Though writing about another time and context, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book, “God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time,” said better than I why I rarely pay attention to the books written by commentators from the political right and left, or listen to them raise their voices on the TV and radio.
It isn’t that I don’t want to know what is going on in the country. On the contrary, I do, and I read, listen and explore behind the headlines in search of truth and the public good. I just don’t believe the harsh, one-sided commentaries of these “opinion-makers” do much good toward building community, or at least, community as God desires, describes and demands.
In the book, Archbishop Tutu recalls the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established post-apartheid to move the country beyond the cycles of retribution and violence that had plagued so many other countries in their transitions from oppression to democracy.
Over the years, I have read powerful stories of redemption and reconciliation between black and white South Africans facilitated by the work of the Commission. The Commission gave perpetrators of politically and racially motivated crimes and atrocities the opportunity to appeal for amnesty by telling the truth of their actions and to ask for forgiveness—the Bible calls that “confession” and “repentance.”
The Commission also gave the victims of crimes the opportunity to unburden themselves from the pain and suffering they had experienced. Of serving on the Commission, Archbishop Tutu writes:
“As we listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds it would have been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters … but we’re reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. However diabolical they act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility. We cannot condemn anyone to being irredeemable. As Jesus reminded us on the cross, crucified as he was between two thieves. Even the most notorious sinner and evil-doer, at the 11th hour, may repent and be forgiven because our God is preeminently a God of grace. Everything that we are, that we have is a gift from God. He does not give up on you or on anyone.”
I do not intend to imply that the verbal negativity of so much—not all, but, for me, too much—American political discourse lives and works at the same level as did the systematic, physical brutality of apartheid. Neither do I seek to dishonor the victims of that abuse by co-opting their stories or Archbishop Tutu’s reflection upon them. I do intend to suggest that, as Christians, his reflection offers a description and a caution.
When we participate in any word, attitude or action, such as the name-calling and caustic rhetoric that saturates current public discourse, which is a form of verbal violence against persons and community, we should ask ourselves if we are not, in reality, “proclaim[ing] that someone [the object of our actions] is subhuman” and “irredeemable.”
In fact, as a follower of Christ, should we hear such coming from our words, attitudes and actions, we should ask ourselves how the Lord Jesus is being honored in our words, attitudes and actions.
We should ask ourselves if we are speaking and thinking in this way because we do not want our ideas challenged or are afraid that we might discover a need to change. We should ask ourselves if our refusal to enter dialogue and conversation with otherwise well-meaning people is standing in the way of building meaningful relationships that can make possible understanding, care, and, even, according to the mind and time of God, redemption and conversion.
As Christians we have learned/are learning from the Lord Jesus the importance of conviction, the significance of humility, the cost of truth telling in love, and the transforming power of sacrifice.
Our country, our world, our families and our lives would be better served toward the establishment of God’s heavenly desires on earth, if those who press to follow the Lord Jesus would act more like the Lord Jesus in public life and in private, family life, too.
How can Christians expect the world to be changed to be like the compassionate, grace-full Christ when they act more like the world than like the Savior in whose name they say they act?
Pastor of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia.