Friday, September 14, 2012

speaking about Lonmin

It is difficult to say anything in the wake of last month's killing of thirty-four striking workers at the Lonmin Platinum Mine in the North West. And yet it is nearly equally hard to remain silent about the massacre and its spin-off protests and political battles which continue to dominate national headlines and garner international attention.

Much of my reluctance to speak may be found in the limits of my identification with the mine workers and the nation of South Africa in general; I am an American citizen sojourning in South Africa, and the circumstances of my life have not driven me to seek the hardscrabble employment of the mines as did those twenty-eight fellow residents of the Eastern Cape (and specifically the region around Mthatha) who perished at Marikana.  Perhaps if I may speak out of any common identity it is as a Christian, a title which claims at some level eighty percent of the population of South Africa.

My Christian faith tells me to be wary of "the rulers and authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12).  Though these powers are not "of blood and flesh", they exercise control over human institutions which have rebelled against their loving creator God.  It is within the very nature of these powers to wield the sword of economic inequality, to enrich those humans who accept their thrones and impoverish those whom they enslave.  Samuel warned Israel that the king whom Israel set over itself would "take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers" (1 Sam 8:14).  That power of economic exploitation remains in our time.  I cannot imagine that even R12,500 ($1,500)--the monthly salary demanded by striking mine workers--is too much compared with the billions accrued by mining magnates on the backs of their employees.  Injustice is the basic predicament in which we human beings are ensnared.

My Christian faith calls me to a particular kind of life within the pervasive injustice of our world.  Not every weapon in the struggle against injustice is appropriate for the Christian, but only that which Christ himself has sanctioned.  The Christian lives only in Christ; his way determines our path.  What is that path?

My Christian education taught me that the Palestinian Judaism of Jesus' day exhibited three prevailing approaches to the "cosmic powers" that enforced the world's inequalities.  With regard to the Roman occupation, the embodiment of exploitative power, the Sadducees, the temple aristocracy, counseled accommodation.  Accommodation to injustice was typified by the high priest Caiaphas who, fearing the wrath of Rome against a popular Jewish uprising that might be incited by Jesus, was willing to sacrifice an innocent man in exchange for the preservation of the temple (Jn 11:45ff.).  The Essenes, not mentioned in the Bible, coped with the specter of Rome by forging a communal life in wilderness isolation from the surrounding world, an approach sometimes called withdrawal or flight.  A third group, the Zealots, advocated armed resistance to Rome.  Peter, the eventual leader of Jesus' disciple band, though never identified as a Zealot, best typified their approach to fight when he took up the sword in defense of Jesus at the time of his arrest (Jn 18:10).  Jesus himself, of course, rejected all three options:

  • not accommodation, the moral compromise of sacrificing others for self-interest, but "I am the good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11);

  • not flight, but "he set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51);

  • not fight, but "when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Pet 2:23) (emphasis mine).

The approach of Jesus, instead, was nonviolence.  Jesus walked the narrow path that few find (Mt 7:14).  He willingly walked "through the valley of the shadow of death" for the sake of truth, upholding the dignity of the human being whom God did not create for slavery and subjection to evil (Ps 23:4; Ps 8:5-8; Heb 2:5-9; Gal 4:6-7).  He did so while maintaining his purity as a child of God, meeting the cruelty of human injustice with the righteousness of God's persistent love.  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Mt 5:9).

Protest, that seemingly beloved and venerable tradition in South African society, certainly fits within the Jesus-way of moving toward, that is, not avoiding, situations of injustice.  Even so, only that protest which exhibits Christ's nonviolent love is acceptable for the Christian. It is for that simple reason, therefore, that I am far less easy with this tradition of protest

than I am with with this

or, from the American story, this.

But if the circumstances of my personal identity (nationality, privilege, race) should preclude me from speaking at this time for the sake of Christ, I hereafter forfeit that voice.


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