Peter Storey is a former bishop of the Johannesburg/Soweto area and national leader of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. As president of the South African Council of Churches, he worked closely with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and became a leader in the church’s anti-apartheid struggle. He has played key roles in peacemaking structures in South Africa and was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to help select the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South Africa celebrated the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid on April 27, 2004.
The following essay is excerpted from “Rules of Engagement: Faithful Congregations in a Dangerous World,” Storey’s inaugural lecture as Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. professor of the practice of Christian ministry on Feb. 10, 2004, at Duke Divinity School.
The most crucial question American Christians face in the years to come is the relationship between flag and altar, and what this says to Christian identity.
The United States is in a very dangerous place right now, and not only because of terrorism. The particularly horrific act of terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, took this culture across a fault line running through the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a lonely field in Pennsylvania. It shook assumptions unquestioned in 60 years; it catapulted Americans from a “911” world—a context made secure by an amazing infrastructure of caring and emergency response—into the dread-filled insecurity of a “9/11” world. The “911” world was predictable, confident and unshakable; the “9/11” world was filled with nameless fear and unfamiliar vulnerability. The world wept with you and deep questions—unusual questions for Americans to ask, came to the surface.
It was a moment for the church—a moment lost. Because of the heretical dichotomy between the pastoral and the prophetic in so many Christians’ thinking, the church held the nation’s hand while others—the politicians and the media, made up the nation’s mind. While the church offered therapy, the secular powers offered not only political but theological judgment on what had happened. And it was their much too simplistic narrative that took root, and which now rules this nation’s actions.
What is important now is to ask whether the truly great danger faced by this culture—underlying the others—is the alienation of empire.
I think I know something of that alienation at first hand—what it can do to a people, and how tough it is to overcome. That is because I am a white South African.
A Story from Africa
We whites in South Africa grew up with most everything we needed, as well as the neuroses that go along with that. We were proud of our innovative technology, and our health system was as good as the best. South Africa was the economic and industrial giant of Africa. We were also an encouragingly Christian people with high church attendance, and family virtues were reinforced by both church and state. We believed God had blessed South Africa in a special way.
The only problem was that we never lived in the real world. We lived in a bubble. What we were determined not to see was how our lifestyle was being lived at great cost to millions of other people. Our economy floated on an ocean of poverty and depended on the sweat and deprivation of black South Africans, whose cheap labor we needed in order to keep our system going. They lacked many of the most basic resources for living because we siphoned them off to feed our needs and increase our comfort. We needed them but didn’t need to know them; they had to know all about us to survive.
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