of the year my daughter-in-law was part of the group of the fifth year theology students who spent a week here and witnessed the work: it was a life-changing experience.
Jesus did not only preach about neighbourly love, but his life and ministry was filled with embodied involvement with people on the margins of society. Ackermann writes poignantly: “The story of the man Jesus of Nazareth in the world as well as his suffering body on the cross – the one body given for many – is at the heart of our faith. Christ’s offerings does not obliterate our differences, it offers to break down the divides between us, to do away with exclusion, discrimination and prejudice.”
Thank you for giving your precious bodies, your time and energy to do sorry and become what the body of Christ, the church, should be.