Fall 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 221-233.

Max Oliva:
      Facing Our Fears in the Call to Act Justly

If we are to be free to speak and to act for social justice for oppressed people, we must confront and even befriend the fears which the consequences of such deeds might arouse in us.

Father Oliva, S.J., works out of Christ the King Church in San Diego, California, giving retreats, workshops, and in-service days for teachers on the integration of faith with justice and peace.

TWO years ago I received a letter from the Association of Women Religious of South Africa asking if I would come to their country and give workshops on the integration of faith and justice. I excitedly and gladly accepted since I had never been to the African continent. It took a while for all the preparations to be made and I finally left my home in San Diego, California, on the day after Easter Sunday, 1984. What I wish to do in this article is share one very important aspect of that journey, an ingredient I did not expect to hit me with so much force but which, as it turned out, put me most in solidarity with the people of South Africa. The dynamic I encountered within myself was fear. I share these reflections because I suspect that many people deal with various kinds of fears in their ongoing process of integrating actions for justice and peace into their interior life and ministerial activities. Perhaps my experience of how I dealt with my fear may be of help to someone else.

I began preparing for the trip to South Africa and the workshops I was to give there in, of all places, Paradise, California! I was giving a parish mission there in the evenings and had most of the daytimes free. The president of the Association of Women Religious of South Africa had sent me a variety of reading materials to help me prepare for the trip, including an excellent book, Catholics in Apartheid Society.(1) The book contains a selection of articles on South Africa by different authors. I began with the first article, "The Political and Social Context," by Albert Nolan , O.P. I should say, from the outset, that prior to that time I really did not know much about the situation in South Africa, only what I had read in the newspapers and in an occasional magazine article. Albert Nolan opened my eyes.

In one section of the article, Nolan writes about the national security state, a relatively new form of totalitarian nationalism, which is developing in South Africa. In this form of government the state is supreme and absolute. The enemy of the state is seen as communism (everything and anything that appears to threaten the supremacy of the state is labeled "communism"). Consequently, the state is understood to be facing a total onslaught as it can be attacked and undermined militarily, economically, politically, culturally, and psychologically. The state is involved in a total war and thus must develop a total strategy to combat the enemy. The highest aim or goal of the state, therefore, is its security and survival and everything and anything that threatens the security of the state must be eliminated and destroyed. We are, of course, talking here about the white state, since black people have no rights and no voice in South Africa.


What Nolan describes here came as a revelation for me. However, it was the following words that sent the first chills of fear coursing through me:

Because any means at all can be used to ensure the security of the state, we find most of the following phenomena in every national security state in the world today: a strong army; security or secret police; riot police; detention without trial; the banning of people, organizations and meetings; telephone tapping and the opening of mail; censorship of all mass media; official secrecy about prisons; interrogation and torture; road blocks and the searching of homes; the use of informers and spies; people beaten up, attacked with tear gas or shot; people dying in prison or "committing suicide"; a propaganda campaign through all the mass media and overseas.(2)

As I read these words the image of Nazi Germany came to mind. I felt within myself an almost overwhelming sense of powerlessness and wondered what I could bring to the people there. I thought of the real possibility of informers being at my workshops (some people who had been to South Africa warned me about informers) and the possible consequences of my speaking on the topic of social justice. I was looking out the window as these reflections came to mind, gazing at the pine trees that surrounded the rectory where I was staying. As I watched, a squirrel dashed across a branch and a field mouse ran along a log that was lying on the ground. My mood was immediately lightened and it came to me that what I could bring to the people of South Africa was hope. From then on, I supplemented all the social analysis and historical reading I did on the situation in South Africa with articles and books on hope. I lightened the mood of my reading in other ways too: by sitting outside when possible, so that I could see flowers and trees; I bought the tape of "Chariots of Fire" and listened to it while I read the analysis; and I shared my feelings of fear with close friends.

Most of my preparation took place during Lent. I learned a lot about how Jesus must have felt as he faced his passion.

The more I read about South Africa, the deeper became the fear, until one day I asked myself, "What am I afraid of losing if I speak out?" I prayed for freedom from whatever it was that I was afraid of losing. I used this prayer often. Sometimes I could name the fear, sometimes I could not. Still, I prayed for freedom. At one point, a particularly dark period that lasted a week, I came across an excellent article on courage by Rosemary Ruether. In the article the author does a survey of thinking about courage, beginning with Greek philosophy and extending to the present day. She writes this about the monks of the fourth century:

The monk now wages an agon or struggle against the dark forces in his or her being, and attains a self-mastery over fears and desires that leads to the serenity of mind that is founded upon immutable truth. The monk is free from the social constraints imposed by concern for bodily comfort, wealth, or social opinion and is able to practice the parresia, or bold speech of the liberated life.(3)
During this particular week of darkness I believe I went through my own agon. I found the timely discovery of this article a real sign of God's presence in my struggle.

In the months that preceded my going to South Africa I asked my family and friends, workshop participants and retreatants, and almost everyone I met, to pray for the trip, that I would indeed be free to speak boldly a message of justice and hope.

On Easter Sunday I was missioned by the people of the parish where I live. It was a very moving ceremony. The congregation of Christ the King Parish is a mixture of black, Hispanic, and Anglo people. There were many black people in attendance at the Mass. At the close of the liturgy, the lay deacon, who is black, extended his hands over me and prayed a missioning-prayer. As he did so, all members of the congregation extended their own hands and joined in the blessing. I was ready to go, feeling deep within me the support of friends at home and a special connection with black people in the United States, a people that my life has been blessed with for over fifteen years.


Fear was a constant companion as I flew from San Diego to Johannesburg -- fear of the unknown, fear of what might be awaiting me, and nameless other fears. My arrival in South Africa on a Wednesday gave me a few days of rest before the first weekend workshop. On Friday, the sisters with whom I was staying in Johar1nesburg took me to Soweto, the huge black township of close to three million people that is the basic labor force for Johannesburg. White people are not allowed to live there and, if you are white, you need a permit to enter Soweto.

This was to be the first of many experiences for me of seeing the vast contrast between the way that whites live in South Africa and the conditions that black people are forced to live in. Not that all of Soweto is desperately poor; it has its middle class and even some wealthy people. However, they all share something in common -- no freedom of movement in the country. For a black person to enter Johannesburg, he or she must have a pass. To be caught without one is to risk jail. In Soweto I saw the men's hostels, where men who work in the gold mines live. These are the miners whose families live in the rural areas; they are forced to leave their families instead of taking them with them to the area of their work. They see their families two or three times a year. So much pain and loneliness exists in the hostels, all the problems one might expect when families are separated this way.

One does not see this kind of problem in the white community. If a person is white, he or she can live like a king or queen in South Africa. Every single house I visited had black or colored (mixed blood, Indian, Malaysian, Asian) domestics and gardeners, even poor whites!

Spending even this short period of time in Soweto put flesh and blood to all the reading I had done in preparation for the trip and heightened my sensitivities to the plight of the people there.

On that final day before the first workshop, I was also privileged to meet a man who is white and who has been an outspoken opponent of apartheid for many years. I shared with him my fears of speaking out. The main fear I had at that time was that a government informer would be at my first workshop and that I would end up in jail for my comments against apartheid.(4) He was a great help to me. He acknowledged my fears as real, telling me about people whom he has known over the years and who have spent time in jail for their beliefs and about how they have coped. He said that they usually experienced a series of emotions: first, fear of what will happen to them in jail, fear of torture or solitary confinement, for example; second, anger at the guards and the system of apartheid; third, pity for the guards because they are victims of the system as well, and a desire to witness to the guards a Christlike way of loving them; and fourth, each person discovered within himself or herself a deep inner peace and calm as well as spiritual resources they did not know existed. I found these reflections very helpful and calming of my own fears.

The first workshop was the most powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, in myself and in the participants, that I have ever witnessed. On the first day, I shared with the people, mostly women religious, my journey of fear and how I had coped. I was drawn to do this because in a sharing session some of the sisters had told of their own apprehensions and anxieties about becoming involved in anti-apartheid activities. It was a mixed audience of black sisters and white sisters. That evening, in a feedback session with a couple of representatives of the total group, I was informed that the black sisters wanted me to be more explicit about the evils of apartheid. That evening I wrote what I believe was an inspired talk because, when I got up to present it the following morning, my whole body was shaking with apprehension, so fearful was I that a government informer might be present.


In my talk that morning I shared with the participants, very explicitly, the why of my fear: how as I read about South Africa and apartheid I felt chilled to the bone by the extent of the evil there and that the only two other situations that seemed worse to me, or as bad, were the Nazi's treatment of the Jewish people and the Russian's treatment of dissidents. I spoke about the pervasiveness of the racism, how it affects people on all levels of their existence -- psychological, religious, economic, political, social, cultural -- as people of color are believed to be inferior, less developed, less civilized, unintelligent, slow thinkers, lazy, irresponsible, and dangerous, and for these reasons ought to be separated as much as possible from white people into townships and "homelands." I shared with them that it seemed to me that people who support and promote apartheid could be described with these same words! I talked about the depth of greed in this mineral-rich nation, how greed is an excessive, inordinate desire for wealth, for more than one's proper share, and that it leads to the exploitation of others, for example, by cheap labor. I spoke about the systematic way in which black and colored people are robbed of their God-given rights and even of their land. I shared with them Albert Nolan's analysis of the national security state and how the original Afrikaner nationalism is in the process of being transformed into a national security ideology. I ended this presentation by suggesting the presence of the diabolical because not only are black and colored people undergoing daily assaults on their human dignity, but also those who are allowing the brutalizing by supporting the apartheid system: their oppression of others is an assault on their own basic human dignity.

Sharing the above reflections was for me a living out of the Beatitude "Blessed are the single-hearted," which I now realize more than ever does not mean being totally free of one's fears and insecurities, but bringing these experiences of human weakness to God in prayer and speaking out even as we still feel them. I now also understand much more St. Paul's comments in Second Corinthians (12:7-11) that when we are powerless it is then that we are strong, in our weakness God's power reaches perfection, because on that second day of the workshop many people experienced conversion. As one participant very movingly said: "I work in one of the men's hostels where there is so much suffering and I struggle to find God there. As I heard you speaking of your fear, I found God speaking to me through you!" I felt, at that moment, that the whole trip was worth this one sister's experience.

In order to be true to my total experience in preparing for the trip and also to end the workshop on an encouraging note, I shared with the participants what I had learned from my readings on hope. I drew from the Old Testament, citing especially the person of Abraham, who is a model of hope, and Yahweh's response to the hesitant Jeremiah: "Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord" (Jer. 1:8). I showed them how in the New Testament hope is a strong theme, especially in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; and I encouraged them with the words of St. Paul which had given me strength and hope:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? As Scripture says: "For your sake we are being slain all the day long; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered." Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us. For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord. (Rom. 8:35-39)
I also quoted from various writers on hope, especially Jürgen Moltmann, Joannes Metz, William Lynch, and Ruben Alves.(5) I encouraged them to look for "signs of hope" in their own personal struggle of integrating social justice into their lives and ministries and in the larger society around them.

I ended this first workshop by asking the participants to keep me in their prayers as I continued to give workshops in other parts of the country.(6)


The next stop on my itinerary in South Africa was beautiful Cape Town with magnificent Table Mountain right in the center of the city. I had read much of James Michener's "The Covenant" in preparation for the trip and was really looking forward to seeing "The Cape," where the first white settlers landed in the seventeenth century. I was not disappointed, even though during much of my stay there the "tablecloth" rested on top of the mountain. ("Tablecloth" is the name for a cloud whenever it settles on the top of the flat surface of the mountain.)

While I was in Cape Town, the fear of having a government informer at one of my workshops finally faded away. One evening I gave a presentation and answered questions from a largely lay audience. Unlike an audience composed of sisters and priests where the religious garb indicates who people are, I found walking into a room full of laypeople for the first time on the trip a bit unnerving. I didn't know who each person was nor did they, because the people came from different parts of the city. Though nervous, I spoke clearly about the social mission of the church and shared with them the analysis of South Africa that I had spoken of in Johannesburg.(7) At the end of the evening I was told by two of the participants that there had, in fact, been someone in attendance who is suspected of being an informer!

In a presentation and discussion the following evening with students from the University of Cape Town, I knew that I was finally free of the fear of being informed on. One of the students ventured, "One of us could be an informer." I found myself responding with peace and an inner calm: "I feel okay about this now. I have worked through the pear. If one of you is an informer, I hope that what I have to say may be of help to you in your understanding of your country."

I have long been a believer in the existence of an evil spirit, call it the devil, or the bad spirit, or an evil force, or whatever. I have found the existence of evil not only in unjust or violent social structures and systems, such as apartheid, and in unloving acts of people, but also playing on the weaknesses of people of good will, a destructive force that tries to get us to withdraw from doing good. Let me explain this further. No sooner had I experienced freedom from the fear of being informed on than two new fears made their appearance in my consciousness.

While in Cape Town, I witnessed more of the terrible living conditions of black people and I saw areas where the homes of colored people had been razed to make room for whites. I visited well-known Crossroads. It is an area composed of about 100,000 black people who have left one of the so-called homelands (desperately arid sections of the country) and come to the Cape in search of work. In Crossroads, people live side by side in shacks and in deep poverty.

While I was in Cape Town I also came to some new insights on the role of Christians in apartheid. It seems to me that the most important book of the Bible for modern Christians in South Africa is the Acts of the Apostles because of the experience of the early Christians in living out their faith in the midst of persecution. To live out the values of the gospel in South Africa is to invite persecution. Another insight concerns being called a communist when one speaks out against the system. It occurred to me that this is a modern-day version of Jesus' being labeled Beelzebub, and one should react as Jesus did: ignore the label and continue to do the good one has begun.

I learned, by listening to people in South Africa, of the many ways one can be blind to the injustices of apartheid. Because of the strict separation of the races, white people are isolated from the real life-conditions of black and colored people. This ignorance can be overcome, but one must take the initiative to do so. It is easy to just accept the media's version of what is happening or to believe as gospel the "progress reports" announced by the government towards greater equality among the races. One can be tricked into naming as the "social problem" the conditions that black and colored people live in -- the poverty, for example -- instead of understanding that the real social problem is the racism and greed of those who support and promote apartheid. Or one can simply refuse to consider the facts as they are presented and withdraw into one's private life.

As I mentioned above, two new fears made their appearance in my consciousness while I was in Cape Town, each with the purpose of trying to get me to water down my presentations and not incorporate the new things I was seeing and the new insights I was receiving. The first fear was that, if I continued to speak out, the authorities would find out and take away my film. This was a very realistic fear because I had heard stories of this happening to other visitors to the country. I prayed to God for an interior detachment from my film, for the freedom to have it taken away. I knew that I greatly valued the pictures already shot and that I needed the grace of freedom in order to continue to speak out.


The second fear arose precisely because of the positive way in which my workshops were being received. People had begun asking me to return to South Africa and give retreats on the themes of the workshops. The fear was that if I continued to speak out, I would not be allowed back into the country. Once again, I took this very real fear to God in my prayer and asked for freedom. How well God heard my prayers and how free I became from my fears is illustrated in a dream I had just before leaving Cape Town.

In the dream, I am with some other people in a house. Outside the house is a large and dangerous bear which is scaring everybody. The bear comes to the front door of our house and bangs its big paw loudly on the door, yelling that it wants food. All in the house, including me, are frightened by this noise and by the bear. But then I walk to the door, open it, and say to the bear in a stern voice: "You have no business coming to the front door. If you want something to eat, go around to the back!" The bear goes away and comes to the back door. There I give it some food and it accepts the meal gratefully, calling me "Little Max" with affection.(8) It was a very reassuring dream; I realized that the bear symbolized my various fears, and the message of the dream was that I had made friends with the fear. From then on, fear was not a major aspect of my stay in South Africa.

Fear is such a basic emotion, as Dr. Michael Cavanagh points out in his excellent treatment of it in his book Make Your Tomorrow Better.(9) Some fears we can pretty well work through on our own, if we understand them as invitations to grow. However, there are other fears which are so potent that they paralyze us. It is these latterthat I mostly experienced in my trip to South Africa, both in myself and in other people whom I met. I took my own to prayer, confident of God's power to heal me, and encouraged others to do the same. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I knew what I was afraid of losing, such as my film, and this knowledge made my prayer more explicit. At other times, especially before I left home, I felt a kind of unknown dread, or agon as Rosemary Ruether wrote in her article on courage. Still, I found that I was able to continue the work God had entrusted to me as long as I paid more attention to God's power to heal than to my own feelings of weakness.

As I talked with various people in South Africa, black, white, and colored, lay, religious, and clergy, I discovered that fear was the number one emotion that all shared to some extent. Black people are afraid of whites -- and with good reason, as history and present circumstances show. Whites are afraid of losing their identity if blacks should take over the country, or of being annihilated since they are so outnumbered in population by the blacks. Most white-owned houses that I saw were surrounded by high walls and otherwise protected by burglar alarms or angry dogs. Some black and colored religious are afraid to speak out against apartheid for fear of jail and what might happen to them there; they would not receive special treatment because of their vocation. Foreign-born white priests, brothers, and sisters worry that if they become too involved in antiapartheid activities, they will be deported, while native white clergy and religious fear the consequences of their actions. It seemed to me that fear hangs over the country like a large dark cloud. One can feel it. And, of course, it is fostered by the government which employs one of the most sophisticated intelligence systems in the world.

In all my life I have never seen nor imagined such oppression. At times I felt I was being given a glimpse of what life must have been like for black people in the United States before the civil fights movement. Yet, paradoxically, I have never met so many ourageous people in one place. I met people who defy the myriad sets of laws that govern the separation of the races in ways small and big. I visited with people who have been banned,(10) people who have served time in jail and are ready to go again, if that is the price they have to pay for their integrity and for justice, people who have stood in solidarity with black families as they were being forcibly removed from their homes, people who are courageously active in word and deed in bringing to the attention of the international community the terrible injustices and violence that are the daily lot of the nonwhite population. Their witness was and continues to be an inspiration to me of what it is to live the gospel.

I realize that those of us who live in the United States need effective ways to deal with our fears, too, especially the fear of rejection, if we are to speak up for the victims of injustice here at home and in other countries like South Africa. I remember hearing an inspiring talk five years ago by a priest who has spent many years working for social justice in the United States. He said that if we really took seriously the values of the gospel, we would experience persecution in this country within twenty-five years. We, too, may need to become more and more persons like those described in the Acts of the Apostles, willing to accept various forms of persecution peculiar to a First World country: misunderstanding, rejection, criticism, categorization as communist, and insult -- perhaps even jail -- for the courage of our convictions in defense of the dignity of others.

Allow me to conclude these reflections with a passage from St. Luke's Gospel, where Jesus is speaking to his disciples. We can imagine him saying the same words to the Christians of South Africa, Poland, the Philippines, Central America, here in the United States, and wherever true equality and freedom are still a dream for even some of their citizens.

I say to you who are my friends:
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
and can do no more.
Whoever acknowledges me before people,
the Son of Man will acknowledge
before the angels of God.
When they bring you before synagogues,
rulers and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves
or what to say.
The Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment
all that should be said. (Luke 12:4, 8, 11-12)


  1. Catholics in Apartheid Society, ed. Andrew Prior (David Philip, Publisher, 1982). Available from Global Book Resources, Ltd., 109 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3NA, England.
  2. Albert Nolan, "The Political and Social Context," in Prior, ed., Catholics in Apartheid Society, p. 9.
  3. Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Courage as a Christian Virtue," Cross Currents 33 1 (1983-84): 12.
  4. I found out later that as a foreigner I would not have been put in jail, but sent home. However, I did not know this for about two weeks, so the fear was very real.
  5. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); Joannes Metz, Theology of the World (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971); William F. Lynch, Images of Hope (New York: New American Library, 1965); Rubem Alves, Tomorrow's Child (New York: Harper and Row, 1979). See especially chapter 11, "The Seed of the Future: The Community of Hope," in Alves's book.
  6. The entire trip lasted five weeks and involved giving workshops to a variety of people in nine cities.
  7. Many people that I met in Johannesburg encouraged me to share my reflections on the social analysis of the country in other cities because they told me, "We need to hear in a public forum what many of us know to be true, so that we may be freed of our fears to do something about the situation."
  8. An interesting appellation, since I stand six feet, three inches tall!
  9. Michael Cavanagh, Make Your Tomorrow Better (New York: Paulist Press, 1980). In chapter 3, "Fear: The Basic Emotion," the author writes about five basic fears: the fear of intimacy, the fear of rejection, the fear of failure, the fear of change, and the fear of freedom. He explains four ways to deal with fear. I find his comments easily applicable to fears incurred in efforts to promote social justice.
  10. "Banning" is a form of punishment imposed by the government for anti-apartheid activities that puts restrictions on the freedom of the one banned, for example, limiting a person's mobility to a five-mile radius of one's home, and prohibiting the banned person from meeting with more than one person at a time, even one's family members. A person can remain banned for as long as the government decides.