John 3: 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Is there any hope for this man? He doesn’t even know how many people he has killed, he has lost count. It’s safe to say that the death toll would be in the hundreds. That why he was in a maximum security prison in South Africa for so many years, until very recently. He is Eugene De Kock, former head of secret military operations against anti-apartheid resistance fighters, in South Africa and in neighboring states, during the apartheid regime, in the 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s.
In case that was before your time, apartheid was the legal, political and theological system in the Republic of South Africa of strict racial segregation and white supremacy that ruled the country officially until 1994.
In effect, De Kock was a hit man under government contract. South Afrikaners nicknamed him, “Prime Evil.” The night time and sunrise raids that he planned and led, to capture and kill activists, community organizers and guerrilla fighters, were legendary for their surprise, their speed, their ruthlessness and effectiveness.
He is one of three people I want to talk about in relation to Jesus’ words, “You must be born again.” The other one is Nicodemus, to whom Jesus addressed those words. The third one is….well, I’ll say later.
After the apartheid regime in South Africa fell, De Kock was tried and imprisoned for life for crimes against humanity. His case interested a black South African psychologist by the name of Dr. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. She came many times, over a number of years, to interview De Kock, and even, to her surprise, to befriend him.
Dr. Pumla wanted to understand what made such a trained killer, and a leader and trainer of other killers, tick. She also wanted to better understand her own past, as she grew up on the other side of the color barrier, and the South African civil war. In their first meeting, she found De Kock hostile, unrepentant and evasive. His attitude was: “It was war; what do you expect? What I did was necessary for state security and for law and order; It was us or them, and it still is, you’ll see. I was only following orders; I was a hero then; why am I a criminal now? And if I could do it all over again, would I? Of course.”
What hope is there for such a man?
In today’s gospel story we meet another man who is also confronted with the question, “If you could do it all over again, would you do it any differently?” That’s implied in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” That also implies, amazingly, that, at his advanced age, Nicodemus can do it all over again. And if he can, so can anyone, starting any time.
There’s nothing in today’s story to indicate that Nicodemus has a past as bad as De Kock’s. If anything, he has probably earned lots of trust and praise and respect from his society for being a devout and upright religious and political leader. He is a member of a strict and observant sect of Judaism, the Pharisees. He is also a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme ruling council over all things religious in Jerusalem. He would have shared that responsibility with leaders from other Jewish sects. So, while he is firm about what he believes and how he observes his faith, he can also be tolerant and respectful and work with people of differing opinions.
So what’s not to like about Nicodemus, especially when you compare him to “Mr. Prime Evil?” There’s not much in common between them. Except that they are both sons of privilege, with power and position to protect. De Kock, by virtue of being white during the apartheid regime and a servant of the highest members of the ruling political party. He did their secret dirty work, at their commands, for their rewards. Nicodemus, would also have had the right connections and friends in high places.
Yet, both De Kock and Nicodemus are in a predicament. How can De Kock come to terms with all the killing he did, without the sheer monstrosity of it killing him? But if he stays stuck in denial and self-justification about the evil of his actions, how can he ever become human again? And what about when he can no longer avoid the most loving and holy source of mercy, goodness and truth seeking him, and us, the God who gave people the very lives that he took?
You would think that Nicodemus’ problem is easier; he committed no crimes against humanity. And yet I think his problems are thornier than those of De Kock, because Nicodemus must choose between what is good and familiar and highly esteemed by his peers, and what is better and best, and unfamiliar. And most of his beloved peers hate it. All these years he’s been upstanding and virtuous and theologically and legally correct, to the best of his knowledge. And he is longing for the kingdom of God. And then this Nazarene upstart comes along and miracles happen. “They must be from God,” Nicodemus has to admit.
It’s not just a question of miracles; it’s what the miracles mean. They mean nothing less than that his long-desired kingdom of God has indeed entered the world. If you asked either Jesus or Nicodemus what the kingdom of God meant, as good Jews both of them would probably quote verses like Isaiah 35: 5: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy.” And those are precisely the kinds of miracles Nicodemus sees Jesus doing. So the kingdom of God has obviously, undeniably entered the world through this Nazarene upstart, Jesus, who never consulted the proper religious authorities, like Nicodemus, beforehand.
But if Nicodemus admits that Jesus has brought the kingdom of God, and decides to follow Jesus, then that calls into question his own privileges, powers and positions as a leader. He would be throwing all that power, privilege and prestige away, with which he could do so much good, for another leader who is…..well, from podunk, backwater Nazareth? In Galilee? Who doesn’t have the right rabbinical credentials for Jewish leadership? Who hangs around with poor, unclean and disreputable people? Who acts as though the duly constituted authorities in government and religion don’t matter, or even exist?
Declare himself for Jesus, and Nicodemus must hand back the Sanhedrin name tag with the magnetic stripe that allows you to charge lunches at the temple cafeteria. Oh, and don’t forget the key to the locker at the temple workout room, because your former buddies will think you’re unclean for having prayed that morning with Jesus and his disciples. They’re notorious for not washing their hands enough, you know. And don’t bother to come home for Yom Kippur because your siblings and your cousins don’t want to be seen at a dinner table with you. I’m sure you’ll have friends enough among those unclean fishermen and prostitutes and tax collectors whom Jesus eats with. Which may be why Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. So as not to be seen by his powerful partners with veto power over his prestigious career.
But Jesus seems surprised that the call to be born again should come as any surprise to Nicodemus. “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you don’t know these things?” Jesus asked him. Wouldn’t Nicodemus know about Abraham, for example? Abraham was called to leave the familiar territory of his ancestors and his ancestors’ gods in Chaldea for a new territory—uh, somewhere. Only later does he find out that that somewhere is Canaan. Nicodemus doesn’t know any more than Abraham did where the journey would lead him or what this new territory would be like. That’s why Jesus tells him that, “the Spirit, like the wind, moves in ways you cannot know, from places you cannot know, toward places you cannot know.” This strange new territory for Nicodemus is nothing less than the kingdom of God.
For both Nicodemus and Mr. Prime Evil, C. S. Lewis described the only way out of their dilemma in his novel, Until We Have Faces. In it, a character counsels another one to, “Die before you die, because there’s no chance to do so afterwards.” For Nicodemus, “dying before you die,” to be born again, will mean taking on a new understanding of God’s kingdom, and entering a new community, new relationships, a new inheritance and a new identity, at the cost of everything old and familiar, where he once had trust and control.
For Eugene De Kock, Mr. “Prime Evil,” dying before you die,” to be born again, will mean surrendering all his excuses and his self-justifications, and the racist ideology by which he indulged his bloodlust. It will mean humbling himself enough to admit the exact nature of his deeds and attitudes, and humbling himself enough to accept personal responsibility and the consequences for them. But it will also mean humbling himself enough to accept God’s love and mercy, for himself and his former enemies, humbling himself enough to ask others for forgiveness, and doing whatever he can to amend his life and make whatever restitution he can, even while in prison.
As for Nicodemus, I’m happy to say that he seems to have accepted the invitation to die before he died and be born again. But it wasn’t a classic altar call, a sudden, surprising end-of-the-sawdust trail conversion experience of tears, of stunning grief and sweet relief, like what being born again has often meant—legitimately– for many people. Nicodemus walked into this new birth more slowly and in fits and starts, like most Christians actually do. And that’s no less real.
We see the spiritually newborn Nicodemus emerging later, in John, chapter 7, as the Sanhedrin starts to plot against Jesus, trying to figure out the best way to neutralize him. But Nicodemus stands up for Jesus and for due process of law. “Should we condemn a man before we have even heard him?” he asks during that heated meeting. It took a lot of courage and integrity for him to be the only member of the Sanhedrin to ask that question, because the response he got from everyone else was, “What! Are you also a….. Galilean?”
Maybe that’s the point at which Nicodemus started to die to all his privilege, power and prestige in the Sanhedrin, and it all died to him. For later, we find Nicodemus helping Joseph of Arimathea attend to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. His colleagues in the Sanhedrin would have understood that as an act of identifying with the Nazarene, and as an act of burning his bridges with them. It’s all the more striking when you consider that, with Jesus dead, Nicodemus seemed to have the least to gain, and the most to lose, by identifying with Jesus.
The scariest man in South Africa has been walking a similar halting, stumbling path into a new birth into a strange new land of compassion, solidarity and peace with the very people he once worked to kill. De Kock stuck a toe over the line when he was talking with Dr. Pumla and began to struggle, visibly, with guilt over his violent past. Moved to care and concern for him, Pumla reached out and touched his hand. But he drew back from her, and from God’s mercy, as he mockingly told her, “That was my trigger hand that you touched, by the way.” That creeped her out so badly, she almost didn’t come back.
But she did come back, many times. And during another interview, De Kock asked her, with sincere concern showing in his eyes and his voice, “I never did anything to harm any of your family members, did I?” He looked quite relieved when she told him, No, he had not. Evidently, as he began to consider this black psychologist a human being, he himself began to rejoin the human race.
Maybe the seeds of his new birth struggles were planted earlier. De Kock told Pumla that he had grown up in the state church of South Africa. But along with “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and “For God so loved the world….” he also imbibed the crazy, self-contradictory, claptrap theology of apartheid—an ideological house of cards, really—cobbled together out of a few unrelated Bible verses. This despite the fact that the worldwide communion of Reformed Churches had declared apartheid a heresy and had put the South African state church under a teaching ban.
De Kock had actually gone off on raids with the support and prayers and sermons of state-sponsored chaplains. But Prime Evil began to question that heresy after a raid, when he found a Bible in the back pack of an African activist they had just killed. And all these years he had thought they were all just atheistic communists taking orders straight from Moscow. That’s what the state-sponsored chaplains said. Seeing that Bible got him to wondering if God wasn’t up to something other than maintaining white privilege and keeping the races separate.
Later, in prison, de Kock got new cell block mates who were
virulent white supremacists, spouting off the same old apartheid lines he had once believed. De Kock blew up at them, chewed them out, and warned them not to go down that road. “See where it got me?” he asked. Then he requested a transfer to a new cell block where he lived with some Black former anti-apartheid resistance fighters, the very people he had tried to kill. De Kock actually found himself getting along better with them than he had with the white supremacists.
He even appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings, over which Archbishop Desmond Tutu presided, to air all the dirty laundry of apartheid. De Kock honestly, and with no excuses, nor any effort at self-justification, named and described all the crimes he had committed, and shed light on some long-unresolved deaths and disappearances. He also named the higher-ups who had given him orders and rewards. For that, he actually received applause from the racially mixed audience.
In the years since, he has made public apologies to the surviving families and relatives of his murder victims, and has asked each of them for their forgiveness. I don’t know about De Kock’s personal faith, but I think Jesus would tell him, as he once told another well-connected man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” if he hasn’t entered it already.
At least De Kock now knows that God’s kingdom is not about worldly power, privilege and racial supremacy. God’s kingdom is about one new people out of many, interdependent and closely related in love. Like Jesus’ new family of the poor, of the slaves, of Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, who would adopt the newborn Nicodemus. And the new family and friendships that De Kock made in his new cell block with his former adversaries.
And there is hope for new birth into newness of life for all of us, however far we are from the kingdom of God, or however far we have entered into it. Each one of us, including yours truly, is the third person to whom Jesus’ invitation to new birth applies. I know of no one here with a history as bitter and brutal as that of Eugene De Kock, thank God. But the kingdom of God always comes with this same invitation that was issued to Prime Evil and to Nicodemus: to stop running from the love and mercies of God, and “die before we die,” so as to make room for the new life that God offers. Do that, and, by the grace of God’s Spirit, we can indeed start over again, even as our bodies age.
Yes, being born anew starts with the decision and the moment in which we decide for Jesus, to believe him, to receive him and to follow him. If we have taken that step, Hallelujah! But it does not stop there, as though the new birth was just an achievement, or a milestone that we pass and then leave behind us, a one-and-done that only gets us a ticket to heaven someday.
As Christians, we don’t leave the new birth behind; our spiritual births continue to unfold in ways similar to that of Nicodemus and De Kock. The birth pains of God’s kingdom often come to us in the form of crises and predicaments that require us to repent, release old habits of thought, and relearn. That’s what the resurgence of white supremacy, the scapegoating of undocumented immigrants, and the commercial coarsening of sex, are doing today: presenting all of us with crises requiring new birth pains of repentance, release and relearning, even if we personally are not guilty of such things.
It’s like what the writer of Hebrews says in our Lenten memory verses: “To cast aside the sin that so easily entangles us, and run with endurance the race set before us.” However much it may cost us, such “dying before we die” is also the way to “the joy set before” us. For as we strip away our idols, our false loves, our illusions about human wisdom and power, and the worldly fears “that so easily beset us,” our new, real, eternal self emerges in spiritual birth, after the image of Christ.
While we live, we will never be done with all our dying and birthing. If we have already entered God’s kingdom, then the invitation remains, always to enter it more deeply, to walk about in it, deeper and further, in faith, like Abraham and Sarah walking into the new and unknown land they had been promised, by the God who comes seeking us.