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Radical Reconciliation


  • Dave Windisch

When Allan Aubrey Boesak tells his students at Christian Theological Seminary that preaching the Gospel means embracing resistance to systems of domination, they know he is not waxing philosophic from academia's ivory tower.

He has practiced what he preaches, walked the talk, put faith into action.

As a leader of South Africa's United Democratic Front along with Cape Town Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Boesak used Jesus' example of service to the poor, the oppressed and the outcast to steel himself to believe that — even when one faces what may appear to be impossible odds or certain death — a righteous spirit is immortal, that good will conquer evil, that God calls for loving with reckless abundance.

The struggle also taught him the importance of inclusivity.

"How can we bring together not only people of different faiths, but also people who do not necessarily have any religion at all but have a passion for justice, who understand the way things are going in (the) world today is just wrong?" he asked. "You have to take hands with everyone who has that passion. That's the way we worked in the struggle in South Africa."

Boesak draws connections between his experiences fighting apartheid to other ongoing struggles for justice.

"When you fight for environmental justice, and you realize the absolute destruction that the earth is undergoing, the damage that we are doing to nature, and you ask the question: 'What is it we are leaving for the next generations?' That is not a religious question exclusively," he said. "It is a question for everyone who is concerned as a human being on this earth to think about interrelationships between human beings and nature; how we really can't live without each other, how dependent we are on each other."

Professor Boesak leads his Radical Reconciliation class at Christian Theological Society. - MARK A. LEE
  • Mark A. Lee
  • Professor Boesak leads his Radical Reconciliation class at Christian Theological Society.

During Boesak's year-long stint as a visiting professor at Butler University and CTS, students flocked to his lectures. Then, this summer, Butler and CTS announced the creation of the Desmond Tutu Chair for Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies, naming Boesak as the first appointee. Within weeks another major announcement: Indianapolis would become home to the Desmond Tutu Center, an institution that Boesak would lead to honor Tutu's legacy of social justice and reconciliation activism.

Tutu himself traveled to Indianapolis to speak at the announcement and bless Boesak's work. On Sept. 12, the anniversary of the legendary anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko's assassination, Tutu addressed a packed house at Clowes Memorial Hall:

"Adding to the specialness of this occasion is that is going to be a center headed up by a wonderful, gifted, indeed charismatic compatriot with a scintillating record in the history of our liberation, this young professor Allan Boesak. ...

"You should see him addressing thousands. ... You've had a tiny taste of it here. ... South Africans can attest to this: When he was on stage ... the people would do anything he told them to do. He would energize and inspire them. He's been given an incredible, incredible gift. He was one of the youngest presidents of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, not because he is precocious, just outstandingly brilliant."

A quest for justice

As Boesak's year as visiting professor wound down, discussions began about what it would take to keep him in Indianapolis for a longer period of time. At first, it involved a proposal to establish a visiting professorship in Tutu's honor.

"We had a very narrow window to keep Allan here," said Dr. Jim Lemons, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who had bonded with Boesak during his stay in Indianapolis and knew that other institutions across the country were recruiting him — including Yale.

Lemons recalled his sense that more was possible.

"If Tutu's really willing to lend his name ... we should be looking at something bigger," Lemons said.

As Boesak consulted with Tutu on the matter, the idea of the center began to develop.

Phone calls, meetings and dinners followed. Local partners began to sign on, culminating with the Tony Dungy Family Foundation's support as the center's founding partner.

Some people thought that maybe the East Coast would make better sense to establish a base. While the more cosmopolitan capitals of the coast may seem a more natural fit, Boesak said he also saw a risk for a blasé reception.

"Here I think people understand the immense honor of Tutu lending his name to a venture like this," Boesak said during an interview at CTS. "People have a very good understanding of his legacy and the issues he stands for and worked for all his life.

"Those issues could really make a difference to the way our students think and engage intellectually and emotionally with things like reconciliation and what it really means, for instance, and how one could affect reconciliation in a genuine fashion — not just in situations here in the U.S., but globally as Desmond Tutu has tried to do."

People warned Boesak about Indiana's reputation as a very conservative state.

He recalled his response: "Yes, I understand that; that means to me the progressive voices in a place like Indiana could do with a little bit of support."

Boesak said he looks forward to working with progressively minded people and the city to build a place for people to come together to promote justice and reconciliation based on the philosophy that humanity is intensely bound together.

"Those are ideas I think would be helpful in trying to shape a better society," he said. "From that point of view, it might make sense to have such a center here."

Students engage in Radical Reconciliation. Wilma Bailey - Minnie Vautrin (on right), professor of Christian Witness and of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture, is sitting in. - MARK A. LEE
  • Mark A. Lee
  • Students engage in Radical Reconciliation. Wilma Bailey Minnie Vautrin (on right), professor of Christian Witness and of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture, is sitting in.

Just how the center will take shape remains to be seen and much fundraising remains to be done. At this point, Boesak is not sure how many staff members the center will employ or if enough support will materialize to build the center its own physical space.

To begin with, he envisions hosting an annual conference, bringing people together from around the world to discuss their work.

"I know lots of people in the world that are at the frontline of all sorts of struggles, whether it be gender equality struggles, environmental justice struggles, struggles against violence against women, struggles for young girls to have the right to education, which some people here take for granted," Boesak said. "If you take people who are on the frontline of those struggles and bring them here, I don't have to say anything — just let them talk about what they are doing and why they are doing what they are doing.

"Think about the incredibly risky situations in which they find themselves. What is it that inspires them? What is it that makes young people take leadership in situations like that where sometimes their lives are on the line, as I have seen with my own eyes in our struggle in South Africa?"

The influence of these interactions he sees having the potential to "make a huge difference" as students and faculty build "real and lasting relationships" that can help guide them in their classes and careers.

"I get very excited when I think about what might be possible, and I get very excited when I think about what it could mean to young people," Boesak said. "If we could break any form of isolationist thinking and make people understand that our global communities share one globe, we share one earth, we share one nature, we share one human beingness, and we share a common understanding of issues whether it is here or in far-flung places in the world. If we can work along those lines — I think other people will get excited about this too, once they see what it can do."

This philosophical approach is already influencing his students.

"He speaks on campus and everybody shows up," said CTS student Haley Asberry, following a recent Radical Reconciliation class. "About half of us took this class because we had him last semester. It was interesting because we read about Desmond Tutu, and then we got to meet him in real life."

Last semester, Boesak lectured on the concept of Ubuntu, the idea that "my humanity is wrapped up in your humanity," Asberry said. "It was eye-opening; a life-changer for me."

The legacy of reconciliation

The focus on peace and reconciliation means wrestling with the tough reality that some people never change and some people change for the worse.

In the case of South Africa, Boesak told his students, it means that black people never received real engagement — much less apologies or repentance — from the old, white regime.

"What does that choice of reconciliation entail?" he asked his class. "What does it mean? Restitution, response to forgiveness, restoration of dignity, undoing of injustice, the doing of justice."

But this is not what has happened.

"White people accepted reconciliation not as way forward, but a way out for them," Boesak said. "They say 'reconciliation' as a political gimmick and let themselves off the hook, which is why so few ever said sorry. ... The last president still justifies apartheid; he has not asked for forgiveness and will never say apartheid is morally wrong — an evil system. To this day: Apartheid had such good intentions ... ."

Boesak also sees the effects that money and power had on the white aristocracy is now evident among a new generation of black leaders.

The March 21, 1960, Sharpeville massacre — in which South African police opened fire into a crowd of thousands of protestors, killing 69 people, including eight women and 10 children, and wounding more than 180 people — was an iconic point in South African activism, Boesak told his class.

"It redefined for us the nature of the struggle," he said.

Fast forward to 2012. The apartheid government has been defeated and the African National Congress has been ruling the nation for almost a decade, but the transition in power did not solve all the nation's problems. Mineworkers, for instance, went on strike in August 2012 to protest low pay, unleashing several days of violent confrontations that resulted in the deaths of mine workers, police officers and security guards. The situation culminated at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine on Aug. 16, when South African police fired into a crowd of protesting workers, killing 34 people and wounding 78.

"Marikana redefined for us the ANC as our liberation movement," Boesak said. "How is it possible the South African government could kill children in 1960? Now how could they allow (such a response) to protect their privileges and power? On the board of that mining company now sits the representatives of the liberation movement."

"Their first instinctive response was not to stand up for workers as they would have 30 years ago; their first instinct was how to protect the mine. They've become rich from mining ... the first instinct of the government was to protect not people but your own privileged position.

"I don't know how much psychology is there, but I know how much money is there."

Students listening to Professor Boesak lecture. - MARK A. LEE
  • Mark A. Lee
  • Students listening to Professor Boesak lecture.

A wild and crazy God

In trying to understand how a man like Boesak can find the wherewithal to resist the descent into hatred, pessimism or hopelessness, it helps to watch him preach, as he did Aug. 25 at Second Presbyterian Church in Meridian Hills.

Presbyterians as a tribe pride themselves on doing things "decently and in order."

"God," Boesak told the congregation, "is not a Presbyterian.

"How about crazy, weird, undisciplined, reckless?"

Referring to a parable Jesus told in the Gospel of Matthew, in which seeds are thrown on all kinds of ground in hopes that they will take root, Boesak explained that such careless stewardship of valuable seed would seem crazy to the people of Jesus' day.

"The God I love is nuts ... not a bookkeeper, not a Presbyterian, not on a budget," Boesak explained. "He sows, even behind those rocks, maybe today it will grow?"

Adopting a similar approach in his own life has not always been easy, Boesak said, confessing that in the past he would have preferred that God be a little more selective about to whom mercy is extended.

"At the time I felt like I should give God a list of all the people I didn't want to see in heaven," he said.

But then he heard a response: "OK, Allan. What if I have a list and you are not on it?"

From that experience Boesak latched onto the concept of reckless abundance. He hears Jesus saying: "Look at what I can do with fishes and loaves. Think of what I can do with your love."


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