By Samantha Rawson
“Why did you call that man that word?” I was 10 and my head barely cleared the edge of the dining room table but I had enough of a view to witness all the adults at the table staring at me gobsmacked. Gobsmacked is a good word. It literally means ‘utterly astounded’ and that’s a pretty accurate description of the expression on the faces of everyone at the table. I now realise that this is probably why there’s usually a ‘kids table’ at dinner parties to prevent the kids from rudely butting into the adult conversation.
We were having dinner at the house of old family friends of ours, but this was Zululand in the years of our fledgling democracy and it wasn’t unusual for racist comments to be carelessly thrown around in conversation. Sugarcane farmers ruled the roost around here. Many of them had inherited farms from as far back as their great-grandparents. Unfortunately, many of them had also inherited the racist worldview of their parents and grandparents.
This takes us back to that dinner party. The host had just made a comment using a word to describe a black person that had raised a bright red flag in my heart. I can’t even remember what the comment was but I can remember the feeling of sitting at that table and feeling so small yet so full of a sense of burning injustice. Why was no one telling him he couldn’t say that? Why were my parents not saying anything? It burned in my 10-year-old heart until I opened my mouth and my voice rang out loud and clear over the roast chicken and gravy.
My parents were also sugarcane farmers but as faithful followers of Christ they’d brought us up to love and respect all people regardless of their race. In many ways my parents went against the flow, making decisions that were often seen as strange to the other farming families in the area. Our church was predominantly coloured, which meant we were often socialising with non-white families. And my parents went above and beyond to help and love those in need around them.
That’s why I couldn’t understand why no one was saying anything to contradict the racist comment of our family friend. After a few moments of awkward silence, he eventually responded to my direct question with a comment about me one day working for the government. People laughed and the dinner party went on. But no one had answered my question.
Over the last couple of weeks, as we’ve grappled with the topic of advocacy, this story has kept popping into my mind. As children we have such a strong sense of justice, of what is right and wrong. What happens as we mature that dilutes this? Why is it that as adults we are so often comfortable with staying silent in the face of injustice? As a child, I could barely sit in my seat I was so burning with outrage. Now, when I hear something said I strongly disagree with I all too often bite my tongue. Thinking to myself, ‘Starting a debate over dessert isn’t going to change the way they think.’
What happens over time that stops us from speaking up against injustice? Maybe it’s the same reasons that stopped my parents from speaking up at that dinner party. It would be impolite. It’s not going to change anything. We begin to accept the world as it is, rather than speaking up and showing people how it could be.
As the next Common Ground series will explore, people can change. Systems can change. Policies can change. Entire countries can change. As Christ-followers, we’re supposed to challenge the status quo of this world and show people a different way. Christ’s way. Sometimes that will mean upsetting a dinner party, but Jesus wasn’t afraid of rattling a few cages and neither should we be. In Matthew 21:12, we are told that “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.”
It’s not a matter of having our say or venting our opinion, but of speaking the truth in love. By speaking up against injustice we might not change the world overnight, but God is at work everywhere and he can use our often inadequate words to thread truth through people’s hearts.
Do you have a similar childhood memory?
- Samantha is the communications manager at Common Good, and is a member of the Common Ground Rondebosch PM congregation.
(Photography courtesy of Lubs Mary via Flickr.com)