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January, 2006


By Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Quite often during the difficult days of our struggle against the viciousness of apartheid's injustice, I would say that much of our involvement was in fact exhilarating. I must have sounded strange as if somehow we must be masochists. But the exhilaration stemmed from the fact that we had on hand a remarkable instrument, the Bible. It was really as if it had been compiled with our particular circumstances in view. It was such a thoroughly revolutionary tool that we frequently would say, "If you intend to oppress people, then don't hand them the Bible, for nothing is more subversive of injustice and oppression than the Bible."

Those who hoped that oppressed people would remain docile and would kowtow were in for a rude shock. They contended that what invested people with worth was something extrinsic, really a biological irrelevance, one's skin color or ethnicity. By definition it could not be a universal phenomenon, but something possessed by some who belonged to the thus privileged elite. The Bible exploded that myth because the Bible proclaimed that our worth as human beings was intrinsic, it belonged in the definition of what constituted a human being. It was possessed by all without exception, and it was that each one of us was created in the image of God. And so we would say to our people, "When they despise you and treat you as a nonentity, hold your head high because you are God's representative, you are God's viceroy. You are a God-carrier or as St. Paul declared, 'We are each a sanctuary, a temple, of the Holy Spirit'." That knowledge would eventually be paid to the ghastly machinations of apartheid.

For those who pietistically claimed that God treated us even handedly because, as they wanted to claim, God was neutral, we had many biblical texts to refer to which showed that God was in fact notoriously biased. Try telling Pharaoh after his show down with Moses and the catastrophe, from the Egyptian point of view, of the Exodus, that God was neutral. In what was to be the paradigmatic event par excellence of the Bible, God sided with an obstreperous rabble of slaves against one of the leading monarchs of the day.

This divine bias was demonstrated no more dramatically than in the story of Naboth's vineyard in I Kings. Naboth, in the story, does not even rate a genealogy; thus in the convention of the day he was a real nobody. Kings in those days could do almost anything they liked. Well, yes, everywhere but not in Israel. Elijah intervened in the name of Israel's God on behalf of this so-called non-entity. For us in South Africa where the apartheid government uprooted people from their ancestral homes to dump them in poverty stricken Bantustan homelands, it was like manna from heaven. It spoke of a God who cared. We used to say that, yes, this God was the same yesterday, today and forever - that just as God operated during the Exodus, so God would operate in our case too. For this God was not deaf but heard their cries of anguish because of apartheid's oppression. God was not blind, was not stupid and God would come down to deliver them as God had done so long ago. This God did not give useful advice from a safe distance, but entered the fiery furnace to be there with God's servants because this God was Immanuel, God with us.

If you were in this God's community, God's people, then you had to reflect God's character, to "be holy for I am holy" (Leviticus 19)--but not with a holiness defined by ritual purity. No, it was a holiness that was dynamic, revealed in how you treated the poor - in for instance, not picking all the harvest but leaving something deliberately behind for those who appeared more and more to be God's favorites - the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien who in most societies tended to be those with the least clout. If you were king over this God's people and you were given God's righteousness to rule as God's representative, this was shown by your special care for the poor, the weak, the downtrodden (cf. Psalm 72). The prophet must have shocked his contemporaries when in God's name he declared their religious observances to be obnoxious, an unacceptable abomination as Isaiah did (cf Isaiah 1) saying their religious acts were acceptable only if they issued in a concern for the widow, the orphan and the alien. God rejected even the most meticulously observed fast as unacceptable declaring, to the chagrin of the worshippers, that the genuine fast was setting the captive free, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry (Isaiah 58) to be echoed much later in Our Lord's parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25).

Being anointed by the Spirit of this God was to be inspired not to do conventionally churchy or pious things, but thoroughly mundane, political things - setting free the imprisoned, loosing the bonds of the enslaved, preaching good news, especially to the poor, (not exclusively materially of course) and announcing the Jubilee Year of the Lord with its implications about releasing people from mortgages and debts and trying to produce a utopia where people could have their land back. (Isaiah 61).

There were in South Africa the usual cries about the awfulness of preachers of the gospel mixing religion with politics and we asked what bible they were reading. It was almost always those who were beneficiaries of a particular oppressive status quo who complained about the heinous crime of using pulpits for political ends. We used to retort that the poor, the hungry, the oppressed hardly ever made this charge. If anything, they might have complained that we were not sufficiently political. What could have been more political than a God who helped a rabble of slaves to escape or a prophet preaching that his compatriots should cross over to the enemy besieging their capital city? What price patriotism? We used to have to ask if God's writ did not run in the political realm, who's did?

And so we were able to declare to our people that those who sought to uphold an unjust dispensation had in fact already lost the fight no matter how formidable and fearsome their arsenal. God was in charge in this moral universe. There was no way in which injustice, oppression, wrong and evil would have the last word. The perpetrators of evil would bite the dust as sure as night followed day. St. Paul's assertion, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" was our watchword.

I have sensed a like exhilaration, a thrill, in John Dear's splendid disquisition on the transfiguration. Traditionally, the account of Our Lord's transfiguration and its sequel in the healing of the boy possessed by a demon has been interpreted as providing a paradigm of the encounter with God leading to engagement with the world, with evil, that the spiritual experience is not meant to insulate us against the rigors of life as experienced by most of God's children in a hostile world out there.

It is the first time for me to come across an exegesis that so compellingly and persuasively argues that the chief end of such a deeply spiritual experience, the encounter with God on God's mountain, prepares the one who undergoes it for confrontation with the forces of evil even unto death for the sake of God's shalom, that we who in different ways have transfiguration moments, should all be stalwarts for that peace. It is not an optional extra. The encounter with God would constrain us to work for a new ordering of society where we would beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and we would study war no more (as both Isaiah and Micah declare in identical words). It is to see a fulfillment of God's dream who would create a new heaven and a new earth when God would wipe away all tears and the wolf and the lamb would again feed together and the lion would eat straw like the ox - "For they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain says the Lord." (Isaiah 65).

This book is a clarion call for us to be engaged in the project for world peace. We ignore it at our peril.

--Cape Town, South Africa January, 2006

(John Dearís book TRANSFIGURATION will be published by Doubleday in September, 2006. To order copies, please call, 1-800-726-0600.)

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