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South African retired bishop challenges American congregations

As a white South African, the Rev. Peter Storey knows about living in a bubble of privilege floating on a sea of poverty and resentment.  He helped burst that bubble in South Africa—assisted by American churches.

Austin De Paolo and Peter Storey

Austin de Paolo and Peter Storey

Now he hopes churches in America, where he lives six months each year, will see ways their nation floats in a bubble on the sea of a troubled world.

He raised that image to challenge people in U.S. congregations to struggle with what their faith tells them about poverty and wealth, violence and non-violence, church-state relations and inclusion-exclusion dynamics.

In June, Peter spoke in Spokane for The Fig Tree’s  Faith in Action Dialogue.

Along with challenging the faith community here, he expressed gratitude for the challenge American Christians brought South Africans under apartheid.

Having gone back and forth since 1966, he said he has a lover’s quarrel with the United States, which be believes has “so much to give the world.”

Many of his visits were to seek help during the struggle against apartheid.  American churches offered prayers, support and solidarity—both challenging and encouraging, he said, describing one example of solidarity:

The President of South Africa hated the South Africa Council of Churches and arrange a trial to prove that the SACC was a communist front, Peter said. 

“Desmond Tutu as general secretary and I as president faced a tribunal in Pretoria. The court turned over every stone of our lives.  Each question was grueling.  It was intimidating to sit alone in a chair at a little table facing the tribunal for 20 hours,” said Peter, retired bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. 

Peter Storey

Peter Storey

At one hearing, there was a commotion.  Into the courtroom’s public gallery came representatives of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope in Rome, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in the United States, the World Methodist Conference, the World Lutheran Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

They had flown to South Africa to be present and be witnesses for the world church.  Suddenly, the tribunal knew it was taking on the church around the world.

“What an amazing act of solidarity,” Peter said.  “After that we knew we couldn’t lose.  Who can take on God’s church?” he said.

Living and working at Duke University in Durham, N.C., he has many friends and considers Americans “genuinely good people who look out for neighbors and care about other people.” 

In that context of respect, he brings a challenge about the struggle he sees looming.  He likens U.S. citizens to citizens of the Roman Empire, who enjoyed the spoils of Rome’s resources from far away.  Arts, sports and music flourished because of the empire’s wealth.  Some went to foreign places to garrison the empire, but those at home knew little about these places. Rome never lost.  Citizens were confident Roman ways would spread and replace local cultures.

Peter believes U.S. media are pressured not to tell what is happening around the world. While CNN reports in America focus on America, CNN reports beamed to the world tell about the world and the impact of U.S. foreign policy, he said, describing one aspect of life in a bubble.

“There’s a myth that your nation’s foreign policy is moral, benign and filled with goodwill because you are nice people,” he said.  “Relational dynamics between the U.S. and the rest of the world may be like dynamics in apartheid South Africa.

“Whites sucked from our country what we needed for our lifestyle, then the highest standard of living in the world.  We left the majority of our citizens, who were black and whom we hardly cared to know, with no hope for a better life.  We used their labor and resources, but preferred them to be invisible.”

White South Africans knew little about the lives—let alone the real names—of the blacks who cleaned their homes and watched their children. 

“They knew everything about us, every intimate detail, including the color of our undershorts.

“We couldn’t do that forever without resentments growing,” Peter said.  “Eventually their resentments broke our bubble in South Africa, and we resorted, to no avail, to pre-emptive military strikes to protect our lifestyle.”

For safety and security, white South Africans accepted having the state intrude into their private lives and limit their civil rights.

“In the end, we had to come to terms with the real world and rejoin the human race,” he said.

Elizabeth Storey

Elizabeth Storey

He and his wife, Elizabeth, enjoy the bubble of comfort and convenience of living in America—with summer camps, school outings, weight loss, obsessive wellness, big cars, and TV commercials that promise “a new holy trinity of health, welfare and happiness,” Peter observed. 

“It’s an amazing culture, but it’s in a bubble, floating on the resources of the developing world, which is increasingly alienated.  With more of  the planet’s resources and people beyond the bubble producing and processing for your needs, the U.S. Christmas  depends on Chinese workers. 

“Your culture is everywhere.  People watch American TV shows on flickering screens in Katmandu,” Peter said.  “The world knows everything about you.

“There is an expectation that world affairs will serve interests of those in the bubble.  Those in the bubble are willing to wield military superiority against any attempt to upset this order and they construct myths of moral superiority, militaristic virtue and redemptive violence to maintain their power.”

Peter saw the comfort and security of American society turned into a post-9/11 society, in which a terrorist act has replaced security with fear and insecurity.

“It’s important for a country so poorly served by its media to hear about what is happening outside and know how people in the rest of the world experience America,” he said.  “It’s a starting point for a long-overdue conversation between the powerful and the powerless, a conversation that depends on those in power listening to the powerless.”


Peter Storey converses with participant.

He invites Americans to see the rest of the world with new eyes and be present to the rest of the world in new ways.

Peter knows that, just as there were South Africans struggling against apartheid, there are many Americans who inspire the world, like several Duke divinity students recently commissioned to spend 10 weeks listening to people in Costa Rica and Haiti.

To make that happen on a large scale, he said people first must be aware of how good people can let institutions sin for them.  While many white South Africans were kind, hospitable people under apartheid, they let their government commit racial sins and oppress, he said, advising: “Take care that your institutions are not sinning for you around the world in ways that would make you ashamed.”

Peter calls good-willed Americans and people of faith to be part of a groundswell calling for “being strong in a different way,” because “history shows no empire survives by throwing its military weight around.  Having U.S. bases in 200 countries will not save this empire.  God has a way of humbling empires.”

He asks people of faith to turn to God about subjects key to the future of nation and humankind.

“The world moves when ordinary people catch a vision of what God wants in love, compassion, truth and justice,” he said, challenging churches to gather every week for six months or more and struggle with scriptures, God and each other on four issues:

1) What does our faith say about wealth, poverty and good news to the poor?

“Forget what political parties say.  They tend to say the same thing.  What does our faith say?  There is a gap between what Jesus says and what politicians say,” Peter said, telling about author and editor Jim Wallis asking university students to take a Bible and cut out everything it says about the poor.  They were left with “a tattered ribbon of paper.”

Peter knows how easy it is for people in comfort to lose touch with the poor.

Peter Storey

Peter Storey

When he first became bishop, he tried to continue as pastor of an inner-city Johannesburg church, but it became too much.  When he decided to be bishop full-time, he moved up the hill to Civic Center Church. 

“It was amazing how quickly I forgot what it was to live among the poor.  It was easy to live among the corporations,” he said.

2) What does our faith tell us about violence and nonviolence, war and peace? 

“We simply do not take God or scriptures seriously on this issue. Until we dig below the platitudes convincing us to justify war and look at theological truths and human consequences of war, we are not serious about our faith,” he said.

3) What is the relationship of flag and altar, church and state?  How do people of faith relate to Caesar?  South African churches have a rule not to display their flag in any church, because it’s Caesar’s banner. 

“It’s not that we don’t like the flag.  The danger is we might like it too much,” he said. “We were ashamed of our flag when it was stained with evils our regime committed, so we would not allow it in our churches.

“We still do not have our new, multicolored flag, that represents our freedom and democracy, in our churches.  While it had no stains at first, it is no longer unstained.  People of faith need to decide where their first citizenship lies,” he said.

4) Whom do we include and exclude?

“The hot-button issue around sexuality is tearing some faith communities apart, because some people want to include and others want to exclude.  In every faith—Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu—there are people with a tendency to a destructive fundamentalism. 

“I used to think fundamentalism was about taking the Scriptures literally, but that’s the cover.  Fundamentalism is about who is in and who is out,” Peter said.  “Once you see yourself as the insider and others as outsiders, it’s a short step to killing the outsider as an act of religion.

“When I stand before my Maker, I would rather be judged for having my arms too wide open and welcoming as a person of faith or citizen of a nation than to have them crossed over my chest  to keep people out,” he said.

In love, Peter challenges:  “Is it not possible that for once in history people in power might use their power for the common good rather than for that strange, selfish thing called the national interest, under which a multitude of sins take place?”


By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright - © September 2005