Some protesters marched by our office in downtown DC this week. One young man carried a sign declaring; “The US Is An Apartheid State.” He likely was in his twenties, so he doesn’t remember when South Africa’s white minority regime fell nearly 30 years ago, along with many other repressive regimes around the world. He also likely doesn’t know much about Apartheid.
Under Apartheid, South Africa’s whites, who were about 16% of the population, disenfranchised the rest of the country and kept virtually all power to themselves. Blacks couldn’t vote and were mostly precluded from owning property or major businesses. They could only live in certain regions or neighborhoods. Certain jobs were precluded to them. They could not marry whites, and they were segregated in public places. The nation was nearly exclusively run by the Afrikaner whites, while British whites were in opposition. Mixed race and Indian persons had separate categories and restrictions. This racial, political and economic system was kept in place by a police surveillance state.
It’s not clear how exactly this young DC protester thought America resembled South Africa under Apartheid. Firstly, he would not be permitted to protest under Apartheid. He was marching through the streets of the nation’s capital, protected not harassed by. police, in a city that’s had black mayors and progressive government for over 50 years. DC was desegregated nearly 70 years ago.
The young man thinks because America like all countries has injustices and prejudices that therefore it equals Apartheid. He doesn’t understand what Apartheid was. Likely his only experience is of America, full of freedoms and opportunity, whose liberties include a penchant to obsess over and exaggerate America’s failings.
America is always self-critical, reforming, and striving to self-correct. It’s never satisfied with itself, nor should it ever be. America’s energy and moral authority depend on this constant drive for self-improvement, which dates to our Puritan and revivalistic past. We as a nation identify our sins, repent, and seek atonement. The cycle is always repeating. Sometimes, like St. Paul, we think of ourselves as the chief of sinners.
This stance can be good for humility as a starting point for repentance. Not many other countries think this way. Not many other countries think of themselves as a spiritual enterprise. And not many other countries obsess over their sins in their constant search for moral improvement.
Obsession over national sins helps preclude arrogance and hubris. But if lacking perspective and a sense of proportion this obsession can itself become egotistical. Nobody sins as much as we! We are supreme at sin! Americans, even the most guilt-ridden, anti-American ones, are often obsessed with America.
America is special and unique. But in its proclivity towards sin it is not exceptional. We have no monopoly on injustice. Our obsession with confronting and correcting injustice on a grand scale is fairly unique. Sometimes our crusades against injustice domestic or global can themselves become hubristic. Our repentance from sin and search for atonement can sometimes itself be worse than the original sins.
Confronting national sins is imperative but it must start with realistic self-appraisal, not myopic self-hatred. And it must be pursued with appreciation that all humanity, in its intrinsic sinfulness, is starting from the same place. Repentance also assumes that atonement is available, otherwise renouncing sin has no positive outcome.
The young protester who thinks he’s in an Apartheid state is not starting from reality. He’s effectively negating many generations before him who labored and sacrificed so America would be much better. He seems to think he and his kindred spirits have themselves discovered righteousness for the first time.
Here’s what’s key to national repentance. Its advocates have to admit they themselves are also part of the problem. They can’t just wag their fingers at others. True prophets admit they have unclean hands and lips. They pronounce themselves unworthy. They shudder when pondering their own frailty compared to their holy mission. Self-righteous crusades blaming others don’t achieve national repentance or reforms.
The young protesting man likely doesn’t know his history. But Apartheid fell amid a global revolution against dictatorship. Most spectacularly the Soviet Union fell, with its proxies in East Europe. The Sandinistas were ousted in Nicaragua. Mengistu’s murderous regime in Ethiopia fell, as Marxist regimes in Angola and Mozambique abandoned their destructive doctrines. Right-wing authoritarian regimes surrendered to democratic elections in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, and throughout Latin America. Thousands were released from prisons. Millions began to vote and claim political rights they never had before.
America played a central role in that global democratic revolution of 30 years ago as an example and advocate. But millions of people in their own countries sacrificed and labored to reform their nations. Nelson Mandela emerged from decades in prison to lead South Africa. Other formerly jailed dissidents likewise rose to leadership as former dictators slinked away.
There’s no dictatorship in America, nor is there Apartheid, thanks to countless generations across centuries who labored to construct, sustain and improve our democracy. Protesters who with humility and earnestness wish to improve and expand our democracy will, we pray, receive heavenly blessing for success.
But ignorance, ingratitude, and self-righteousness will not be blessed. True social reformers seek mercy and depend on grace, recognizing they always stand on the accomplishments of others gone before.