by Russell Pollitt SJ

I am a ‘white’ South African. I am angry. I am disillusioned. I cannot believe that one stupid, senseless, racist fool could throw a country backwards, into a vicious circle of despair, because she splashed her bigoted, undignified and racist views on Facebook. It’s utterly unacceptable. Penny Sparrow’s racist comment about ‘black’ people did not only insult them. It took the whole nation to a new level of depravity and reminded us of our immoral past. Like the eye of a storm, it sucked us all into a dark vortex in which the only possible outcome is destruction. And we continue to see that destruction in the offensive rhetoric that abounds on social media.

Most Christians are attuned to interior states that compromise their spiritual lives. Most Christians know that stealing, swearing, sex outside of marriage, abortion and pornography, for example, are sinful. Catholic theology has, traditionally, distinguished between ‘mortal’ (serious) and ‘venial’ (less serious) sin. A mortal sin is described as something that is a wilful violation of God’s law. It is serious and grave. It results in a separation between God and us and causes the “spiritual death of the soul”. Venial sins, on the other hand, do not cause a separation between God and us. They injure our relationship with God. The person may have acted in a way that they did not intend and so their guilt before God is less. The Church reminds us that for a sin to be called ‘mortal’ it must be 1) serious matter; 2) the person must know it’s serious and 3) freely commit it.

Any South African with a conscience cannot but condemn racism. It is serious – we know how serious because we live in the aftermath of the evil of apartheid. Racism is also something we freely commit to – like other serious sins.

No matter how well we say our prayers, how often we condemn stealing or abortion, or how often we attend Mass, if we do not confront (often within us!) and condemn racism we risk living in the dangerous state of mortal sin.

The damage that apartheid did to this country will continue to haunt us like any serious sin haunts the sinner. Townships, squatter camps, lack of running water and massive inequality are all visible reminders of our mortal sin. The worldview and attitude that led to this is alive and well amongst us. We have to face the truth about ourselves because, as Jesus tells us, the truth will set us free (John 8:32). We are not free. South Africa is not free. South Africa has not dealt with racism in a constructive manner. Many ‘black’ people are haunted by the pain and trauma. They are rightly sensitive to racism. Many ‘white’ people have not acknowledged that, collectively, they benefitted – and continue to – from a system that was systemically evil. It is a big deal and we need to find ways of taking responsibility, healing, reconciling and freeing. It will not be easy but it is a demand of Christian life.

The opening lines of the Scriptures and the heritage and tradition of our Christian faith remind us of one fact: all people are created in the image and likeness of God. Racism denies this fundamental truth; it separates us from God and others. It confines us all to Satan’s playground…