18 December, 2010

Of Polar Bears, Prisons and Peace

One of the saddest sights I have ever seen was at the Johannesburg Zoo. The Polar bear had been relocated to a much larger enclosure, with a more varied environment, which of course is a Good Thing. However, the Polar bear was not aware of this wonderful new world he was living in. There he was, pacing round and round, in the same endless circle, the same limited circumference of his previous cage. He seemed to be attached to an invisible chain, staked to the ground, as some people chain dogs, monkeys, or heaven forbid, children. Following a path that got deeper and deeper; plodding along on the same mindless journey.

No matter how new and improved his external environment was, the bear’s internal context (or programming, if you will) was such that he was unable to escape the confining bonds of his previous existence. When I saw this, and after I had wiped away the tears, I saw the connection to the saying “You can take mankind out of the jungle, but you’ll never take the jungle out of mankind.”

Years later I was at a Global Leadership Summit  that featured ordinary men and women involved in particular programmes of transformation and justice-making. This was a multimedia programme communicated through satellite and dvd that enabled participation from people in local groups around the globe. Two of these really struck me for their simple audacity, and yet far reaching consequences:

A business skills training programme for pre-release prisoners, run by a young woman who had left behind her a life of great privilege and promise, was taking place within the Correctional Services system of the State of Texas (!). The 'return rate' (repeat convictions) for this group was less than 5% compared to an overall prisoner 'return rate' of 80%.  Another university graduate, whose life as an astoundingly successful stockbroker lay right in front of her, had initiated the other bold, visionary programme. She had managed to persuade, over the years, thousands of highly qualified university students, from every field of study under the sun, to give one year of their lives, to serving as teachers in the worst off inner city schools in the USA.

During the turbulent mid-1980’s(Understatement Alert!) my wife and I were university students in the Eastern Cape – known as the hot-bed of resistance to apartheid. We experienced first hand (well, second hand really, since we are white South Africans) the tear gas, the spotlights and sirens at night, and later, at the Pretoria Cathedral, experienced the intimidation of police in full battle gear and armed with automatic weapons. We saw ordinary people facing the stony-faced, robot-like, increasingly violent and indiscriminate response to repeated appeals to a simple shared humanity.

We shared with young white South African men, facing mandatory military service, in their painful struggle with the deep dilemma and the high cost of conscientious objection or participation. The pain and rage and confusion and despair were intense, and the possibility of reconciliation seemed laughable.

A few years later, after some time back in Zimbabwe, we returned to a South Africa where Nelson Mandela was a free man, and talks about negotiations on transitional democracy were taking place. As President FW de Klerk steered white South Africa toward multiracial a democracy during the dying months of constitutionalised, institutionalised Apartheid the violence escalated dramatically, only now the Masada-mentality of the extreme and militant rightwing Afrikaner group was a real threat.

My wife was working with the National Peace Committee, and, in the run up to the defining moment in South Africa’s history – our first democratic elections in April 1994 - I was privileged to work with the National Electoral Observer Network (NEON). As District Domestic Observer I visited voting stations throughout the Klein Karoo. I travelled far and wide, together with an Irish Roman Catholic priest as District Foreign Observer. He told me he considered it a miracle that he and this ‘Proddy’ (me) could travel in safety in such a “violence-engulfed country.”

Sixteen years on – racist stereotypes and threats like the one I mentioned in my previous post continue. South Africa may the murder capital of the world, other crime is high, employment low, corruption is rife, young black people are becoming disillusioned with the slow pace of transformation, white people moan about the cost of transformation, politics is still largely race-based, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. We seem still to be prisoners of our history. 

And yet…people continue to hope, and in hope they continue to act in love.  We are prisoners also of hope - the hope that “the battle-bow will be broken and peace proclaimed” (Zechariah 9:12).

Paul Ricoeur writes that: "Hope is both irrational, as being 'in spite of' death and 'beyond' despair, and rational, as asserting a new law, the law of superabundance of sense over non-sense. Hope opens up what knowledge claims to close." The theologian of hope Jurgen Moltmann insists that “Hope means our future as believers does not have to develop from what is presently possible, but from what is possible for God”. He does not advocate withdrawal from the world in the hope that a better world will somehow evolve, but active participation in the world in hope and anticipation of the coming of that better world. All the possibilities and potential and promise of particular beings-in-community in harmony with Absolute Being.

I agree with Moltmann that "despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God" (Theology of Hope). And I believe there is always the possibility of a movement from despair to hope – for people, for polar bears, for the life of the planet.

In a 1986 collection of essays in honour of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Hammering Swords into Ploughshares), Dawid Bosch mentions the very real possibility of any particular efforts at reconciliation, and the obvious preceding requirements of transformation and justice, being merely “an exercise in futility.” I cannot think of anything more futile and meaningless than simply to continue stumbling through the war-zone of ignorance, fear and greed.  Of staggering blindly through the minefield of a life that is limited by walls and chains that, although very real, are creations of the human mind and ego.

** Post Script and Illustration Par Excellence: As I was writing this post a parcel arrived from Mississippi – a box full of knitted dolls – sent especially for the AIDS orphans that members of our community support. A gift of love. Thanks Kathryn and Linda and friends.

1 comment:

  1. So do what you can to change prisoners of history into prisoners of hope; reduce your carbon footprint so the wild polar bears wont be caged by a sea around a tiny island of ice about as big as a city block and remember you don’t borrow the earth from your ancestors but from your children.

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