SEEING THE OTHER DIFFERENTLY
II Corinthians 5:14-16
The love of Christ urges us on,,, He died for all, so that those who live night no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.
Last Friday evening we went to see "Orpheus in Africa," a new musical show directed by David Kramer currently playing at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. I always like going to the Fugard because it is located in one of the first Congregational church buildings in the city, now rebuilt like an old theatre in Piccadilly Circus in London. The show is about the life of Orpheus McAdoo, an African-American singer and impresario who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century. Orpheus toured Britain, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia several times with his Virginia Jubilee Singers. The group was well received in South Africa which they visited twice for several years during the 1890's. While in Cape Town they strongly influenced the minstrel singing tradition which the so-called "Coon Carnival" has made famous. On their last visit the Jubilee Singers included dancers and a comedian. One of their jokes, adapted to the South African situation from the plantations in the American Deep South, was told during the performance last week at the Fugard:
One of the men asks a brother where he would like to be buried when he died. The brother replied that he would like a resting place in a nice, quiet Methodist cemetery and then asked where his questioner would like to be laid. The latter answered: 'In a Dutch cemetery.' 'Why?' asked the brother. The answer was: 'Because a Dutch cemetery is the last place the devil would go to look for a black man."'
The reference to the Dutch referred to the Boers in the Transvaal where the Jubilee Singers went to sing to President Paul Kruger. Kruger liked their songs, but the Singers had some bad experiences of naked racism, even worse, they said, than what they experienced back home in Georgia and Virginia. But what they found equally hurtful was the paternalism they encountered. They were treated as "honorary white" Americans and therefore different from the local "natives." As they regarded themselves proudly African in origin, this was insulting and also indicative of the harsh injustices which black South Africans experienced. For the Jubilee Singers black was beautiful, not inferior and second class.
"Orpheus in Africa" is a timely production because racism continues to rear its ugly head across our beautiful country, whether in crude or more subtle ways. Even when those of us who are white protest that we are not being racist, we often give ourselves away through our paternalism or casual remarks. The truth is, racism is deeply rooted in our European background, something we probably imbibed with our mothers' milk, and now seems embedded in our DNA. But white racism is not the only sin of this kind that scars our landscape. The recent outbursts of xenophobia against Somali shop owners in some townships is also a denial of all we are meant to espouse in the "new South Africa." But that is not all. I keep on getting material on the internet that is virulently anti-Islamic, especially after the Charlie affair in Paris. Even one of the well-known evangelist-pastors in Hermanus last week made a speech that was highly inflammatory and decidedly un-Christian in the way he attacked Islam as evil. And alongside Islamophobia, there have been fresh outbursts of anti-Semitism across the globe. What is the reason for this ongoing animosity towards those who are different from us which so often turns to hatred and violence?
Seeing we share 97% of our DNA with other mammals, it is not surprising that we fear those who are different from us. Fear is an animal mechanism for survival and protection. But we are not simply animals, we are human beings who have the capacity to control our fears so that they are not destructive. Reason can control fear. Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are irrational. You are as likely to be hurt or even killed by someone like you, as you are by someone who is different from you. When European nations slaughtered one another on the battle-field they were not fighting aliens or Turks or Nigerians, they were fighting fellow-Christians of the same skin colour. Many of the murders committed in our country and elsewhere are by members of the same family.
This does not mean that those who are different are never a threat, but they are not normally a threat because they different. So let us not lose our critical faculties and sense of responsibility and go along with the crowd, accepting and reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices that abound in our society. And that means not circulating documents on the internet that may seem funny to some but are hurtful to others and reinforce prejudice and even hatred. More positively, we should respect and appreciate difference, and discover how those who are different from us can actually enrich our own lives and we theirs.
Listen again to the words of St. Paul: "The love of Christ urges us on,,, He died for all, so that those who live night no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view." The love of Christ urges us. Don't treat others who are different "from a human point of view." That is, don't relate to them in ways dictated by our inborn, cultural and personal prejudices and irrational fears. See them through the eyes of Christ who died for us all, and was raised that we might be reconciled to each other. Let us see others beyond appearance, beyond skin colour, and beyond accent to the person who is human like the rest of us. "The love of Christ urges us... From now on... regard no one from a human point of view."
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 5 February 2015