The World’s Cup runneth over with compassion

By Peter Storeyformer Methodist bishop, South Africa Right now there is no happier or noisier place in the world than … Continued

By Peter Storey
former Methodist bishop, South Africa

Right now there is no happier or noisier place in the world than South Africa, with the smiles of all – black, white and brown – as wide as they were in 1994 when Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” held its first democratic elections. And the joy is needed: as we proudly welcome hundreds of thousands of fans to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first world football championship tournament held on African soil, we South Africans have recently seen how fragile our newfound human rights culture is, and how easily issues of race and ethnicity still disturb the peace.

South Africa hosts at least four million Zimbabweans who have fled Mugabe, and other undocumented immigrants from as far as Somalia and Ethiopia. With an unemployment rate of 25 percent in the country, it is not surprising that local resentments can sometimes explode. A blundering, ineffectual President Zuma, flaunting his Zulu tribalism, also gives many other ethnic groups in the land cause to question.

On May 20, South Africans of many faiths and race groups packed into the headquarters of the Cape Town Inter-faith Initiative to watch Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu unveil the city’s first Charter for Compassion plaque. It was a reminder, as Charter initiator Karen Armstrong put it, of a time when through the spirit of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation process, South Africa had shown the world that transformation could happen, not only in individuals, but in nations. “There was a shining moment,” she said. “When South Africa showed the world what was possible.”

Meanwhile, the recent murder of a white ex-neo-Nazi leader caused shivers across the land, with rumors of a whiter right-wing resurgence or a “night of long knives” the hands of impoverished blacks. Neither of these scenarios is remotely likely, yet suspicion levels have risen markedly since the euphoric Mandela days. In recent years, South Africa has buckled under a massive crime epidemic and been buffeted by the world recession, which may have played a role in the ugly wave of xenophobia that swept through many of its squatter camps last year.

The unveiling of the Charter for Compassion was a kind of call to action, a challenge to South Africa. At the event, Archbishop Tutu, who has at times taken on the current South African regime with the same determination shown during the apartheid days, wowed the crowd with his usual ebullience, but also struck a deeply serious note, reminding them of the absurdity that once ruled in South Africa, when persons were judged by their biological characteristics rather than for their intrinsic value and how this demeaned generations of black persons. He saluted the religious communities for offering sanctuary to thousands of foreigners during the xenophobic attacks, calling for more such courageous actions and a recovering the African spiritual concept of Ubuntu – “I am a person through other persons.” He declared that this is what the Charter for Compassion was about.

I know this to be true because I am one of the authors of the Charter. The Charter began as a wish of Karen’s, granted by the TED prize, and culminated with the remarkable gathering of a Council of Conscience at Vevey, Switzerland, in February, 2009. There the thoughts of thousands of crowd-sourced contributions culled from the Charter’s Web site were distilled into a powerful, one-page document. One of them, the Dutch Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, told of having been a babe in arms when his family was loaded onto a train headed for the Nazi death camps. His mother pleaded with an SS Officer to let her give her child to a Gentile woman standing by, and inexplicably, he permitted it. “I am alive because for a moment, an SS Officer’s heart was touched by looking into the face of a Jewish baby,” he said. “There is compassion somewhere in everyone. We must awaken it.”‘

Rev. Peter Storey is a former Methodist Bishop from South Africa, and national ecumenical leader during the anti-apartheid struggle. His 38-year church ministry focused on the marginalized people of Cape Town’s District Six, then Johannesburg and Soweto. Earlier he was prison chaplain to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He is a committed peacemaker who helped select the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and founded the Gun Free South Africa movement. Most recently he has been a distinguished professor at Duke University Divinity School.

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  • shaheed-yahudi

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  • Chops2

    Considering the authors African ancestors were carted off and put in shackles in the name of christianity, it always amazes me that there is such a high rate of belief in Africa.The fact that Christianity also claims to have freed them shows that u really can make what u wish of the bible.

  • Ike1975

    @CHOPS2 Well said. Amazing how that works.

  • georgedixon

    South Africa is proof that evolution moved the bright ones out of africa………and when the europeans left after returning…..africa continued its decline.

  • tma_sierrahills

    This is what I have always called Vergism–the Third World is always “on the verge.”As they say, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” so let’s hope they prevail. However, nowhere, except possibly Haiti, is there a more glaring contrast between what our ruling elites tell us we must believe, versus what invariably takes place than Sub-Saharan Africa. So we must always keep telling ourselves that a new page is just turning, a new page is just turning … We are finally on the verge, we are finally on the verge …

  • Georgetowner1

    For haters of Christianity, they need to reminded of an important fact. Much credit must be given to the white Christians of South Africa that joined with their brother black Christians, and others, black and white of other faiths, in supporting the end of Aparteid. Mandela and SA President F. W. de Klerk may have been the architects of the formal end, but it was the faith population that accepted Mandela’s call for foregiveness and a stepping forward in actions that strengthened the nation, instead of acts from revenge on either side for perceived past injuries.The main problem SA has suffered since that time is that heros of the African National Congress party have been rewarded with high positions in govt. Although they deserved reward for risking lives and suffering repression and beaings, the ill conceived awarding of jobs that they do not know how to perform has done nothing but damage the nation for which they fought. It has also opened the door to corruption (always a side effect when someone who doesn’t know what they are doing is in charge). I pray that SA can hold on long enough to pass through this wave of incompetent leaders and for another leader (whatever color) of Mandela’s stature to emerge and help salvage this wonderful, deserving country from the mismanagement of at least the last 10 years.

  • pgr88

    South Africa is the Western Media’s foster-child.

  • shaheed-yahudi

    i [WE] Remember when Apartheid was Real. In The 70′s & 80′s.Today is 2010+. Not Minus (-2010). And Those whom can ‘Visualize’ (a gift of MIND) 3010+ are Wise indeed; A;; Else are Pre-APOCALYPTIC thinkers & NOt APOCALYPTARIANS thinkers like i [WE].! LA CHIAM! SLONCHA! NA-SDAROVIA! CHEERS! CHOSS! ….!”SPORTS Never Discriminates”! Only Individuals can do that.

  • IdeologyKills

    A discussion of racial relations in “On Faith”? I can’t speak to the South African milieu, but this is the last issue any American Christians care about based on what I see.I assume it’s because there are so few opportunities to tell people they’re sinners and need to vote Republican to redeem themselves.