by Fr. Luke Veronis
Nico Smith, a white South African I recently met in Thailand, was a Dutch reformed pastor and theologian who defended the system of apartheid for 20 years while he preached in an all-white church and taught at a noted University.
One day in the 1960s, the theologian Karl Barth asked Nico a challenging question. “Are you free?” When Nico confidently responded that they have religious freedom in South Africa, Barth interrupted, “No no no. I mean are you free – free to live and preach the Gospel, even if your family and friends, and society itself, stand against you? Are you truly free?”
Like a young self-assured man, Nico thought that he was free. But as the years passed, this question kept haunting him. “Am I free to honestly live and preach the Gospel?”
By 1974, Nico finally came to the realization that he wasn’t free. He started to see that the Bible didn’t teach apartheid, and thus, he could no longer accept this unjust system. Uncertain about his future, yet sure about his newfound beliefs, he began to take a confrontational stance against apartheid, preaching a message of reconciliation for whites and blacks.
His parishioners, students, the university administrators, and even his family and friends began seeing his message as a threat to their way of life, and a danger to the overall establishment. By 1981, he was forced to resign from the University, and asked to leave his Church.
Nico told me, “I realized that a true Christian cannot stay distant or indifferent to the sufferings of others. Authentic Christianity is not for those who want a comfortable, easy life. True faith costs much! If we follow Christ’s call to bring good news to the poor, the afflicted, the oppressed, and the sufferer, then we must be willing to sacrifice and suffer with them!”
This new understanding of faith led Nico and his wife to become the first white people to move into a Black township, and begin pastoring an all black Church. When he did this, his extended family thought that he had gone mad, and his former Church condemned him as a traitor. The government attacked him as a communist, and the secret police tapped his phone, keeping constant surveillance on him, harassing and threatening him and his family.
“For the first time in my life,” he said, “I tasted what it was like to be black. I realized then that we can never truly understand the oppressed until we actually live among them, and try to become one with them. In the end, isn’t this what Jesus Christ did, when he became incarnate as a human being?”
St. Paul tells us to “have the mind of Christ Jesus, who being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:5-8)
Nico came to the point of sacrificing much, in order to reconcile himself with Christ, and in order to try and reconcile enemies with one another.
I met Nico at the Lausanne Forum on World Evangelization held in Thailand on Sept 29-Oct 6. This conference gathered 1700 participants from 125 countries to discuss various ways we can proclaim God’s message throughout the world.
My particular working group tackled the issue of how the Church needs to become more of an agent in reconciliation, especially in the many troubled parts of the globe. Although many people at the conference were more interested in how to preach and teach and convert and plant churches, our working group concluded that one of the most essential and crucial elements in preaching the Gospel was precisely through reconciliation!
St. Paul writes, “God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” (2 Cor 5:18-20) If God desires the world to be reconciled to Himself and all people to be reconciled to one another, this means the Church, i.e. you and me, need to become instruments of reconciliation. We need to try to heal the deep wounds of others.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus taught, not simply the peace-lovers. To love peace and to struggle for peace are quite different. I can love peace, yet too often I will stand at a distance from the problems and injustices of the world. To be a peacemaker and an agent of reconciliation means to enter consciously into the struggle, and to become a part of an extremely difficult, slow, and painful process.
I discovered this as I worked within an amazing group of 50 people, only 18 of which were white Westerners. I heard stories of horror, tragedy, and unbelievable sorrow. There were Jews and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis from Rwanda, Sudanese, a Serbian, a Colombian, a North Korean, and one from Northern Ireland. Little superficiality here. No clichs or simple solutions as we talked about how to bring about reconciliation. Everyone agreed that true reconciliation is a long path of forgiveness and healing, and it only comes after much effort and struggle under the grace of God.
The stories I heard were hard to imagine – full of terror, pain, and ongoing danger, yet they were also stories of hope!
Celestin Musekura is a Hutu from Rwanda. His wife is a Tutsi. Earlier this year marked the ten-year memorial of the genocide in Rwanda, when the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis within three months, and left three million people as refugees. Although Rwanda was a country that boasted of a great Christian revival, much of the killing was Christians killing Christians. “The blood of tribalism,” they say now, “ran deeper than the waters of baptism.”
From such unbelievable tragedy, many people cried out, “Where is God? Can we believe in a just God? How can we ever forgive? How can we ever be forgiven?”
Celestin told his story about trying to preach the Christian message of repentance and forgiveness several years after the genocide. He brought the Hutu and Tutsi pastors together to discuss how the Church could be an agent of reconciliation for the country. His own Hutu people accused him of siding with the Tutsis, while Tutsis distrusted him for being a Hutu. When he returned to Rwanda, he was arrested by the police and beaten for three hours by the Tutsis.
Later that year, seven members of his family were murdered, along with 70 members of his church. He agonized with God, “Where are you? How did this happen? Why did this happen when I’m trying to do your work, trying to preach a gospel of reconciliation?”
Seven months later, however, he met family members of those who killed his family. It was extremely hard, yet he knew that he had to forgive them if he was going to continue preaching about reconciliation. And God gave him the strength and healing to do exactly that!
Such stories of hope made us all realize that the impossible is possible – by God’s grace! Christ’s command to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” is not a theoretical message. The people I met showed that even in the midst of the most unimaginable evil, hope remains!
After he shared this story, Celestin the Hutu, and another member of our group, Emanuel, who is a Tutsi, got up and embraced one another. With tears in their eyes, they asked one another for forgiveness on behalf of their own people.
Later in our meeting, we saw Jhan Moskowitz, a Jewish Christian whose father suffered in a concentration camp during WWII, and Bishara Awad, a Palestinian whose father was killed by the Jews during the war to establish the Israeli state, not only sit down at a table together as brothers, but even embrace one another, again asking for forgiveness for the sins of their people.
And then there was Grace Morillo, a young woman from Colombia, held captive for 68 days by the guerillas of her country. Yet she showed no hatred or anger toward those who kidnapped her. In fact, she told moving stories about how the prisoners would pray together every day, and sometimes their kidnappers would even join them, holding hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer. She began to see these fearsome guerillas as human beings. She started to think about how injustices of her country often pushed peasants to extreme actions.
After her release, she realized that as a Christian she could no longer stay indifferent to the injustices around her, and remain at a comfortable distance from the sufferings of others. She needed to become an agent of reconciliation in her own country!
So many stories – stories about the genocide of the black Africans in Sudan today, of Northern Ireland, of terrorism, wars and injustices throughout the world. During our conference, terrorists killed 70 people in northern India, in the same city of one of our group members. He had to call home to make sure that no one from his family was killed or injured.
It is so easy to read about these dangers in the newspapers, yet to stay so distant from them in our own lives!
Fr. Luke Veronis, with one of his children, making a hospital visit in Tirana.
The challenge for all Christians is to be aware of those suffering, and to pray for those in need who are in our own country, as well as all parts of the world. Christians are called to leave our comfortable domains and enter into the suffering of others. And we can begin doing this by looking around our own areas and asking how we can be instruments of reconciliation.
What are we doing about the ongoing race relations in our own country? What about the need for reconciliation between the rich and the poor of our society? And what about our personal reconciliation in the broken relationships in our own lives and with those around us?
Many people are suffering and are in need. God has made very clear that we, you and I, are His hands, His feet, His love.
In a famous prayer, Francis of Assisi is credited with saying: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is sadness, let me bring joy. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon. Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.”
One of the greatest ways to evangelize the world is for us to become instruments of God’s reconciliation. This is our witness to the world. This is what missions and evangelism are all about. First, to reconcile ourselves to God. Then, to break away from our egocentric, comfortable lives and struggle to reconcile ourselves to our enemies, as well as to help enemies be reconciled with one another.
Fr. Luke Veronis has been involved in the missionary movement of the Orthodox Church for the past 17 years, serving as a missionary in Albania for more than a decade and working closely with Archbishop Anastasios. He is now back in the US, teaching classes on missions at Holy Cross School of Theology and St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and working on a book about his experiences in Albania.