Fixed deeply in heart and memory are the images of black South Africans, old and young, streaming to vote in the first-ever democratic elections, elections which brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency The date was April 27, 1994. For the first time in its history South Africa became a democratic majority-ruled country on the basis of “one person one vote.” Years of repression, struggle, resistance and suffering, of apartheid (officially since 1948, in reality since colonial times) preceded this historic day—and years of healing, of truth and reconciliation, would follow. But this was a joyful day, a day to be celebrated.
Participating in this historic day was Michael Lapsley, a white Anglican priest who had been deeply involved in this struggle against apartheid and for justice. But the voting process was a bit more difficult for him: he had no hands—they had been blown off by a letter bomb four years earlier.
Redeeming the Past is Lapsley's memoir of that struggle against apartheid and the subsequent years of healing: physical, political, spiritual, in so many ways a symbol of South Africa itself. A New Zealander by birth, as a young man he joined the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) in Australia and was ordained a priest in 1973. His first assignment was to South Africa where he was immediately confronted by the dehumanizing signs of apartheid: “Whites Only” “Goods and Non-Whites”—and the many ways in which this entered into the whole of life, including his own religious community. “Had I not been expelled from South Africa later on, I would probably have gone quite mad. It was an insane society, and I felt deeply traumatized by it.” The intimate link between the White Dutch Reformed Church and the National Party made clear that theological apartheid preceded political apartheid—justified through Romans 13:1. The 1985 Kairos Document A Christian Response to Apartheid in South Africa spoke of three theologies: state theology (blessed the state and all that it did), church theology (emphasizing reconciliation over justice), and prophetic theology (participating in the struggle for liberation). Michael Lapsley found himself standing firmly with prophetic theology, and gradually grew “into a deep conviction that the gospel and liberation politics were completely intertwined.”
Three dates stand out as significant turning points in this memoir: June 16, 1976; December 10, 1982; April 28, 1990. The Soweto uprising in 1976 left 700 students killed and another 4000 injured, a turning point in South African history and in Michael Lapsley’s own life—a move from pacifism to support for the armed struggle by the African National Congress (ANC). “How could I advocate nonviolence in the face of the gunning down of schoolchildren? I reluctantly decided that pacifism was untenable and that people did have a right to defend themselves in the face of overwhelming force.” Political action became his answer to that crisis of faith as he committed himself to the liberation struggle. In late 1976 he was expelled from South Africa and went to Lesotho where he was welcomed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
On December 10, 1982, the South African National Defense Force carried out a strategic attack on Lesotho, killing thirty South African exiles and a number of citizens—men, women and children. Michael Lapsley was one of the targets of this attack, but was in New Zealand at the time. “I took a vow on that day that my own life would be dedicated to ending apartheid and creating a society in which little children could go to bed at night and wake up safe.” As a member of the ANC, but not of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC), he wholeheartedly supported the armed struggle. But church authorities and his own religious community considered him a persona non grata and wanted him expelled from the country. After a time in Great Britain, he found work and refuge in Zimbabwe, a place of significant post-colonial change but “the seeds of Zimbabwe’s present plight under Mugabe’s despotic rule were being sown then.” Through all of this his faith and theology developed not in any systematic way but through “working in the trenches,” “living with the danger,” “in the crucible of the struggle.”
This danger came to a head on April 28, 1990, as he sat in his living room in Harare opening mail. He began with a large manila envelope containing two religious magazines, one in Afrikaans, the other in English. Opening the English magazine completed the circuit and detonated the bomb, throwing him across the room and blowing off both hands, destroying his right eye and shattering his eardrums. It was the beginning of a journey not only into months of surgeries and rehabilitation, but also into the world of disability, of healing, of Christ the wounded healer. Before the bombing “my life was something of a ‘head’ journey, whereas since the bombing it’s been more of a ‘heart’ journey—a project to reclaim the gentleness that I had to leave behind.” This has become embodied in the Healing of Memories workshops offered first throughout South Africa in conjunction with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In recent years these have been carried out in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Australia, the United States and many other countries, continuing to work especially with torture survivors and persons suffering from the trauma of HIV / AIDs, domestic violence, crime, combat. Chapter 12, “Deceptively Simple,” describes a typical healing workshop. His imagined conversation with the bomber is especially important for a full appreciation of the meaning of justice, restitution and healing.
Michael Lapsley’s journey as priest, freedom fighter, victim/victor, and healer offers each of us the opportunity to reflect on our own understanding of pacifism and nonviolence, restorative justice, disability, healing of memories, and prophetic theology. It is in many ways a dangerous memoir, challenging our assumptions and neat answers. But is is a necessary journey—especially in our broken world so in need of healing.