It was a prayer prayed on all sides. It was a prayer we all firmly believed in, but none of us understood it fully.
From impromptu prayer groups among guerrilla cadres in camps across southern Africa, to stiff and formal church parades attended by grumpy conscripts. From protest meetings held in township halls and churches, to meetings in government offices. From services in suburban churches, to the last words mumbled as the condemned mounted the gallows in Pretoria Central. The prayer of Jesus has been the prayer of Christians from every part of South Africa.
For Christian activists the words that resonated were probably ‘Kingdom’ and ‘earth’. We believed that the Struggle would usher in nothing less than God’s kingdom on Earth! Our opponents, the ‘system’ and those who did not share our this-worldly sense of salvation simply were using ‘heaven’ to distract and fool the people into giving up their rights.
We were right, of course. And wrong.
We were right in believing that the kingdom of God was not some future spot on a cloud playing a harp in a celestial orchestra or jazz band. But we were short-sighted in imagining that the reign would come in our time, and by our actions. What we can say now is that the great changes we saw, and to varying degrees contributed to, in 1994 offered us flawed and partial glimpses of what God’s reign might be like.
We still see today deeply flawed and fleeting glimpses of what we’d imagined: equality as a principle, the end to racism, government based on the rule of law, mechanisms for people to have their say. The socialist vision, even among those still on the Left, has all but disappeared in the face of more sober understandings of economics and, less happily, a culture of self-enrichment.
Twenty-five years after our ‘kingdom’ came, we feel perhaps that it’s a case of kingdom deferred. This does not excuse us from action. Now, with a sense that the kingdom is not all about us, about our political movements or leaders, we are able to ask ourselves the question: what must we do really to make our existing society better? How do we keep up the good initiatives, dump the failed programmes and bad leaders, and once more seek the common good: less exciting than the kingdom, but more achievable?
Meanwhile as we continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer, we continue to ponder what it means for us now, how it calls us beyond ourselves and this present time to a future only God knows.
It is a prayer prayed on all sides. It is a prayer we all firmly believe in, but none of us understands it fully.