Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Parable of the kingdom: rugby and grace (South Africa)

I would think that combining rugby, religion (specifically, the concept of grace), racism and politics in the same article would be a reach, but Petersen gives it a crack. - Wes

Parable of the kingdom: rugby and grace (South Africa)

by Robin Petersen

(The Christian Century, 1/17/96)

Karl Barth once described good politics as "parables of the Kingdom." By this he meant that political choices and programs are grasped theologically by the analogical imagination that moves from the gospel to the situation. Reflections on the miracle of reconciliation that is occurring in South Africa reverse the direction of this analogical procedure; a theological reading of the politics of the African National Congress in general, and Nelson Mandela in particular, illuminates the gospel in a new way. For what Mandela is practicing can only be described as a politics of grace - grace in the full-blown, unadulterated sense of forgiveness and restoration that is undeserved, unmerited and unearned.
A rugby match prompted my reflections. After six years of study in the U.S., I arrived back in Johannesburg during the rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand. Having kept abreast of local politics and sports via the Internet, I had heard that the World Cup, and in particular the performance of the Springboks, the South African national team, had gripped the imagination of the whole country. I harbored a deep suspicion of these reports. After all, unlike other national sports, rugby remains almost exclusively a white-male Afrikaner preserve. I had also been home a few years earlier after the ANC requested that fans not sing the old national anthem or display the old South African flag. The 60,000 spectators at the match between the Springboks and the Wallabies (the Australian national team) defied this request with a recidivist vengeance. Never had the old flag been so extravagantly displayed. In the moment of silence that was to replace the singing of the anthem, the crowd burst into song as if their lives depended on it.

But that was then and this was now. In the interim, South Africa held its first democratic elections, unfurled a new flag, crafted a new anthem (which combined the famous Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika of the liberation movement with Die Stem, the old anthem of Afrikaner pride), and, most important, inaugurated a new president. In the months leading up to the World Cup tournament, it seemed as if rugby would again shatter the fragile sense of national unity. The South African rugby team, it was argued, was simply not representative of the "Rainbow Nation." Only one black player had made the squad, and an injury threatened his participation. There were raging debates over the Rugby Union's poor record in developing programs to rectify the imbalances and injustices of apartheid, and bitter memories of the flag-waving defiance that had marred the previous international tours. Many black South Africans questioned the propriety of hosting the World Cup matches in South Africa. At best, there seemed to be a studied lack of interest in the whole affair as the tournament date approached.

From the side of the rugby-loving white public, another debate ignited passions to a fever pitch. The national symbol of all previous South African national teams had been the springbok, an indigenous leaping gazelle. Recognizing the identification of this symbol with the tragic history of apartheid, the national cricket team had replaced it, and the National Sports Council had urged that it be replaced in all sporting codes. But as Redskin and Illini fans know, changing well-loved if offensive symbols is an emotional undertaking. [Southerners fond of the Confederate battle flag know this, too. - Wes] True to form, the rugby board hesitated, arguing that the springbok could not be changed. But under intense pressure, it agreed that after the World Cup was over, the symbol would change to the protea, the South African national flower. This deal seemed to annoy everyone. Many blacks felt that the rugby board was proving that it could not adapt to the new political realities; many whites, with breathtaking historical amnesia, carped about the "interference of politicians in sport."

Into this potentially explosive cauldron stepped the man whose political sensibilities have proved impeccable, whose understanding of the power of symbolic acts to make or break community surpasses that of the most canny of religious leaders. A few days before the opening game of the tournament, Mandela visited the South African team. He emerged from the meeting and went on national TV. He stated that until 1994 (the date of the elections), he, along with most black people in the country, had always supported whichever team was opposing the Springboks. But now he urged everyone in the country, black and white, to unite behind "our boys." Standing beside him was the captain of the Springboks, a white Afrikaner, who told the nation that the team was going to win the game "for our president."

This simple act of political courage and gracious accommodation by the president turned the tide. The whole nation seemed to swing behind the team, and to everyone's surprise, the Springboks won the opening game convincingly. The stadium was awash in the colors of the new flag, and there was a palpable sense that Bishop Tutu's vision of the "Rainbow Nation" was receiving a new set of symbols.

The Springboks eventually qualified for the finals, with the whole count united behind them. Once more Mandela showed his symbolic acumen. At the pregame ritual of presenting the teams to the various dignitaries, the president appeared on the field in the rugby jersey of the Springbok captain. (He later wore the same jersey at an ANC rally in the townships and endorsed the continuing use of the springbok as the rugby emblem. Once more he mobilized a symbolic logic of almost salvific power. The crowd (predominantly white, male and Afrikaans) burst into a sustained chant of "Nelson, Nelson, Nelson," transferring to him the attention usually reserved for the sporting icons. In this wonderfully graceful, extremely insightful gesture, Mandela was able to channel the religious, psychic and ritual energy to himself and to his vision of the nation. The Springbok team, inspired no doubt by this affirmation, went on to win the game and the World Cup.

The cynic, of course, sees in this manipulation of symbols a crass mobilizing of mass emotions for the sake of political projects. There may be some of that. Three things, however, undermine such suspicion. The first is the project to which these actions are directed--the reconstruction and reconciliation of one of the most divided, alienated and violent societies, in which ethnic and cultural difference continues to threaten an emerging and fragile sense of nationhood. The second is the man himself. Mandela has shown such a consistent integrity that few, if any, accuse him of hypocrisy. There is a substance .to his acts that cannot be reduced to clever (or dumb) campaign politics. Third is the consistency of this "politics of grace" when it is politically unpopular. The rugby incident is just one of many instances of a pattern of reconciling grace that has been salvific for the country. If reports from the most reactionary quarters are to be believed, many former members of the Afrikaans Weerstands Beweging, the paramilitary Afrikaner resistance movement, have abandoned membership in the organization and some have even joined the ANC.

The apostle Paul discovered, however, such a practice of grace, in its very recklessness and profligate abundance, is not always received in the manner intended. Two of the dangers that have emerged are not unfamiliar to those who understand the primacy of grace. The first is the real problem of resentment among those who feel that such grace is undeserved, unnecessarily extravagant and too easily given--that is, without the necessary quid pro quo being negotiated up front. Politically, those who have long been victims of the system of apartheid look with understandable disdain on the president's attempts to reconcile with the former oppressor. They view these attempts as an appeasement that undermines their legitimate anger and demands for retribution. They resemble the prodigal son's faithful brother, who resents his father's excessive grace toward a profligate brother.

This danger is fueled by the second danger, which has to do with the reception of this grace. James lamented the misuse of Paul's understanding of the faith-works dialectic; white South Africans too often misuse the miraculous grace which has been offered to them, and confirm the suspicions of the elder brother. To be more specific: one can detect in radio talk shows, in the conversations of families and friends, in newspaper articles and letters to the editor, a certain self-righteous carping about the new South Africa which begins with "I was never for apartheid, but...," and then goes on to list complaints about the decline of white privilege, couched in the general terms of "declining standards." In complaints about crime, about squatters, about the disruption of services through strike action, about corruption and fraud, there is very little reflection, let alone a self-criticism that sees the legacy of white domination in these horrendous social crises. Forgiveness has been interpreted as a carte blanche to criticize and condemn the new and fragile democracy. Instead of accepting the miracle of grace with humility, repentance and a desire for conversion, many treat this grace as a right, as a natural product of a democracy.

One wonders if this grace was given too easily, if it has become a "cheap grace" that demands neither repentance nor the conversion of attitude and life. But the offer of grace always implies a risk that it will be spurned, that it will be abused. Why take the risk? Because it is clear that its salvific power remains enormous. While revenge would have been satisfying for many, and would clearly have been more just, its consequences would have been horrific, not only for whites, but for the whole nation.

Mandela's politics of grace is one of the most theologically remarkable political experiments in history. If it succeeds, it will not only have saved the country but will also offer a political model for other countries emerging from bitter strife and division. What will it take for it to succeed? In terms of the analogy of grace, it is clear that what is required from white South Africans is conversion in its full, evangelical form: recognition of sin, confession of sin, acknowledgment of the miracle of grace and a life transformed in attitude and action. White South Africans need to hear the timely and insistent reminder of James: that we not cheapen grace, that we continue to hear the cries of dispossessed workers, and that we restore, re-create, recompense and reconstruct all that the previous system had destroyed.

Robin Petersen is a senior lecturer in the faculty of religion and theology at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa.

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