I had a class together reading and reflecting on the modern history of South Africa. One of the disturbing things is to see the exploitation of South Africans and then the elaborate design of a system meant to extract cheap labor from them in order to build wealth for the dominant class. One of the great tragedies of South Africa is that the Dutch and British parties to the oppression (real oppression, not today’s version which is too easily invoked) came from Christian cultures. The Church of England still had real significance as did the Dutch Reformed Church. How could it be that countries so strongly influenced by the faith (at least in theory) could form such rotten fruit on the vine?
Consider the following mid-20th century statement from a white South African:
In every People in the world is embodied a Divine Idea and the task of each People is to build upon that Idea and to perfect it. So God created the Afrikaner People with a unique language, a unique philosophy of life, and their own history and tradition in order that they might fulfill a particular calling and destiny here in the southern corner of Africa . . . We must believe that God has called us to be servants of his righteousness in this place.
The eye tends to focus on the phrase “servants of his righteousness.” How could it be that systematic oppression (as a conservative I have never written those words together because of their overuse) of the type carried out in South Africa could ever be connected with any idea of being “servants of righteousness?” I do not know. But think of something else. “In every People” there is this special destiny, this special idea. Surely, the white South Africans knew that the black South Africans were people. They knew that they had language, experienced emotions, were capable of self-reflection, wanted justice, etc. in the way that human beings do. If that is so (and it is self-evident), then what “Divine Idea” could a white South African think attached to the black Africans? And how might that Divine Idea be pursued by them under the conditions of Apartheid (or its predecessors)?
Christianity did not cause the oppression in South Africa, but it clearly failed to prevent it or really even check its advance. It seems to me that the tragedy of South Africa helps to highlight the difference between a tribal form of Christianity that tends to underwrite the dominant system and the real thing (which is truly submitted to the lordship of Christ).
Always, always be checking to make sure that you are in the second situation rather than the first. It is easier to float over to the wrong side than you might think. This is why we love Bonhoeffer so much. He knew when to resist tribal Christianity.
On the one hand, it is so very good to have Christ followers such as Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer to uphold as opponents of blatant injustice. On the other, it is too bad that they stood without the full force of the church behind them for too long.