Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds me a lot of the reasons why so many South Africans embraced the struggle for democracy, why so many of us voted in the 1994 Election, why we stood for hours in long crowds to cast a vote – for some the first in our lives. Casting a vote in 1994 was literally the victory of justice, the forming of a covenant with each other, and the final step in bringing millions of prisoners of a wicked system out of the confinement of a political dungeon.
Isaiah, who consoled the Israelites exiled in Babylon with God’s promise of renewal and nationhood, would surely have understood what this was about. He would certainly have seen how South Africans felt during decades, even centuries, of repression: exiles in their own country, cut off from meaningful participation in public life, with the terrible temptation that comes with powerlessness to see this as somehow ‘proof’ of their own inferiority. He would resonate with the programme of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s – “Be proud of who you are. Don’t let the System fool you into thinking you’re inferior.” Biko’s message to blacks (and to whites who were willing to listen) was one of mental liberation from the self-limiting beliefs that make people prisoners.
Isaiah, Biko and Jesus share this in common. All three proclaimed that their listeners should first and foremost liberate their minds: from being an exile in one’s imagination; from being a slave to oppressive ideas that the situation was God’s will; from obsession with trivialities. Once a prisoner thinks that s/he is free and lives out of inner freedom, it is only a matter of time before inner freedom bursts out into the material world.
We have come a long way since 1994, since the 1970s, since the Babylonian and Roman empires. But some of us are still imprisoned – in a mentality that passively accepts second-rate services, or believes that we cannot effect change in our communities ourselves. We wait for those in authority to ‘help’ us, rather than act for ourselves to improve our environment. We defer to experts rather than tapping into our inner expertise to make changes around us that will rebuild our communities.
Biko was blunt about it: “You’re either alive and proud – or you are dead.” Jesus reminds us: “The kingdom of God is within you.” While complaining has a place (and when government does not do its job properly we are duty bound to express our complaint through the electoral process), our first duty is to live and act as free people.