| Flag and Altar
Lessons from South Africa
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
You remember Jesus and the blind man? Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and asks him, “Can you see?” The man says, “Yes, I can see people, they look like trees walking.” Jesus touches his eyes again and this time he sees clearly. (Mark 8:22-26) ssss
In South Africa we needed that second touch. Lots of people could tell how they had first met Jesus and how Jesus had changed their lives and saved their souls. What they needed was the second touch that would free them of their blindness toward their fellows, brought about by 300 years of privilege—the blindness that made other human beings “walking trees” for them.
We had to be given eyes in South Africa to rescue us from self-absorption, and to begin to see the hurts we were capable of.
New Ears to Hear
Second, we had to be given new ears to hear. To hear whom? The voice of God through the humble of the earth … especially those whom we had alienated. That is why those of us who were sent into places of poverty and oppression—such as the ghetto of District Six— were the fortunate ones.
Scripture and doctrine alone are not always enough to transform people. In South Africa, the very people who were responsible for policies of oppression sat in church on Sundays and prayed: “Help us to hear with joy what you have to say to us today.” It doesn’t work that way. Most of us need the additive of a transforming experience, and it was the relationship with suffering black Christians that changed so many whites.
The reconciling power of our faith and all its elements only broke through to us in South Africa when we began to listen to the Gospel as taught us by those we had despised. Christians changed when they met those they were alienated from. This is why Jesus says, “Please go to the least of my sisters and brothers. Listen to them. You might hear me.”
Hearts to Repent
Third, we had to be given hearts to repent our power.
Although my forbears arrived in South Africa in 1820, we regarded our cultural roots and heritage as British and were proud of it. I was an adult before I first visited England and made my pilgrimage to that heart of British culture and spirituality, Westminster Abbey. This was something I had looked forward to for so long. I walked in and I began to look around. I read one plaque and memorial after another. Somewhere, I don’t know where it was, I began to weep.
So many of them memorialized generals and admirals and armies—people who had killed people somewhere in the world! They were a litany of conquest and human brutality—the brutality of empire. It was there that I knew I had to repent of my heritage. I had to repent being powerful. It is such a dangerous thing. And while those days were in the past, the legacy remains. It is built into our personalities. There are many of my black friends in South Africa who will certainly confirm that the arrogance of that powerful heritage still comes through.
When we look around at the might of the American empire we see today, it may be hard to believe, but all empires must sooner or later be repented of. Unfortunately that repentance usually waits until the damage has been done, the power has waned, and the glorious myths of invincibility are gone.
In 1971, a plaque was placed on the wall of our church in District Six:
That was the first monument in South Africa to the victims of apartheid. It was put up, torn down by the police, and put up again. There were many things that we had to do at that time. There were people to pastor, there were statements to be made, there were protests to be engaged in…. But, looking back, there are few things I feel more right about than the action of that congregation who put that plaque on the wall and asked for God’s forgiveness. Because, you see, they were people of color. It’s a strange thing: There is a sense in which the very people who suffer in the world are the ones who have to teach us to repent.
I invite you to get serious about that debate between flag and altar. And I invite you to search with Jesus and with those who live outside this bubble for that higher patriotism that can never be forced on anybody by an act of Congress, but which is built in the human heart. It is the patriotism that says, “I love my country. I love it so much that I am determined it will do what God wants it to do and it will be servant to the world.”
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