Redeeming The Past by Michael Lapsley

Michael Lapsley is a white Anglican priest from New Zealand who became embroiled in the anti-apartheid struggle when his order sent him there in 1973. By his own admission he was a difficult character, one whose strength of opinion and conviction that he was right did not always sit as easily as it could have with authority.

It was in this that a defining aspect of his life found. He joined the ANC and eventually found himself exiled from South Africa, where he was the target of an assassination attempt in the form of a letter bomb. This left him devastatingly injured – two hands blown off being the longest lasting physical effect. On recovery he eventually connected with the next stage of his calling – to help the traumatised confront and experience healing for their memories. Running weekend workshops under the title ‘Healing of Memories’, stories are told, experiences understood and healing sought.

Redeeming the Past: From Freedom Fighter To Healer is, effectively, Michael Lapsely’s autobiography co-written with Stephen Karakashian. It’s difficult to respond to an autobiography sometimes; you feel you’re reviewing the person, which isn’t a healthy place to be. How do you separate the book from the man? I was at one of the launches for this book in Cape Town. Desmond Tutu spoke and Lapsley was lauded. Understandably he’s a significant and valued figure in South Africa. Lapsely’s talk that day was humbling and compelling; being in the presence of one who has carried his cross so vividly does something to you. Tutu, of course, was Tutu. Funny, compelling, heart-rending, impassioned.

The book itself is, at times, gripping. The story of how one life comes to carry such a public calling is a challenging one on which many of us would do well to reflect. Have I really taken up my cross, or do I sub-consciously water it down so as to save myself pain? At others points in the book I wanted to probe more – what’s the theological undergirding of healing of memories? What, when his approach is so clearly inter-faith, makes it distinctively Christian? At other points the book is troubling – and not necessarily in a good way. For a man so passionate about human right’s abuses, his attitude to Cuba is bizarre and worrying. He’s right to ask us to look behind propaganda about the country is good; his claim there is no hunger there and his effective dismissal of the well known human rights abuses in the country is staggering.

So what am I left with? A picture of a man whose life challenges me to the core; whose company I found it at times hard to endure in the form of the written word; whose commitment to live out what he seeks is admirable; whose story is one anyone interested in South Africa or justice should engage with. I’m left with a book that frustrates, challenges, engages and grips and sometimes disappoints.

A bit like every one of us, then.

I rated this book 3/5 on



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