Pope Francis issued his first official “apostolic exhortation” on Nov. 24, a lengthy reflection on the mission of the Roman Catholic Church in the context of the challenges of our time.
It placed clear emphasis on the global challenge of economic inequality and the “idolatry of money” as well as a wider ranging application of the teachings of Jesus to the various expressions of the church’s calling – worship, teaching, evangelization and pastoral care.

Many praised this as a powerfully prophetic statement calling out the problems that cripple the human community and the church’s vulnerability to be complicit with them.

His exhortation was also derided by the predictable voices that heard his words as a threat to their worldview, labeling it “pure Marxism,” “socialism,” “income redistribution” and “class warfare.”

The pope’s reflections and exhortation display the direct and concrete application of the gospel that has endeared him to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

They also bring to the surface the resistance that many have to the implications of that application.

On Dec. 5, Nelson Mandela died. Memorial tributes have renewed awareness of his journey and contribution to the transformation of South Africa.

His legacy will no doubt join that of Gandhi in its influence on present and future generations worldwide.

Voices from all points along the political spectrum have praised his vision, courage and commitment.

His death has unified otherwise divisive voices in affirmations of the significance of his work to overcome the crippling disease of apartheid.

The close proximity of the pope’s document and Mandela’s death has reminded me of how easily the clarity of hindsight can distract us from seeing things that are right at our feet.

Apartheid (meaning, “the state of being apart”) in South Africa was a system designed by a white minority to preserve and enforce a lifestyle of privilege by excluding a non-white majority from access to freedoms and resources enjoyed by them.

The extreme expression of racial separation in that context was so severe that “apartheid” became the term that was synonymous with that uniquely oppressive situation.

We hear about that and are repulsed that such an injustice could be accepted for so long.

Then we remember how long the injustice of racial segregation in parts of this country was a normal part of life for several generations.

The memorials in South Africa and around the world join the 50th anniversary tributes to the heroes of the civil rights struggle in reminding us that the tide of public opinion can be redirected when courageous individuals and groups shine enough light on a system that needs to be transformed.

But what if there were a system in place where a small minority of powerful people controlled the political processes in a way that preserved and enhanced the wealth of the few at the expense of the many, who were effectively restricted by limited resources from access to the opportunities to better themselves?

In South Africa, where the lines were drawn clearly along racial lines, it was called apartheid. We now celebrate its dismantling and the consequent possibility of a just community.

When the lines are drawn economically, “the state of being apart” is sometimes less clear, and there are exceptions that can be used to counter the challenge. So we don’t hear the word, but the dynamics of separating people are still there.

It is hard not to think of various expressions of the global problem of economic inequality identified by Pope Francis, where separation is fought for by those who benefit most from its inequality.

It would be nice if those who are quick and eloquent in their praise of Nelson Mandela would embrace something of his spirit as they campaign against such things as a minimum wage increase, an extension of unemployment benefits and affordable access to health coverage.

While apartheid most often refers to the racial segregation in South Africa, “the state of being apart” can wear the clothing of any cultural setting, and it is harder to see when it wears familiar clothes. It is apartheid just the same.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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