January 14, 2011
by Gideon Strauss
(In this series I reflect on my work as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, and try to tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice, looking in particular at a few Psalms.)
I write this as the victims of a shooting in Tucson, Arizona, are being buried, and I resonate with these words of President Obama in his memorial address:
“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘When I looked for light, then came darkness.’ Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”
Political life in a broken world is filled with darkness. The darkness of those who wreak evil upon the weak and the poor demand of us prayers of rage. The darkness of loss caused by political violence—abduction, torture, murder—can even call forth from us a sense of the absence of God. But perhaps the most painful darkness we must face is that of our own complicity in political evil.
As I have been telling in this series, I served South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as an interpreter for two years, in 1996 and 1997. For much of that time my prayers raged, resonating with Psalms 88 and 137. And to some extent my rage at the political evil that took place in apartheid South Africa was tempered because I could take it up with God.
Midway through my time working for the TRC, in late 1996, one night as I was driving the four hours home from a TRC hearing in Johannesburg to my city of Bloemfontein, I was listening to the early songs of the band U2 and inwardly raging over the testimony of yet another torturer. I thought to myself that, had I a handgun at hand, I would gladly have done street justice to that man for what he had done to people who could have been my friends, and who certainly were comrades of mine in the common cause of overthrowing the apartheid regime. And as I thought these thoughts I recognized that the Gideon who voiced the testimony of perpetrators was at heart also a perpetrator.
A political spirituality that fails to account for the evil in our own hearts is inadequate to the darkness we face when we look in the mirror. God in his good providence prepared me for the work I did in 1996 and 1997 through a small group of friends who met in our home on Wednesday evenings, starting in 1994—partly to study the Psalms and how they shape our prayers.
Several of the people in our Wednesday group were young medical professionals. They were working in overcrowded hospitals in our city, helping at the birth of babies, and coping with the mayhem of emergency rooms. All of us needed words for our prayers that ran deeper, spoke more truly, and expressed more honestly the pain we faced in a country wracked by poverty, oppression, and a host of other ills. We found help in the Psalms, and in the reflections on the Psalms in books like Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles and Walter Brueggemann’s Message of the Psalms.
Had I not learned how to pray the Psalms alongside these friends of mine in the two years before working with the TRC, I would have come through the two years of serving as “the voice of evil” with far greater emotional and spiritual damage than what I did sustain. Not only because I learned how to rage coram Deo, but because I learned more thoroughly how to repent.
—Gideon Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice