I had been preaching at a conference in South Africa and was now in a taxi on the way to the airport. My driver was a mixed-race guy, friendly and affable, so I was encouraged in our conversation to ask him to tell me about the changes he’d experienced in South Africa in the years since apartheid was outlawed. What followed was a shocking conversation that allowed me to see beyond the surface where ostensibly now everyone in the nation was considered to be equal, and into the still potent undercurrents of racism. Although the laws had been changed, the scars remained, red raw and filled with pain.
Looking at me through the rear vision mirror, the driver began to tell me, a white Aussie, of his growing up years in a nation which, though his own by right of birth, was not his own by privilege. He spoke bitterly of the long, dusty walks in the blazing heat of the day to get to water holes because the local swimming pools were out of bounds to him and his friends. He told me of doors designating entrance to Blacks, Coloureds, and Whites, each damning word denying entrance to anyone but those who fit the label.
The conversation began as an exchange of information, but, heartened by my obvious desire to understand, my driver became increasingly intense about the anguish that still lay in his heart, covered by the mask that preserving his livelihood required him to wear. The torrent of words became a deluge as the toll of generational injustice, disrespect, loss of dignity, everyday freedoms, outright cruelty, disregard, vilification, and racial hatred rose to the surface.
We lamented the tragedy of accidents or sickness in which the time taken to get to a hospital that would admit non-whites resulted in the death of the patient. As he continued to hold my gaze in the rearview mirror, he appeared to take comfort from the tears streaming unbidden down my cheeks. They were tears I could not hold back as I listened to the tirade pouring from a heartbroken ten thousand times ten thousand by man’s inhumanity to man, experienced up close and personal, every day and in every way.
It was tough to hear, and overwhelmingly tough to feel my own whiteness as I sat in the back of that cab, knowing I was not actively responsible for these travesties of justice, but feeling deep shame nevertheless.
It was when he told me of the penalties for interracial relationships that I finally became totally undone. If it so happened that black and white formed a love relationship, the white person would be heavily censured in those days, but the black person would be jailed for a period of years, with all the accompanying penalties accrued for such a crime. (Read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah to gain more understanding of the context of this horrific season in South Africa’s history.)
Sobbing, I thought of my lovely, wise daughter-in-law, the one who married my youngest son and changed his life forever—the one who had brought hope and grace and freedom to my boy. She showed him again who Jesus is, and he believed it from her, when it had been so hard to believe it from others. It was she who came alongside and healed so much of the pain in his heart. From early in our relationship, before they ever fell in love, I had hoped and believed that this girl would be my daughter-in-law, and I thank God for her every time I remember her for the way she has loved my son back to life.
That beautiful woman comes from a mixed racial heritage. My grandsons, too.
There, in that cab, it was overwhelming to think of what would have become of their relationship had they attempted to build it together under apartheid instead of in the UK and Australia. I could barely breathe, thinking of what would have happened to her had they fallen in love in that terrible time when humanity’s brokenness was so tragically being lived out for all the world to see.
When we arrived at the airport, my driver gripped my hand and thanked me for my tears.
He thanked me for my tears.
I had been embarrassed because I couldn’t stop the silent flood that poured over my cheeks and soaked into my shirt, but somehow he was refreshed by them. They felt so futile and weak to me, but, bizarrely, they helped him know he’d been seen and heard. I’ve never forgotten that conversation. I never will. I still think of the driver who was grateful that someone wept for him, and for his nation’s terrible history.
Ostensibly, the age we now live in is purported to be free of the kind of prejudice that apartheid represents, but nothing could be further from the truth.
As long as black people have reason to fear when being stopped for a traffic violation, as long as Middle-Eastern people are put off planes because of reading or speaking in their first language, as long as women are judged by what they look like rather than who they are, none of us are free.
As long as Romany travelers, First Nations people, black guys from the ‘hood, Pakistanis, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Syrians, West Indians, Afghans, Africans, South Sea Islanders and refugees from nations across the globe are vilified because of their colour or their dress or their religion or their homelessness or brokenness, none of us are free.
The 16th-century poet John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main…
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
The tolling bell Donne speaks of relates to the custom of ringing a bell to announce a death in the town. At the sound of the bell, people would inquire as to who had died.
Can you hear the bells ringing now; the multitudes of bells, in nations across the earth? Innumerable bells in every country and city and town, the ringing, clanging, jangling death knells. We need not ask who died, in what country, and what the specific default bias was against them because when the bell tolls for one of us, it tolls for all of us.
We, who are privileged, look for hiding places when and how we can—in our entertainment and recreation, in our opinions and our finances. We make massive efforts to ensure that we are not one of “them,” those for whom the bell is tolling. We strive to be safe, financially secure, doing everything necessary to keep ourselves from suffering any more than the bare minimum. We want to be comfortable, and we want to be encouraged, so we turn our faces and hearts away when we hear the clanging bells on TV and social media, when we hear of children who died of rape, of refugees freezing to death or suffocating in a truck while crossing a border to freedom, of yet another black dude running for his life…and losing the race.
We don’t want to know that when the bell tolls for one, it tolls for everyone.
We have a problem, people. The clamor is deafening. Abuse, complacency, neglect, ignorance, racism, prejudice is killing millions of people, and so much of the destruction is inflicted by those who do what they do “because they can.”
Why can they?
Why can a person’s color or religion or gender or any other difference make them fair game for someone else’s destructive proclivities? How can such hatred be allowed to dictate the laws of a nation? Why should whiteness be inherently regarded as the final authority or the most deserving of support?
The horrors of hatred multiply, as the opinions of some, inform the actions of others. No one is born racist, or genderist, or with any other bias. Fanatics like Dylann Roof are enculturated to their loathsome hatred. Prejudice is a learned response, not a natural one.
But the bells are tolling loud and strong. Because of technology we hear them now more clearly than ever, because even within the horrors there remain options. Martin Luther King Jr, that wise and courageous leader of an army that rose against entrenched racial hatred which found its authority in the law, famously said:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
In so saying, he cited a Kingdom culture, one which defies the politics and plotting, the haranguing and hating, the demeaning and destruction which humanity is so determined to inflict upon itself.
We are not powerless. No matter what happens within our own borders, we can choose to go against the flow. We are not helpless victims of hate and prejudice. Courage allows us to stand against the surging tide. We can choose to step out of the milieu and live loving, instead of opinionating and hating.
The day that taxi driver and I sat in the cab holding hands and weeping over the brokenness of the world was a day that changed my understanding. It’s easy to pay tacit assent to racial harmony, but without voices who will speak up for what is right, too many things are left unsaid.
We take cover in our anonymity as we turn away, sighing: What can one person do anyway? That’s just too easy, and it’s the reason good people do nothing, to echo another of MLK Jr’s maxims.
We can find ways to listen to the pains of others that we know nothing about. We could allow ourselves to cry when we hear stories of racism and injustice, to find ways to identify with the humanity of the other, the one we didn’t realize we had so much in common with.
Weeping with those who weep is a powerful start, and who knows what might come of that.