yes, of course, because South Africa is a country with forty four million caring, loving, hospitable people, and one million people that represent our dark side.
The day after I arrived the Sunday newspapers were full of news about the consequences of the attacks. The focus was on people that had gone out of their way to help the victims of the attacks. Some people risked their lives and the safety of their properties to accommodate families that they did not know. Those people saw fellow brothers and sisters in need and did not even think twice about reaching out. Their main focus was to remove children from violent situations and provide shelter in areas that were already bitterly cold at night.
I read about one family that immigrated to South Africa twenty years ago. They carry South African passports and the children do not know another country or culture. They had lost everything – their livelihood, their memories, but luckily not their lives.
During the week in South Africa, I met many family and friends, and of course this topic was being discussed all the time. What struck me was that the discussion was about 'them'. "This has nothing to do with our world, except that it made us wary when driving to work.' All the victims of the xenophobic attacks were black, and this touched a white world only in the sense that it was newsworthy, confirming what 'we' 'know' and think, and at times being inconvenient.
I often have to explain why it is important for me to love all people that I encounter.
'Yes, the Bible says that you must love your neighbor like yourself, but surely we choose our neighbors? Surely we choose the neighborhood that we live in, based on our socio-economic status? And people that have a lower socio-economic status are in that sense not our neighbors? I mean, they smell and steal and kill, for goodness sake – don't be so naïve. And when we go to church, we associate with people that believe and think like us. Of course we love them, but it is important that we associate with like-minded people. They are our neighbors, nobody else. We will love our neighbors on our terms, and we will continue to select them. I mean, just look at these xenophobic attacks. These people cannot possibly be our neighbors?'
Is this different elsewhere in the world? Sadly, no. In England the hoodies (young boys and men who wear jackets with hoods that cover their heads and disguise their faces) are 'not our neighbors'. The chavs (acronym for 'council house, aggressive and violent' – as if any of us had a perfect life up to now!) are also 'not our neighbors.'
Even in one of the most civilized countries in the world, Switzerland, a Macedonian woman was recently refused citizenship for the third time. She has lived with her husband and worked in the country for thirty years, raised her children there, and speaks the language fluently without a trace of an accent. After appeals, the local government had instructed the local council of citizens to award her citizenship, but they flaunted this and turned the third application down, on the basis of 'insufficient integration'. Apparently she likes wearing bright colorful clothes and jewelry, and that is not the local custom. Do her neighbors love her?
I am sure you will find examples of this in every country and community in this world.
So who is our neighbor, and why should we love them?
I define my neighbor as everyone that crosses my path, simply because I am aware of them. It is a challenge to define everyone on this planet as our neighbor, simply because we have limitations to our consciousness. It is also practical for me to love the neighbor that crosses my path.
Some people come into our lives for short periods, for example shop assistants or fellow commuters that greet you because your face is familiar. They are there for a reason.
Other people share specific experiences with us over a period of time, for example colleagues at work, those people that you employ to clean your house or tidy your garden, or friends in a town where you only live a few years, or team mates in a sport that you play. They are there for a season.
Another group of people share most of your life, for example family, life-long friends, and your marriage partner. Where a marriage breaks up and there are children involved, the ex-marriage partner also shares the rest of your life with you, but in a different way. They are there for a life-time.
All of these people are my neighbor, whether they are there for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I express my love for them every time I interact with them. That includes when I think about them as well, because thoughts are actions that I have already experienced but not seen yet.
When we judge 'them' for what 'they' do, we join them in their actions by means of our thoughts. We do onto our neighbors what we will not want done unto ourselves, but by even thinking those thoughts, we treat ourselves in exactly the way we do not want to be treated.
Can we change or stop xenophobic attacks? Yes. By confronting the attackers and having an eye for an eye? No. What we can do is feel unconditional love for the attackers as well as for their victims. We can do that by understanding that we need to accept and love our own dark sides. Then we will understand that xenophobic fears and attacks are not about 'them', but about each one of us. That will change the world.
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