old Xenophobia and Hypocrisy

You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5, NIV)

God, through Jesus, loves us deeply. Yet, that love at appropriate times includes words of admonition. For if one loves another, then correction is required on occasion.

The recent attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, which perhaps should more accurately be termed ‘afrophobia’ rather than ‘xenophobia’, deserve divine admonition. We are all to blame. Me. You. Us.

The violent attacks in Durban and Gauteng engender instinctive revulsion, but beyond that, deep substantive reflection. At the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, I and aspirant public theologians reflected these past weeks on ‘hypocrisy’.

In a class on missiology, we learned that there existed a gapping divide between, what Jonathon Barnes terms, ‘rhetoric and reality’ in his book Power and Partnership.[1] Historically, churches and mission societies, have behaved hypocritically. They often did not, and sometimes still do not, practice what they preach. In a class on the English reformation, we learned that Nonconformists (now Congregationalists) were at times hypocritical. They diverted from their faith tenets when they established a dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell in England and a theocracy led by John Winthrop in Massachusetts. All faith communities demonstrate hypocrisy, some more than others.

Hypocrisy is not limited to faith communities. It also exists within nation-states. South Africa, the country that arguably produces more Nobel Peace Prize winners per capita than any other country and prides itself on Nelson Mandela’s legacy hypocritically will not (at China’s behest) issue a visa to the Dalai Lama so that he can meet with other Nobel Peace Prize winners. The United States has historically supported the Shah (Iran), Pinochet (Chile), Mobutu (Zaire) and even to a large extent the apartheid regime (South Africa) against that for which it claimed to represent and advocate: freedom, human rights and democracy. All nation-states choose national interest over universal values, some more than others.

My teenage son, Micah, laments the hypocrisy existent at his boarding school when lofty and admirable values are proclaimed but often the young men attending behave otherwise. All schools strive to close the gap between ideals cherished and students’ failings, some more than others.

Hypocrisy of course exists on an individual level as well. The apostle Paul speaks existentially when he confides, “For I have desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing (Romans 7:18-19, NIV)”. We all are hypocrites, some more than others.

The crisis of xenophobia is a contradiction to that which is ubiquitously referred to as the theology or philosophy of Ubuntu (translating as ‘human kindness’ and meaning “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” or ‘I am because you are’).[2] Though as a term, Ubuntu is afrocentric, I doubt that Ubuntu as a concept is original or unique to Africa. Nonetheless, Ubuntu has become a southern African brand of sorts within theological and secular discourse.[3] South Africa is wrestling deeply with its Ubuntu brand and the frightening reality that confronts readers of the Sunday Times and the viewers of CNN. South Africa is a very violent country. South Africa is a very divided country. There is arguably as much, if not more, ‘us’ and ‘them’ as there is ‘us’ and ‘we’ in South Africa, as is also the case in the rest of the world.

What is key for us is not to be despondent of the hypocrisy. South Africa must not lose hope and thus become cynical. Rather, like Paul, perhaps the road to freedom, theologically and developmentally, is to acknowledge, admit and confess the hypocrisy of its self-conception as the steward of Ubuntu and the deep hatred some South Africans have of the ‘other’. Then, the country can move forward, and close the gap between ‘rhetoric and reality’. This is what Paul teaches by example. What is true of South Africa is true of Paul – he confessed his hypocrisy. So should our faith communities, countries and schools – and so should we as individuals confess our own hypocrisy. Only by acknowledging hypocrisy can we, with the assistance of the spirit of God, transcend our collective and individual shortfalls and move closer to grafting reality to rhetoric.

Gracious God, we confess like Paul that we desire what is good but we cannot carry it out. We struggle with sin which manifests itself in hypocrisy. Teach us to identify our hypocrisy, so that in so doing your grace will be the balm that frees us from our affliction. We pray for all those who feel hopeless and in desperation lash out at someone to blame. We pray for those who live in fear of attack and are forced into camps or to return to a perhaps more threatening homeland. We pray for Europe, the United States and South Africa whose societies should recall that we are all immigrants. We pray as Jesus prayed, that we shall “all be one” (John 17:21, NIV). Amen.

Rev Dr Scott Everett Couper[4]

[1] Jonathon Barnes. Power and Partnership: A History of the Protestant Mission Movement (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications), 2013, pp. 1-449.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_(philosophy), accessed 23 April 2015.

[3] For more on Ubuntu, see: Michael Mnyandu. “Ubuntu as the Basis of Authentic Humanity: An African Christian Perspective”, in Mission is Crossing Frontiers: Essays in Honour of Bongani A. Mazibuko, ed. Roswith Gerloff (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2003), pp. 304-313.

[4] The views included herein are not necessarily the views of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary or any of its staff; they are the author’s alone. The perspectives included herein are also not necessarily those of the author at any other time other than when he wrote them, as upon further reading, conversation and prayer perspectives hopefully mature.