In a few weeks I will help lead a group of students for a study abroad opportunity in South Africa. While much will be learned then and there, much can also be learned here and now. For example, at a time when the North American political, racial, and religious context is bursting with conflict yet also yearning for transformation, the variety of lessons to be learned from the recent history of South Africa - especially during this liturgical Season of Advent - are truly remarkable. One of these profound lessons will be relearned on December 16th, a date that has come to symbolize the power of conflict transformation in the context of difficult struggle.
Our lesson begins during the early 19th century when a multitude of Afrikaners - a South African ethnic group including descendants from Dutch, French, and German settlers - left the cape region and moved hundreds of miles inland. Among the Afrikaners was the Voortrekkers, an assembly that sought to establish independent republics on uninhabited land in protest against British colonialism. As to be expected, the land sought by the Voortrekkers was by no means vacant, and clashes with South Africa's indigenous people were inevitable.
In 1837, the Voortrekker leadership engaged in land negotiations with the Zulu king. While historians argue over the exact details of the bargaining process, most agree that both sides attempted to display their force as an instrument of influence. All together, the Voortrekkers and Zulus eventually agreed upon terms for land distribution, and together they signed a treaty in February of 1838. However, during a truce ceremony the Voortrekker entourage was killed by the Zulus (for reasons that continue to be debated), an ensuing battle lasted months, and numerous lives on both sides of the conflict were lost.
As the warfare persisted, about ten-thousand Zulu warriors attacked the Voortrekkers on December 16, 1838, but the severely outnumbered Voortrekkers - with the advantage of gun powder - warded off the Zulu army. According to some historical accounts, while only three Voortrekkers were wounded, more than three-thousand Zulus were killed. As a result of the Voortrekker victory, and because of promises they reportedly made to God before the battle, December 16th was later instituted by the South African Apartheid-era government as a national public holiday, known as the "Day of the Vow".
On the other side of the South African political and racial spectrum, and in more recent times, December 16th is also remembered as the historical anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Umkhonto we Sizwe, often known as "MK", was co-founded by Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC, and they carried out the bombings of civilian, industrial, and infrastructural sites as a form of civil disobedience against the Afrikaner-controlled apartheid-era government. While the tactics of MK were initially geared toward sabotage, they gradually expanded as ANC members engaged in urban guerilla warfare. All together, MK was classified as a banned terrorist organization by the South African government (and United States) until August of 1990.
December 16th could be remembered as a date of extreme violence and deep conflict within South Africa. Whether it was the Day of the Vow in 1838 or the start of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, both occasions could symbolize deep cruelty and harsh brutality. However, with the advent of democracy in 1994, while December 16th retained is status as a national public holiday, it did so with a transformed purpose. Instead of celebrating a victory in war or recognizing the founding of an armed unit, South Africa renamed December 16th as "The Day of Reconciliation" for the purpose of national unity. In what can now be described as a dramatic conversion of symbolism, the newly redefined public holiday was first recognized on December 16, 1995, and will soon be celebrated for the twentieth time.
The December 16th Day of Reconciliation is appropriately placed within the Christian liturgical Season of Advent, for this period of conflict and yearning for Jesus' birth is a reminder of the ways that God's presence exposes and heals wounds and redefines the roles of our relationships. As the people of South Africa renovated their national holiday to embrace a transformed national identity, the Season of Advent prepares us to be made new through the birth of Jesus, and thus moves us to promote the restoration of our communities through the spiritual practices of compassion and hospitality. As is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation".
While the Season of Advent is viewed in various ways, one method is to perceive it in hopeful anticipation of conflict transformation, for such personal and public transformation is dearly needed in our present day and age. While we live in the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics, ecology, etc., we also dwell in arguably the most aggressively divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we recognize gross levels of fear, alienation, and apathy, as well as violence, discrimination, and the justification of institutionalized hatred. In the midst of our various and dangerous personal and public conflicts, we seek the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who soothes our ongoing hopeful anticipation with a full dosage of divine resistance and renovation.
In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. While much will be learned then and there, much can also be learned here and now. This is a gift of the Season of Advent. We can recognize that conflict is by no means inherently harmful or beneficial, yet we may confirm that our world is increasingly filled with its most toxic manifestation, thus we can affirm the need for dramatic repentance and effective transformation. This season reminds us that despite all the evidence to the contrary, violence and estrangement can indeed turn into peace and hospitality, division into unity, and fear into faith. With this hopeful anticipation of such conflict transformation, we can await the coming of the Prince of Peace, seek to bring a renewed measure of joy into our too often troubled world, and trust that - by God's grace - the world is indeed about to turn.
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