God's Politics

Brian McLarenIf you ever visit Johannesburg, you should set aside a half day to visit the Apartheid Museum. You’ll need a few hours to experience the museum and then a few more to process what you’ve experienced, either alone or with some friends. As you enter the museum, you pass beneath a stark, simple, yet unforgettable sign, bold capital letters against the subdued red brick of the building: APARTHEID in white, MUSEUM in black.

As you leave the museum, you are struck by another visual metaphor: six concrete pillars, each inscribed with a word. These are the pillars of the new, post-apartheid South Africa: freedom, responsibility, democracy, respect, reconciliation, and diversity.

I believe the U.S. is passing through an era with some similarity to the last apartheid years in South Africa. It is a difficult era, full of tension, full of possibility too. It began, I suppose, with our decision not to remain isolated, but to enter World War II. The dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the era indelibly, in ways we have hardly begun to grasp. In the 1950’s, the McCarthy trials helped define the era, and the era’s particular angst intensified in the 1960’s with the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, and the ecology movement. For over three decades, the era was defined largely by the struggles of the Cold War, and then more recently, the internal “culture wars” and the external “war on terrorism.” What links all of these disparate phenomena is what linked blacks, whites, and colored in South Africa as apartheid came to an end: the struggle to forge a new national identity.

Think of the questions that we have grappled with over these last fifty years: Will we be a nation of equality for all races, and for women as well as men? Will we be a nation of isolation or engagement? In engagement, will we be a nation of war, using unprecedented technologies of violence for our national interest, or do we aspire to be a nation of peace working for the common good? Will we be an industrial nation that extracts riches at our environment’s expense, or an ecological nation that works harmoniously in and with the environment as its caretakers? How will we relate to other cultures and nations in the world? Will we be dominated by them, or will we seek to dominate them—or is there some other path? Will be seek to be an empire, or is there some other path for a superpower? Will we be characterized by virtue and civility or by decadence and conflict? Will we be the world’s smarmiest pornographers, the world’s hypocritical moral police, or an imperfect but improving moral example among the world’s nations? What kind of nation do we want to be?

All these questions, I believe, surface this one simmering, profound question of national identity for the United States. If we can see them thematically as elements in one ongoing struggle, the struggle to define our national ethos and global role, perhaps we can find both a missing sense of coherence in our times – and a unifying goal toward which we can move together. We are, after all, a rather young nation, perhaps we could even say an adolescent nation. Perhaps identity crises are to be expected for a nation our age.

Naming our struggle in this way can help us be less distracted, fragmented, and confused by the crisis de jour, a phenomenon furthered by our broadcast news media that need to give us another frightening reason to keep watching or listening until the next commercial break. Our political parties also play into this rush from crisis to crisis, as each tries to spin and gain advantage in a game that never seems to end, and nobody seems to win. Deep down, we know that many if not most of these crises are simply bumps in the road, and we also know that far more important issues are hardly acknowledged because they are too big, deep, and complex to become a crisis de jour between commercial breaks. Perhaps the articulation of our desired national identity and mission is more important than 90% of the so-called crises, but we just haven’t realized it yet.

As we broaden and deepen our dialogue about faith, justice, politics, and culture, I believe more and more of us should attend to this larger identity struggle. We need to listen to our prophets and poets, our pastors and sages, our educators and activists, so that some time in the future, we will know what our pillars are … and so the values they represent will be inscribed, not just on stone, but in our hearts and minds, our families and communities.

Brian McLaren ( is an author, speaker and board member of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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