Breaking Open the Soul of South Africa: The Cry for Compassion in our Society

The First John Oliver Memorial Lecture


The Cry for Compassion in our Society

Peter Storey

‘It is not enough to achieve political liberation. We must also become human.’         Walter Wink


In March 2008 a small, slightly built ex-nun named Karen Armstrong, stood up to deliver the speech of her life. Most of us know what a TED lecture is. TED is committed to ‘ideas worth spreading.’ It offers a prize each year to a person with ‘one wish, one inspiring, high-impact idea, to change the world.’ TED then offers its resources to help spread the winning idea.

Karen spoke simply: this world-renowned religious historian had become convinced that there could be no solution to the world’s divisions, hatreds and wars without the great global faiths finding each other. Her immersion into the heart of these religions also convinced her that there was indeed a place where they met – that beneath their many differences flowed one strong, consistent, uniting principle, not so much of belief, but of behaviour: each of the great faiths lifts up the principle of compassion. Each teaches that the practice of compassion transforms human beings and situations. Each calls its followers to one or other version of the ‘golden rule’ first articulated by Confucius 500 years before Christ: ‘Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ This rule, sometimes stated more positively, is the great uniting bond across the spectrum of world faiths.

Karen Armstrong’s prize-winning wish therefore, was:

 I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.

Karen won the prize and TED sprang into action. They used the power of the internet to engage thousands in a world-wide conversation. People from different and often opposing religious views – and people of no religion at all – affirmed that common ground could and should be found around the principle of compassion, and that this is what the world needed most. The cry for compassion came from every corner of the earth.

In February, 2009, at Vevey, Switzerland, an international group of spiritual leaders met to try and distil the results of this conversation into a one-page ‘Charter for Compassion.’ We seemed to be an assembly of opposites: the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheik Ali Gomaa, and Holocaust survivor Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Buddhist Red Cross leader Tho ha Vinh, and Catholic Sister Joan Chittister, young Sufi pop-star Salman Ahmad from Pakistan and Jean Zaru, Quaker from Ramallah, – and others. Karen had reached beyond the three Abrahamic faiths, and I wondered how such a widely disparate group of people could come to a common mind. I had much to learn. There is something about compassion: the moment one begins to listen, think and speak about compassion, one’s listening, thinking, speaking become more compassionate. We laughed, we cried, we told stories, we heard each other and we worked very hard – and on the way, I guess you could say we got broken open. We changed toward each other, and the apparently impossible happened: the Charter was born. It took some months to fine-tune it and translate it into many languages, including Xhosa and Afrikaans, and it was launched publicly in November, 2009. [See Appendix 1,2,3]

Since then, the Charter movement has quietly built momentum, making its way without fuss into many faiths and places. Plaques bearing the Charter are in hundreds of houses of worship. Those of us on the Global Compassion Council consult through regular world-wide teleconferences about applying the Charter principles in concrete ways and different fields. A growing number of cities have joined the ‘Compassionate Cities’ campaign. The study of Compassion is appearing on academic curricula in fields as widely different as neurology and social ethics.

Challenge to the Faiths …

The Charter speaks challenge and encouragement to every religion. ‘The world can unite around the golden rule,’ says Karen Armstrong, ‘but first the religions must do so.’ She is right: it is no longer permissible for people of faith to confine themselves in their different theological kraals. The world is too small, crowded, and dangerous for world-wide systems of belief to overlap without talking and listening to each other. Each of us values our particular faith as a source of comfort, strength and inspiration, and our link with the Divine, but we also know that is not the whole story: we all have our extremists, those who are more concerned with being right than being good, who would rather convert than respect, who major in exclusion and claim a monopoly of the truth. We know that left to itself, that sort of religion ends up killing people. Each of the great faiths has, in recent years, provided the pretext or the context or the subtext for war, terror and repression. What Armstrong calls ‘the religious faultlines,’ have played a nefarious role in too many political struggles. Ferocious, triumphalist versions of different faiths have, in the words of the Charter, ‘increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.’

Therefore, those of us with faith allegiances need to begin from a place of confession, acknowledging the times when our religion was not the answer, but the problem. Up to now at least we can be thankful that the one form of conflict South Africa has been spared, is religious conflict. However, given what is happening in our world, that could change, unless leaders of our faith communities make preemptive efforts now to build much stronger bridges of understanding. In this regard, the commitment of John Oliver and others to launch and build this Interfaith Initiative was perhaps prophetic.

But he worked for so much more: The pledge of this Initiative is, ‘to make space for discovery by opening a never-closing conversation …’ and I think Father John hoped that would be only the beginning: I think he longed for us to become more spiritually broken-open toward one another ‘Interfaith work,’ he said, ‘is about making the connection, about deepening the experience, deepening the tradition, and discovering that maybe you know something about God that I’d missed, but we’re in this together!’

If his hope is to be fulfilled, then this ‘never-closing conversation’ will not be without its challenges. It is one thing for us to meet in polite circumstances, but the test is what are we teaching about each other, and about our place in the world? The Charter recognizes this, and perhaps its most controversial commitment is ‘to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of Scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.’ Some will see that as an attack on their sacred texts – I know some Christians who would take that view – but how can anything ‘that breeds violence hatred or disdain,’ be sacred? St Augustine said: ‘Scripture teaches nothing but charity and we must not leave any interpretation of scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.’ Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, was approached by a pagan who offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and said, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it.’

I pray that Father John’s legacy may offer an ever-deepening engagement at all levels between the faiths in our land, with a common commitment to grow people of integrity, maturity and compassion in our communities.

South Africa’s soul …

The relevance of this prayer becomes more acute when we survey the moral landscape of our nation. Our title is ‘Breaking Open South Africa’s Soul.’ There is a difference between being ‘broken’ and being ‘broken-open.’ The one has to do with deep damage and the other is about healing. Nelson Mandela recognized post-apartheid South Africa’s brokenness and called for ‘an RDP of the soul.’ He set about the reconstruction of our national zeitgeist with an acute discernment of what was needed to make us whole. It involved an empathy not only with those he had fought for, but with those he had fought against. He too helped us see that we were all in this together, that no single group could flourish unless all had equal opportunity to grow. When our new flag was raised most South Africans were ready to work with him toward our mutual healing. We shared a remarkable sense of freedom and hope. Mandela’s uniting and winning spirit spurred us on.

But none of this was enough. We needed also to be ‘broken-open,’ and the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) process was designed to give us that opportunity. It had to deal with great evil, but it did so in a way that encouraged great good. It invited us into the pain we had caused each other, but it made space for us to discover, in the midst of that pain, the gift of compassion. That is what I mean by being ‘broken-open.’ It is only when the brittle carapace of hate, or un-forgiveness, or indifference, that we grow over our souls is shattered, that newness can happen. The TRC not only confronted us with who we had been, but by giving us a glimpse into each other’s souls, it offered us a way to be different – to become ‘human-hearted’ as Confucius would put it – and to chart a different future.

Today it is fashionable to dismiss the TRC and even to blame it for some of our present troubles, but that is a mistake only disillusioned South Africans make. The rest of the world is still awestruck that we even tried it, and it remains the high-water mark of societal attempts to heal past evil. The TRC did not fail South Africa, but South Africa may have failed the TRC. This is because those most responsible for the horrors of our past were the ones least willing to accept the TRC’s gift of painful healing. PW Botha refused to appear; FW de Klerk appeared only to prevaricate on the most important issues of culpability. The SA Defence Force, whose actions led to more than a million dead and the creation of 4 million refugees, was left virtually immune[1]. The Judges stayed away. These stubborn refusals to be ‘broken-open’ reflected a more general attitude among whites, and evoked deep disillusionment among black South Africans. Desmond Tutu places first among his regrets that the TRC, ‘failed to attract the bulk of the white community to participate enthusiastically in the process.’[2] This white absence was, I believe, much more significant than we have acknowledged.

Yes, I know about the other stuff: we face apparently insurmountable economic chasms. We witness the venality of political leaders and civil servants and the cynicism of the corporations that corrupt them. We see the hardship of service delivery failures. We shrink from the gratuitous cruelty that routinely accompanies crime, especially against women and children. We sense the rise in racial and ethnic chauvinism and the coarsening of the national discourse. It’s all a massive challenge.

Yet I believe that much of this societal brokenness can be traced back to the time when the ‘broken-openness’ offered by the TRC process was met with indifference or defensiveness. That was when the moral tide bringing us together suffered its first reverse, and the hope in many black hearts for a more compassionate, convergent society began to falter. ‘Why open ourselves up? Why work together? Why share? Why not take instead? Our Ubuntu, the notion that I can only be fully myself when you are fully yourself, is not being reciprocated. Perhaps it doesn’t work for us either?’ Unfortunately, that moment coincided with the transition to a different President, who rightly called whites out for their ongoing racism, but who had his own demons and none of Mandela’s genius for inclusion. Black and white South Africans settled into an uncomfortable, arms-length, co-existence. The great experiment that promised to show the world a different way of overcoming difference was shelved, and the rainbow quietly faded. And here we are: today the contrast between Mandela’s vision and what we live with could not be more stark. Mandela inspired us to be better persons; President Zuma’s behaviour gives permission to our less worthy instincts: self-preservation at the expense of integrity, self-enrichment at the expense of the people, self-love at the expense of ubuntu. Instead of a compassionate, sharing society, we have an amoral elite competing for the spoils while the masses of the people continue to suffer.

Consequently we are becoming a society where the basic norms of what it means to be human, are regularly infringed in ways that are bizarre and profoundly self-destructive. The surest sign of this is that those who feel least cared about join with those who care nothing, in grasping at whatever they can. Think at one extreme, of a gold mine stripped and literally sold off over the heads of thousands of employees, and at the other, of a building collapsing on its occupants because they themselves have stolen its reinforcing steel. Or textbooks dumped in a ditch by van drivers with school-going children, or parents denying their children schooling so they can get a road built?

These are ultimately acts of self-harm and what they have in common is that both exploiters and exploited have lost their sense of belonging to a larger humanity. They speak to a deep alienation – a breakdown of connectedness with each other. The phrase that comes to my mind these days, is one now used for the psychological and spiritual damage soldiers suffer when they have ‘done, witnessed, or failed to prevent acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.’ It is now understood as something deeper than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[3] It is called moral injury and among the symptoms are ‘demoralization, self-harming, and self-handicapping behaviors’ and withdrawal from others.[4] This moral injury is a ‘lost sense of humanity’ requiring what they call ‘Soul Repair’[5]

What will it take to heal our moral injury and repair South Africa’s soul?

Restoring Compassion …

Such repair is not the work of government alone, but a work of all of us who are determined to reclaim our humanity. Whatever else is required, an absolute essential is to bring back the spirit of ubuntu and compassion from exile – back to the centre of our national discourse. His Holiness the Dalai Lama declares that ‘compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As a source of both inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continual survival of our species.’ [6] So, let us not sentimentalize compassion. It is not ‘the religious soft option’ – it is the only option. It may be the ultimate realpolitik because without a return to compassion, all other attempts to deal with our moral injury will fail.

Nor is it enough to rely on reason alone: reason may tell our minds what is needed but it has no power to move our wills away from self-interest, and ‘if it is not tempered by compassion and empathy,’ says Armstrong, ‘reason can drive men and women into a moral void.’[7] She reminds us that our psyches have yet to fully overcome the ‘old brain’ of our 500-million year-old reptilian past. In the deepest recesses of our minds we are driven, like our primeval ancestors, by the famous Four F’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing and – as she puts it delicately – reproducing. Unchecked by higher values, these drives focus pitilessly on self. We may have evolved, and reasoning powers may have moderated our conduct, but when, in Armstrong’s words, ‘humans have employed their new brain capacities to enhance and promote old brain motivation,’[8] it has been fatal. Reason then becomes the enemy of the good.

So, what is this thing called compassion?

It begins with the awareness that we are all connected in what. Martin Luther King Jr. called an ‘inescapable web of mutuality.’[9] Matthew Fox put it this way: ‘Compassion is not about pity or feeling sorry for the other. It is born of a shared interdependence, an intuition of a sense of awe for the wondrous fact that we all live and swim in one primordial divine womb, we live in fetal waters of cosmic grace.’[10] When we internalize the truth that we are all of one womb (and of course DNA research has proven that we all do descend from one tiny group of ancestors) then we see each other differently and compassion can be born.

Fox’s distinction between pity and compassion is also important. Pity is a static emotion, but compassion is an energy that moves us to action. In Jesus’ most famous story of compassion, a traveller belonging to a despised religion and race, comes upon someone lying beaten by the roadside. On seeing him, his compassion moves him toward the sufferer. Two persons had already come by and seen the victim, but they did not seem to feel that they came from the same womb and ‘passed by on the other side.’ But the Charter reminds us that compassion ‘impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures …’ Thus, a number of distinct actions flow from our Traveller’s deep sense of connection with this sufferer of another faith and race. He goes up to him, bandages his wounds, bathes them with oil and wine, lifts him onto his own beast, brings him to an inn, looks after him there, then produces enough for his keep, and takes responsibility for any further cost and promises to visit again. The difference between pity and compassion is that compassion always ends as a verb. It is something you do. Like anything else, it has to be worked at, and the more we practice compassion, the better we become at being compassionate people.

[Karen’s latest book is deliberately called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. The title makes it clear that we need to be spiritually weaned from our addiction to indifference. The book is an excellent aid for people of all faiths interested in entering serious compassion training].

Justice is Compassion distributed …

Of course, if our Traveller came upon broken victims like this every week, surely he would want to ask questions about policing along that road and the issues of poverty and unemployment that might lie behind the spike in crime. Therefore compassionate action often needs to become political engagement, and that is as it should be, because organizing for justice is the social expression of compassion – justice is compassion distributed, and if compassion is everybody’s vocation, then justice is everybody’s business. We should expect our civil authorities to ask, not only, ‘Is this action lawful?’ but also, ‘is it compassionate?’ because they are not always the same thing. It may be lawful by certain criteria to evict people from an illegal settlement, but if they have nowhere else to go, it cannot be compassionate to do so. There is no excuse for any civil authority – whether national, provincial or local – not to act compassionately. If they do not make caring a priority, they must feel the pressure of caring people. William Sloane Coffin says, ‘to love effectively we must act collectively.’[11] An outstanding example of this was Zackie Achmat’s Treatment Action Campaign, which combined compassion with well-organized collective action to expose the callous indifference of the government’s Aids policy and pressure them into reversing it.

Am I right that compared to the days of the anti-apartheid struggle, collective action by faith communities has become relatively scarce and timid? Some of the things religious people get upset about tend to be selfserving, and some of the injustices we ignore are scandalous. Do secular movements for justice speak more clearly than do we? Has the ‘passion’ gone out of our compassion? Has the time not come when leaders of the major faiths in our land should act together to address our moral injury? To confront the visionless, corrupt leadership our nation suffers, to remind political parties, whether national or provincial, that they are not ruling parties, but serving parties, to challenge the loss of compassion and ubuntu in our discourse, to speak a clear, unmistakable word into this void? The broken victims of our nation wait for that word – a word that rises from authentic, informed compassion for their situation, not pious religiosity.

The Special Case for a Compassionate City…

A crucial arena for our faiths to practice compassionate action together is the Compassionate Cities’ Campaign. Many cities across the world have signed the Charter, pledging to bend their policymaking toward ‘a culture of compassion.’ I am grateful that our own city is having exploratory conversations about this possibility, as long as we are clear that there are serious implications. Karen Armstrong said, ‘A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city! A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry…uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.’

Can Cape Town hear the uncomfortable cries? Every South African city is a tragic tale of two cities. In the past we turned our racial obsessions into town planning and lines drawn then have been reinforced over the decades by habit and economics. Our children grow up with spatial deformities that have not only persisted, but got worse. Their lives are still shaped, from cradle to grave, by where they live – or don’t live.

The task of undoing these spatial and economic inequities is bigger than any political party or city administration. Economic privilege is always the last to yield, especially when the privileged live in denial. Desmond Tutu used to say, ‘The most difficult people to wake up are those who are pretending to be asleep.’ The primary task of leadership in this city is to inspire enough people of all parties to come together, in the words of the Charter, ‘in a principled determination to transcend selfishness,’ to make inroads into our separateness. Our options have narrowed: either we mobilize Capetonians toward one another, connecting them in ways that facilitate empathy and compassionate action for justice, or we will call down upon ourselves an intensifying struggle between the anger of the dispossesed and the fears of the comfortable.

Nor may we comfort ourselves with claims that our challenges are unique. More than a century ago these exact problems of mass urbanisation, poverty, housing, sanitation and education were the scandal of cities like London and so was the indifference of the rich. It was people of faith then – the ‘Clapham sect,’ Lord Shaftesbury, and others, who’s God discomforted them into action and to say: ‘ … the conditions of the dwellings of many of our people lie at the root of two thirds of the disorders that afflict our land,’ and, ‘Never again shall people pretend that open sewers and the absence of lavatories are things that do not matter!’[12] Those words have a very contemporary ring for today’s Cape Town! In Shaftesbury’s England almost every act of government that brought more dignity into people’s lives was instigated by passionate volunteer organisations, most of them faith-based.

Therefore, faith communities cannot be neutral on such matters because compassion is not neutral; it stands with those who are hurting and invites those who are not, to at least make some sacrifice to transform that hurt. Transformation requires every sector of the city’s life to ask the question,’ How would I act if I acted out of compassion, rather than fear and self-interest?  Surely that is the question we need to place firmly before all our people?

And, if we do, the good news is that this nation, this city, still has more than enough good people who will ‘get it,’ – for the right reasons   Emma Oliver wrote to me recently: ‘I cannot be compassionate from a place of fear … acting with compassion out of guilt or fear is exhausting. It only serves to emphasize that we are separate and it keeps us on separate paths. We think we are separate from each other. It’s an illusion, we are in this together.’

Over to us …

Some of you have heard of the ‘Ubuntu Girl’. Sonja Kruse, a white South African of Akrikaner descent, decided to find out if ubuntu – the notion that ‘people are people through other people’ – was real in our land. So with a backpack and a R100 note, she started walking and hitch-hiking around South Africa. The journey of 13,685 kilometres lasted 14 days short of one year and took her through 9 provinces and 114 towns. In the process, she stayed with 150 families of 16 different cultures – that’s 150 individuals or families who opened their doors to a stranger. And her story is profoundly moving because it becomes their story, overflowing with their warmth, their courage and the enormous size of their hearts. She never really spent that R100 and was never in need. Only twice in 351 days did she encounter any real hostility. Time and again people of every colour, language, faith and no faith, not only welcomed her, but because she had made this radical step toward them, wanted to share their culture and talk about what mattered in their lives.

No, here is one person, risking out with nothing but a wide open heart, a deep, compassionate interest in her fellow South Africans and a willingness to be ‘broken-open’ in the process … and the response? Everywhere she went, people seemed to be saying, ‘What took you so long?’

Healing for our moral injury is not impossible. Between our different faiths, between the people of Cape Town, between our 50 million South Africans, between us and the other African people who live among us, ubuntu, solidarity, compassion need not die. What’s taking us so long?


Peter Storey

Simon’s Town,

21 October, 2014


[1]Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday, 1999, pp235-8

[2]Ibid, p.231

[3] Brett T Litz et al., “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: a Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29, no. 8 (December 2009): 695–706, See also Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (Scribner, 2010).

[4] Ibid

[5]Rita Nakashima and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).

[6] Quoted in A Call to Compassion by Aura Glaser

[7] Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, (London) the Bodley Head

[8] Ibid

[9] “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” 1967, quoted in “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr.” James M. Washington, ed., New York: HarpersCollins, 1986

[10] Quoted by Fred Plumer in Christian Laauve (Love) 14 March, 2008,

[11]William Sloan Coffin, Credo,(Louisville KY) John Knox Westminster Press, p23

[12] Florence M G Higham, Lord Shaftesbury, MacMillan, Toronto, 1945, 72

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