Over the past week or so, I’ve been picking at No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s account of his time as the head of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was a remarkable body that gave voice to the victims of longstanding systemic oppression and provided an opportunity for the perpetrators to confess publicly and seek amnesty. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a display of the marginalized working to forgive their oppressors that leaps out of the pages of Exclusion and Embrace.
The backdrop of the TRC was the peaceful April 1994 general election, in which the African National Congress won a slim majority in the parliament, thereby taking control of the government from the Afrikaner-nationalist National Party. Though the ANC won a majority (but not a mandate), most of the country’s military and police power rested with the NP. The fragile transfer of power really could have been interrupted at any point by mass violence (either NP-sanctioned or popular), and it would have been difficult to salvage the situation. But that didn’t happen, and Tutu repeatedly describes the relative smoothness as a miracle. “Yes, the world saw a veritable miracle unfolding before their eyes. They witnessed the almost unbelievable. Instead of the horrendous blood bath that so many had feared and so many others had predicted, here were these amazing South Africans, black and white together, crafting a relatively peaceful changeover and transfer of power…God be praised!” he writes.
When Tutu says the elections were a miracle, it seems clear that he doesn’t mean a miracle in the casual, secular sense—that is, as something remarkable or improbable that happens. A man of deep faith, he refers often to the role of Providence in seeing the events through and acknowledges the role of prayers and efforts from around the world. Tutu means a real, bona fide miracle, an event that transpires at the will of God.
That’s not hard to accept. The end of apartheid meant the end of one less instance of deep and systemic sin, a resounding affirmation of human worth and dignity. It would come as no surprise that if God were to act in any situation, it would be in one with a fairly clear delineation of right and wrong.
What complicates matters is that it’s really quite difficult (impossible?) to unequivocally prove God’s hand in a chain of events. I suggest this particularly because our willingness to accept an event as, for example, divine judgment is colored by our cultural context and our own desire not to be judged. Perhaps this is why people (myself included) reacted so harshly when fundamentalist pastor John Hagee described Hurricane Katrina as a judgment on America—nevermind for a moment that he basically meant a judgment on people who disagree with him.
Similarly, many (again, myself included) are quick to decry prosperity theology because they see it as a way for us to justify greed. But as James K.A. Smith of Calvin College asks, “Does the prosperity gospel mean something different in rural Nigeria than in suburban Dallas?” Indeed, Smith suggests that “the prosperity gospel (for all its failures) might be an unwitting testimony to the holism of pentecostal spirituality. In a curious way, the prosperity gospel is a testament to the very ‘worldliness’ of pentecostal theology. It is one of the most un-Gnostic moments of pentecostalism, refusing to spiritualize the promise that the Gospel is ‘good news for the poor.’” It, along with liberation theology, is “evidence of a core affirmation that God cares about our bellies and bodies.” The God of the Christian story is not the deist first cause who turns on the autopilot and checks out; if we believe in the moment of Christ’s coming even an iota, then we must acknowledge that God has acted in our world.
So when is God acting and when are things being left to run their course? When is a natural disaster a judgment for horrendous racial inequality and abuse of the poor, and when is it just a low pressure system forming over water? When is a peaceful election an act of divine will, and when is it just a fortunate occurrence? If God were to act in any situation, why this one, and how do we know?
Of course, Yoder would tell us that the phrase “if God were to act in any situation” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives history. The human story, he would say, is not written by coercive power or technology or class conflict, but rather by the pen of the Almighty. Perhaps the answer to these questions is that God’s is the steady hand at the wheel, and our role in the drama of history is to be faithful as best we can. This attitude diminishes reasoning like, “Of options A and B, B occurred because God willed it” and instead focuses on an ethic of, “We can work toward goal X or Y; which one is most faithful to the Gospel? No matter which approach is most likely to leave us victorious; in the end, Love wins.”
I’d love to get others’ thoughts on this as I try to come to some kind of conclusion.