‘Grace is always scandalous’
The entire scene last Friday night was improbable. Here the son of evangelical parents, Abraham and Sarah, was addressing a crowded synagogue of Jewish believers from the Wynberg Shul and Muslim believers from the Open Mosque. This was scandalous. In fact my message was simply that.Grace is always scandalous or in the more expressive Afrikaans version of the word, skandalig. There are few places on the planet where this communion between Christians, Jews and Muslims would happen in such a public and profound way.The Jews had invited the Muslims to break fast with them in their holy month of Ramadan. They, in turn, would join their Jewish brothers and sisters in a lively celebration of Shabbat. Between the two ceremonies a Christian was to address them on the subject of grace.But first I took in the rarity of this moment, its global significance in troubled times. At that moment I felt the goosebumps on my skin and knob in my throat.This is what I always dreamed of for our country: communion not conflagration.Grace is always scandalous, I reminded the audience. From the deadly shootings at the Pittsburgh synagogue in America that killed 11 Jews and injured seven others, to the bombings of the two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand where 51 died and 50 were injured, this coming together of faiths in the Wynberg Shul was a powerful statement in troubled times.It was, moreover, a profound act of grace and therefore sure to be regarded as controversial in their respective faith communities.After all this was no orthodox Shul. One of the rabbis spoke of themselves as progressive Jews.I had visited more conservative synagogues before and this was different – the women sang in front, led some of the prayers and explained to the mixed audience what was being sung or said.It was lively with a fair sprinkling of youth and young families among them. I am sure the orthodox Jews would have something to say about this scandalous celebration.So too the leaders of the Open Mosque would be heavily criticised, even threatened, by mainstream Muslim believers. Reaching out to the Jewish community was not acceptable given the interminable crises of the Middle East and, in particular, the treatment of the Palestinians by the state of Israel.In one of its pamphlets the Open Mosque is clear: we might disagree fundamentally about the Palestinian crisis but those are reasons for seeking common ground not for burning bridges between Muslims and Jews.That kind of generous faith was sure to attract heavy criticism from other Muslims. Grace is scandalous.I reminded the audience in my short message how the efforts to bring together white students with black workers on whom they had inflicted unimaginable acts of racism in the Free State drew two responses – one of support, led by then Archbishop Tutu and one of condemnation for the act of grace when the workers publicly forgave the students.The Christian scriptures are filled with stories of scandalous grace. When the Jewish Jesus communed with the Samaritan woman at a public well, it was scandalous for all kinds of reasons including the fact that these were two different races.Most Christians completely miss the point of the story of the so-called Good Samaritan which, again, was a story of interracial healing in which the gentile helps the beaten-up man along the road, believed to be a Jew. Scandalous from beginning to end.What happened at the Wynberg synagogue could not have come at a more critical time in our history.Where I now live in the winelands areas of Stellenbosch you can feel the hurt and the grieving across the dorp this week.A group of black men walked into a dinner party and shot the farmer to death in front of his (black) wife after which they left with nothing stolen. This was a racial execution of a man who would not give up his private property to people who had heard the call of some of our reckless politicians to take back stolen land.The farmer pleaded with the local political parties and eventually called on the courts for assistance. As in Zimbabwe, the criminals were let loose to do their own thing while the authorities turned a blind eye.This horrific story, like the one of another presumed racial execution of two white youth whose vehicle ran out of diesel on the Putfontein Road in Benoni last week, spread like wildfire in the international media. So much for the President’s New Dawn, moan many of our compatriots across the land.At some point in this interfaith meeting, the young people were invited to go to another room for the children’s service.I watched as the Jewish children ran and skipped behind the youth leader with the guitar as they went through a side door.Then, a heartwarming moment. A Muslim man took the hands of each of his two small children and led them through the same door to share in the communion of faith.There is another way out of our troubles.