Much has been said, in recent days, here at Rhodes University and also at the University of Cape Town, regarding the legacy and place of Cecil John Rhodes at these two institutions. The debate has moved from there to discuss (among other matters) issues of privilege, institutional racism, the lived experience of those who have been oppressed, and the place of all of us, black or white, in this debate and in our efforts to find the way forward. There has been a great deal of anger, and communities are polarised and alienated. To what extent are we able to hear one another?
None of us find these debates easy, and it is hard at times for people to talk and reflect in a way that shows respect for one another. Anger clouds our judgement. Archbishop Desmond Tutu would often quote his own father who, in times of strong disagreement, would say, “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” Is there a Christian voice in all this? What is the basis for our engagement with one another?
The Christian community, the church, is a community of great diversity – language, background, culture, education, outlook, our varied experiences of injustice, struggle, suffering, dislocation. There is so much that can divide us, separate us, alienate us from one another. But what we offer to debates and interactions about issues that deeply divide us, is the underlying and life-changing reality and truth that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have been baptised into one body. We have been given of the one Holy Spirit to drink. We belong together. We are given a new commandment, to love one another as Christ has loved us, by laying down his life for us all. We are called to use a different sort of language, another narrative, and to live it out in our lives: a language of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, love for one another, truth, respect, and courtesy. That doesn’t of course solve all our problems. But at least it is a basis for our conversation, and it is the foundation for our relationships.
We find the same shocking truth when we encounter issues of power and control. Power is a reality. People are placed in positions of power and responsibility and authority, to work and lead, to make decisions, and to exercise power. Like many things, power is open to being misused. We know how people in power can be abusive, or cruel, or controlling, blind to their own faults, self-centred. At the same time, we know how people in power can use their positions for great good, how they can be examples of service, of humility, of dedication. What a gift a wise, holy leader can be to a school, a place of work, a university, a church, a country. What is our model and example? Those in authority are called to follow the example of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples, and who came as one who serves. The story of Maundy Thursday, and the symbolic foot-washing that takes place at Maundy Thursday services during Holy Week, each year, following the example of Jesus Christ, is very familiar to us. At the same time it is radical and subversive.
Being baptised into Christ as a new community of brothers and sisters, washing one another’s feet, loving and forgiving, carrying one another’s burdens – this is a whole new way of relating to one another. This is the alternative community of the kingdom of God, the Easter people, people of the resurrection.
So let’s find the way forward, together, and let’s do it in a way that builds up the university, our community, our relationships. It is easy to destroy, to break down, to attack, to uproot, to discard. It is far harder to build, to plant, to create, to nurture. What path are we going to take?
The Very Reverend Andrew Hunter
Dean of Grahamstown