The Abyss Stares Back

It is easy to feel despondent these days when one sees what is happening in world politics. It seems that the Western world is becoming progressively more right wing. With populism on the rise, and extremism dominating our discourse, reconciliation and peaceful multiculturalism seem like a pipe dream. That saddens me deeply. I have laboured much of my life to those ends, in what I see as my way of fulfilling Christ’s command to love one another. And love is hard, It means a lot of introspection; a lot of painful challenges to my cultural assumptions. But for me it is a non-negotiable. Love means finding ways to respect and understand others’ experiences and paradigms, in order to find a common humanity and a pathway to love. We can only truly love that which we can understand and respect. Often that means having to redefine ourselves. And that is why loving is so hard. Like healing, love demands that we break ourselves down in order to rebuild stronger selves.

 

So this increasing radicalism scares me because it is so loveless. The gun-toting, neo-Nazi Trump supporters (that is not to suggest that all Trump supporters fit into that category, but many definitely do) that masquerade as faithful Christians terrify me as much as the host of more peace-loving Christian bloggers who say that they voted Trump because he would keep them safe. The latter scare me because of how easily they accept a rhetoric that constructs difference as threatening and other. It is – I would venture – impossible to appropriately love those of whom you are deeply afraid. It is why I do not believe Christians should be loyal to any one political party: politicians define themselves by creating problematic and threatening Others. Political loyalty, then, diminishes one’s capacity to love.

 

As I mulled this over, feeling quite intellectually and morally superior, a little voice in the recesses of my brain cleared its throat and offered a thought: “Isn’t your thinking quite radical? Does that mean you are loveless too?” The noise stopped. The righteous tirade became an embarrassed silence. When you gaze into the abyss long enough, Nietzsche wrote, the abyss gazes into you. Suddenly all eyes were on me.

 

Two weeks ago I received an email from a parent, complaining about a poem we had prescribed. He came from an extremely racist perspective, insisting that a poem that praised Nelson Mandela was left wing propaganda and angrily demanding that somebody answer for this. What angered me most was his smug assurance that the “real Messiah” would agree with him, and that we would come to see this when we finally met Jesus face to face.

 

I just cannot understand how in the modern age, such small-minded bigotry can still find traction. When I was growing up under the Apartheid government, it was easy to be racist. We had teachers who actively taught that black people were dangerous. We sang the anthem frequently, and in order to protect what God had entrusted to us, we had cadets every week, and we were taught to shoot at school. Compulsory conscription into the army awaited us after our final exams were complete. We certainly never interacted with any person of colour. If we saw black people at all, and it was perfectly possible not to, they occupied “inferior” social positions, and dialogue was limited. I was 16 before I had a conversation with a black peer. Under those circumstances, I can understand how somebody might become bigoted. Indoctrination and ignorance go a long way in creating racists. But today, when our lived experience brings us into daily contact with people from diverse backgrounds, and where information is so freely and instantly available, it takes a conscious effort to remain bigoted and misogynistic. It is not a choice I can understand.

 

Since those days, as I have grown in my recognition of the ways that the government at the time used my schooling to attempt to shape me into a pawn to champion their ignorance and bigotry, I have become passionate about advocating for a more culturally responsive pedagogy, one that demands that young people become skilled in recognising how texts and systems attempt to position them, and develops in them the courage to resist where necessary. Perhaps my own experiences are the reason why blind prejudice so deeply offends me today.

 

And maybe that is what horrified me about my response to the gentleman who complained. Not my written response. That was reasoned and polite. But that was not how I wanted to respond. I was filled with contempt for him. Disgust even. When I found out that he habitually and publically argues that the Holocaust was a hoax, I wanted to hit him. One of the most haunting experiences of my life was meeting an old Jewish man, who had survived one of the concentration camps – Bergen-Belsen, I think – and even half a century later, he could not talk about it without choking back tears. He recounted a terrible tale of how he grew up in a culture of institutionalised hatred that started with propaganda in schools – much like my own experience – and ended in unimaginable horror. That somebody could presume to argue that this was not real made me very angry. But as I reflected on my own willingness to embrace violence as a solution, it dawned on me that I was no better than he was, really. I was filled with an equal capacity for blind hatred expressed through brute force. I was similarly able to dehumanise another to the point where I felt his rights violable. And then I felt hopeless. How do we ever create a better world when even those who genuinely want to cannot transcend their own pettiness? How do we even begin to embrace the way of love?

 

If you remember, Jesus taught that we ought to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). How do we think we are going to do that? Are we waiting for some pleasant tingling sensation to come over us when we interact with them? Do we think it means simply tolerating them? No! I think Jesus’s teaching on how we ought to deal with our enemies is a lot more complex than it initially appears. Loving your enemies means finding a way to understand and respect them, even when you profoundly disagree with them. If bigots and misogynists and homophobes are my enemies, I am nowhere close to that.

 

And so I am faced with a world shifting ever further to the extremes. There are growing factions of Islam and Christianity that are becoming progressively more militant, unwilling to tolerate even the existence of perspectives other than their own. Even atheism is becoming more right wing. Take a look at the work of Dawkins and Hitchens, for example, and tell me that they are not. I consider the fact that people actually voted for Trump, for Brexit. I recall the deplorable depictions of Islam by Charlie Hebdo that sparked some of the violence in Europe, and the reprehensible treatment by police of Muslim women in their burkinis on the French Riviera. In my own country we have Julius Malema and his inciteful rhetoric on one side and Afriforum and the like on the other. The whole world seems to be succumbing to hatred. And I am among them.

 

If we are lucky, we will encounter in our lives just one piece of art that radically transforms how we see the world and understand our place in it. Many of us are never that lucky. I have been extremely fortunate to have had many such experiences. After the attack on the Twin Towers, my favourite author, Jeanette Winterson, wrote an article, whose effect on me I cannot begin to describe. But she argued this: all the stories ever written, she contests, allow for only three possible endings: revenge, tragedy, forgiveness.

 

I find myself in the midst of a story whose ending seems inescapably to be revenge and tragedy. I find myself complicit in creating that ending. But it is not an ending I want. It is why I love the cross of Jesus. There is a promise of forgiveness despite the tragedy. The possibility of forgiveness is what I see written between the lines in his command for us to embrace a way of love – the hard path of learning to respect and understand, not the Hollywood way of fuzzy feelings and simplistic solutions. The thing is, I don’t know where to find the strength or the inclination to walk that path. When I am commanded to love even the blindly bigoted, it seems like a bridge too far. But ignoring Jesus’ command is to choose tragedy. I am soul-tired of tragedy. And I know tragedy is not written in the stars. Life is not a Shakespeare play. Instead, I can be part of an ending that chooses forgiveness. Join me. Show me how.

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