Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Father Michael Lapsley and The Healing of Memories

The following is an address by Father Michael Lapsley, as he accepted an honorary degree at the Graduation Ceremony of the University of KwaZulu-Natal on April 19, 2008. I find his words to be enlightening, inspiring, and most of all, something worth sharing to as many people as possible…

I am greatly honored and humbled to have been chosen to be among the first six recipients of honorary degrees by this new University of KwaZulu-Natal. I extend my congratulations to all my fellow graduates, their families and all those who supported them and sacrificed for them.

I am very pleased that this ceremony is taking place in Durban. For it is here that my own South African journey began in 1973. As a newly ordained priest, the Anglican religious community to which I belong, the Society of the Sacred Mission, transferred me from Australia to South Africa (Of course I was born in New Zealand and I am delighted and honored that the High Commissioner of New Zealand, H.E. Malcom McGoun is with us today). I have often said that the day I arrived in South Africa, I stopped being a human being and became a white man.

In 1974 I became a student at Howard College. That I became an undergraduate there 34 years ago makes this moment particularly poignant. I am sure some of you will be convinced of how stupid I am that it has taken me 34 years from first year to graduation.

Whilst still an undergraduate I became Anglican chaplain to the three Durban campuses - Howard College, the black Medical school and the Alan Taylor residence in Wentworth; and the University of Durban Westville. In those days, visiting each of those campuses was like travelling to three different planets. I soon came to appreciate beautiful human beings of every hue and also realized that oppressors and oppressed were all prisoners of the evil system - all dehumanized - not just those who suffered but also those who benefitted.

Early in my time as a chaplain, I told a black medical student that I did not believe in apartheid. He said: "Father, that's very nice, where are you going to sleep tonight?" I was returning to the white suburb where I lived by law. I realized that I could choose to be against apartheid although I was still its beneficiary.

Before arriving in South Africa I was a convinced pacifist, shaped by the writings of Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I preached pacifism to blacks and whites. The apartheid state thought I was a good person whenever I told black people not to fight back. When I asked white students to consider not joining the SADF the conversation itself was illegal.

I came to see the power of language to confuse and mystify reality – the armed response to structural and institutional violence was called "terrorism". The state called its violence the "defense of law and order".

Before I came to South Africa, I knew apartheid was evil. Only when I came here, did I fully realize that, not only was it claimed that apartheid came out of divine guidance, but that Christianity, in a perverted form, was the principal ideological weapon of the apartheid state.

Then came 1976, the turning point for me and my generation. Soweto exploded. School children were shot in the streets. Sitting in class seemed so irrelevant in the face of what was happening in the streets. Young people faced death and torture became widespread. Anglican students elected me as their National chaplain in July 1976. I began to speak out - often trying to tell those who didn’t want to hear what was happening under their noses. At the end of September 1976, I was expelled from South Africa before I could complete my undergraduate degree.

My reflection on the killing of school children brought me to the conclusion that people had a right to defend themselves. I became convinced that armed struggle had become morally legitimate, necessary and justified. Increasingly I became aware that we would all pay a high cost for that option. As Oliver Tambo once said: "They forced us into it".

I went to live in Lesotho and continued my studies at the National University of Lesotho. While living in South Africa I began to read the Bible in the light of the context in which I found myself - namely a situation where there is massive oppression - not just from what the church had told me throughout my life.

It was clear that from Genesis to Revelation God was a partial and a partisan God - making us all in God's own image and likeness whilst taking sides with those at the bottom - the poorest and most downtrodden. I came to see that the Good News of Jesus Christ was primarily about the here and now even though it stretched beyond the grave. The spiritual is a way of viewing the whole not an aspect of the whole. The Latin Americans taught me that "orthopraxis" was as important as "orthodoxy". In the Biblical record, justice and worship are two sides of the same coin. During the apartheid years everything significant in life was called politics and deemed in a totally unbiblical way to be outside the concern of faithful Christians.

When I left South Africa I was faced with a theological problem, a faith problem. The Bible told me that I must love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and my neighbor as myself. But I could not be a neighbor to a black person. I was locked into an oppressor/oppressed relationship. My faith problem took the form of a political system which itself claimed divine guidance. I had to act politically to solve my faith problem.

The illegitimate government of South Africa had expelled me. I asked to become a member of the African National Congress of South Africa thereby becoming a citizen in a future legitimate state. I joined the struggle to recover my own humanity in solidarity with black people struggling for their own freedom.

And so began a new journey - accompanying a people in exile - seeking to be a voice of comfort and hope to those who fought and dreamed of returning home - a journey that was to last sixteen years and nearly cost me my life.

It was in the struggle that I began to honor and appreciate people of different faiths as well as those who profess no religious beliefs. I came to see that we needed not simply to tolerate other faiths and cultures but to respect, reverence and learn from them if the human family was to live in peace and harmony.

My work in the ANC was pastoral, educational and theological - seeking to unmask and delegitimize the claim of the apartheid regime that it was a Christian government. My way of formulating it was to say that apartheid was an option or a choice for death carried out in the name of the Gospel of life. Therefore, especially for Christians, but also for all people of faith, it was a faith issue to oppose apartheid and to embrace liberation. A great deal of my own energy was spent fighting for the end to the death penalty.

After the Maseru massacre of 1982, I was forced to leave Lesotho. It was at that time, that I made a vow that my own life would be dedicated to ending apartheid and building a different kind of society. From 1983 till 1992, I lived in Zimbabwe. In the mid eighties, the Zimbabwean authorities told me that I was on a hit list. I asked myself: what is it that I am living for if a government wishes to kill me. So began my years of living with armed police guards.

Of course the irony is that the only automatic weapon I have ever used is my tongue. They eventually took away my hands and left my weapon reasonably intact.

Three months after Mandela was released, the De Klerk government sent me a letter bomb to my home in Zimbabwe, hidden inside the pages of a religious magazine. You can see some of the results.

A new journey had begun. In the midst of great pain, I felt God's presence with me.

I was taken back to the simplicity of a faith learnt in early childhood. For the first 4 months I was as helpless as a new born baby - I could do nothing for myself. I remembered a holy picture out of the orthodox tradition - it showed Jesus - not as western art normally does, with the perfect white male body – but with one leg shorter than the other - picking up the image from Isaiah that the Messiah was disfigured.

This helped and comforted me as I faced the reality of permanent major physical disability. I came to see that disability, brokenness and incompleteness is the norm of the human family - we need God and one another to be fully human.

After a month in hospital in Harare and 7 months in two Australian hospitals I felt I had gained my first doctorate as a hospital patient. When I returned to Zimbabwe I went to see my bishop. He looked surprised to see me. I thought maybe he was not used to God answering his prayers. He said "But you are disabled now, what can you do?" I told him that I could drive a car. He looked terrified - imagining I suppose that he might be on the same road as me. I said I thought I could be more of a priest with no hands than with two hands. My brokenness is visible; for most people it is invisible.

Through the prayers and love of people around the world God helped me to travel a journey from being a victim to being a survivor to becoming a victor. Chief Lutuli once said that those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the victimizers of others - a cycle which may continue in individuals and in nations for many generations.

Often the key to breaking the cycle that turns victims into victimizers is when there is not just knowledge of wrong that has happened but acknowledgment.

Today my own work lies in the field of healing of memories - creating safe and sacred spaces where people can begin the journey of acknowledging and letting go of that which is destructive inside them and taking from the past that which is life giving - to speak theologically - redeeming the past.

Here in KwaZulu Natal, the work of the Institute for Healing of Memories focused firstly on dealing with the effects of political violence and also as time has passed on the stories people have to tell who are affected and infected by HIV and AIDS. We have also created opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers in our midst to be listened to and to share their stories - stories of the wars in our continent and also of our xenophobia - our racism towards the stranger in our midst.

We all know that unless there is effective delivery of basic services, unless we all have our basic needs met, there will never be peace in South Africa. It is equally true that if we don’t attend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds we have inside us, we will continue to infect and poison the hearts of successive generations.

Part of my own vision is that in this province the work of the Institute will grow to include work with people of different faiths, work with people of different races, work with farm workers and farmers, work with prisoners. A high proportion of those who do terrible things have had terrible things done to them.

During the apartheid years as many as seven people were executed every Thursday. Many of us were part of the world wide campaign to stop executions and to abolish the death penalty. How proud I felt when our constitutional court abolished the death penalty - it made me proud to be a South African.

What a tragedy that one amongst us, who himself could have easily become a victim of the death penalty, now encourages our feelings for revenge, by speaking about a referendum. If I had been killed by a letter bomb, I do not believe that my mother would have been comforted by the knowledge that another mothers son was killed by the state.

It was the task of our generation to slay the monster called apartheid. We had no alternative but to lay down our lives. I ask all of you my fellow graduates - what is and what will be your contribution to South Africa the human family?
In my view God has a dream for the people of South Africa as I believe God does for the whole human family. Are we willing to be co-workers in creating that dream?

It is the task of all of us living today to build a different kind of society - gentler kinder and more just. If we want to live in peace and security we have to insist that it cannot be done by having the second most skewed income distribution in the world.

Events at the University of the Free State and racist killings tell us that the journey of unlearning racism has barely begun. The work of reconciliation and healing needs to part of our national project for several generations.

The question for our generation is not have we completed the journey but what has been and will be our contribution.

When you see me, in my physical reality of brokenness, I hope I remind you of the terrible things we did to each other as South Africans. A thousand times more importantly, I hope in my own small way I am a sign of hope to you, that stronger than the forces of evil and hatred and death are the forces, of gentleness, of kindness, of compassion, of life, of God.

I am happy to call the University of KwaZulu Natal, my alma mater.

Thank you.

Additional information on Father Michael Lapsley and the Institute for the Healing of Memories can be found at