Monday 19 July 2010

Doubting Thomas or Questioning Thomas?

An edited version of the sermon preached for the Patronal Festival of St Thomas' Church, Rondebosch.

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today we have the opportunity to honour St Thomas with proper attention. St Thomas really is a fascinating character. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate how much we have to learn from him, in the twenty-first century.

‘Doubting Thomas’ we call him – because of the of the account we heard of his response to the other disciples’ report that they had seen the risen Jesus – the Jesus who most certainly had been crucified, dead and buried. And yes, he had his doubts, because, as we know, resurrection is impossible.

But I think that labelling him ‘doubting Thomas’ is giving him an unfair press. I think we should rather call him ‘questioning Thomas’, and see him as a good role model for ourselves, and an encouragement not to shy away from difficult issues. And as such, he is certainly someone whose example we need to take very seriously in our contemporary, multifaith, pluralist, and often very secular world.

Let me explain. Thomas is mentioned in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – among the twelve appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. Those gospels do not mention him again. But in St John’s gospel, there are three different occasions when Thomas is mentioned. And his presence makes a significant contribution to our understanding of who Jesus is, and what was to happen to him.

The first occasion is in Chapter 11. Jesus had been hounded out of Jerusalem, and crossed the Jordan. News arrives from Mary and Martha in Bethany that Lazarus is ill. Jesus says to the disciples ‘Let us return to Judea’ – that is, to Bethany and the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem. The disciples, unsurprisingly, respond ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?’ But Jesus insists, and speaks of Lazarus being woken from sleep – then refers explicitly to Lazarus’ death. ‘Let us go to him’ says Jesus – and it is Thomas who responds ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

This is not the stance of a man who has fragile faith, or wavering loyalty. This is someone who has clearly read the signs of the times. He knows that if Jesus returns to Jerusalem, the odds are that he will be killed – and his followers risk the same fate. But such is his devotion to Jesus that he is prepared to go too; and encourages his colleagues to do the same.

He has made a level-headed judgement about what is at stake – his life indeed – and fully aware, fully knowing, he makes his wholehearted commitment to keep following Jesus. Well, that is certainly something where we can learn from Thomas, and follow his example.

Our second encounter with Thomas is in Chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, and called on them to serve one another in the same way. After Judas’ departure, Jesus begins to tell them that he will shortly leave them, and they cannot follow. Then come those famous words that we so often hear read at funerals:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going (Jn 14:1-4)

Now, in the previous verses, Simon Peter had already asked Jesus where he was going – and I doubt this explanation left him any much clearer. But it is Thomas who dares to ask the question that I am sure was on the mind of all the disciples. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ And he receives that marvellous response ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life.’

What I particularly like about Thomas is his honesty. He was honest and level-headed as he judged the risks of returning to Jerusalem. And he spoke about them starkly, not glossing over them. Now he is honest in speaking up when he does not understand. He is not afraid to face the issue head on, and ask questions about it: ‘What is going on here? What are you saying, Lord? How am I to understand you?’

If he had never dared to ask the question, I wonder whether Jesus would ever have uttered those words – I am the way, the truth and the life – which have been a source of comfort, strength, guidance, to so many of us over the centuries since? So, we must say Thank You to Thomas, for daring to seek this clarification on behalf of the rest of the disciples, on behalf of all the followers of Jesus of subsequent centuries.

It is his preparedness to be blunt in this way that earns him his unfair nickname of Doubting Thomas through his third appearance in St John’s Gospel – our reading this morning. We do not know why Thomas was not with the rest of the disciples on that first Easter Sunday evening. Gallons of ink have been spilled speculating that it was some lack of solidarity and commitment on his part – though that doesn’t seem to fit with the Thomas of whom we read in Chapter 11. Perhaps he was the only one brave enough to go outside, to balance the risks, and judge that he could handle it, while the rest hid together behind locked doors, ‘for fear of the Jews’.

I doubt we will ever know the reason. But, as so often happens, if we are prepared to let it, God uses the little circumstances of life as opportunities to reveal the truths we need to know. And so, luckily for us, if not for him, Thomas was not there when Jesus appeared to the disciples, saying ‘Peace be with you’ and showing them his hands and his side. The disciples then tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Lord. And he asks the question that people have asked in every generation since – whether openly or in their hearts.

He asks the question to which we all need a good answer. ‘How do you know that you saw the risen Lord? How do you know it was not a ghost, not an illusion, not a corporate delusion that you cooked up together in your highly emotional state?’ Like any of us today, when we hear an unlikely story, he wants proof; he wants irrefutable physical evidence. Is that so bad?

St Paul warns Christians against being gullible, or misled, by false teachings or claims that Jesus has returned here or there. We are to test the spirits – not everyone who claims to speak in the name of the Lord is accurately doing so. Thomas certainly was not gullible – and therefore, he is our man, whenever we have doubts about the resurrection. He is the forensic expert who gives the measured testimony, that we trust because we know he is not a man to be fooled – he has the living encounter with the living Lord.

And he finds that he is overwhelmed by the experience – the mere presence of Jesus is more than enough, without him needing actually to feel, to touch, for himself. He can see with his own eyes – the physical truth is right before him, and so is the more profound spiritual truth to which it points. ‘My Lord and my God!’ And we are blessed, though we have not seen, because we can trust in the testimony of Thomas, who was there for us, asking the difficult, but necessary, questions.

Thomas is a wonderful saint for the church in our time – a time of much scepticism, but also of many genuine questions about what it is to be a person of faith today. Contemporary society raises lots of questions for us, and it would be dishonest to pretend it is not so. It is also dishonest – intellectually dishonest, emotionally dishonest – if we deny that within ourselves we also often have questions.

One of the great strengths of the Anglican faith is that it tells us we must look to Scripture, but interpret it guided by reason and tradition. This means we do not take refuge in simplistic application of Scripture, as if it were to be understood literally at all points, and that to ask questions is to have a lack of faith. But it does not mean that we toss the Bible aside if we cannot find an immediate clear response to the situations that face us. No, God gave us the Bible, and he also gave us brains, and he expects us to use them! More than this, he also promises to help us use them better.

For example, St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God’ (Rom 12:2). And St James assures us, ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you’ (Jas 1:5). And of course, Jesus himself promised us that ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth’ (Jn 16:13).

This is how we are to read scripture, and wrestle with faith, with the greatest possible integrity that we can muster. We read Scripture asking, ‘What do we learn here about God, about his dealings with the world, about the principles of Christian life?’ And then we can grapple honestly, seriously, with matters that are not directly addressed within the Bible – questions raised by modern technology; medical ethics; business practices; political policy-making; xenophobia …

We may be faced with other, more personal challenges – not least the difficult questions about why some people suffer so much; why there is such injustice and inequality in society; and why life doesn’t always come easy to good people.

The glib answers that some people give often fail to provide an adequate response to meet the deep concerns that people have in these areas. Let us face the hard questions honestly. It is through not being afraid to ask difficult questions that the Church came to realise that slavery was wrong; and to understand that the Bible has far more to say about the equal place of women alongside men within the body of Christ than a superficial reading might suggest.

Both St Paul and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews speak of the need for Christians to grow beyond ‘spiritual milk’ and move on to ‘solid food’ (1 Cor 3:2, Heb 5:13,14). Milk is something we swallow whole – solid food requires chewing. St Thomas encourages us not to be afraid of chewing on all that the Bible has to say for us; on all that Christian tradition over two thousand years has to offer us; on all the questions and the insights and the challenges that the world today has to put before us.

We do not have to protect God from difficult questions, by denying their existence, by saying that all doubt is wrong. No, asking honest questions is the sort of doubt, doubting with integrity, which the Church needs; and which every Christian needs if we are to mature in faith.

So let us do as Thomas did, and bring to Jesus the difficult questions, the things that trouble us, the areas where we know our understanding is lacking. Then, like Thomas, we will find that he is the one who truly is the ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. And we shall come to know for ourselves the fulness of Jesus promise, ‘you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). And, like Thomas, we can bow before him, knowing that in every area of our life, no matter what our questions, our doubts, our fears, Jesus truly is, ‘Our Lord, and our God’. Amen

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Current Social Unrest: Statement from the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum

This statement was issued on 14 July 2010

Statement from the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum on Current Social Unrest

The Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum (WCRLF), under the chairmanship of the Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, convened a special Consultative Forum on 13 July 2010, following its annual general meeting, to consider current incidents of social unrest against the background of the widespread positive atmosphere experienced throughout the 2010 World Cup.

There can be no doubt that South Africans are at heart an Ubuntu people. The experience of the last month has shown the genuine warm hospitality and generous spirit with which we have welcomed visitors from around the world to our country and our continent.

We therefore have been hearing with dismay the reports of threats against fellow Africans living among us with whom we have been standing shoulder to shoulder in our support of the World Cup. We roundly condemn the violence which is now being directed towards them, and the opportunist criminal acts that are taking advantage of the fears and tensions that are being raised. We particularly denounce the way that criminals often use children to carry out their purposes, so as to avoid the direct legal consequences of their malicious intentions.

We therefore urge the SAPS, who have done such a marvellous job in upholding law and order during the Tournament, to work with local communities in isolating those who are responsible and bringing them to full justice. In the same way, we call on other government departments, who offered such a first class service to our World Cup visitors, to provide the same level of treatment to all foreign visitors, workers and residents. We seek this especially for those who are being traumatised and violated by the current threats and acts of social unrest. We trust that stories of maltreatment and poor service from government officials will become entirely a thing of the past.

As leaders of the faith sector of the Western Cape, we have had the privilege and pleasure of working together over many years to promote better inter-religious understanding, and to foster peace and harmony within and among our communities – welcoming all who live among us, whatever their background, their nationality, their creed. We therefore strongly urge all people of faith not only to stand up and speak out for the well-being of all who live within the Western Cape, without distinction, and to monitor and swiftly report any incidents or threats of violence to the police.

Where, tragically, violence does occur, we call on all religious communities to render humanitarian services. We underline our insistence that this should be unconditionally given, regardless of the faith of those assisted, and without any expectation of religious or other commitments being made in response to the help received.

Finally, we affirm our readiness at all times to respond to humanitarian needs, wherever they present themselves, and note the ongoing assistance and development programmes that so many of us run on an ongoing basis within the neediest communities of the Western Cape. Yet bearing in mind the particular needs of the present time, we announce that the WCRLF has today established a Faith Sector Task Team which will monitor developments, and coordinate appropriate responses, as necessary.

Issued on 14 July 2010 by the Office of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and the WCRLF. For further information contact Elizabeth Petersen, Consultant, WCRLF, Tel: 021 462 2277; Cell: 082 4755116; Email:

Tuesday 13 July 2010

To the Laos - To The People of God, July 2010

Dear People of God

Well, the World Cup is finally over! Spain has won, in a thrilling final, and the celebrations will, I am sure, continue for a long time.

We also have cause for continuing celebration. The first tournament on African soil was a resounding success, from almost every perspective, even if Bafana Bafana, and then the Black Stars of Ghana, did not progress as far as we had hoped. It was the a vivid affirmation of all that is best in our societies – people of every background uniting in love of the ‘beautiful game’; and proof, if it be needed, that with focus, commitment, hard work and perseverance, we can achieve whatever we set our hearts and minds to do!

So let me encourage you, especially if you feel a little ‘down’ that it is over, to spend a few moments reflecting on all that you found best in the tournament – and thank God. St Paul says ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Phil 4:8). And so we should, whether because we overcame all the sceptics’ predictions and so have given a huge boost to potential increases in tourism and investment and economic upliftment; or because crime fell; or because for those of us in South Africa in particular there truly was a glorious sense of the whole nation coming together. We can sustain and build on all these to develop healthy societies for all our people. (I commend the Keep Flying the Flag campaign, as a visible sign of holding on to all we have achieved. See

There is also a challenge here – particularly to politicians and government services. If South Africa can deliver on the World Cup, the largest sporting event apart from the Olympics (and we may be bidding for that, next!), then really, any government ought to be able to deliver on health, education, housing, water and sanitation, and the other needs of its people. All it takes is focus, commitment, hard work and perseverance. Of course, we know that there are steep, high, mountains to climb in some sectors – but we should all be optimistic, because we now know what can be done, if we truly want to do it, and keep working at it.

Did you know that Danny Jordaan and his team first began planning for South Africa to bid for the World Cup 16 years ago, in 1994? I mention this, because we can be encouraged to think big, and think long term, in our planning. This is of course what we are doing in our ‘Vision 2020’ process at Provincial Synod at the end of September. Do keep our Synod preparations in your prayers.

But I also want individuals – young people in particular – to dare to think big, and think long term. Especially dare to think ‘on your knees’, asking God how he wants you to use your life so you can make the biggest possible God-shaped difference in the world! Helping build God’s kingdom, pursuing a life of eternal significance, is a far more profound measure of success than seeking money or status. Not everyone can be rich or famous, but everyone can become God’s valuable instrument. For some this may mean becoming teachers, nurses, doctors; or upholding the highest ethical values in some commercial walk of life. If you marry and have children, it certainly means being the best spouse, the best parent, you can be. And for some it will mean saying ‘Yes’ to God’s call to some form of full time Christian service – even the precious vocation of ordained ministry.

We should encourage all our young people to listen to God’s calling on their lives, and consider the possibility of ordination. This was one of the themes of the Anglican Students’ Fellowship Conference in Lesotho last month. It was my great joy to join them there. I’m also looking forward to the Annual Consultation of Diocesan Youth Councils in Swaziland in September. ‘Protection and Nurture of Children and Young People’ is one of the eight priority areas of our Vision, not only within the life of faith, but also through promoting their safety and well-being across wider society. We are also deliberately ensuring we take account of the perspective of young people in tackling our other priority areas, across everything from liturgical renewal to leadership development, health, and the environment.

The needs of young people have been in my mind in other ways recently. Last month I participated in the hand-over to the Governing Body and Department of Education of Mzamowethu pre-primary school, in Mzam’omhle township, which had been built with the support of St Martin’s in Gonubie. We congratulate the community on this achievement! And last week, I joined the launch of an initiative of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Institute, and Equal Education (of which I am a patron) to promote reading and fully functioning libraries in all the public schools of South Africa, as a tribute to Madiba on his birthday. I hope all your churches have received my message encouraging you to become collection points for books that can be donated to local schools. If you haven’t seen it, you will find it on my blog at

If you have internet access, you can follow my latest news by ‘subscribing’ at the bottom of the web page. Then you will get an email whenever anything is posted, to keep you up to date. You can see there that I have had a busy few months, even though I have tried to be on holiday during July! I was privileged to give an address at a UN Africa Consultation on the Status of Jerusalem earlier this month – and was able to speak up for our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters, whose voice is so often unheard. Do keep them in mind, as you ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Ps 122:6). Last month I addressed the annual USPG conference about ‘Mission Realities for Southern African Anglicans’ and spoke about how our hugely diverse Province holds together ‘in Christ’, finding our unity ‘at the foot of the cross’. Do pray that the Anglican Communion may hold fast to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, as the source of both unity and truth. You can read the full texts of my speeches on the blog or the ACSA website.

This month, please pray especially for the Diocese of Mbhashe that will be inaugurated on 16 July; and for Archdeacon Daniel Kgomosotho and his family, as he is consecrated the new Bishop of Mpumalanga, on 24 July.

Yours in the Service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town

Friday 9 July 2010

Human trafficking and the call for a new collective response

This statement was issued on 9 July 2010

Over the last few weeks, the world's attention has been focused on South Africa like never before as we hosted one of the world's biggest sporting events - the FIFA Football World Cup. However, this honour brings even greater challenges for us as a country, away from the glory of the soccer fields: the need to acknowledge and tackle the desperate problem of human trafficking.

As many visit our country from around the world to share in our wonderful natural attractions, rich cultures and traditions, there are also many who seek to take terrible advantage of this influx of tourists. The World Cup has provided opportunities for abusers, exploiters and traffickers to meet the perceived increased demand for cheap labour and sexual services. Inevitably, it is the most vulnerable in our society who suffer at their hands.

Human trafficking is modern day slavery, most commonly seen in the form of prostitution or sweat-shop labour. Those at most risk tend to be young girls or women who are tricked into enslaved prostitution by men who may initially pose as boyfriends or friends, to gain their confidence and trust. In reality they are pimps who isolate and control them. They may take away victims’ money and identity documents, keep them locked indoors, make them dependent for food and even drugs. They then force them, often through threats or actual violence to them or their families, to sell their bodies to clients on the street or work in unsafe or illegal sweat shops.

In South Africa, young girls are trafficked from one province to another, or from neighbouring countries, to work in brothels. But this problem is international. It is estimated that as many as 27 million people have been victims of human trafficking, with around 1 to 2 million people trafficked every year. Most victims are young girls between 5 to 15 years of age and half are African, though boys under 18 are also increasingly being lured into sexual exploitation. Crime syndicates target rural areas and informal settlements for vulnerable women, young people, and children, and transport them to urban centres. They are often enticed by the promise of jobs in offices, in modelling, or as domestic workers. Yet on arrival at their destination, the reality is very different.

Poverty is one of the biggest reasons why women, young people and children are at such a huge risk of being exploited and trafficked. The chance to make good, quick money and get a better life is understandably attractive. The breakdown of families, gender discrimination, HIV/AIDS, ignorance and demand also play a role in this tragic reality. This complex problem must be addressed collectively.

While no country has yet attained a truly comprehensive response to this massive, ever increasing, ever changing crime, the World Cup has brought a heightened awareness of what we face. We must now use the opportunity this provides to get to the root causes of human trafficking. To beat this terrible and destructive practice, we need to understand better the social and economic dynamics that create the markets that make human trafficking profitable. With the world's eyes still upon us, South Africa can take a lead in pressing for a comprehensive global response.

How do we find the solutions? We need a combination of international and regional government task forces working with local communities, NGOs and religious groups to put in place effective action plans. With every human trafficker identified and every successful prosecution, lessons should be learned and applied to ensure that others swiftly follow and that trafficking rings are broken. However, it is not enough simply to prosecute the traffickers. We also need to provide emotional and practical support to the victims and survivors.

Individuals need to become more aware of the reality of human trafficking in our country – to learn to identify the signs of trafficking, and to be conscious of this modern ‘slavery footprint’ just as we are of our carbon footprint. We also need to be proactive and support efforts to protect our most vulnerable citizens who may fall prey to traffickers. While we look to our police force to find and prosecute individuals and trafficking rings who inflict this worst kind of human suffering, individuals have the power to help prevent these crimes and protect those who are at most risk. We must also ensure the proposed Human Trafficking legislation for South Africa is passed as soon as possible, to assist law enforcement agencies as well as provide related services and support systems for victims.

We believe that all God’s children are created in the image of God and as such deserve the respect and dignity inherent in their creation. Our Constitution ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.’ Let us therefore all fight against those who would deprive others of what we should all rightly take for granted. Let us fight for a world without human trafficking. Let us make 2010 the year to remember, not just for the World Cup, but as the year that South African society stands united against the traffickers in our country, and makes a positive difference in safeguarding the lives of our most vulnerable people.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Celebrate Madiba's Birthday by Supporting Reading and School Libraries

This statement was issued on 8 July 2010

On the occasion of his 92nd birthday, it is my humble and joyful privilege to send the warm greetings and congratulations of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to our former President, Mr Nelson Mandela.

I am particularly delighted that this year the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Institute and Equal Education are together highlighting the need to promote reading – and especially through the resourcing of school libraries – as a fitting way of marking Madiba’s birthday. There can be no doubt over the importance of reading in his life, at the heart of the education that allowed him to become first a successful lawyer, and later a nation-changing leader and visionary world statesman, whose profound wisdom inspires us all.

Yet today, according to the National Education Infrastructure Management Systems, only 8% of South Africa’s public schools have stocked libraries. Yet children from schools with fully stocked, fully staffed, libraries do significantly better than those who have none. Especially in the first few years of schooling, our learners need to be reading regularly, and come to know the joys of reading for pleasure. School libraries are not a luxury – they are a necessity.

As a patron of Equal Education, I cannot recommend this initiative highly enough. This is something in which we can all become involved as part of our celebration of Mandela Day on 18 July. We can use our 67 minutes to read to someone who cannot read for themselves, perhaps a small child, or an old person. Many of us can also give a book to a child, or to a school, or make a donation that will enable the purchase of suitable volumes.

I commend the Government on their positive involvement with the campaign for school libraries. I challenge local communities, civil society and business, to join hands with government, and throw their weight behind this initiative. In particular, I ask our Parishes to do what they can – encouraging parishioners to bring suitable books to church, so that they can be passed on to schools in their area.

Let us show our love and respect for Madiba on his birthday, by making the effort to ensure that access to a fully stocked, working, school library becomes a school libraries become a reality for all children.

Monday 5 July 2010

Fires in Kennedy Road and Encouraging Lessons from the World Cup

The following Statement on the fires in Durban’s Kennedy Road Informal Settlement was issued on Monday 5 July 2010

‘My heart is very sore at the terrible scenes of devastation in Kennedy Road’ said Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, following the weekend’s massive fires which saw 2 dead and over 2000 left homeless. Addressing the wider needs of those in informal settlements, he added ‘yet the overwhelming success of the World Cup shows that with focus, commitment, hard work and perseverance, we can achieve our goals – we must confidently apply the same effort to service delivery promises.’

Writing to the Bishop of Natal, Rubin Philip, in whose Diocese lies the informal settlement, Dr Makgoba assured the Bishop and people of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa's prayerful support. 'Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones, who have been injured, and who have lost homes and livelihoods. We hold them all in our prayers and in our love, and especially remember before God those who have died. May all in need hear the still small voice of God within the anguish and chaos they face, bringing comfort and strength in the days ahead. I encourage our churches and parishioners to offer what help they can, whether through prayer upholding all who have died, been injured or displaced, or providing practical assistance wherever possible.

At the same time, the Archbishop of Cape Town called for greater political commitment and practical action to address the legitimate needs of the inhabitants of Kennedy Road. ‘They have fought long and hard to achieve their rights, as citizens and residents of this country which now claims to be have one of the most advanced democratic systems in the world, and yet they are still left yearning for justice to be done in their life time. They have been ignored too often. I therefore urge the Province, under Dr Zweli Mkhize, and the Municipality to have the compassion that moves them to swift and effective action in responding to the housing needs of Abahlali, and their other longstanding concerns.’

Dr Makgoba went on to say ‘The continuing existence of settlements such as Kennedy Road are a permanent reminder that not all for which we struggled has yet been achieved. There is still so much to be done, especially in the provision of such basic services as water and sanitation as well as proper shelter. However, I want to encourage government at every level not to feel daunted by the great challenges that still remain in all areas of service delivery. The overwhelming success of the World Cup has shown that South Africans can achieve our goals, when we are focussed and committed, and prepared to work hard with perseverance. If we apply the same effort and confidence to service delivery, there is no doubt that we can deliver on our promises to our people. I shall certainly be praying for and contributing to this outcome, as best I can.’

Friday 2 July 2010

Jerusalem - Pursue Dialogue and Learn the Lessons of the TRC

The following press release was issued on 2 July 2010

Anglican Archbishop tells Middle East to Pursue Dialogue and Learn the Lessons of the TRC

Parties to the Middle East conflict should learn the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, instead of 'futile' argument about whether parallels outweigh the differences with apartheid, said Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, yesterday (1 July), at the UN African Meeting on the Question of Palestine in Rabat, Morocco. One of the most important lessons was that true dialogue must provide adequate opportunity for every voice to be respectfully heard. He called for the perspective of Palestinian Christians not to be overlooked.

Addressing the religious and cultural significance of Jerusalem, Dr Makgoba called on faith communities outside the region to focus on how best to help direct parties to the conflict find a just, sustainable, lasting peace, and to draw on the resources of religion, including generic religoius values. He argued for far greater sensitivity in use of language, especially around the name Jerusalem, since religious, historic, political and other connotations, many symbolic, were often interwoven in confusing and misleading ways.

Note for editors: The two-day meeting has been organised by the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People - see and for further details.

The full text of the Archbishop's address follows below.

The Religious and Cultural Significance of Jerusalem

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honour and privilege to participate in this meeting. It is also a great challenge. First, because this is a vast and complex subject to address in only 15 minutes; and second, because very little has been left unsaid.

In reflecting on the status of Jerusalem from the perspective of its religious and cultural significance, my key question is this: how can people of faith, predominantly from outside the region, best help the direct parties to the conflict find a just, sustainable, lasting, peace?

My experience as a South African tells me genuine dialogue is the only way forward – a way that truly can bridge brutal and violent divisions over many decades. Only dialogue can take us beyond the physical separation barrier, to mention one very obvious symbol on the Israeli side; or beyond the disparate, and even contradictory, voices, stances, actions, on the Palestinian side.

To talk about Jerusalem, we must first ask ourselves, ‘What do I mean by “Jerusalem”?’. We all have many different Jerusalems. There are:

- Christian, Jewish and Muslim Jerusalems;

- past, present and future Jerusalems;

- spiritual Jerusalems, geographical Jerusalems and political Jerusalems;

- the Jerusalems experienced by those who live there;

- the Jerusalems of spectators from outside;

- and the Jerusalems of ideologies, international posturing and power games.

We use one word for them all.

The incongruity of this hit me when I was privileged to visit the sprawling modern city two years ago. My brief visit taught me how little I know what I am doing when I use the word ‘Jerusalem’.

The huge range of meanings, some allegorical or symbolic, often become confused and misleading. Faith communities need to take particular care – for we appropriate, and interpret into our own situations, texts written by people separated by centuries, even millennia. These were written in very different cultures, addressing very different circumstances to those we face today. None of our Scriptures are what we might call balanced forensic history, telling the whole story with the sort of accuracy we might expect from a UN Commission today.

While some of our holy writings do include historic narratives written from very particular perspectives, others are far more symbolic. For example, the last book of the Bible describes God’s promise of heaven, our eternal destiny, as ‘the new Jerusalem’. This is clearly not to be confused with a specific physical place. Yet, believing they somehow convey eternal truths, we appropriate all these powerful images, and the subsequent centuries of tradition, through the inevitably distorting lenses of our own particular perspectives of context and experience.

I challenge us to be far more aware of these different associations – alongside all those of more recent history and politics – in our own usages. In our own speaking, are we conscious of how many meanings we weave together – and of how they can become unhelpfully tangled and confused? Do we recognise the filters we employ in our listening? And as others speak, do we acknowledge that if the name Jerusalem stirs up such complex associations for us, then it is legitimate that it is similarly, if differently, evocative, for others?

Effective dialogue requires much more mindful, and careful, use of language. We must be much more deliberate and honest, in unmasking the implicit meanings and connotations that contribute to this one name, Jerusalem, bearing such vast and complex significance. Only then will we be able to speak clearly, and know ourselves heard, and understand the different levels on which we are communicating.

For such associations powerfully touch not only our heads, but our hearts, our souls – the deepest fibres of our being. We cannot discuss Jerusalem together if we attempt – or pretend – to do so only with our intellects. We can only deal constructively if we are also prepared to bare our hearts and souls to one another, and share in profound honesty, acknowledging all the different resonances within us. This requires a degree of mutual vulnerability that is very challenging, when we recall what blood has been spilled around the question of Jerusalem.

Yet this should, paradoxically, give us courage. For engaging in mutual vulnerability can help overcome our tendency to objectify others, by putting us in touch with what we share as human beings. This is the key to genuine dialogue – where everyone is granted the dignity to tell their stories, in their own terms, and be heard respectfully, and begin to trust one another.

Only dialogue can build trust. And without trust, we cannot go forward – we cannot make the essential move from ‘conversation’ to ‘implementation’. Implementation, speedy implementation, is the vital goal: such as safeguarding the Palestinian suburb of Silwan in East Jerusalem from the ‘King’s Garden’ archaeological park project – a necessary trust-building step on the path to a long term just and peaceful solution.

Our faiths offer further valuable resources, in insisting that we deal with the whole human person: heart, soul, mind, and body; and that we speak with honesty, patience, forbearance, generosity. Bearing such generic religious values in mind also helps identify what hinders true dialogue.

In addition, faith can enrich secular political language. So, for example, human rights talk is transformed when we regard every person as of eternal significance and value, since each one bears the mark of our divine creator. Holy justice promises the possibility of win-win solutions, and frees us from zero-sum thinking.

Faith helps us dare to live as those who believe that blessings come when we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and practice radical forgiveness. My predecessor but one as Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, helped us harness this power of God for good, when he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was perhaps inevitable that I should speak about our TRC today. But let us not be naïve in relation to the situation in the Holy Land. There are parallels with apartheid, but there are also differences, and it is futile to argue which dominate. Let me rather share lessons that we learnt.

One of the most important was that true dialogue ensures that voices which are weakest, most marginal, or excluded altogether, are given space and safety to be heard. People of faith know this, because in God’s eyes everyone matters.

Therefore let me turn to the perspective of the Palestinian Christians, whose voice often goes unheard. I do not presume to speak for them. When the Anglican Communion deplores violence and calls for an end to blockades and occupation, the freezing of settlements, the demolition of the wall, and so forth – we do so working closely with Anglicans in the Holy Land.

Let me commend two particular resources, for better understanding the significance of Jerusalem from the perspective of the Palestinian Christians. First, the works of Palestinian Christian theologians, such as Naim Ateek, especially on Biblical interpretation. And second, the Palestinian Kairos document, published by leaders of the main historic churches, East and West, last December (and available online).

In some respects, this echoes the original ‘Kairos Document’, written by black South African theologians in 1985. Kairos is one of the Biblical words for time – a decisive moment, where action needs to be taken. Our Kairos document was a Christian, biblical and theological commentary on the apartheid crisis of that time. Through it we explored how faith, culture and politics were interwoven. While they could not be wholly separated, we and our cause were nonetheless hugely helped by seeing clearly how each impinged upon the others in how we understood our situation.

The Palestinian Kairos document is similarly ‘a document of faith and work’ which describes current realities, and how their beliefs are both challenged by, and shape their assessment of, the situation today and their hopes for tomorrow. They beautifully sum up the religious, cultural, and political significance of Jerusalem in the following passage [quote]:

'Jerusalem is the foundation of our vision and our entire life. She is the city to which God gave a particular importance in the history of humanity. She is the city towards which all people are in movement – and where they will meet in friendship and love in the presence of the One Unique God, according to the vision of the prophet Isaiah … "In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established … and all the nations shall stream to it … They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Is. 2: 2-5).

'Today, the city is inhabited by two peoples of three religions; and it is on this prophetic vision and on the international resolutions concerning the totality of Jerusalem that any political solution must be based. This is the first issue that should be negotiated because the recognition of Jerusalem's sanctity and its message will be a source of inspiration towards finding a solution to the entire problem, which is largely a problem of mutual trust and ability to set in place a new land in this land of God.' [end of quote]

Wise words indeed. So let all of us who are people of faith – especially those of us from the faith communities of this holy city – join in praying for and working to effect the peace, God’s just and lasting peace, of Jerusalem, of all our Jerusalems.


UN African Meeting on the Question of Palestine: Address given in the Plenary Session on the Status of Jerusalem