SET APART: The Violence of Holiness


Standing outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, one can be excused for feeling apprehension. After all, the museum represents over 40 years of systemic racial oppression, the effects of which still swirl around South African life.

But the discontent arises from something more immediate and visceral. Across the street from the museum, in a supremely terrible example of bad taste, sits Gold Reef City, a combination casino-theme park. You can’t really see it as much as you can hear it.

As you prepare to enter the monument to a people’s suffering, you can hear the low rumbling of the Anaconda and the screams of schoolchildren. Yes, screaming kids.

There’s no screaming inside the museum, of course, but there is a constant assault on the senses, a low-grade roar of moral depravity, a high-pitched scream that can’t be heard which says, “This is not past history.”

The word “apartheid” is an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness,” literally “apart-hood.” It came to be the name of a particular political ideology which strictly enforced segregation among the races in South Africa, with whites firmly in charge of the whole. A stroll through the museum unfolds the ramifications of such a policy — minority rule, pass laws, enforced population removals, police brutality, education disparities, and so on. The museum celebrates the long fight to overcome apartheid, including the many freedom fighters, students, and artists who played a role in the struggle.

Like any such monument to a national tragedy, whether the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, these museums are meant to bring the past to present awareness, but not just for the sake of remembering the victims or celebrating the heroes. 

The real point of these places is to make you see the present in light of the past, to make sense of what is going on here and now. In other words, one should be able to hear the screams of today’s victims as well as yesterday’s.


The very word “apartheid” has entered the contemporary lexicon as a historically-located word connoting a great social evil, alongside “Holocaust” and “Balkanization.” When it does not refer to the actual national policy of South Africa from 1948 to 1991, it is a slur, an accusation of immoral social divide. For a current event, witness the debate over whether Israel practices “apartheid” against Palestinians.

But the idea of “apartness” or “being set apart” is ancient. In fact, it’s a primitive religious concept, even for Christians. Theologically speaking, the word translated holy in the Hebrew Scriptures, qadash, refers to something which is set apart from other things by virtue of its usefulness to, or nearness to, God. The items in the Jewish tabernacle, for instance, were taken out of ordinary, everyday usage in order to be used purely for rites that demanded cleanliness and purity. They were set apart for a divine purpose.

The New Testament word for holiness, hagios, has the same core meaning. And it is this word that has led to a large vocabulary of words related to set apart-ness, including “saints,” “sanctification,” and “sanctifying.” They all are apartheid words!

The Wesleyan Methodist in me squirmed when I realized this. After all, as I have repeatedly told my Methodist history students, one of the signal theological contributions made by John Wesley was the development of the doctrine of sanctification. Wesley repeatedly claimed that his goal, and the goal of the Methodist movement, was “to spread scriptural holiness across the land.”

To be fair, Wesley did not define holiness as set apart-ness; he describes it as the love of God and neighbor. That was his essential understanding of holiness. But the very way the word has come down to us through Western civilization carries an implicit separateness — one who is holy is absolutely different from those who are not holy. The breakaway preachers and laypeople of the 19th-century Holiness movement understood this clearly; to be holy meant being different from. That’s why they came to despise the Methodist churches they worshipped in. They thought the Methodists had lost their distinctiveness from the rest of the culture; they acted just like everyone else! They were no longer set apart.

The Afrikaaners who instituted apartheid in southern Africa also had this religious conception of separateness; they believed they were set apart for great things by God. They believed that they were chosen by God to rule southern Africa, because they carried the torch of Christianity and civilization. They were white, after all, and this alone was proof of their holiness.

That seems laughable in hindsight; how does the color of one’s skin prove one’s superiority? It’s an accident of birth, a tiny difference in the genetic code. 

Yet humans seem to crave differentiation. It’s a built-in defense mechanism for those with low self-esteem. We will pick up on the slightest difference with another person in order to make ourselves feel better about who we are. 

But this brings me back around to my own Methodist roots. Is there a deep-rooted sense of self-loathing at the core of our doctrine of sanctification? Is it possible that an emphasis on “perfection” (the word most commonly associated with Wesley’s theology) masks a sense of uncertainty that one is capable of being a good person? 


These days, I’m wondering if any sense of apartness is appropriate, for anyone, anywhere. When people talk about globalization, they are often talking about economic matters, but the truth is that because of the ease of transportation and communication, people around the globe are finally realizing that we all really are interconnected. If we learned in the 1970s that “all politics is local,” we are learning now that “all politics is global.” A protest in Hong Kong ends up shaking world markets; a schoolgirl from Sweden stops going to school on Fridays and finds herself in front of the United Nations General Assembly; a tweet from a celebrity leads news broadcasts. 

The obvious example of this is the accelerating climate crisis; the burning of fossil fuels in the industrial world is causing the destruction of environments and communities in the undeveloped world. This means that my decision to drive to work in my combustible engine makes things worse for a family in the Bahamas, and the only thing that keeps me from considering the consequences of what I am doing is our apartness. I don’t know a single family that lives in the Bahamas. I won’t likely get a picture of them on the evening news or even on my news feed. I am oblivious to my complicity because we are apart.

It is this apartness, this contemporary apartheid, that ensures my negligence and fuels my sin. 

The rise of populist nationalism is a kind of apartheid, too. “America First” is just another way of proclaiming faith in segregation; “you keep to your kind and we’ll keep to ours." This kind of nationalism is uninterested in others; it’s a lazy apartheid and hides behind the well-worn concept of borders.

However, since the creation of the United Nations, there has been a growing realization that nations need each other, that an ethos of cooperation and collaboration is better than what we had before. The UN is hardly perfect, but it represents an ideal that everyone can agree on — we are better together.

What I’m saying is that the sense of apartness is always ultimately a destructive thing. It may start off as an effective protective mechanism; people may rally around the difference that has marked them as victims and proceed to win some victories. They may discover, or recover, a sense of human dignity in the process, but if they cling to their sense of apartness for very long, they will inevitably succumb to the same disease as the Afrikaaner Nationalist Party in South Africa in 1948.

The longer one believes that he or she is different from them, and must maintain a separateness from them so that they don’t become like them, the more likely it is that he or she will resort to violence to enforce the apartness. And the category of those who are them is likely to grow larger and larger over time.

That goes for religious folks, too. In fact, religious apartheid may be the worst kind. It’s simply not possible anymore to believe that God desires separation — between people, between God and people, between any part of God’s creation. A true understanding of the gospel reveals that, in fact, the whole point of Jesus Christ was the reconciliation of all things in creation to God! If Jesus means anything at all, he means to bring together and bridge the ghastly gaps in human existence. Jesus is the one who reconciles all people to God, and to each other. We are to avoid any form of separation, especially that which is done in the name of God.


Though there has been a slowly dawning realization across the earth that we are all one race in a glorious diversity of colors, languages, and cultures, we are also living in a period of time in which enforced separation is still considered a social good by some people, maybe even most. Separation between nations, races, cultures, and religions is considered wise, necessary, even natural; the creeping togetherness of the world’s economics and politics has generated an enormous amount of fear. Politicians have seized upon this feeling and used it to their benefit. Brexit is Exhibit A of the fear of the breakdown of our small personal apartheids. 

But that’s all these are — they are small personal systems of apart-ness, futile gestures of esteem-building. They don’t work because they are not part of the natural order of things; diversity is good and necessary. They aren’t wise because they deprive one of the gifts of others. They will always lead to self-destructive violence.

Violence is inevitable because it is the only way to enforce what is unnatural; no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from the one whom you fear or hate, you will find yourself  inextricably caught up in their situation and will have to resort to violence to maintain the separation.

Dismantling apartheid in South Africa in the late 20th century was a struggle, a long process of convincing the ruling party that the oppressed would no longer be complicit in the policy of set apart-ness. 

Dismantling apartheid in one’s heart is much, much tougher, for it means letting go of the lies and delusions you have told yourself about yourself. It requires a strong sense of identity, a confidence that you are accepted as you are, that God — if you believe in God — loves you and affirms your being. It means, then, a healthy sense of self, and the courage that comes from this conviction.