News24 recently carried this story:
“Recent racist outbursts were unravelling what South Africa had achieved in its 22 years of democracy and could tear races apart,” two Cabinet ministers and ANC veterans warned on Thursday.
“What is it that has sparked this kind of attitude in South Africa?” Acting Minister in the Presidency Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula asked at a post-Cabinet meeting briefing in Cape Town.
“It’s not as though there is ignorance. It is because there are people who have decided that, in spite of everything in South Africa, they will simply continue because there is nothing stopping them,” she said.
For this reason, Justice Minister Michael Masutha had proposed that new anti-racism and hate speech laws be drawn up.
“For me, it is a matter that is deep down in a person’s heart and whether there is commitment by an individual to promote non-racism, non-sexism in South Africa and promote the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution adopted in 1996.”
The Justice Minister is correct: This evil is “deep down in a person’s heart.” And it is for this reason that “there is nothing stopping them,” including more laws. All the laws in the world will not reconcile a racist society. I applaud the cabinet’s determination to address the issue. I sympathise with parliament’s desire to pass laws that, in effect, say, “Just Stop It.” I support the government’s declaration for a “non-racial rainbow nation” reaching its proverbial pot of gold. But at the risk of sounding defeatist, new laws will not help. Legislation will not stop this sinful scourge. Yet as one who believes the gospel, neither do I believe that all is hopeless.
Racism (from this point I will use the more accurate term “ethnocentrism”) is an ugly blight worldwide, one of the sinful consequences of the fall. When the first man and woman said no to God, it became a lot easier for all of us to then say “me” and “mine” and no to everyone else. The quest for autonomy doesn’t like a crowd. And the best way to defeat the crowd is to isolate oneself from it; and to despise it. This is manifested in different ways, such as the notorious culture of apartheid, the more recent ugly social media rants and the multitudinous other expressions of hateful prejudices and bigotry.
The self-centred love of the self-absorbed individual, as well as that of the self-absorbed group (think Oronia in the Northern Cape, and other expressions of xenophobia) leaves little room for multi-ethnic harmony. The sense of superiority, or the not-so-well disguised class envy and the like, does not a happy society make. The explosive mixture of hatred, insecurity and bitterness destroys attempts at community and it certainly leaves no open door for reconciliation. The result is what we experience almost daily in South Africa, and what is experienced in the rest of the world as well.
Ethnocentrism, like a virus, is alive and is eating at the soul of society. In South Africa, it is just a lot more obvious. Having grown up in the United States, and reading the news of what is happening there, I can testify that the scourge of bigotry and ethnic divide is as much a reality there as here. I lived in Australia for a short while. The land down under has the same problem. It is inescapable. But thankfully it is not unconquerable.
Having studied the first three chapters of Ephesians over the past year (or so!), our church community has been helped to see that the relational challenges we face in our day are nothing new.
Relational division, including ethnic hostility, has been around as long as people have been different. In fact, the first murder was motivated by a difference—a difference of worship.
Cain hated Abel because he offered his sacrifice to God in faith whereas Cain apparently offered his sacrifice merely ritually and without humble dependence on the Lord (Hebrews 11:4). Cain thought that he was better and more deserving than Abel. Self-righteousness swelled into hatred and then into murder. God had told Cain to stop it. He didn’t. And the first drops of human blood spilled into the ground (Genesis 4:6–10). Oceans of blood-shedding hate have flowed ever since.
Even though laws are passed (and this is quite right), the more we say “stop it!” the more the hateful attitudes and words and actions march onward—including hateful treatment of those who are different from us. Of course, no one admits to being a “racist.” We just think we are better than the person who is different from us. Though the ethnocentrist may proclaim their belief in “separate but equal,” a small dose of honesty reveals the real attitude of the heart. That is, the belief that some are more equal than others.
Again Justice Minister Masutha is spot on that the heart is the heart of the matter. That is why shouting louder and passing legislation will never solve the ethnic divide in South Africa, or anywhere else. When it comes to the ugliness of ethnocentrism, we won’t “stop it” until we have a heart change. And this is another way in which the gospel, and the gospel-saturated church, are so glorious. For by the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, ethnocentric sinners are reconciled to God and therefore they are able to be reconciled to one another. The gospel is the power of God to salvation. It is the means to save us from our sins—including the sin of bigotry and prejudice.
Paul highlighted this in Ephesians 2 when he said that Jew and Gentile are brought together into one new man in Christ (2:14–18). That was quite a statement in those days.
In the cultural milieu of the day, generally speaking, the Jews hated the Gentiles and the feeling was mutual. Some rabbis, in fact, taught that a Jewish woman should not assist in birth by a Gentile woman lest she be guilty of bringing into the world another of this despised non-Jewish people. And a cursory reading of the Bible, as well as other contemporary historical accounts, reveals the hatred of Gentiles towards Jewish people.
Yet Paul glories in the truth that, in Christ, there is no fundamental difference. The superficial differences of culture and skin tone may be apparent, and since God produced such diversity they do have some importance (Revelation 5:9–10), yet in the big scheme of things those differences are irrelevant! What is relevant is that people who are made in the image of God are now, by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and by His subsequent resurrection, brought together into one Body by the power of the Holy Spirit. We call this new people the church. Its multi-diverse character is on display before a watching world to the glory of God (Ephesians 3:10). Hearts have been transformed by the power of the gospel and are now instructed by the Holy Spirit. He serves as a referee who blows the whistle and says “stop it” when ethnocentrism tries to disrupt the team (Colossians 3:15). Yes, the gospel-changed heart cries out “stop it!” when we begin to cast aspersions on those who are different. The Christian’s eyes have been opened to see the image of God in everyone and a biblical colour-blindness replaces the old and wicked bigotry. The law of love rather than the love of a legislature reminds us to stop it.
As Christians, it should be our passion to proclaim this heart-transforming gospel which is the means of reconciling sinners to God. The gospel, rather than more laws, is what our nation needs. So let’s preach it, far and wide. Let’s make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And one of the beautiful by-products will be both the desire and the dynamic to stop it when it comes to the sin of bigotry and ethnocentrism. Really!