September 8, 2008
I’ve just finished reading a fine historical novel about the African nation of Namibia, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, by Peter Orner, published in 2006. It was a gift from St. Olaf Regent Martha Arveson Nelson ’73, who knows the author. Namibia only became independent in 1990, but its history stretches back far beyond that, most recently to colonization by South Africa and, before that, by Germany. These colonial periods, and the wars of liberation that led to Namibian independence, are always running in the background of this novel, though it does not purport to be about them. Rather, set in a boys school near Goas in north-central Namibia and narrated by an American volunteer who is teaching at the school, it tells stories — sometimes funny, sometimes poignant — about the boys at the school, its administrators and its teachers.
As I say, this novel does not purport to be about Namibia’s history as an exploited colony or about the brutality associated with its wars of independence or about people’s frustrations with their new democratic government. But as you learn to know the characters in the novel, you come to understand how those events and feelings shaped and continue to shape their lives. At one key point, in the middle of the novel, its implicit subject, Namibia’s past, becomes, briefly, its explicit subject: the occasion of a visit to the school by General Zacharias Kangulohi, an alumnus of the school who had been one of the leaders of SWAPO, the liberation group formed to combat South African rule and the group that formed the first government of an independent Namibia. General Kangulohi comes to the school one hot afternoon, and all of the students and staff are lined up under the desert sun to greet him.
The General’s speech surprises everyone because he shuns the obvious topics: the war of liberation, his exile from Namibia, or a famous massacre. He declares:
I’m not going to stand before you today and tell you about war . . . . No, I will not speak of the long night of exile, . . . nor will I tell you of the hell of the South African prisons. . . No, I will not stand before you and talk of the blood of your brothers and sisters, your mothers and your fathers. (pp. 178-9)
Instead of focusing on the past, he announces his intention to speak about the present:
I wish to speak of today, of now. My children, you have freedom. So much freedom. Lord, you even have the freedom to hate. . . . Yet I say, do not exercise this right. Hold it, even cherish it, but don’t use it. Why? Because it’s too easy! . . . What’s hard is loving! That’s what I say to you, children of Namibia, saplings of a newly watered nation, I love you. (p. 179)
All we must do now to build this nation, this beautiful country, is work. Work. Work and learn. Learn. Learn. Learn. Forget hate, hate, hate and love, love, love. (p. 179)
In the novel, this scene I have just quoted from is comic. The General is hours late, and students and staff have been standing at attention in the merciless sun for hours, sweating, bitten by horseflies, forced to listen to the blather of the pompous principal who has gotten hold of a bullhorn and become enraptured with his amplified voice. When the general does come, he gets a thorn stuck in his foot, so he delivers his speech hopping around on one leg, “ostrich-like.”
But despite the comic note, I think that General Kangulohi’s message may be this novel’s most important passage because it provides a foundation for the novel’s distinguishing characteristic: its capacious empathy with its flawed and frustrated characters and the flawed and frustrated nation where it is set. What a liberating message this liberator of his country brings: don’t do the easy thing and become a prisoner of the past. Though you are free to hate, don’t become a prisoner of hatred. Instead, do the hard thing: love. And work to create your desired future.
Christians understand General Kangulohi’s message to the schoolboys in Namibia, for just as love provides the source of that novel’s capacious empathy, so the story of God’s love for the world provides the example for, and the source of, Christians’ ability to empathize, to forgive, and to love. As Paul writes in today’s scripture reading, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13). The powers of darkness tempt us down the easy path. It’s easy to hate because you don’t have to think. You just put people in a category that assigns certain qualities to them and then you hate them for having those qualities. Christians, however, have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into a world in which we experience redemption. But it’s not an easy world that we have blessed with. It’s easier to be forgiven than to forgive. It’s harder to forgive than to hate. It’s harder to look forward in love than to look back in anger.
Both this novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, and today’s scripture reading speak to us about living in community. St. Paul articulates the promise that empowers Christians: that, saved from the powers of darkness, we are inhabitants of God’s kingdom. Peter Orner’s novel reminds us that we are challenged to do the hard things, not the easy ones, if we are to enter that kingdom.
So let’s think about things that are hard, and I don’t mean organic chemistry, third-semester calculus, Chaucerian Middle English, Kant’s metaphysics, the late string quartets of Bartok, or behavioral economics. It’s hard to hear the common ground in the arguments of a person with whom you profoundly disagree on an issue. In fact, it’s hard to care about even finding common ground. It’s hard to forgive the tone of an adversary who belittles your position on an issue, or to forgive an adversary who construes your differences on an issue as the consequence of a moral or intellectual failing on your part.
I am not talking here just about student-to-student relationships, by the way. Members of the faculty and staff face the same challenges to living in community as students — sometimes even more so because the disagreements extend further into the past or because the rhetorical weapons are more keenly honed. It’s hard for any of us to forgive those who despise us, or who caricature us, or who condone violence against us. It’s hard to love the disgraced, the dispossessed, the degraded. We lack tools to approach those from whom we are separated by difference in its many forms — race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religious belief. These are the hard things. We may have been “transferred,” in St. Paul’s words, from darkness into light, but we find it hard to make that transition.
What can this college of the church do to help Christians eschew the easy way and embrace the hard one? That brings us back to General Kangulohi’s message in The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. For he not only exhorted his audience to forget hate and instead to love, love, love; he also exhorted them to learn, learn, learn. We are in the learning business at St. Olaf College, and we do believe that students learn not only for the sake of learning but also for the good of the world. How does that work? In a Shakespeare class, studying the peeling away of King Lear’s outer layers to reveal his elemental humanity can broaden our capacity to imagine the situation of the dispossessed. In philosophy class the guided give-and-take over a controversial issue teaches analytical skills, respect for argument, perhaps some intellectual humility. An environmental studies class provides tools to help us better understand human impacts on climate so that we can then have an informed discussion about climate change. A statistics class helps us to understand the difference between a true correlation and what appears to be one so that we can think clearly about policy.
Nor does all of this learning happen in class. The co-curricular extravaganza this past week gave a sense of the opportunities this community has for enriched and expanded discourse on everything from international issues to national politics to local matters. The College Republicans were there, and so were the College Democrats. The Student Congregation was there, and so was an organization of atheists. The pro-life and pro-choice student groups were both represented. GLOW was there. There were opportunities to mentor youth in Northfield, to interact with seniors at the retirement center, to engage in interfaith dialogue. Because we are an intensely residential community, every student has the opportunity to experience difference, to dialogue, to negotiate, to compromise, to mediate — it’s called your roommate!
Christians have, indeed, been called to “share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” because we have been rescued “from the power of darkness and transferred . . . into the kingdom of his beloved son.” The forces of darkness are the forces that seek to separate us, that foster misunderstanding, that promote shouting matches, that thrive on hate. But we are heirs to the message of General Kangulohi, the exhortation to do the hard thing, to love, and to find our way to love by our own work of learning and by the grace of God. At the beginning of this new academic year, let us accept that call and, by nurturing and fostering our life in community, show ourselves as inheritors of Divine grace.
David R. Anderson ’74