The words were followed by an almost palpable, collective intake of breath. A small shock charge seemed to run through the congregation. I felt it in myself—a slight internal cringing. Should you be saying that? Here? In South Africa? In 2017? Two white ministers. One nearing retirement. One a young father. Both confessing a struggle with racism.
A week or two later Sihle Mooi (Director of Rays of Hope) told his remarkable story. Following his account of being a victim of Apartheid-era violence, he confessed his difficult relationship with privileged ‘whiteness’.
More honest, emotion-laden words in a country where issues of race feel like the great open wound that just doesn’t heal. Every slogan-slinging political rally, every heated #FeesMustFall discussion, every ill-considered tweet pulls that wound open wider, exposing the racial rift in our country.
I’m a recovering racist.
I don’t remember all the details of the sermons, but I do remember those emotive words. Those deeply vulnerable and courageous words. And because they were spoken by men I have come to respect and look up to, they made me pause and take stock. They actually made me ask, “Am I a recovering racist too?”
It’s not a comfortable question, let me tell you. You know that little cringe I felt as I listened to the sermons? Well, asking myself this question was like maxing that cringe-factor to almost unbearable levels.
Every fibre in me wants to shout, No! I am not a racist. I see past the superficiality of skin colour. I’m always respectful to everyone, no matter their race.
But then I remember another thing Sihle said about the way he was treated. He said it wasn’t the overt, abusive racism that he struggled with the most. It was actually the subtle racism. Teachers who thought he wasn’t quite as capable or moral as their white students. People who smiled kindly but spoke ‘down’ to him in a patronising tone.
And then I am forced to admit that I have been, and often still am, guilty of such ‘covert racism’. Some of the toxic evil of Apartheid has seeped into my soul.
Yes. I am a recovering racist.
For me there is hope in that word ‘recovering’. It says, I do not want to continue in this behaviour. I want to change. I want to do better. I want to ask forgiveness of those my attitudes and behaviour have hurt. That from now on I want to be someone who mends the rift in my country, not somebody who widens it.
And there is power in the confession itself. I felt it in church during those sermons. Truth sets free. It sets me free, because it loosens the power of that sin in my life. I hope—and pray—that it sets free those who have been hurt by my sin. And it can set others free if they take the opportunity to ask themselves the same tough question.
Finally, it allows God to begin to work in a deep place in my heart, one I’ve kept hidden from His touch. I claim His promise for myself and for every other person who admits this struggle with racism and discrimination:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
A heart of flesh—of love and compassion and mercy towards every person in this country, no matter their race, status or creed.
This is what we need to heal our beloved country’s wounds.
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