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When they lost their jobs, or got old, we declared them illegal and sent them back to distant rural areas—out of sight and out of mind. Well, not quite out of mind. There were times when they visited violence upon us. “Terrorists” attacked us from time to time, disturbing our idyllic existence and becoming the one unpredictable in our ordered lives. So we had to maintain a strong military and nationalistic myths of superiority.

 Storey presenting President Nelson Mandela with a sculpture of melted guns on the first anniversary of Freedom Day, April 27, 1995.

We also needed police surveillance to watch for subversion in our midst, and we accepted the increasing intrusion into our private lives and limitations on our civil rights because we knew it was for our own good. It was, after all, a time for patriotism in our little white bubble.

In all of this most whites continued to be fine churchgoing Christians. We had become expert at letting our institutions do our sinning for us. And, all the while, most whites remained blissfully ignorant of the seething cauldron of humiliation, resentment, and anger, building … building … building …until it exploded.

The American Bubble

The United States is an amazing culture and an astounding nation. We foreigners marvel at the sheer volume of intellectual capital and the genuine goodness of your people. It is deeply moving, too, to be part of the Christian community here—a community that challenges me and grows me in my discipleship.

But Americans also live in a bubble, not unlike the one white South Africans lived in, only bigger—spanning a continent and global in impact. This bubble too floats on a sea of poverty and want called the “developing world.” The relationship between the two is similar:

  • The need to feed an ever more hungry lifestyle with more of the planet’s resources;

  • The reliance on people from beyond the bubble to mine and process and manufacture for your needs;

  • The spread of this culture globally, so that you are known by those you don’t know in places you don’t have to learn about;

  • The expectation that the affairs of the outside world will be ordered in ways that serve the interests of those in the bubble, generically known as the “national interest;”

  • The need to maintain overwhelming military superiority and to wield that power ruthlessly against any attempts anywhere to upset or alter this order of things;

  • The need to sustain that power by constructing myths of invulnerability, moral superiority and nationalistic virtues.

I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is practicing some nefarious American version of South African apartheid, but I am saying that there are similarities in the way that first-world colony of whites in Africa saw itself, and the way it was understood by those outside it, and the way the U.S. is seen today by those outside your bubble.

Recently a former U.S. ambassador to London said, “You have to go back to Rome to find any parallel. We’re a super-duper power and I don’t know that the world has seen one of those before.” What he doesn’t mention is that once Rome came to rule the world, life changed forever for Romans too, and they knew it: From Cato to Cicero, says Chalmers Johnson, “The slogan of Roman leaders was Oderint dum metuant – Let them hate us so long as they fear us.”

 Storey speaking at a rally in South Africa.

Learning from the Pain of Alienation

In South Africa, numbers of white people broke out of their alienating bubble by asking a simple question: “What does it mean to be white and Christian in South Africa?” I can only speak of how God led us through that question.

Yes, we spoke out, we marched, we got arrested, we received death threats and other forms of harassment. Why would any white South African do that? What happened to make so many whites turn against what they had been told all their lives was in their best interests, not to mention the regime’s version of patriotism, to join the struggle for transformation?

The key lay in a few simple things that God had to do for us and in us, to bring us out of the alienating bubble we lived in. Truth be told, a lot of it happened when we also tried to ask, “What does it mean to be black and Christian in South Africa?”

New Eyes to Love

First, we had to be given new eyes to love. The Zulu greeting in South Africa is “Sawubona!” which means, “I see you!” And the reply is “Sikhona” … “I am here.” It is about actually seeing somebody, being present to the other.

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Spring 2004 Volume 3 Number 3 Duke Divinity School