Once, not long ago, I listened to a white woman say that she was not interested in learning African-American history. “It’ll just make us mad,” she said, explaining that she knew the history was not good. She would rather just not know about it.
I thought her sentiments rather unfortunate. The only way America will heal of her horrid racism is by embracing the history that is hers. The embracing would be for knowledge, for understanding, not for criticism or blame. Both whites and blacks in America run from our racial history, to the detriment of our nation.
Krista Tippet, in her NPR program, On Being, recently interviewed Bishop Desmond Tutu. He said in that interview, “If these white people had wanted to keep us in bondage, they shouldn’t have given us the Bible!” The Bible, Bishop Tutu said, is “dynamite.” The “scriptures say that we are created in the image of God; each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter the color of our skin,” Tutu continued, “it does not take away our intrinsic worth.”
In Tutu’s South Africa, most black African women were called “Annie,” and most black men were called “boy,” because, the white people said, their African names were too difficult to pronounce. It was humiliating for the blacks, and yet, Tutu said, there was a need to forgive.
The scriptures demand it.
Interfaith cooperation helped make forgiveness the goal in South Africa. “God faith inspired people to great acts of courage,” he said. God faith made people to want to fall into the arms of forgiveness instead of the arms of revenge and enmity.
In the 1990s, there was, according to Tippet, a “heart-felt apology” on the parts of some in South Africa. “Just as we were recovering our breath, the God of surprises” revealed himself, said Tutu. Apartheid could not be justified scripturally. Those white clergy who said that suffered expulsion from their churches. No matter. What they stood for was right, and they were involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu chaired. People who had been damaged by apartheid came forward and told their stories. For many, it was the first time they realized how horrible apartheid had been.
Tutu said, “I was amazed at how powerful it was to be able to tell your story. You could see in the number of people who for so long had been faceless…there was something to rehabilitate them. It was a healing thing.”
Tutu related the story of a young black man who had been blinded by police officers. After he told his story, a member of the Commission asked him, “How do you feel?” and the young man said, “You have given me back my eyes.”
When victims meet the perpetrator, Tutu said, they have a chance to drain the bitterness and anger out. Healing becomes possible, for victim and for oppressor. “We discovered…despite the fact that it was not a requirement…those who heard would turn to the victims, and say, “Please, forgive us,” and almost always, the victims would.”
What would happen if such commissions were held in America? We continually sweep the horrors of racism under the rug, all of us, black and white, and as long as we do that, there can be no forgiveness, no healing.
Tutu says that when he is asked if South Africa has achieved reconciliation, he asks them to look at Germany. “In Germany…where there are people who are speaking the same language, they are still alienated.”
In South Africa, in spite of many different ethnic groups, with people speaking many different languages, reconciliation has been achieved. “The promotion of national unity, reconciliation, has been set in place.” It is not complete, but reconciliation is a “national project.” It is a process, he says, a process which America has never engaged in.
Tutu says the world in general and South Africa in particular, has underestimated the damage apartheid has imposed on the psyches of the people, both black and white. The same can be said for what American racism has done in our country. The cloud of white supremacy and the underlying belief of black inferiority has taken its toll. It has done much damage.
America has not dealt with racism; she has not dealt with the damage done to a nation which has made one race think it is superior, and the other, grossly inferior. Tutu says South Africans are damaged. So are Americans.
It took a lot of courage for Bishop Tutu and others to call for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness is a process, not an event. The first step, it seems is for the victims of horrid racism to be given a chance to tell their stories. Amazingly, anger dissipates. There is room for God, who, ultimately, is in charge.
It would be a wonderful thing if America had, long ago, made room for the God of surprises. God wants his people to live together. God wants forgiveness, wants us to give and to receive forgiveness. There is a beauty and a power in forgiveness.
The problem is not God. It is us…
A candid observation …