Magazine article The Christian Century

Parable of the Kingdom: Rugby and Grace

Magazine article The Christian Century

Parable of the Kingdom: Rugby and Grace

Article excerpt

KARL BARTH once described good politics as "parables of the Kingdom." By this he meant that political choices and programs are grasped theologically by the analogical imagination that moves from the gospel to the situation. Reflections on the miracle of reconciliation that is occurring in South Africa reverse the direction of this analogical procedure; a theological reading of the politics of the African National Congress in general, and Nelson Mandela in particular, illuminates the gospel in a new way. For what Mandela is practicing can only be described as a politics of grace--ace in the full-blown, unadulterated sense of forgiveness and restoration that is undeserved, unmerited and unearned.

A rugby match prompted my reflections. After six years of study in the U.S., I arrived back in Johannesburg during the rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand. Having kept abreast of local politics and sports via the Internet, I had heard that the World Cup, and in particular the performance of the Springboks, the South African national team, had gripped the imagination of the whole country. I harbored a deep suspicion of these reports. After all, unlike other national sports, rugby remains almost exclusively a white-male Afrikaner preserve. I had also been home a few years earlier after the ANC requested that fans not sing the old national anthem or display the old South African flag. The 60,000 spectators at the match between the Springboks and the Wallabies (the Australian national team) defied this request with a recidivist vengeance. Never had the old flag been so extravagantly displayed. In the moment of silence that was to replace the singing of the anthem, the crowd burst into song as if their lives depended on it.

But that was then and this was now. In the interim, South Africa held its first democratic elections, unfurled a new flag, crafted a new anthem (which combined the famous "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" of the liberation movement with "Die Stem," the old anthem of Afrikaner pride), and, most important, inaugurated a new president. In the months leading up to the World Cup tournament, it seemed as if rugby would again shatter the fragile sense of national unity. The South African rugby team, it was argued, was simply not representative of the "Rainbow Nation." Only one black player had made the squad, and an injury threatened his participation. There were raging debates over the Rugby Union's poor record in developing programs to rectify the imbalances and injustices of apartheid, and bitter memories of the flag-waving defiance that had marred the previous international tours. Many black South Africans questioned the propriety of hosting the World Cup matches in South Africa. At best, there seemed to be a studied lack of interest in the whole affair as the tournament date approached.

From the side of the rugby-loving white public, another debate ignited passions to a fever pitch. The national symbol of all previous South African national teams had been the springbok, an indigenous leaping gazelle. Recognizing the identification of this symbol with the tragic history of apartheid, the national cricket team had replaced it, and the National Sports Council had urged that it be replaced in all sporting codes. But as Redskin and Illini fans know, changing well-loved if offensive symbols is an emotional undertaking. True to form, the rugby board hesitated, arguing that the springbok could not be changed. But under intense pressure, it agreed that after the World Cup was over, the symbol would change to the protea, the South African national flower. This deal seemed to annoy everyone. Many blacks felt that the rugby board was proving that it could not adapt to the new political realities; many whites, with breathtaking historical amnesia, carped about the "interference of politicians in sport."

Into this potentially explosive cauldron stepped the man whose political sensibilities have proved impeccable, whose understanding of the power of symbolic acts to make or break community surpasses that of the most canny of religious leaders. …

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