Sermon: Apartheid of the Mind
Preached on 22nd March 2009
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
Exodus 6. 2-13 Romans 5.1-11
The question of what it means to be a human being is animating our cathedral this Lent. From the exhibition in the Galilee chapel to the Lent talks, the question is being stretched in different ways. This is a fine project for a cathedral surrounded by a University to engage in. The question of what it is to be human unites the sciences and the arts and is a perfect gathering point for interdisciplinary study. So let us begin with a little biology
One of the problems with the early reception of the theory of evolution and natural selection, which has also been much on our minds recently because of the Darwin anniversary, was that it blurred the boundary between human beings and the animals. In fact, it put continuity where previously people were very pleased for there to be a boundary. The religious establishment did not like that at all and so we got all the jokes about which monkey might have been Darwin's grandfather and the cartoons showing up a likeness between Darwin and a chimp. You can imagine how the bishops chuckled as they got ready for another debate. A century later it was the scientists who were roaring away with what they thought was the last laugh. Fifty years after that, no one is quite sure who can laugh with talk of a significant number of biology and medical students being creationists while the theologically educated take evolution for granted.
Jane Alexander's exhibition potentially opens up the same argument with her ambiguous humanimal sculptures. She gives us strange flesh but few words so it is difficult to know what she is getting at. Is she referring us back to our biological ancestry? Or forward to a time when the animal essence within will resurface more prominently than before? Is she making a comment on the brutality unleashed by actual historical apartheid? Or is she, as I want to suggest, offering an alternative to what you might call the apartheid of the mind? That is the dichotomous, divisive, distinction-seeking habit of the human mind. Its tendency to ‘either/or', ‘black and white', thinking?
In a nutshell, I am suggesting that Jane Alexander's art is a powerful assault on the sinful heart of apartheid which is also the sinful mind of humanity: the mind which seeks to identify and distinguish ‘us' and ‘them'. And that the best way to respond to this assault is not to seek to identify ways in which we are different from the animals but to clarify that we are very similar.
But first I want to say a bit more about apartheid. When I visited South Africa in 2002 the thing that struck me most powerfully was that apartheid was far from dead. The apartheid of both mind and memory were powerfully alive. But so too the cruel apartheid of the Group Areas Act, which divided the urban landscape into racial ghettos was almost indelibly etched on the town and cityscapes by the positioning of railways, canals, motorways, electric pylons as well as any convenient topographical features.
An aside about the Galilee Chapel: In order to accommodate the exhibition we have also had to introduce an artless wall, a visual barrier, and to label the doors: one for us, the other for children (who must not see) and, (and it is only with hindsight is the weight of the irony here fully apparent) those whom we call disabled.
partheid is a powerful and complex force. Far too powerful to be eradicated by democratic elections. If you don't believe me ask the co-called coloured people of the Cape Flats - the communities from which so many of the street children of Cape Town come from. Many of the older generation there can remember the night when the army trucks came to their homes in what were to become white areas to round them up and dump them somewhere else. Have they, since the end, of apartheid managed to get back to their former homes? A very few have, or have received some compensation, so the situation is not all bad, but it is very patchy. A formerly apartheid country is far more like an apartheid country than any other.
With apartheid in mind, I want to ask the question of how we best ask the question of what it means to be human. The easiest way is to do this by looking for distinctives. To see how we are different. The answers are often found in the realm of the emotions: we alone love. Or in the higher intellectual functions: we alone have consciousness or we alone have language. But in the light of apartheid, not to mention other forms of racism as well as ethnic and gender based oppression, I want to suggest that we recognise that this approach is so laden with danger and that it is better to try another tack. Namely that we address our minds as a matter of cultural and ethical priority to the issue of what we have in common? What is common humanity? And how much of this do our animal friends share?
Asking the question of what is common will generate a very long answer. We can run though the sciences: we are all subject to gravity and the laws of time and space; we are all made of the same chemical ingredients; at the biological level there is an enormous amount of overlap between our DNA and that of say a cucumber, never mind a gorilla. We are profoundly interconnected and interdependent. We are all part of the same physical universe, the same ecosystem. If it were not so, we would not exist. How strange then that we put so much effort into seeking out what makes us different, special, superior whether as a social group, a race, a gender or as individuals.
It is, I wish to suggest, a vain pursuit; indeed it is the pursuit of vanity itself. ‘Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?' (And we none of us like it when the mirror answers back!) We did not learn this from Jesus the Jew or Paul the apostle. For the drift for the New Testament is very clear: we are not to think of ourselves too highly, we are to regard others as better than ourselves, we are to be kind, peaceable and generous and to live lives not only of discipleship, that is following and learning, but also ministry, that is loving and serving our neighbours and, uncomfortably enough, our enemies. For Jesus Christ overcomes all distinctions.
In the second lesson this morning we heard one of the great passages about justification which concludes with the announcement that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have achieved what the apostle calls reconciliation. Reconciliation has been a big word in South Africa since the end of the apartheid state. It is a pillar of the constitution, there is an annual Reconciliation Day and there was of course the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ‘Reconciliation' is very much seen as the answer, the solution to the problem of the legacy of apartheid. And the word is a powerful one. It speaks of relationships being made good, of people making a Civil Society, of there being a dynamic towards justice and peace and inclusion and freedom. It speaks of us being in a good relationship with God. These are high ideals and we should always seek them where they are absent, for they spring from the heart of the Christian vision of God. But I wonder whether we might make the road to reconciliation, the road to justice and peace, a shorter and more travelled one if we can find a way of dropping the sinful tendency to dichotomous, divisive, self-regarding thinking by which we seek to convince ourselves that ‘we' are so very different to ‘them': whoever they are at the moment.
It is not so very often that I find myself preaching about sin, and even more rarely about sin as a mode of thought, a habit of mind. But sin is not primarily about the peccadilloes of personal morality. Rather, the essence of sin is to be found in the nooks and crannies of the human mind which would seek to see others as less worthy, less good, less respectable than I am myself. The essence of sin is to be found in the form of thinking that was demonstrated so spectacularly in apartheid South Africa and is so roundly challenged in Jane Alexander's species-bending creations. For sin is about denying the glory of God, denying the prodigality of God's grace, denying the wondrous creative and inspiring work of the spirit which can illuminate and transfigure the whole of life and the whole of creation.
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches famously denounced apartheid as a heresy. To bend language even more I would want to call it a ‘sacrament of sin': an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace. To put it another way, apartheid, manifest and barbaric as it is, is not ultimately a cause but a symptom. It is the apartheid of the mind that really matters: that computer-like, binary, thinking that divides the world into us and them.
The end of apartheid remains something to celebrate. But it should not make us complacent, for apartheid was only a manifestation of a human tendency which is sadly characteristic not only of our race but of each and every individual: the sinful habit of divisive and self-aggrandising thought. It is second nature to us. Fortunately it is not first nature. Our first nature, like that of the animals, is far more contemplative and innocent. We might well be making spiritual progress if we become more not less like the animals, if we recognise more, not less, our common humanity, if we recognise more, not less, that we have far more in common with even the most heinous of sinners and criminals than we ever dare to admit: a thought that it is especially difficult, but also important, to share this weekend when we are so mindful of the crimes of Josef Fritzl.
The implications of what I think Jane Alexander might be saying to us are enormous and take us back to the question of what the myths at the beginning of the book of Genesis mean to us today. To what extent are we like God, bearing God's image? To what extent are we like the rest of creation? Why does human society and community so easily go wrong? It is famously difficult to put your finger on the nature of original sin but fantastically difficult to develop a mature understanding of what it means to be human without it. My suggestion here is that original sin is to be found precisely in what seems a like a higher level of thought: dividing things into categories and then behaving as if the differences are more important than the commonalities.
One last word, it is often said that regimes like apartheid dehumanise people. I hope that this analysis of original sin allows us to see that it is impossible to dehumanise anyone other than yourself. It is by squeezing Gods seamless creation in the categories of the human mind that we sin against the Spirit of the creator and redeemer and sanctifier of all. There is dehumanisation in this. But it is the dehumanisation of the powerful not the powerless. For dehumanisation involves becoming captive to our own sinfulness, our own categorising, our own judging. Or, as Jesus said, ‘do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement that you make you will be judged. (Matthew 7.1&2.)
If Jane Alexander's exhibition suggests that the apartheid of the mind is our original sin, it will have been a great blessing to us this Lent.