Religion matters

I have been called a kaffir many times – mostly by my great-grandfather, who was black and of whom I was deeply fond. He modelled integrity and provided great leadership to our family, and his funeral was attended by thousands. Yet in his last few months he was fond of telling stories of incidents at work that he claimed earned him the right to be called a kaffir.

Whenever someone at his workplace “misbehaved” or did something deemed clumsy or stupid, he said, they deserved to be called a kaffir. That was also the context in which he used the word with us.

For many years I struggled to know what to do with his stories. It was difficult to reconcile the high esteem in which he was held by our community and family with this seeming humiliation and attack on his dignity at his place of work.

As I listen to others, I realise that experiences like these, and the same confusion, seem to permeate our conversations and hashtags. How can we restore dignity where it has been lost to people like my great-grandfather, and address the systemic injustices of the past that still live with us today?

Will we ever find positive definitions for identity to replace post-apartheid and post-colonial that translate into something meaningful for those who are politically free, but feel stood up by change in their shacks?

We approach the most important event of the Christian calendar, Easter. This festival marks the belief that Jesus, God’s son in human history, #Fell, having lived the life that we were meant to live and died the death that we were meant to die, and then was buried and #Rose again on the third day to offer reconciliation with God. As a Christian, I put my trust in this because I think that I have good reason to believe it is true.

In light of the pressing sociopolitical and economic conundrums we have to solve, many people ask: Do religious ideas like these – or does religious discourse in general – still have any value? I think they do, perhaps now more than ever.

First, religion matters because ideas matter: how we live is determined, whether we realise it or not, by the ideas we have about our origins, values, destiny and purpose.

It is unfortunate that religion is often used as a convenient shorthand for bad things such as church abuses, irrationality, terrorism and bogus HIV cures.

Simply put, religion is a set of ideas. All people (religious and non-religious) are driven by a deeply held set of ideas. Because ideas have consequences, some ideas are clearly better than others and determining which ideas are true and good would be the responsible thing to do.

Second, religion matters because people matter. Our vision for a flowering society should include living together with our deepest differences. To achieve this, we need to make South Africa safe for diversity to flourish.

People have always found the answers to life’s deep questions in some reference to the transcendent. Not all answers can be right, but the least we can do in upholding each other’s dignity is to show respect by the way in which we engage and disagree with each other’s views.

Finally, religion matters because dialogue matters. Unless we learn to take each other’s deeply held convictions seriously, we will fail to promote harmony in our complex and multicultural society. Our right to challenge, disagree with and persuade others should come after we have truly listened to one another.

We have missed each other for so long, unable to see through the anger, suspicion, hatred and hunger. Once in a while, a World Cup comes along and then we enjoy one another. Then, when it’s all over, we become strangers and enemies again.

Our parents ceased hostility in honour of the “1994 miracle”, but that sense of gratitude was a temporary adhesive for our society. We need to find one another again, in a deeper and more meaningful way, especially in a world of ideas.

A good conversation about such ideas can start that process.

Mahlatse Winston Mashua is the director of the RZIM Zacharias Trust South Africa and is part of the organisation’s speaking team.

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