The exhortation of Jesus in today’s Gospel is rightly famous. Versions of this are seen as foundational to all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and most other great faith traditions, and also as the foundation of modern Western law and government. But the way we live it is, to say the least, complex.
If we look at the dynamics of action and response that are implied in this teaching we see a cycle: my action causes your response, which in turn leads me to react to you in turn and then, in reply to my response…etc. And, usually, the actions of each side escalate. The only way out is to courageously break the cycle.
Looking historically at the South African past we can see how this worked: colonialism and discrimination were met by nonviolent resistance; nonviolent resistance by state violence and political repression; and state violence and repression by increasingly violent armed resistance…etc, etc, etc. In 1990 we tried to break the cycle of repression and violent resistance, culminating in the 1994 Election. But did we learn the lesson? Did we break the cycle?
Twenty-five years on, the answer may sound noncommittal: Yes and No. Yes, we broke out of the spiral pulling us towards civil war. Yes, we have created a new way of thinking rooted in democracy, political equality and human rights. But – no, we are no nearer social equality and new dynamics of power are emerging that privilege self-interest over the common good.
We are far from a more equal society and most ideas that seek it are at best naïve, at worst ultimately self-destructive. In a global competitive capitalist economy talk of redistribution, land restitution and socialism – no matter how attractive or instinctively right it may feel – is the high road to poverty. Education (and the creation of a middle class through the jobs education brings) is blocked by mismanaged education policies, corruption, bad teachers backed by powerful unions, an elite resorting to private schools and so ignoring the plight of public education, and a general lack of desire to study among youth who feel they have no future anyway.
The cycle – poor schools creating few work-ready youth, who then give up and indirectly influence the next generation – is compounded by a wider cycle: political patronage and corruption, which creates an attitude of corruption that feeds the power addiction of political patronage. It is not surprising that rage bubbles beneath the surface. What is needed is for South Africans, after twenty-five years of freedom in a political wilderness, to say “No more!”: it is time to break the spirals of despair and dependency.