Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela and us

Text: Matthew 3 1-12 (John the Baptist)

Since Thursday, the media have been filled with reports about the death of Nelson Mandela. Like many people interviewed in these reports, I cherish a memory of a time when I saw Mandela in person. On June 18, 1990, I was one of 30,000 people who gathered on the lawn of the Ontario Legislature to hear him speak, just four months after his release from 27 years in prison.

I was working as a researcher at the Ontario Ministry of Education. After work, a few of us decided to make the short walk west to Queen's Park from our office on Bay Street to see this legendary opponent of apartheid in South Africa.

I had learned about Mandela at anti-apartheid rallies in the 1980s. Until February 1990, Mandela's face had not been seen and his voice not heard since 1962 when he was imprisoned for leading the armed struggle against the racist South African state.

The rally electrified us. So much was changing in the world at the time. The previous spring, young people in China had risen up in their millions against Communist dictatorship until their movement was drowned in blood in Tiananmen Square. Popular uprisings in Eastern Europe had led to the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The civil wars in Central America were coming to an end.

And now it seemed that white supremacy in South Africa would finally crumble. How else to explain the miraculous appearance in Toronto of this 73-year-old lawyer, human rights campaigner, and guerrilla leader, Nelson Mandela? It felt like we were in the presence of both a prophet and saint . . .

Today is the second Sunday in Advent when our theme is Peace and we hear the angry words of John the Baptist calling for repentance. Against this backdrop, I examine connections between racism in South Africa and Canada, and what the legacy of Nelson Mandela might teach us about the struggle for peace in a world still scarred by colonialism.

There are many parallels between the history of Canada and South Africa. Both countries used to be British colonies. Both were created as white settler states on land conquered from indigenous people. Both long denied citizenship and basic human rights to native people. Both physically separated whites and natives in a system of reservations.

The main difference between South Africa and Canada is the makeup of our  populations. Soon after Europeans came to Canada, they began to outnumber native people. By 1867, only 150,000 of the three million people in Canada were First Nations. In contrast, whites in South Africa never made up more than 20% of the population.

But why did native people in Canada die off after European conquest while Black Africans survived? The answer might be found in a strange source -- cattle. Before European conquest, Africa had a long history of domesticated animals and so it also had a long history of animal-borne diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis.

In the Americas, none of the mammal species could be domesticated and so First Nations people did not have history of animal-borne diseases. When Europeans arrived, they brought infectious diseases with them that killed 90% or more of the native people of both North and South America within the first 200 years.

The die-off of native people in the Americas explains the difference between Canada and South Africa. Canada's laws and practices around race were similar to South Africa's until the 1960s, but in South Africa the labour force was always largely made up of blacks.

Since 1900, there has been a resurgence in the numbers of native people in Canada. Today almost 5% of Canadians are of First Nations descent. And like Black people in post-colonial Africa and the descendants of Black slaves in the United States, Canada's First Nations continue to struggle with the legacy of colonialism.

As Mandela is buried this week, the world celebrates his work to end South African apartheid after 1994. This was a milestone in overcoming 500 years of European colonialism.

Mandela is especially revered for his focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. The brutality of the centuries of white domination were not followed by brutality towards the white minority of South Africa nor the collapse of its economy or social order. And so we give thanks for Mandela's life and mourn his death.

Unfortunately, a lot of the damage caused by colonialism remains in Africa and around the world. Mandela's work is hardly complete.

Colonialism was also a central issue at the time of Jesus. When John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, Palestine had been under foreign occupation for 600 years. In today's reading, John calls religious leaders "a brood of vipers," probably because they collaborated with the Roman Empire. John wanted Israel to be an independent kingdom again instead of a colony of Rome.

Getting rid of foreign domination is never an easy task, though. John had good reasons to resent Rome. But given the power of Rome, religious leaders also had good reasons to collaborate with it. They maintained religious practices in the teeth of Roman oppression.

Even the coming of Jesus did not bring Jewish self-rule back to Israel. That had to wait until the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 19th Century, some European Jewish leaders laid claim to Palestine despite the fact that the biblical texts they used as justification also could be used as justification for the presence of Arab Christians and Muslims who lived in Palestine. News of the horrors of the Holocaust in World War II increased support for the creation of a Jewish state, which happened in 1948.

In terms of its settlement, Israel falls somewhere between the Canadian and South African cases. Jewish settlers soon became the majority group in Israel after 1948, which is similar to settlement in Canada, but Christian and Muslim Arabs remained a substantial minority, which is closer to settlement in South Africa.

Immigration to Israel is based on ethnicity and religion. Arabs have been displaced or discriminated against. Israel's military has illegally occupied the West Bank of the Jordan for almost 50 years now. Over this time, Israel has received hundreds of billions of dollars in military aid from the U.S., far more than any other country.

Given its nature, I am not surprised that Israel was South Africa's most loyal supporter during apartheid. Here is a how a 1976 report by the South African government explained the close diplomatic and military relationship between the two: "Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples." (Guardian, Feb 2006)

This phrase reminds me of a comment made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week as he announced plans to visit Israel in 2014. He called Israel a "light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness."

In contrast, this week a network of United Church of Canada activists launched a campaign against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank of the Jordan with a boycott of goods produced in those settlements. The boycott campaign flows from a decision reached at the 2012 General Council meeting of our church. These protests did not get much media attention, but then neither did the first boycotts against South African products in the 1970s.

In terms of human rights abuses or violence, Israel is hardly the worst state in the world. However, I consider Israel's colonialism to be a serious danger to world peace. By turning Palestine into an Jewish state instead of a country in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims would live in equality, Israel has exacerbated the ethnic cleansing in North Africa and the Middle East. Israeli violence towards Palestinian Arabs and its illegal settlements are an ongoing provocation to further violence.

Many would disagree, and many others might wish we didn't pay attention to issues like colonialism in church. I do so because I believe that there is healing to be found in  speaking out against colonialism even when it doesn't have an immediate impact on the ground.

In a world dominated by empire, none of us remain unscathed. The obvious victims are people like Mandela who are imprisoned or killed for fighting for equality and those who live in poverty as second-class citizens. But imperialism also scars the elites who run the system, the police and soldiers who enforce its policies with violence, and those among the oppressed who find ways to survive by collaborating with empire.

There are no easy answers in how we can overcome the misery of First Nations in Canada, the continuing poverty and inequality in South Africa, violence among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel and Palestine and other consequences of colonialism. But Mandela's work provides a model and a beacon of hope.

Mandela worked to make South Africa a Rainbow Nation in which people of different races, languages, and religions live together with democratic and human rights. The exact details can be devilishly difficult, of course, but I pray that South Africa's model will be followed in other post-colonial countries like Canada and in Israel and Palestine.

We who are the descendants of European settlers are not responsible for the colonial policies of the past. But just like Blacks in Africa and natives in Canada, we too bear the scars of that history. Simply by being born, we receive the gifts of all past and present human culture and achievement. But we also bear the burdens of the violence and pain in the past and which still mar life in the present.

When we stand against colonialism and work for racial equality, we lift some of those burdens from our hearts. With God's help, we can turn away from our violent past and towards the Prince of Peace and his reign of justice.

And so we say again, Come Lord Jesus, Come.


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