"Violence"I wrote this poem about twenty-five years ago while living in Cape Town, South Africa. Despite the relative calm of the city, violence--particularly institutional violence--was all around me. It was oppressive, and I knew it couldn't endure, but I worried that people would try to use violent means to overthrow the evil apartheid system. In fact, there were isolated instances of violence over the years by opponents of the system, though the number and magnitude of the violence paled in comparison with the violence of the all-white establishment. Then something miraculous happened. About the middle of 1989, that amazing year which saw the collapse of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, people took to the streets in Cape Town, then elsewhere in South Africa. Huge, peaceful demonstrations by citizens--black, white, coloured, and Indian alike--demanded an end to apartheid and the installation of truly representative government. The South African people emerged from centuries of slavery and asserted their rights as human beings.
A voice cries out in the night, a siren wails--
the city sleeps, but uneasily.
Beneath the façade of calm there is unrest.
The sun rises, it shines bright and clear in the blue sky.
It illumines the skyscrapers, the homes, the beaches,
the squalor of townships and squatter camps.
The majestic mountains and the quiet sea cry "Peace!"
but there is no peace--only violence.
It is not the noise of bombs or the marching of feet--
it is the hatred in the heart of the white man for the black,
and the black man for the white.
It is the violence of famine and disease in a land of plenty.
Where is the human dignity when you sleep on the bare earth
in a house of corrugated iron?
Are your dreams those of your oppressor:
wealth, ease, recognition?
Or do you dream of shelter from the cold,
shoes for your feet, food for your next meal?
Do you long for the day of wrath that is coming?
Violence begets violence--it spreads like a plague.
It cannot be halted, only slowed.
It will not be extinguished with more violence, only heightened.
Is peace simply the lack of bloodshed, or is it much more?
The sun moves across the sky and sets in the sea.
Darkness replaces light, and somehow, it seems appropriate.
In today's reading from Joshua, the Israelites have entered the promised land, and God tells them, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." Slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and institutionalized prejudice of all sorts are modern disgraces of oppression which hold too many people in bondage, both oppressed and oppressors.
The first step in rolling away the disgrace of oppression is to recognize and name the oppression for what it is, something that is preventing the full realization of an individual's or group's humanity. The second step is to begin to struggle against oppression, either from underneath (as a member of the oppressed class) or from above (as a member of the oppressing class) or from the outside (as one who sees the oppression of someone else and strives to remedy it; a warning: many of us consider ourselves outside observers of oppression, but it is often the case that we are in fact part of the system of oppression, and it is important that we realize that). Frederick Douglass, in his autobiographical account of his early life as a slave and his escape, says, "I was no longer content, therefore, to live with him or any other slaveholder. I began, with the commencement of the year, to prepare myself for a final struggle, which should decide my fate one way or the other." The third step is to join with others who are also struggling against injustice and become part of a movement for change. The longing to be free is innate in all people, and it is what God desires for all humankind. Once we roll away our own disgrace of Egypt, whatever it might be, we need to stand with others who are seeking to do the same.