Friday 15 September 2023

Sermon preached at a Memorial Service for Steve Biko


Anglican Church of Southern Africa

Diocese of Grahamstown

Bantu Stephen Biko Memorial Service

St Andrew’s, Ginsberg

The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop and Metropolitan

Sunday, 10th September 2023

Readings: Philippians 3:7-11; Ps 126; Matthew 10: 16-22

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives, Amen.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Vicar-General Bubele Mfenyana, members of Chapter present, clergy of the Diocese, St Andrew’s family, Mrs Ntsiki Biko and your family, dear people of God: I count it a privilege to be here with you as we give thanks to God for the life and witness of Bantu Stephen Biko, decorated as a Martyr of Hope by our church. More than that, it is an honour to have been asked to celebrate with you at this moment in the life of the Ginsberg community and the Diocese. May I thank Archdeacon Mfenyana, Rector of St Andrew's, together with Canon Noluthando Gixana his Assistant, the church-wardens, Mrs Thokozile Nogoduka, Ms Sive Gixana and Mr Sigqibo Gaika, together with your entire team for the practical arrangements for this service. Thank you everyone for the wonderful, warm welcome we received on our arrival here this morning. Thank you also to those who gave of their time to help prepare for today.

As we celebrate and commemorate this wonderful son of our land, a husband and a father, we give thanks to God for all the unsung heroes and heroines who during times past and present have kept the Gospel light burning here, proclaiming that Gospel through their lives, their zeal, their prayers and their service and witness. Today, we extend our gratitude also to God for his sustaining care for you, particularly during the past turbulent times we have been through, and for affording you this time of great hope and opportunity, even though of course it comes with challenges.

Bantu Biko is remembered today for being willing to sacrifice even his life because of what he believed in: the restoration of dignity and self-worth of black South Africans, leading to the emancipation of all South Africans and the achievement of equality for all God's people. As the Anglican Church declared when we added his name to whose whom we commemorate every year as historic icons in our church, being human and humane was a foundational ethic for Steve Biko. We went on to record how he worked to instill a sense of pride and identity in black South Africans, how he challenged the institutional church to be an instrument of human dignity and freedom, and how he worked tirelessly towards fulfilling a vision of a transformed South Africa and world. And for daring to proclaim and live out his and our humanity, he was tortured and brutally beaten, dying a martyr's death.

As he said during his life, “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” And indeed, the idea for which he died lived on, and it lives on today. Not only did his martyrdom mark the beginning of a new era for the struggle for justice and liberation in our country, his message is as relevant to our struggling, suffering nation today as it was when he proclaimed it half a century ago. So we continue to give thanks to God for his life and witness. Today especially, we give thanks for you, Mrs Ntsiki Biko and your family; we acknowledge your own sacrifices and suffering, and a grateful church and nation gives profound thanks to God for you and the lives you have lived and continue to live. To you, we say: sithi enkosi.

All three of our readings today speak to us in different ways about the legacy of Bantu Stephen Biko:

  • the Psalm, when it tells of the rejoicing of a nation whose fortunes were restored, as our nation's were in 1994 as a result of the sacrifices our liberation heroes and heroines made;

  • Matthew's Gospel when it warns of the wolves who will betray their brothers and their children, like those wolves who prey on our people and the national fiscus today; and

  • St Paul who reassures the Philippians of the righteousness that ultimately will come from God through faith in Christ, and of coming to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.

It is no coincidence that the psalmist reminds us about sowing and reaping. These two are intertwined. The gladness of this psalm is unmistakable, yet there is no simple solution on earth for the problems of the people of God, no single act of God which will bring them into unbroken joy, rid them of temptations or establish them in perfection this side of heaven. Scholars associate this psalm with the period of the return of the people of Israel from exile when God’s mighty deliverance was followed by disappointment. Just as the psalm speaks of hope to a people depressed by the turn of events they were experiencing, it can speak to us too in an era when the early successes of our democracy have been replaced by disappointment at the current state of South Africa.

And, sisters and brothers, Matthew’s reading (10:16ff) assures us that amid betrayal, pain and suffering, by relying on God we can allay our anxiety, whether concerning material things or words. The hatred being experienced by those who were bringing a message of love to the world was particularly hard to bear, as was the charge that they themselves hated humanity. But in this passage Jesus is inviting us to endure, to be wise and firm to the end.

Writing to the Philippians from prison, Paul declared that all he had learned, all he had experienced, he counted but loss compared to the single gain of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). Paul had suffered the loss of everything that mattered most in his life – his place in Judaism, his place among the Pharisees, perhaps even his place in his home. But this was nothing when placed against the power of the Resurrection. His experience on the road to Damascus had converted him from being self-centred to being centred in Christ. Now he wants to live in that knowledge of Christ, which is fellowship, obedience, and service. His great ambition and longing is to share in Christ's sufferings, even unto death, and thus to know the power of Christ's resurrection in his daily experience.

As we commemorate Bantu Stephen Biko today, what is it that we can learn from these Bible passages? What is your great ambition and longing in the here and now for your family, your community and even for our country and the world? What can each of us take back to our homes, our parishes, and our diocese?

It is instructive to look back at Steve's challenge to the churches in his exhortations to the clergy and on black theology in 1971 and 1972. In a memorable phrase, he said that at the time a large proportion of black Christians were “swimming in a mire of confusion” as a result of the influence of the missionaries. In some areas we have made progress in the last half century, certainly in that the leadership of the churches, if you look at the make-up of the episcopate in our own church, is far more representative of the membership than it was then. But if we look at how we are still debating how to sync admirable African cultural traditions with our theology and faith, we still have a way to go if we are, in his words, to turn our model of the church “into one we cherish, we love, we understand, and one that is relevant to us.”

But it is even more instructive to look at his wider thoughts on South African society. Shining through his philosophy is the objective of inculcating in black people a pride in who they are with a view to fighting their exploitation by their overlords, winning back their dignity and establishing the economic conditions in which, to quote the Johannine Jesus, all “may have life and have it in abundance." (John 10:10) It is in our failure to live up to this challenge that we have failed Bantu Stephen Biko and his legacy most spectacularly. Implicit in his philosophy is the requirement that the democratically-elected leaders of a liberated South Africa should rule in the interests of all the people, not a self-selected elite; that they should lead with integrity and with caring for others, especially the poorest of the poor; that they should be good stewards of the people's resources and neither waste nor steal the people's money, gathered and held in trust by the State. Implicit in his philosophy is the requirement that public infrastructure and services meant to supply people with food, water, electricity, transport and schooling should be properly developed and maintained; and that people should live in clean, safe housing, not in run-down, rat-infested fire traps.

In recent weeks, I have made “Walks of Witness” to sites in the Johannesburg city centre which are emblematic of the rot that infests parts of our structures of government at present. I toured the site of the gas explosion in Lilian Ngoyi Street, and the former Joburg pass office in Albert Street, where 77 people died smoke-induced, fiery deaths. I grew up in Johannesburg, I commuted through the city centre as a schoolboy, and I have lived in Anglican parishes in the city centre. When I see how it has deteriorated in the democratic era, I cry for my beloved city. And to think that Steve died to secure our right to vote, and that these tragedies occurred on the watch of the very people we voted into office, makes me want to weep.

Friends, I want to thank you in this city and region for what you do to help our communities to live in harmony with one another, to guide them away from simply fulfilling selfish ambitions and to encourage efficient and honest service to the public. As I end, it is my prayer that as the faithful of this beloved diocese, and as clergy and lay people alike, you will continue to ensure that the legacy and sacrifice of forebears such as Steve Biko and all the other Saints of our land is not in vain.

May you all, as you discern together, be open to the moulding of God who calls you and holds you in his palms like clay, working to perfect you as you seek to follow Christ's example like Paul.

Congratulations on this successful commemoration service, and may God bless you, this diocese, our province, South Africa, and the world.

God loves you and so do I.


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