201 Wilhelm Verwoerd
Researcher & Facilitator
“We would also be very conscious of preaching anti-communism because people were saying that the African National Congress, you know, former President Mandela’s political party, they were really not liberation fighters, they were terrorists.”
Wilhelm is a facilitator and researcher based at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. A dedicated peace activist, he is also the author of several books, including most recently Verwoerd: My Journey Through Family Betrayals.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
In the Spring of 2014 I found a small dog wandering in front of my house. The streets of our neighborhood in North Denver were dotted with small brick houses and the nights were often punctuated with gunfire and drunken shouting.
I coaxed the friendly Chihuahua into my arms and found he was tagged with an address just 2 blocks away so I decided to return the cute little thing to his owner, but I was alone and didn’t know what kind of situation I’d find when knocking on the door.
So when I saw a police cruiser parked on the street, I thought I’d just ask the officer to keep an eye on me as I returned the dog. You know, make sure I was safe.
When a young Black woman answered the door, she did not seem to be relieved or grateful that a white lady was returning her lost dog, as I had expected, but instead had a look of terror on her face when she saw a cop parked in front of her house. She just said “OK” as I handed her the dog, but she never took her eyes off the cop.
I had thought “oh good! A police officer.”
From the look on her face, and from what I now know about policing in America, I wonder if she thought “oh shit. A police officer.”
I think of her expression often as I learn more about the lived reality of Black people in this country and the threat to their peace and their bodies and their families that a single encounter with law enforcement can bring. I think about the real risk I put her in by bringing police to her door – how I made her unsafe just because I was uncomfortable.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know and now I wonder how the hell I could not have known especially because I really thought I knew stuff. Like, I was sure of it.
Because I knew at the time that White Supremacy was wrong, but what I lacked was a genuine curiosity about the ways in which it was all around me, baked into so many institutions and beliefs and practices in America. Sure, I knew that it was wrong to be racist, but what I did not understand was the way in which racist systems have deeply harmed others while they have benefitted me as a white woman.
This is going to be a life-long journey for me, so I have to stop feeling immobilized by fear of getting it wrong and stop with the whole white guilt thing since all it does is trick me into silence and inaction.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into the Confessional. It’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. And I personally invited my guest today, a white South African who has been doing anti-racism work for decades and served on his country’s truth and reconciliation commission, if he might be willing to step into The Confessional. And yes, it might have been for selfish reasons, asking someone to confess their shit to help me know what to do with mine. But I’m so glad I did. Stay tuned.
NBW: My guest today is Wilhelm Verwoerd. He is talking to me from South Africa. Welcome, Wilhelm. I’m so glad you’re here. And I’m very curious what story of yours brings you into The Confessional today?
Wilhelm Verwoerd (WV): Hmm. Good day, Nadia. Thank you for the invitation. Well, I think for me, it goes back to my childhood. I remember being very religious growing up in what we call the Dutch Reformed Church; white neighborhood, surrounded by people that look like me speaking the same language, Afrikaans, going to church just with people speaking like that and looking like that. And within that context, we used not the language of apartheid, which people associate with with our racial system off of dehumanization and segregation. We used the language of separate development and we basically tried to give a kind of a theological justification for the way in which people were separated on racial lines. So on Sunday, we would go to neighboring black communities or people of color and distribute Bibles and do little Bible studies for the local children and feeling all quite good about it. We as a group of, say, white students, we will come in, we have our t-shirts and, you know, with a local sort of indigenous language, little slogan of God loves you kind of thing on your T-shirt. And we would go and stand in front of this group of black children, and we would then start in standing a little choir formation and then we would start to sing sometimes in English, but often we would have learned, say, a Zulu or a Xhosa song, and we would sing that to the children. And, you know, we would feel quite, I suppose, feel quite holy in terms of doing this work.
NBW: But it would be void of any curiosity about their actual lives. Right?
WV: Well, that’s the thing, you know, so if you look at the conditions people were living in: the very basic housing, very basic schooling, you know, very limited, you know, often not even having running water or not proper electricity. And we would see that as something that we can help with in terms of a kind of a missionary outreach. But we were not questioning the political system and the history that led to those conditions and how we as white South Africans were deeply implicated in that kind of situation that people were facing in terms of racialized poverty. And when I look back at that, I feel ashamed about that because South Africa was in the grip of the apartheid system. And so fellow Christians who just happened to be black, who happened to be people of color were being systematically dehumanized and often just a stone’s throw away from this white neighborhood that I grew up in. But my kind of religiosity made me blind to that. And I am deeply ashamed of that. And I feel I have to keep on confessing that to my fellow black Christians in South Africa.
NBW: Help me understand what kind of ideological system you were taught growing up white in South Africa.
WV: I mean, I bought into this ideology of we are separate, we are different, and we cannot live in an integrated society, and this was cloaked in this Christian evangelical language. I mean, what made it worse, and perhaps I should add that in terms of perhaps a more disturbing story when I look back while I was at school and also at university, we were also very much influenced by the Cold War anti-communist rhetoric. So in these church gatherings and when we would go out and do things, we would also be very conscious of preaching anti-communism because people were saying that the African National Congress, you know, former President Mandela’s political party, they were really not liberation fighters. They were terrorists. You know, they were communist-inspired terrorists who wanted to come and take away our land. And I can remember at university, just before I was going to go into the army, how we were gathering in our residence and a couple of hundred young men, you know, we were having lunch there. And a news bulletin came on over the radio how the South African Defense Force had launched another successful attack on ANC terrorist camps in Botswana. And I can remember about 200 of us standing up and cheering, you know, that this was a great moment that we fought against the ANC and these terrorist communists. And so that was a bit more explicit, I think a bit more political, but still still this kind of very simplistic acceptance of the anti-communist, anti-black onslaught ideology that was being spread in the schools, in the media and also in the church that I was part of.
NBW: So the evil, if there was an evil to the dynamic within apartheid South Africa, it was that the ANC was going to try to instill communism?
WV: Big time.
NBW: That was the evil, okay.
WV: And it was so successful, you know, people would come and tell stories about what was going on in Soviet Russia and how the Christians are being oppressed and, you know, how churches are being broken down. And if the ANC takes over, you know, that’s what’s going to happen, so we have to fight to protect our Christian country against these, evil communist terrorists.
NBW: You know, it’s interesting. It’s literally on the drive over to the studio today, I heard a story on NPR about a Republican politician in the South who also is the owner of a WNBA, a women’s national basketball team, which I believe is largely black athletes, and who has been very vocal about being very upset that the WNBA has just put on their uniforms Black Lives Matter logo. And this white woman, Republican from the South, when speaking out against why it is absolutely wrong to put Black Lives Matter on the uniforms of a team that she owns that is largely black players, she said, because as an organization, Black Lives Matter is Marxist, and that’s why it’s wrong. I mean literally on the drive over that was the story on the radio.
WV: It was so effective in South Africa, that strategy, because it really helps you to to look to the enemy as the other. And you use this kind of Christian righteousness almost to demonize the other. And it takes away any criticism of your own position. And somebody said apartheid was evil masquerading as light. And I definitely think there’s a deep truth in that, that that we thought we were on this kind of right side and that we were following Jesus and when I look back, Jesus for me was white. You know, he was basically a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. So we completely domesticated and turned God into an idol. I mean, there’s no question about it. So what I have to confess in that sense is also idolatry, which led to the dehumanization of fellow human beings.
NBW: It’s effective, though. I mean, if you look at the United States like, how is it, for instance, that white people could come to this country and commit genocide and land theft so effectively and without remorse? The way they were able to do it is there was a Christian doctrine called the doctrine of discovery. So when you can get God to cosign on your bullshit, you don’t have to see it as bullshit. You see it as righteousness. Like, hey, it’s the best camouflage in the world if you can go, “this is not about my self-interest, this is not about my pride, my ego and my own selfish, evil desires. This is God’s will.” If you can pull that off, I mean, the slave owners in America were quoting scripture to justify their enslavement of other human beings. It’s extremely effective.
WV: Very, very, very, very effective. Because you can’t argue. You can’t. You know, it’s almost like you just quote from the Bible and that’s it.
NBW: Right. Especially if you can pull off that blend of paternalism and benevolence that white Christians seem to eat up like chocolate. If we can have that special blend of paternalism and benevolence. Oh, there’s such a sugar high from it, you know.
WV: And then you get indignant when you’re criticized because I’m trying to help. You know, I’m not a bad person. How can you call me racist? Because I’m helping.
NBW: Right. I always find the phrase “those less fortunate than ourselves” to be a real sign of that.
WV: Yeah, because it’s like pitty so if you’re bending down and you’re helping. We talk about uplifting the poor. You know, there’s kind of.
NBW: It’s arrogant.
WV: Yeah, there’s no compassion, really, because it doesn’t require courage. It doesn’t require that real open, vulnerable engagement with another human being and walking with them in their pain and being faced with your responsibility for their pain. There’s none of that. You know, but it’s pervasive and it’s very powerful.
NBW: So Wilhelm, keep telling me the story from your life in terms of, you know, you’re raised in this white Afrikaner culture, neighborhood, school, church, where you are indoctrinated with this kind of thinking and you, of course, sort of go along with all of it. But presumably you’re talking to me because at some point it’s something shifted.
WV: Yeah, I mean, I think just to add to the complexity of that story is I come from a particular family and my grandfather in particular was prime minister during that time, in the 1960s.
NBW: So he was, wait, he was the prime minister?
WV: Well, this is where it gets really complicated. Yeah. So he was prime minister from 1958 to 1966. And before that, he was a minister of what was called native affairs, so he was the face of the government implementing laws that affected the lives of black South Africans. And that’s why even though he’s revered in my family and in the community that I’m from, he was hated and he still is hated by black South Africans, by people of color, because he personifies that system, because he was very good at presenting these grand theories and grand ideologies of separate development. And he was very religious in many ways, but he was blind like all of us. We were blind to what actually was the impact of these policies on the lives of people who were systematically removed from their communities. You know, they were not allowed to move and be who they want to be and oppressed and tortured and killed by the security police. So those things were happening. But for me, the real change came when I had a chance to move out of this community when I was a postgraduate student and to spend some time in Holland and in England, and to actually physically be away from this cocoon of white Afrikaner Christian Verwoerd-ness was, I think, very important because for the first time I really started to meet black South Africans, not people working, you know, in the home or in the factories or wherever, but to meet students, to meet people who were able to confront me and who were able to tell me their stories. Not theorize and have political grand discussions, but to just say this is what happened to my family, this is what happened to my uncle who was put in prison, this person was killed by the police. And then to hear that many of those people were not the evil communists that I thought they were, they were actually committed Christians. That, for me, was that the biggest shock to actually think, is this possible that everything I believed in and that I was passionate about was actually a lie? And not just a lie, it was actually evil being implemented on fellow human beings and fellow Christians. And so it was a very, very big wake-up call, almost being shaken awake by that time in Holland and England to look at South Africa, look at myself, look at my family, my grandfather, my faith in very different ways. And, of course, that was not an easy process.
NBW: Was there a point at the beginning where you felt defensive?
WV: Of course.
NBW: Can you tell me about that?
WV: Yeah. So it’s the first few months when I was in Holland, I lived in a house with a couple of other students And what I didn’t know was that some of those students were actually politically very active. And some of them were white students, Afrikaner students. And so within that first month, I was being confronted, you know, and we would sit outside in this little courtyard. And one of them, her name was Amor. And she was this fiery character. And she just would not relent, I mean. And she would not let me get away with any defensiveness because she could speak literally my language. She knew the background. We shared the same culture. And she would just challenge and challenge and challenge. And I would, of course, try and say, but what about this? And I would say, but, you know, this is not true and, you know, what about our history? And for the first month or two, I was just, you know, late at night writing back these long letters to my family and my friends and my girlfriend at the time, you know, just trying to say, please send me information, get me get me stuff that I can respond to. Find out more about Nelson Mandela, because they are telling me actually this is what he said, and if this is what he said, then he cannot be just this evil terrorist that we thought he was. And so basically, in those first few months, it was just this intense defensiveness, trying to run away from this painful truth that I was being confronted with. And fortunately, I was there long enough to get to the point where something penetrated my guts, my heart. I could feel it. I could sense it. I could see that there is a deep truth to this very different side of South Africa that I was being exposed to. And so that really caused a crisis of faith and a crisis of my sense of vocation to the point where I said I’m no longer going to become a minister in this Dutch Reformed Church. I cannot even study theology anymore. So I switched my course of study to politics and economics and South African history, and I also did a mini thesis on my grandfather trying to say, but who was this person? Who was he really? And what was his role and therefore also my family’s role in this system of apartheid. And so it became this three-year deep grappling with what it means to be Verwoerd and white and Afrikaner and a Christian. And some of the most beautiful things that that I can remember from that time was actually having these encounters with fellow black South Africans — I’m thinking of Cornelius Marevati, Sam Pono, Tshepisho Mashinini, various other people — who had this remarkable ability to share their pain, to be angry, especially when they hear the surname, because it would, It would trigger. It would evoke. But then when they realized that I was willing to sit and actually listen and to engage with them, what often would happen was that there was this kind of remarkable generosity of spirit, a willingness to say to me, listen, Wilhelm, we’re not asking you to reject your grandfather. In our culture, we respect our ancestors.
NBW: Oh wow.
WV: We’re not asking you to reject the color of your skin. You cannot. Even your culture, we’re not asking you to turn into some kind of gray nobody South African. That’s not what we are against. What we’re against is what those policies stand for and what they did to us. And we’re asking you to become part of changing that. Use who you are to become part of the liberation of all of us. And that invitation was the critical moment to say, yes, there is this painful truth, but I don’t have to go and hide in a corner. I don’t have to be overwhelmed by the sense of guilt and shame.
NBW: So. I found it very moving when you said that they said, “we are not asking you to renounce and remove yourself from your family, because in our culture, we revere our ancestors.” That that, to me, has such grace to it. I would love to hear you say more about how those conversations unfold, the kinds of reactions you receive, and how you process that.
Wilhelm [00:37:15] See, I mean, I when I meet fellow black South Africans, even today, I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s not just me walking into that room. The moment they see my face, they see the color of my skin, in South Africa, what this white skin represents, and the moment they hear my accent, and the moment they hear my surname, I know I come from this family and that my grandfather was prime minister. So I bring all that baggage, all that pain into the room even before I open my mouth. And then when I begin to speak, I often find people, the initial sense you can see in people’s faces, their eyes, you can you can sense the anger. But I’ve rarely been in places I can perhaps think of one or two experiences where that was almost like the predominant side of the experience. But mostly what happens if I don’t become defensive and become reactive and try and justify that anger then is often switched into this kind of gratitude that we can have this real encounter, and if I can just stay in the room and just sit in that pain and anger till we get that point, then I often find that I am being embraced at the end, literally and morally.
NBW: How do we do that, though? I mean, how do you sort of access that part of you that’s able to not be defensive, to not justify yourself, how do you do that?
WV: Well, I think in some sense, my kind of family heritage might be a blessing in disguise, because I think from the moment I became politically aware as a student in my 20s and started to grapple with South African history and what what the system of apartheid really was about, I was able to combine that with this connection with my grandfather. So the personal was always political and political was personal. And and it was immersed in a sense of history that this didn’t just, it’s not just about me. It’s not just about an individual anger that people bring. There’s a vast history behind what my whiteness and my name and my community and my language represent, and understanding that, that when people are angry with me a lot of that anger is not really about me, it’s about what I represent. And if I can just understand that and understand that this is a systemic, huge, huge trauma, trauma, collective trauma that is here just bubbling below the surface. And I trigger it. I open it up. And if I can just sit in that pain and in that compassion really also towards people that I am responsible for their pain, that has the potential to be transformative.
WV: And spending the time and being willing to do it over and over again. So over time, I think I’ve been blessed with this, almost like I used to be a long-distance runner. You know, I think it’s this kind of long distance running mentality to not give up, not to think this is a sprint, to stay in the discomfort and to know that when I do that, and this is a very Christian thing, actually, it’s almost like to take up the cross knowing that after that there’s new life, there’s deeper life that I come home in my skin, I come home in my humanity as a South African, as a Verwoerd, as Wilhelm, you know, when I face these huge collective historical issues and then it becomes good news, paradoxical good news.
NBW: Well, it sounded in your story. I mean, one thing I heard was that your Christian faith, the way it functioned early in your life was to convince you of your goodness, but how it functioned later in your life was to convict you of your complicity.
NBW: And one of- I mean, I don’t know why you chose to stay in in the faith, and I actually don’t talk about my faith much on the podcast, but I can say that one of the reasons I’ve refused to leave the Christian faith is because scripture and theology and liturgy, they’re way too potent to be left in the hands of those who only use them to justify their dominance over another group of people.
WV: Absolutely, I mean, for me, the symbol that I often reflect on and it makes sense given what we’ve shared now. There’s a painting by a young guy in the 60s, Ron Harrison. The painting is called The Black Christ. And it really is a profound, prophetic critique of this kind of white God, white Christ, religiosity, idolatry, really, that we grew up with. And so the Christ figure is Albert Luthuli, who was then a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but also president of the African National Congress, a deeply committed church leader, but also politically committed to overthrow apartheid. And the centurion figure with the spear piercing the side of Christ is my grandfather.
NBW: Oh man. I’ve seen hundreds of paintings of the crucifixion where there is a soldier with a spear piercing Jesus’ side with a spear – but you’re telling me that there’s a famous rendition where your grandfather is the soldier with the spear and Jesus is the head of the African National Congress….oh man.
WV: So I have this painting in front of me, and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this as a almost like an icon in the religious sense of what is the window opened by this, this image of me having to face the fact that I’m also being represented by this centurion, by my grandfather with this spear. But also realizing that my liberation, my that, the generosity, the forgiveness, the compassion that I have experienced among black South Africans is also being represented by this figure on the cross. So the depths of what we’ve done to our fellow Christians that we’ve actually re-crucified Christ in what we’ve done to fellow human beings.
WV: But that’s not the end of the story. At the end of the story is that there is life after that. If I can face my whiteness and as it were, let go of that sense of superiority and dominance and exclusion, then there’s a pathway to becoming really alive. And I think that’s what the faith is about.
NBW: And it’s amazing that it can be leveraged so powerfully for domination, but that it can also be leveraged more powerfully for liberation. The same thing.
WV: In the long run, yeah.
NBW: Oh man, Wilhelm, I’m so grateful that you were willing to tell me your story. I really, really hope that we can be together at some point in person.
WV: I do. Yeah, you have to come and visit South Africa, you know.
NBW: I really would love to visit. And just thank you again really.
WV: Ahh well thank you for the invitation. And yes, I hope we can continue the journey.
NBW: All right. Bye ye.
WV: Bye bye.
NBW: A blessing for Wilhelm.
Wilhelm, the painting you described, The Black Christ, depicts your grandfather as the centurion piercing the side of Christ. And I keep thinking about that spear in his hands as he looks up at but does not see the humanity or the divinity of the one he is hurting.
And if this painting is an icon, a window into the heart of love, then allow me to gently take that spear from his hands, and offer it to you in the spirit of Isaiah, who prays that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.
Because, I don’t know if you realized it, Wilhelm, but when you described the moment of your own redemption, in your 20’s confronted by the truth you said, “something penetrated my guts, my heart. I could feel it.”
That “something” was the pruning hook of God’s love, cutting away that which needs to die in order for something else to grow.
So as you continue your work, may the spear that informed your understanding of yourself be transformed into a pruning hook, cutting away the evils that dehumanized so many and robbed you of empathy.
And may you, as a pruned and redeemed child of God bear good fruit. Amen
NBW: Next time on The Confessional…
Darin: And then as my car approached her, she darted into the street across two lanes of traffic and straight into my car. And I hit her.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music was composed by Antwan Banks Williams.