Rainbows Tattooed over Open Wounds

I grew up with the smell of late afternoon thunderstorms marching across the South African Highveld, came of age to the rhythmic sound of feet toyi-toying across the streets of Cape Town, and traversed the world for the first time wrapped in the rainbow nation miracle banner. I was a proud member of a nation that personified a moment in history where we imagined humanity living free of the effects of colonialism, cold war conflicts and racial division. South Africa had dramatically averted racial conflict and civil war through negotiation and forgiveness, and with rainbows boldly tattooed over these scars, we told our story to a world desperate for this hope. But as the rainbows faded we discovered that the scars were still open wounds.

As I’ve come to see these wounds, Doubting Thomas, the disciple who is famous for asking to see the wounds of Jesus, has captivated me. Thomas was Jesus’ friend. He knew that Jesus had been brutally killed by the authorities. He was in close proximity with this pain. Yet although his friends had been telling him stories of Jesus’ resurrection and appearances to them, Thomas says he wants to see and touch the wounds that killed Jesus if he is to believe in the resurrection.

This is not the proof of resurrection I would naturally seek. I would ask to see the hidden birthmark on my friend’s buttock, or perhaps I would ask a question, the answer to which only he and I knew.

I avoid pain and brokenness, most especially that which is my own and that which is caused by me. This has been carefully cultivated in my life and reflects my personality, but it also mirrors the culture within which I’ve been raised. Western evangelical Christian culture avoids lament and has an almost pathological focus on achievement, celebration, victory and healing. Doubting Thomas has been ushering me to confront wounds and realities that I have avoided. Wounds and realities that are in turn helping me understand what it means to be white in South Africa at this time and place. To understand what it might mean to confront the wounds and pain that exist in this context. To recognise that truly working and yearning for resurrection means being willing to embrace and experience this pain which, in my place and time, is primarily the pain of black people, most especially black women.

Dare I believe that if I am willing to see, touch, and experience the deepest death creating wounds in my life, community, and society they might actually lead me to discover resurrection? Thomas guides me to the truth that we can know the experience of death-defying resurrection hope, primarily when we are willing to confront the death and the wounds that caused it. Thomas does this, not with faith-filled bravado, but with doubt and anxiety, mirroring my emotions when confronting them.

In 1994 South Africans had an opportunity to place our hands into these wounds with the possibility of real sustained change after centuries of white domination and black pain, most tangibly embodied in the Apartheid laws. Culturally and theologically, western society avoids this path, and so we painted rainbows over the seeping wounds and sang “Shosholoza” together. The change we did see was remarkable and miraculous, but, in the end, we only dealt with the law of Apartheid and not the spirit that drove it. We missed that opportunity for repentance, renewal and healing, settling instead for a cheap rainbow tattoo sticker.

Unconfronted, these wounds shape our world and lives. They end up defining how we see ourselves, other people, and the world around us. They raise up deceptive idols, false prophets and gods who promise us that the pain can be comforted, medicated and solved in a few easy steps. They define and form the deepest places of our individual and collective selves, shaping who we are when no one is looking, and perpetuating the false beliefs and thinking that originally drove us to Colonialism and Apartheid.

Every time I find myself facing this, I am taunted by doubt and fear shouting out that only hurt, shame, and retribution are to be found there. Paradoxically, it is at these moments that Doubting Thomas encourages faith in me; a faith that believes that death has been confronted, that wounds can be healed and that beauty comes from ashes. It is a deep faith that believes that a resurrected life is there to be searched for and found. I am captured by the hope that this is possible in my city, country, and world. However, that hope will be mere cheap optimism if it doesn’t confront and embrace how deep the wounds are and how significant the challenge for resurrection is.

How do we do this? Firstly, we must confront, experience, and sit in the wounds and lament of the place we live and the societies we are part of. We must do this intentionally, humbly, with a listening ear, and without being defensive or automatically trying to fix and medicate the pain. Secondly, we must learn to recognise the ways in which we are complicit in having caused these wounds and are still causing these wounds. We must see the ways in which the world around us is constructed in our image, to the detriment of others. We can then incarnate repentance and changed behavior, and work for transformed structures and communities.

Discovering the reality of resurrection hope in these moments and places grows our capacity to be in other places where wounds and pain are prevalent. It grows our confidence in the hope that we articulate, empowering us to be able to sit in the pain, stretch ourselves across it and believe that resurrection life is possible. And so, with Paul, we will come to know the power of resurrection life that comes when we participate in the suffering, when our hands are placed in the wounds, and we walk in solidarity with those who are in pain.

By Craig Stewart, The Warehouse

*(This piece is adapted from a talk I gave at New Wine Ireland in July 2016)

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