So much of our discussion on race in South Africa misses the point. We focus on the effects all the time but not the cause. Why is that? Because when we look at the cause we have to look at our own hearts – white, black, coloured, indian, chinese, or whoever else. This is because it’s our own hearts that are the problem.
The brilliant writer G.K. Chesterton once touched on this when he was invited by The Times to write on the topic, “What’s wrong with the world?” His alleged response to the paper was simple: “I am.”
Human nature always deviates towards self-righteousness. We all believe we’re better, more righteous, more clued-up, more something-or-other than someone else. It’s my opinion that much of our modern day activism is really an exercise in self-righteousness. It’s my opinion that much of our discussion on race in South Africa is also just an exercise in self-righteousness.
I’m not advocating the usual response of “move on” that white South Africans frequently assert. I’m not in denial about facts, such as those brought up by Verashni Pillay in her opinion piece Six things white people have that black people don’t. Her follow-up White work does not negate white privilege kind-of gets to what I think we need to get to: that this is about being human. And if it’s about being human then let’s realise something about ourselves: whether we’re the victim or we’re the perpetrator, we think we’re better than the other person. And that kind of thinking is what creates the cycle of history we see again and again, where victims become new perpetrators.
So let’s not just “move on”, let’s talk about it – for the sake of building our country, not for the sake of puffing ourselves up. Let’s talk about how I think I’m better than you and how you think you’re better than me. Let’s actually realise just how self-righteous this conversation gets from all sides, because then maybe we can start giving this conversation exactly what it needs: some humility and some vision for the future. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about injustice or facts or the past because we’re afraid of being self-righteous, but I am saying that we need to start realising that we need different answers than those we are currently popularising. From politics to the pulpit to the private and the personal, we’re not thinking about an answer to our self-righteousness but are just perpetuating the same problem.
I believe there’s good news. There’s a way we can die to our self-righteousness and live a new life. But I don’t want to preach here. All I want to say is this: let’s start looking at ourselves more closely and start asking hard questions of ourselves, rather than always looking at someone else (and whole groups of people) and demanding they answer hard questions, or demanding they look past the questions, all the while ignoring our own hearts. For after all, “Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This goes for all, regardless of how inconvenient it may be. For if our discussions and articles and debates are without love, we’re simply resounding gongs and clashing cymbals, and nothing good will result. We must do love, even when it’s painful. Not to be self-righteous, but to actually love.