(Editor’s Note: With this issue, we begin a periodic column called “The Religious Left,” pointing out that religious belief and activity are not solely the domain of the right. It will be written by Patrick O’Neill, a longtime Independent contributor and religion writer.)
In the midst of a lecture at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Garner, the Rev. Michael Lapsley tried to take hold of the plastic cup of water he was handed. The cup slipped and fell to the floor. “At least it wasn’t gin and tonic,” Lapsley quipped, a spontaneous joke that seemed to flow easily from a man who was trying to grab hold of the cup with the steel claw prosthetic he now uses for a hand.
On April 28, 1990, both of Lapsley’s hands were blown off and one eye destroyed when he opened a letter bomb concealed inside the pages of a religious magazine.
Lapsley, 56, is a white Anglican priest who was targeted by operatives within the then-white South African Government for his outspoken opposition to apartheid. Lapsley, a New Zealand native, has used his own experience to tell a story of one man’s transition from victim to survivor to victor.
On April 8, Lapsley clasped a pen deftly in the steel claw as he signed autographs in Priest and Partisan, a book about his life. About 25 people gathered at St. Christopher’s to hear about Lapsley’s journey.
Lapsley’s visit to the Triangle was sponsored by September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a peace group founded by family members of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
As a newly ordained priest in 1973, Lapsley was assigned to serve in South Africa. An opponent of apartheid, Lapsley found that he had entered a different world.
“I sometimes feel that the day I arrived in South Africa I stopped being a human being and I became a white man,” Lapsley said.
As he moved about, Lapsley realized the extent of the segregation. The post office had two entrances, one for “whites only,” the other for “non-whites.” At a restaurant, only whites were being served, but “in one corner of the restaurant there’s a window, and I see black people buying food through the window.”
In a government building, there were two elevators, one with a sign that said “whites only,” the other elevator with a sign that said “goods and non-whites.”
These early images summed up “what apartheid was about,” Lapsley said. “We who were white were people, and they who were black were like parcels.”
When he went to a beach to swim, Lapsley discovered that even the beaches were segregated. Whites had the best beaches. Others were for Indians and those of mixed race, with “the worst possible conditions for Africans, those in the majority. Even the sea was racially divided.”
Lapsley also came to understand that “the system called apartheid claimed to be Christian.”
Early on, Lapsley said he remembers telling a black university student, “‘I don’t believe in apartheid’ and him saying to me, very sweetly, ‘That’s lovely, father. Where are you going to sleep tonight?’ The point was, of course, I was returning to my white suburb so I could choose to be against apartheid, but I was still its beneficiary. I was still part of the group who were benefiting from the system.”
The young student was skeptical, Lapsley said. “He had seen people come from other places and within a short time take on the values of those who had power.”
Lapsley experienced a turning point in 1976 when South African black school children began to protest against “an inferior form of education for black people.” The government spent 10 times as much money per white student than for blacks. A so-called “special system of education for black people … was designed to keep black people inferior, designed to prepare them for the lowest places, the lowest levels of society.”
The resistance of the students was met with deadly force.
“The response of the police was to begin to shoot, and during the next year more than 1,000 school kids were shot to death,” Lapsley said. “The thing that shook my faith as a Christian was realizing that those who shot children read the Bible every day, went to church on Sunday. That’s shocking. How does a parent shoot a child unless racism has so entered their souls that they didn’t see the child. They saw something black, not a child like their child.”
Appointed the national chaplain for Episcopal students throughout the country, Lapsley knew students who were being detained, imprisoned and tortured. Many were “committed to die” to stop apartheid.
“I was a priest in the liberation movement caring for people in exile,” Lapsley said. “I needed to be part of the struggle against apartheid.”
All people read the Bible in the light of their own experience, Lapsley said. “There are people who allege they read the Bible objectively; don’t believe them,” he said. “We all read it according to what’s happening in our lives.”
In 1976, Lapsley was expelled from South Africa for his political activity. He lived for six years in Lesotho, a very poor, small nation within South Africa where Desmond Tutu was bishop.
“Suddenly all the passages in the Bible about exile had a whole new meaning,” Lapsley said. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion.”
As the years passed and many died, Lapsley said “every country in the world founded anti-apartheid movements” in support of the South Africans. In exile, Lapsley remained an activist. It was while living in Zimbabwe, upon returning from a speaking engagement in Canada, that Lapsley opened his mail. He opened a manila envelope that contained two religious magazines.
“I opened the magazine, and they exploded,” Lapsley said. “Ironically, it was a government that claimed to be Christian that used religious magazines to try to kill a priest.”
Although Lapsley believes someone from the Government of South Africa had put a bomb inside that magazine, no one has ever taken responsibility. The new government did declare Lapsley “a victim” and along with 18,000 others; he received a financial payment worth about $6,500, a third of what the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation recommended.
After months of rehab, Lapsley returned to the work of liberation. Today, he leads The Institute for Healing of Memories, a Cape Town-based trust “which seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations.”
In his talk, Lapsley also offered strong criticism of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
“I have one question for the American people,” Lapsley said. “What will happen in the bedrooms of the nation as a consequence of people who come back with rage and bitterness inside them? Where will that be played out? It will be played out in the bedroom.
“Often when people have participated in political violence and the political violence stops, we see it continuing with domestic and family violence, and it continues often both with self-harm and harm to others. There are those who drink themselves to death. There are those who become domestically violent to their partners or to their children.”
In response to Sept. 11, the United States moved not from victim to survivor to victor, but from victim to victimizer, he said.
“The United States has chosen the route of hatred and revenge, and also it hasn’t cared whether or not its new victims were the people who were responsible for what happened to it. So you exploit the emotions of the people for violent ends and thereby continue the cycle of victims becoming victimizers.”
Yes, terrorism must be opposed, Lapsley said, but the United States must deal with “the fundamental causes of terrorism, which has to do with a world where a few have so much and so many have so little.
” … I think the unilateral actions of the United States have made the lives of every American more dangerous, and not to mention it’s made the world a more dangerous place.”
Despite great faith, Lapsley admits he has grieved the loss of his hands. Several months after what he calls “my bombing,” Lapsley attended a play. At the end, everyone applauded, except Lapsley.