Grace is a supple movement through tense passages. It blindsides vengeance. This is a lesson taught to me most dramatically through events that occurred at this time of year, over the course of six decades. Every year, as August mellows into September, the memories return.
Seasonal reminders of powerful events and teachings.
On Monday, August 23, 1993, I was in Gugulethu, outside of Cape Town. It was a time of turbulence in South Africa—politically, socially, racially. Laws that had held apartheid in place were gone, but free elections were still 8 months in the future, and no one knew if they would really come to pass.
There were potent forces in the land intent on fomenting violence that would keep South Africans terrified of the move toward democracy and show the rest of the world how un-ready South Africa was for government of, by, and for the people.
That Monday night I boarded the plane home. On Tuesday evening, August 24, Amy Biehl, from Newport Beach, California, drove a friend home to Gugulethu from the University of Cape Town. Their car was attacked and Amy was killed with stones and rocks thrown by a group of young men. I knew nothing of this until, after the long hours in flight and a night’s sleep at home, I walked into my kitchen in Cleveland, Ohio. In an attempt to re-orient myself to North American time zones and current events I flipped on the Today show. Peter and Linda Biehl—Amy’s parents—were being interviewed. I still remember the cold linoleum under my bare feet as I gripped the edge of the formica counter and hunched myself toward the 12-inch TV screen, piecing together what had happened. While my mind was scrambling for facts and motives, my heart was entirely captivated by these obviously grief-wounded people who with absolute deftness would not be cornered into demanding vengeance, no matter how often and relentlessly the interviewers shoved them in that direction. Nor would they be drawn into the tango of condemning all black South Africans for the murder of their white daughter.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, I stood transfixed in front of a grainy black-and-white TV screen in my parents’ living room and received my first soul-jolting lesson regarding justice and healing. At that time of great turbulence in the United States—politically, socially, racially—a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, that Sunday morning and four children were killed. Among them was 11-year-old Denise MacNair. TV reporters interviewed her father.
There was a flurry of questions. “Do you want to see your daughter’s killers brought to justice? Do you hate all white people for what these men did? Will you seek the death penalty for them if they are found?”
Mr. MacNair spoke to the heart of the matter from the heart of his pain and his convictions: Of course I want the killers brought to justice—who could bear to leave them free to do this again? But to have them executed? What would be the point? Their deaths will not bring our children back to life. The only way we could inflict upon them the suffering we are enduring would be to kill their children—and then truly we would all have gone mad.
The words of Charles MacNair and Linda and Peter Biehl echo through the good counsel offered by President Nelson Mandela in his 1994 inaugural address when he spoke of the need to “forgive what we dare not forget.” To acknowledge the horrific wrongs that had been done, lest such depravity come again and not be recognized.
Grace is a supple movement through tense passages. It blindsides vengeance. And frees us.
In 2001, on the Sunday after 9/11, I was scheduled to preach at Skyline UCC. Psalm 46 was one of the lectionary readings for that day and I grabbed onto it as if it were a life raft. “God is for us refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble . . . ” In my sermon I underscored how the Psalmist’s affirmation involves us with a force mightier than fear, more tenacious than terror. How it frightens even us who are believers with its implications, with its claims upon our actions, with its counter-intuitive applications. With its inherent admonishment to let our reactions go beyond the satisfyingly reflexive to the creatively effective. To committedly avoid getting tripped up in the knotty rhetoric of war, flexing strong and well-used muscles when new stretches of ingenuity are called for. “’Throw down your weapons and know that I am God!’” the Holy One declares. God is, for us, refuge and strength.
Grace is a supple movement through tense passages. It blindsides vengeance. And frees us. Delivers us from evil.
Rev. Dr. Mary Susan Gast
NCNC Conference Minister Emerita