A Lenten reflection for March 19.

In 1950, the Population Registration Act, the first large-scale act of apartheid legislation, was passed in South Africa, mandating that all people living in South Africa be registered by race with the government. A few days later, the Group Areas Act was activated, mandating the separation of South Africans by race and establishing the areas where each race could live. Intermarriage between races was expressly forbidden. The segregation that was all the rage in the United States applied to South African public areas. Separate, inferior education and nominally autonomous governments were set up for non-whites. Non-whites lost the right to vote and their citizenship. In every way, the white minority suppressed the non-white majority.

The international community allowed and even encouraged these moves by the white South African government, on the basis that it was a democratic country standing against communism, and apartheid reigned nearly unchallenged for over 30 years. Even the United States, ever fearful of the communist red herring, refused to speak out against the injustice. Yet, by the 1980s, as the Soviet Union teetered on collapse and the international community could no longer justify their support of apartheid, opposition to the South African evil grew and grew. The laws started to be repealed, and new ones took their place. In 1994, the first elections in which all South Africans could participate took place. Apartheid as a legal system had come to an end, but the devastation of its legacy as well as the bloodshed that resulted from the transition threatened to tear the country apart.

In the wake of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was organized to let the truth be told about the human rights violations, abuses, and evils that had occurred under apartheid. It sought to bring about healing, not restitution, and had the authority to offer amnesty to all those who committed these crimes for political reasons and who fully disclosed what they had done. They had to fully realize the extent of the pain, suffering, and death that they caused, and they, personally, had to apply for amnesty.

It seems like an odd way of doing justice. The new government could have easily reenacted the Nuremberg trials and punished the offenders harshly for their crimes. It is possible and even likely that such a victor’s approach would have appeased the need for revenge, but would also erase any chance of healing, reconciliation, and moving forward. Whether or not the TRC actually succeeded in carrying out its mandate is still debated (12% of the requests for amnesty it received were granted, which, depending on your view, is either too many or not enough).

Ezekiel, a fiery prophet not afraid to “tell it like it is”, describes a God more interested in reconciliation and the mending of broken relationships than punishing. God openly flaunts the sins of the Israelites in front of the, how they’ve profaned God’s name and made a mockery of God. God could’ve chosen to wipe them all out for their evil. Instead, God chooses to increase their blessing, to take them out of their exile and back to their homeland, to make the earth abundant for them again, to take care of them, to give them “a new heart”, and to release them from suffering. It is God’s hope that such love will cause the Israelites to confront their own sinfulness and, ultimately, to mend the relationship between them and God.

Similarly, when the scribes and Pharisees bring an adulteress to Jesus, she deserves to be punished. Nevermind thinking about how the scribes and Pharisees caught her in the very act of adultery (creepers), but instead think about the assumption that the only proper response to the situation and the woman is punishment. That there might be another way never crosses their minds. He confronts both the woman and her accusers with kindness, reminding them all that, in the game of sin, there are no winners and losers—we are all losers. The accusers are brought face to face with their own shortcomings, and the woman, who knows well her own sin, is blessed with mercy. This story sticks with us for its powerful message—imagine how it stuck with the woman.

God’s idea of justice and ours don’t always go together. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s are better. Lent is a time to think on that, and be grateful for the mercy of God. And to ask ourselves—if God repays our cruelty with love, with what to do we repay God’s love?

Featured image: “Justice on top of the Buttercross, Market Place, Bungay, Suffolk” by mira66 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.


One thought on “Mercy

  1. Thought-provoking – thank you. I think that the way in which the TRC in South Africa dealt with the amnesty issue was good: amnesty granted for full and truthful disclosure. It also gave the victims the opportunity to be heard. Its failings were perhaps in being unable to compensate victims adequately. You are so right – justice traditionally conceived doesn’t break the cycle of violence and enable people to move on. God’s counter-intuitive approach is true wisdom.


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