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Sabbath Day – South Africa

May 8, 2015

I began this day with a long walk. After dropping August off at school I dropped by the church to answer an important email and then sat in the warm sun in front of Hastings Tea Room with a good book. At home I did a week’s worth of laundry, listened to some Grateful Dead and read some more. August went to a friend’s house after school, so I spent time cleaning up his room and took a nap. My dinner hour was spent with the White Plains Historical Society who held their annual meeting at the C.V. Rich Mansion. Our speaker was Mark Will-Weber, author of Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking. Yes, I had a mint julep!

My reading of Palestinian literature last week, and in particular on Gaza, left me thinking about apartheid, so this week I read some great works out of South Africa. This was doubly fitting because the Presbyterian Church (USA) announced this week that a majority of presbyteries had voted to add the Belhar Confession (1982) to our constitution. The Belhar Confession of Faith emerged out of the black reformed church in South Africa after the World Communion of Reformed Churches declared the white reformed church to be “not a true church” because of it’s support for apartheid. This is the first non-white confession from the third world and south of the equator to become an official creed of our church. We will read from it in worship this coming week. Listen to it being read here.

* * * * * * *

Two South African’s have received the Nobel Prize in Literature: Nadine Gordimer (“who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”) and J.M. Coetzee (“who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider”).

Gordimer, who received the prize in 1991 died last year at the age of 90. I have had The Late Bourgeois World on my shelf for over 20 years – an example of the kind of book I re-discovered after our move to our new home in January. The book was banned in South Africa for over 10 years. I picked it up last weekend and was immediately engrossed in the lyric prose, reading the book through in (almost) one sitting.

Nadine_Gordimer_01

In the course of my week I also read several short stories from her collection Beethoven was one-sixteenth black and other stories as well as her 1981 novel, July’s People (also banned). In the latter, when black South Africa rises up against white South Africans and the system of apartheid (in a fictional civil war), the Smales family (white liberals) depend on their black servant July for protection and safety and must come to terms with the reversal of roles:

“The decently-paid and contented male servant, living in their yard since they had married, clothed by them in two sets of uniforms, khaki pants for rough housework, white drill for waiting at table, given Wednesdays and alternate Sundays free, allowed to have his friends visit him and his town woman sleep with him in his room — he turned out to be the chosen one in whose hands their lives were to be held; frog prince, saviour, July.”

This novel was also banned until the end of apartheid in 1994. (Below: Gordimer and South African President Nelson Mandela in 1994).

15GORDIMER4-articleLarge

J.M. Coetzee received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He also has the rare distinction of being awarded the Man-Booker Prize twice, for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and for Disgrace in 1999. I only managed to read Life and Times this week, set in the same fictional civil war described by Gordimer in The Late Bourgeois World, although I found a copy of Disgrace for sale at the library for 25 cents. Michael K’s life will haunt me for a long time – Coetzee’s prose being so rich, perceptive and compassionate.

chang-coetzee

Finally, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country may the most widely studied novel to emerge from South Africa, and has been adapted twice for film, including the 1995 movie featuring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, (Darth Vader and Dumbledore) which I watched late one night this week. Paton published the book in 1948, just as official apartheid emerged with the election of Afrikaner nationalists. He remained an anti-apartheid activist throughout his life.

A portrait of the faith that sustained him in this work was handed to me a few weeks ago by a member of my congregation in the form of Paton’s 1968 Instrument of Thy Peace,a beautifully written reflection on the Prayer of St. Francis. It is a manifesto for the hard work of allowing our selves to be transformed even as we work to transform the world. It is the kind of self-assured, both humble and confident, Christian faith that characterized he era of church-triumphant ecumenicity of the 1950s and 1960s that still stirs a deep part of my soul. Yet the fifteen years between Instrument and Belhar teach important lessons about how change happens – and about a God who chooses sides.

And so finally, since this week of reading emerged from my immersion in Palestinian literature and an anti-racist confession of faith, I commend this piece published by Mondoweiss called “God Bless the young folks who took to the streets” about a recent conference drawing connections between South African apartheid, Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the recent uprising in Baltimore. The conference was held at the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., which was served from 1958-1964 by one of my predecessors here in White Plains, The Rev. Donald Jones, who still holds the title pastor emeritus. I have worshiped with the second speaker of the conference, The Rev. Grayland Hagler, several times and have never failed to be moved and challenged by his sermons.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2015 7:42 am

    Any black South African authors?

  2. May 8, 2015 9:10 am

    Not this week, Carla. Do you have any to recommend?

    I had intended to read several sermons by Allan Boesak, but did not get to it. I read his “The Fire Within: Sermons from the Edge of Exile” just two years ago when I was working with Belhar in the congregation. I’ve allowed myself to be somewhat led by the Nobel Prize in Literature, and grateful to have discovered these two authors I had not previously read. This week I will “visit” Nigeria, and have already finished “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe and a play by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

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