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A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa

October 23, 2004

Dear Friends:

I recently returned to Cape Town after spending four months on interpretation assignment in the United States. My sojourn there was full of surprises, some good, some sobering.

The greatest joy — apart from the opportunity to spend time with family and friends — was to discover anew the extraordinary range of ways in which the Presbyterian Church is involved in the world. I am especially indebted to the churches in North Carolina, New York, Kansas and Missouri who invited me to spend time with them and to the many pastors and congregational members who organized events and lavished hospitality on me during my stay. I was repeatedly impressed by the creative ways in which congregations have become involved in mission ministries at the local, national and international levels.

I also had the privilege of spending a week at a missionary sharing conference with 30 other returned PC(USA) mission workers from around the world. It was fascinating and inspiring to hear their stories and to experience the comprehensiveness of the PC(USA)’s global ministry: education, evangelism, health ministries, development, social services and advocacy. As an added bonus, I took part in an orientation for two-dozen Christian and Muslim leaders from around the world who were preparing to visit communities across the United States as part of the Presbyterian Church’s Interfaith Listening Program. (I hope the South African team will forgive us for shipping them off to Orlando just in time to meet Hurricane Jeanne!)

My itineration coincided almost exactly with the 20th anniversary of my first trip to South Africa. Speaking in congregations around the United States gave me an opportunity to reflect on how much has changed in South Africa during that time, especially in the last decade. Certainly, more can and must still be done to address the legacies of apartheid and ensure justice for all South Africans, but substantial progress has undoubtedly been made.

In fact, in some respects, South Africa seems to have surpassed the United States. As I travelled around the United States, I was disturbed to stumble across aspects of contemporary American society that reminded me of 1984 South Africa.

The most obvious parallel was the emphasis on security and the cultivation of a politically charged culture of paranoia. In the 1980s, “Beady Eye” metal detectors appeared at the doors of larger South African shops, and signs in the lobbies of many public buildings warned visitors to be on the look out for the various types of mines and bombs that they depicted. As young, white conscripts occupied black communities, the South African government consolidated support among (white) voters by invoking the threat of a “total onslaught” from forces that wanted to destroy their way of life: anti-apartheid “terrorists,” newly independent neighbouring states and even one-time friends in Europe and North America who were gradually (and belatedly) turning up the political and economic pressure against apartheid.

I thought of those days as I passed through airports-cum-shopping malls, where Orwellian voices incessantly remind travellers that, “the homeland security level is ..." orange or red or whatever. As I drove highways where overhead signs meant to convey information about construction or other obstacles were used to admonish drivers to “report suspicious activity” by calling a handy toll-free number. As I rounded a corner in Grand Central Station and encountered soldiers patrolling in camouflage with automatic weapons.

Like white South Africans in 1984, we are perpetually warned that others want to destroy the things we hold dear. Why? Few people consider their motivations. They are terrorists, meglomaniacs, religious fundamentalists. In short, they are mad. So there is no room for reason, debate or negotiation, only force. We profess surprise when occupied communities resist, when they cannot see as clearly as we can that they have been saved from a worse fate. We do not condone detention without trial or torture, of course, any more than white South Africans did. But neither are we too concerned about alleged abuses, because we are prepared to accept that they might be the only way to prevent further acts of terrorism. We justify our actions by clinging to patently false beliefs, even if all of the evidence says otherwise (e.g., “No one was living there when white settlers arrived,” or “Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and backed Al Qaeda”). When other nations — even longstanding friends and allies — urge us to reconsider or criticize our strategy, we dismiss them as naïve, idealistic meddlers, or we demonise them.

I was also alarmed by what seems to be a growing similarity in the patterns of labour migration and exploitation in contemporary America and apartheid South Africa. My attention was drawn to this by a newspaper article that highlighted the importance to Latin American and Caribbean economies of wages sent home by nationals working in the United States. In some ways, this is nothing new. Those in poorer nations have long seen the United States as a land of economic and educational opportunity. However, whereas rapid economic expansion once enabled the United States to adopt a fairly liberal immigration policy, slower growth and increased suspicion of foreigners have now conspired to produce much tighter influx controls. In the past, whole families might have moved to America, either together or over time; now there are few visas for the economically superfluous. They are potential security risks who might consume public resources. So they must remain behind to subsist on remittances from more productive family members.

This is essentially what the apartheid regime attempted to accomplish through its system of ethnically defined “homelands.” The homelands were literally dumping grounds for the economically marginal. They were intended to give the dominant urban economy ready access to labor when needed, while minimising its exposure to social unrest and the costs of caring for the young, the elderly, the disabled and those whose skills were not needed. Indeed, the new pattern of labor migration evident in the United States today is just one aspect of an emerging global apartheid which concentrates wealth and privilege in the hands of a few and relegates the many to an increasingly impoverished periphery.

Another incident that got me thinking about similarities between the United States and South Africa occurred when I was passing through Greenville, South Carolina. I decided to stop and have lunch on a lively downtown street. As I sat at a sidewalk café, watching the throngs of Saturday morning shoppers stroll past, I was struck by the fact that virtually everyone I saw was white. In fact, in an hour, I saw exactly five black folks go by, despite the fact that I had driven through what was clearly a predominantly African-American neighborhood just a few blocks away.

Now, it may be unwise to read too much into such an anecdote. But it was a reminder to me that many parts of the United States — north, south, east and west — are still profoundly segregated and that class and race remain closely aligned in both the United States and South Africa.

Finally, while I was in the United States, Missouri became the first state to adopt a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Odds are that a number of other states will follow suit. So, like apartheid-era South Africa, discrimination will be constitutionally enshrined, at least in some states, if not at a federal level.

Some may contest this interpretation. But there can be little doubt that the primary purpose behind such amendments is to prevent the state from recognizing or affirming any relationship between two people of the same sex on an equal basis with a similar relationship between two people of opposite sexes. In my book, that is discrimination. It might be argued that it is fair discrimination. Which is, of course, just what the old South African government argued about apartheid ... with the help of eminent theologians.

This is not intended to be a rigorous critique of contemporary America. It is simply a catalogue of some of the impressions from my trip that have haunted me most since my return to South Africa. I share them with you in a spirit of profound thanksgiving for all that Presbyterians across the country are doing to work for a more just, caring and inclusive society.

Grace and peace,

Doug Tilton

The 2004 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 61


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