Friday, July 29, 2011

Prisoners of hope

The former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say, "we are prisoners of hope", echoing the prophet Zechariah (9.2). That is, in the midst of apartheid South Africa, the archbishop and the Christians with him felt that they were hemmed in, restricted, compelled, prisoners – but not prisoners of the racist laws that saw black people treated as less human than white people – Tutu was a prisoner of hope. It was hope in God that hemmed him in, restricted him, compelled him. He was not free. He was not free to give in to despair, to give up, to lie down, to blend in. He was not free to live his life in fear, because he was a prisoner of hope.

Now this might sound like mere pious sentiment, but it was powerfully expressed one day when Archbishop Tutu was preaching in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Suddenly, during the middle of the sermon, a large armed squad of the notorious South African Security Police broke into the Cathedral and surrounded the congregation, whom they outnumbered. They did not attack, but instead, some of them pulled out writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever Tutu said, thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances or political comments he might make. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in gaol for several days to make the clear point: religious leaders who speak out about apartheid will be treated just like any other opponents of the regime.

What would you do in such a situation? Stop the sermon? Just keep going? Continue criticising the regime and get arrested or worse? Now maybe even the thought of standing in front of a congregation giving a sermon is scary enough, but what would you have done if you were a congregation member? What would you have been hoping Tutu would do? One misstep could land you all in gaol.

According to eyewitness Jim Wallis, the Archbishop looked intently at the intruders for a few moments as they stood there with their guns, notepads and tape recorders then he said, “You are powerful, very powerful. But I serve a God who cannot be mocked. Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation was transformed by this extraordinary challenge to political tyranny. According to Wallis,
“From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshippers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began… dancing. (What is it about dancing that enacts and embodies the spirit of hope?) We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid, who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshippers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”

- Jim Wallis, God's Politics (Oxford: Lion, 2006), 353.

This is an extract from a sermon a few years ago. My next post will make clear why I thought of this story recently.