I am here in South African on a 10 day study tour—it’s really the trip of a lifetime, and I am so excited to be here.
After a ridiculously long trip—first a flight to Frankfurt, then an 8 hour layover, then an 11 hour flight to Johannesburg, we all made it safely. We did a bit of sight-seeing in Pretoria, and then spent the afternoon and evening relaxing at our lovely hotel, Maropeng Hotel. We all slept very well that night!
Then, today was our first full day here, and we made the most of it. We started off by visiting Sterkfontein Caves, part of a larger “Cradle of Humankind” experience that was amazing. The caves are the location of some of the oldest hominid fossils in existence, specifically those individuals named Mrs. Ples and Little Foot. It was exciting to descend down into the caves, and to see where the live digging site is ongoing.
From there, we went back to Maropeng for the more overarching Cradle of Humankind experience, and I really appreciated it, on a number of levels. First, theologically, I was struck again at the level of denial and willful ignorance that is required to deny the theory of evaluation (and, to be clear, I am using “theory” in its scientific sense here, which is to indicate a hypothesis that has been thoroughly tested and conclusively demonstrated). And, I suppose even more surprising is how Christians don’t see the wonder in it all, and how God was—and is—at work in all of it. Evolution is an amazing process of life coming from life, and death, and change, and adaptation, and mutation, and environmental factors, and relationships—it’s quite magnificent and breathtaking, really. What does a Christian have to fear from that? Evolution points to God’s grandeur, not God’s paucity.
And then there is the other point, the idea I pointed to in the title of this post: when this area was labeled the “cradle of humankind,” it wasn’t mere metaphor: human life—all human life—really did begin here, around 200,000 years ago. Seeing some of the actual fossils, and reading about what we know—and don’t know—about human evolution, I was encouraged by the reminder that we really are all one family. (This point was a big emphasis of the exhibit as a whole—we are all African.)
It reminded me of that ad campaign from maybe a decade or so—remember: it was famous models, with their faces marked with a stripe of paint (or something analogous), with the tag line, “I am African.” It received lots of criticism, and rightly so: in the United States specifically, when a white person (I think Gwyneth Paltrow was one of the faces) says she is “African,” it really dismisses and even mocks the suffering of African Americans, from the atrocities of slavery to today’s violent, dehumanizing racism.
I get all that, and I respect it. Yet, somehow today, here, I saw that idea in a fresh way, a way that I found hopeful and uplifting. We are all very different, of course, and those differences certainly matter: we are still learning how much an individual’s perspective and experiences are shaped by gender, class, skin color, nationality, religion, etc., etc.—and attentiveness to these varied perspectives constructively and critically shapes our collective thinking about who we are and how we are in relationship to the world around us. Differences are good; differences are rich; differences are valuable for all of us. And yet….
At our core, we are more alike than we are different; we are together before we are separate; and there is more that binds us than divides us. We are family—and no one is so different that s/he no longer belongs, no longer is located on the tree. We can both take comfort from that, and we can draw strength from it—as family, the earth is our common home after all, and it needs all of us if we are to survive. Maybe we really are all African after all.