First published February 7, 2013
1940's apartheid South Africa: a small African boy of age nine and his mother, a domestic worker, are walking down the street. Passing the other way is a tall white man, a priest in a black cassock. As they pass on the street the priest glances at the boy's mother and tips his hat.
The young boy is blown away by this small gesture. Why would a white man tip his hat to a black woman? Looking back, he would call this occasion the defining moment of his life. Later, the priest would visit the boy for two years and sit by his bedside to chat when he caught tuberculosis.
The boy later came to see that the priest's actions were consistent with his beliefs; that every person is of significance and infinite value because they are created in the image of God.
The young boy would develop a passion for the message of Jesus and human rights. That one meeting and action changed his life. And that young boys name was Desmond Tutu.
This story moved me strongly the first time I read it. That such a small action would set what has become such a significant man on his trajectory.
Another thing that moved me more recently and caused me to think about such things was the musical movie that has recently been released, Les Misérables.
There is a parallel between this true story about Desmond Tutu and the priest, and the story in Les Misérables of the main character Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) and his meeting with the bishop.
In the movie Jean Valjean steals from a bishop, but is pardoned by him and sent off with what he has stolen as well as more to start a new life, instead of being handed over as a thief. This has a profound affect upon the character of Jean, and this unmerited favour proves redemptive. It's a great example of the teaching of Jesus illustrated quite dramatically, and a powerful moment in the film.
In both cases the actions of a man following the teachings of Christianity (in the bishops case the quite dramatic outworking of the Sermon on the Mount) resulted in a redemptive effect upon the lives of the main character in the story.
A conversation I had this week brought this all home to me in a more practical way. I was talking to my father about apologetics when he mentioned that, in our current secular culture, young people often don't even know the remnants of Christian morality that used to be at least known and given lip service when he was a child.
This means that many of us young people in Australia and New Zealand live in what is a post-Christian culture. With many of our peers being brought up with no experience of Christianity in the household, and little religious education. A generation of mixed households and drifting morality.
Given this, Christians living in this environment should stick out like sore thumbs. For we have a fixed moral compass and truth we believe in, as well as the example of Jesus to follow, granting us a way that is dramatically different from how the world lives, and giving us the impetus to transform it. A way that offers love, redemption, and forgiveness.
In both the stories that I shared the practical outworkings of Jesus's teachings were dramatically different from the actions of the surrounding culture. And caused both Desmond Tutu and Jean Valjean to question from whence these gracious acts came, and what would cause someone to perform such acts.
Given the culture that we live in and the gospel that we believe in, perhaps all that is needed sometimes is a little practical outworking. Something that displays the disparity between a lost culture and a transformative gospel. Sometimes maybe, all you have to do - is be the difference.
Peter Rope is a Financial Economics and Theology graduate from Auckland.
Peter Rope's previous articles may be viewed at /www.pressserviceinternational.org/peter-rope.html