Saturday 15 April 2017

Archbishop Thabo's sermon for the Easter Vigil

The following is the text of the sermon preached by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba at the Easter Vigil at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, tonight:

Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Happy Easter to you all.

We come to this Easter Sunday, to this open tomb, with the dark reality of our country very much at the forefront of our minds. Over these Lenten days we have come to the lowest point in our political life. Like many, I feel that the dream of South Africa sometimes feels more like a nightmare, a prolonged Passiontide, so to speak. Personal interests, corruption, private gain, entitlement, a vicious contempt for the poor and the common good, a culture of blatant lies and cronyism—and possibly worse—dominate our public landscape.

This past week, the nightmare got worse as the full impact of the President's recent actions unfolded. They have devastated our hopes for the kind of foreign investment which we desperately need to grow our economy and create new jobs. Their impact on consumer confidence and trust is immeasurable. Tens of thousands of jobs are directly affected by just a 10 percent drop in consumer confidence. If we cannot turn the situation around, at end of the road we are now on, we face the prospect of employees fired; shops shuttering; malls closing; the poor unable to afford bread, paraffin, electricity and the cost of burials; possible hyperinflation—it is as if we are entering the Zimbabwe moment.

In this hour we grieve because the words of GK Chesterton, used to such effect by Trevor Huddleston as apartheid's grip intensified in the 1950s, are again apt now:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Many of us over the past days have felt a deep resonance with the gospel observation [in John 13:30] that when Judas left the room in which the disciples shared the Last Supper with Jesus, we are told “it was night.” Every time anyone turns their back on love, betrays the bonds of fellowship and steals from others, it is night! This is true for us in South Africa and indeed in so many, far too many, other parts of the world.

Our nightmare is similar to that under which the ancient Hebrews lived in tonight's reading. In our case, while we aren't being disadvantaged by colonial slavery any longer—and no matter what anyone says, colonialism was for most of us a form of slavery—while colonialism and apartheid are over, some of our institutions, part of our economy and some among our leaders have become slaves to a new form of colonial oppression.  It is a moral and economic oppression that manifests itself in the form of one family's capture of our country, and a president whose integrity, soul and heart have been compromised.

Yet, even as we survey this and the litany of other social pathologies that afflict our country and our world, we have in faith to say that even though it is absolutely true that darkness overwhelms us, the events at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Day signal a greater victory, a more abundant truth. At the heart of the message of the Resurrection of Jesus is the stubborn insistence that nothing is irrevocable. No betrayal is final. There is no loss that cannot be redeemed. It is never too late to start again. As John Shea reminds us: “What the Resurrection teaches us is not how to live but how to live again and again!”

The promise of Easter can be likened to what I call the new struggle in South Africa. In that struggle, the realisation of the promise of Easter is measured not only by how soon we replace the current administration, but by how well we ready ourselves for what comes next. How do we prepare ourselves for the future after the end of a deeply corrupt regime? After President Zuma has fallen, will those who benefit from his patronage fall too? Because if we change leaders but the patronage system that the current leadership has produced doesn't change; if state-owned enterprises, the prosecution and law-enforcement agencies remain captured by corrupt interests, we are no better off.

The Resurrection doesn’t only recall the fact that God raised the body of Jesus from the dead. It certainly means that, but it also means that that power raises us from the multiple tombs that hold us in captivity. In one of the last days leading up to the Passion we read that wonderful story, that precursor of Easter Sunday, when Jesus, having wept at the tomb of Lazarus, also called him out of the tomb. He challenged him to leave the places of death and to walk away from its shadows.

Over the past days, as we have recalled how Jesus called Lazarus to leave an environment that offered him no future, hundreds of thousands of South Africans have issued the same challenge to those in public life. Ordinary South Africans, in their places of work, in their places of worship, and tens of thousands of them on the streets, have issued a call to our political leaders. They have called on them to come out from the places that hold them in bondage to the death of greed, in bondage to the lust for and the seduction of power, in bondage to the shadow of moral corruption that has enveloped South Africa.

Ordinary South Africans have called to their leaders, just as Jesus did to Lazarus: Come out! Come out of the tomb! To those who are economically, socially and morally deaf; to those who ignore the crisis of distrust that has cast the longest and darkest shadow our great country has ever seen in the democratic era, ordinary South Africans have said:

  • Don’t stay in places that will pull us all into a culture that wounds or kills us. 
  • Don't be overtaken by the culture into which our President and some of our elected officials have descended. 
  • Don't ignore the pleas, cries and profound sense of pain and suffering that plague our wonderful and beautiful nation.

If Resurrection is about the fact that good will triumph over evil, justice over injustice, hope over despair, then part of that resurrection dynamic means, for us, that we call out the dead and those who deal in death, that we remind them that their destiny is to be in the Upper Room, that place where new life emerges, where the power to restore is released and where joy is glimpsed amidst even the residual sadness. Resurrection means that we can start again, that life is a story of multiple beginnings but that it challenges us to call the dead out of the tomb as a first step.

What does being obedient to Jesus and following in his footsteps entail this Easter? What does it mean for us to imitate his voice in our own Lazarus moment? What are our obligations as citizens, all of us with equal rights and responsibilities under the Constitution? You've heard me say this before: our destiny is not a matter of chance. It is a matter of choice.  Your choice. My choice. Our choice. To all gathered here on this most holy night: if there was ever a time we needed to rise up and take ownership of our future, it is now.

South Africa needs real leaders who must be ready to sacrifice all to ensure dignity, equality, opportunity and freedom for all of our people. We cannot and should not ever be afraid to raise our voices for honesty, truth and compassion, and against injustice and lying and greed. It is time to take sides. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond has said, "If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." We need to rise up, to stand up and speak up for our rights, our children's rights and our grandchildren's rights.

Let us acknowledge that the old order, the economic system which makes us one of the most unequal societies on earth, must go. Let us challenge the narrative of the corrupt, who use that old order as a figleaf behind which they hide their greed. As I have said before, we need to overcome the skewed racial ordering of our economy and the obscene inequality which it produces, not by indulging the rapacious greed of a few politically-connected individuals, but by building a new, fairer society which distributes wealth more equitably for all.

We are God's engineers and everything of meaning and importance that we have accomplished in the past 24 years has been the result of refusing to be stopped by the walls that divide us, and demonstrating our ability to be exceptional bridge builders. Let the different interest groups and elements of our society which are committed to these ideals—whether rich or poor, whether black, white, coloured or Indian, whether Christian, Communist, Muslim, Hindu or Jew—let us all find one another in a powerful, united coalition which puts first the interests of the poor and thereby the interests of all of us.

While the Mandela and Mbeki administrations made mistakes—among them, shutting down dissent from within the ANC's parliamentary caucus—their record shows that if government pulls together representatives of different interest groups, we can find rational, workable solutions to our most difficult problems. In that spirit, let us turn this moment of crisis into a moment of opportunity and convene a land Codesa to negotiate a solution to this emotional issue and, in the light of the downgrades of our credit ratings, an economic Codesa too.

In this new struggle, let us reject the participation of white racists who don't believe that black people are capable of running a country or an economy. They are not welcome on marches and protests. Let us also not be distracted by hurtful and anachronistic comments on colonialism. Let us also reject those who want an unequal, tribal, sexist and racialized South Africa, and who exploit the views of a minority of racists to portray their opponents as stooges and to threaten white compatriots for exercising their civic rights.

To all politicians—Mr President, Honourable Members of Parliament, Madam Premier—we appeal to all of you to rise above your petty everyday squabbles and obsessions and to recognise this as a turning point in our history. My father once gave me a very important lesson: You can, he said, if you think you can. It's just a matter of removing the apostrophe and the “t” from can't. I want to issue a special challenge to our MPs tonight: when you are called upon to decide on whether you have confidence in our President, vote for the country's future, and not for your own pockets. You should know that:

South Africa will be watching.
The world will be watching.
Vote your conscience. 

There is something particularly poignant in Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. The greatest news in all history, the turning point in human affairs, the testimony to the relentless love of God so much stronger than even death, is entrusted to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. It is entrusted to two women, to people who in the first place had the courage to confront the power of death by going to the tomb and, as it were, taking on that seemingly immutable power. The Good News of the Gospel was announced to those who in the culture of the time were marginalised and often discriminated against, the victims of abuse, poor and unnecessarily burdened.

Resurrection narratives are entrusted to those who do not shrink before the challenges of history and are not cowered by what seems insurmountable, strong and unchanging. It is often the poor, the discriminated against, the victims of oppression, who slowly tire of death and begin to live differently, to live resurrection lives and so announce a new moment in history. it is often that bottom billion of the world who through their testimonies of resistance and fearlessness offer us moments of hope and therefore of resurrection. To them, as indeed to us, is entrusted the good news that life is changed now, not ended and that every moment of life is caught up in new possibilities.

At this moment in our history, where we are faced with hard choices that take us out of our comfort zones, we need to hear Jesus’s resurrection words: “Be not afraid, go and tell.”

In closing, let me share with each of you a very personal message, from my heart to yours: God loves you and so do I.

God bless you, God bless your family, and God bless South Africa. May it be so at this challenging Easter time. Alleluia!


  1. Abp. Thabo, I'm writing this from the U.S. Your sermon is very poignant to many here who share your concern about government that pushes Christ's (and our) poor aside. My wife and I belong to a Episcopal parish family in the state of Washington, St. Stephen's, and the need for God's love in the midst of resisting injustice and advocating for peace was preached at our Easter Vigil last evening. I offer prayers for South Africa, and the Province of Southern Africa and all its people. Praise God! Thomas Finlay

  2. A most moving cal for integrity, courage and truth. To be fought for in this critical time by all South Africans. Strong and powerful with great moral persuasion. Archbishop, thank you for shedding clarity, taking on those who hide their racism by semantics, 'I never meant it like that', and those who are destroying our country and ferreting the poor. Thank you for your vision.


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