Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s Christmas sermon, in which he called for the hasty removal of President Jacob Zuma and a targeted cabinet reshuffle, has attracted a lot of attention. Some say that men of the cloth should stick to preaching and stay out of politics. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya argues that this is absurd. He notes that the Archbishop continues a long and venerable tradition that has biblical roots. He argues that what Makgoba did is, and has always been, the business of the church for thousands of years.
“We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar …” Luke 23:2 (NABRE) That is what the author of the Gospel of Luke cites as the reason a certain Jesus of Nazareth was brought to trial, convicted and executed, all in a space of twenty-four hours.
Since Christmas Day, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, has stood accused of misunderstanding his office as Metropolitan and head of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa by preaching, as part of his sermon on Christmas Eve, that ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa must remove his predecessor and State President, Jacob Zuma, from office.
The Archbishop made the scathing attack against Zuma, effectively accusing him of being a thief, or at best, enabling theft by those closest to him.
His critics say his failure to use the pulpit to rail against other sins, such as those committed by white capitalists, racists within the church, and those who misuse or abuse the church’s finances and resources, shows him to be a handmaid of the axis of shadowy characters who seek the premature removal of President Zuma from his office.
As with Jesus Christ, Makgoba is charged both with “misleading people” and opposing the authority of a sitting Head of State, or imposing his own authority on the President of the governing party. What aggravates Archbishop Makgoba’s guilt, as far as those charging him are concerned, is that he has, they say, no known public record of condemning the excesses of white monopoly capital, racism and the abuse of office and finance in his church by those he is entrusted of being supreme shepherd.
The charge that he has not shown sufficient outrage towards other wrongs, and therefore should not speak out against a particular one is – as young people might say – lame. Not even those who make this outrageous claim would pass muster because they too would be found to have never adequately condemned every wrong of which they would have been aware.
One of the accusations Makgoba faces is that he is “trying to be relevant” as a response to the rising wave of the Charismatic/Pentecostal churches. I will return to this point later on.
I admit to have never met the Archbishop, nor spoken to him. I therefore do not know if there is any merit in the accusations he faces. This situation is not helped by the fact that his detractors do not say anything beyond making the bold statements of his connivance with the described dark forces.
I doubt, however, that Makgoba’s critics and supporters think there is anything new about pronouncing Zuma’s unfitness to hold office.
By Christmas Day 2017, noting that President Zuma was not exactly a model President for either his party or his country, is no great insight into South African politics. Two of the three organisations that make up the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC, the Communists and the Congress of the South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have long banned Zuma from addressing their gatherings.
So the most that can be said about Makgoba’s misdeed, is that he has said what he said from the pulpit, and to a congregation that may very well not share his views regarding the president.
I am writing here not to defend Makgoba, mainly because I am certain he is very capable of defending himself. I am writing this because it seems to me that there has, overnight, developed an amnesia that makes people forget that the pulpit has a long tradition of being a site of struggle and pronouncing on the conduct of those holding political power.
I am writing to inform those who might not know, or have also forgotten, that there is a long biblical tradition of individuals who, understanding themselves to be anointed by the spirit of their God, have overtly spoken truth to power and not confined themselves to the rituals of their faith.
Furthermore, even a cursory look at the writings of the various prophets, before and during Christ’s own life, shows that the line between what is secular and what is religious is a very thin one, if it can be drawn at all.
The account of Moses approaching Pharaoh to tell the Egyptian overlord that the Israelite God says the Pharaoh must “let my people go” is one of the earliest references to those who carry a religious mandate and are called upon to confront political power.
The Bible further records that not only is a religious figure – the prophet Samuel – given the responsibility to install a political figure, King Saul, and later to announce the end of his reign, when it turns out that Saul has failed a religious obligation.
“You have acted foolishly!” says Samuel. “Had you kept the command the Lord your God gave you, the Lord would now establish your kingship in Israel forever; but now your kingship shall not endure. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart to appoint as ruler over his people because you did not observe what the Lord commanded you.” 1 Samuel 13:13-14 (NABRE)
The Bible tells the story of how the prophet Nathan rebuked David, another king chosen by the Israelite God. The prophet Elijah had some choice words for Jezebel, and Jeremiah did not allow King Zedekiah to do as it pleased him.
Bringing matters home and returning to contemporary history, those who think religion should be limited to the temples must have never have heard of (or have forgotten) the Kairos Document, a theological statement issued in 1985 by a group of South African theologians penned as a direct response to the increasing repressive measures by the apartheid regime, in particular the State of Emergency which had been declared in July 1985.
It is understandable that in an era where the fastest growth in Christianity is observed among those preaching a gospel of personal prosperity and well-being, that voices such as Makgoba’s could be thought of as “trying to be relevant”.
How ignorant or ahistorical can it be that in a country of Stanley Sabelo Ntwasa, Michael Lapsley, Lebamang Sebidi, Dennis Hurley, Stanley Mogoba, Frank Chikane, Beyers Naude and many other ordained clergy, we could at the end of 2017 have the need to discuss whether the pulpit is the right place to discuss government and how we ought to be governed.
Only ignorance of how Christian clergy and theologians have over the decades used their holy texts to develop Black Theology, Liberation Theology and Contextual Theology, can make anyone jump to the erroneous conclusion that those who use the pulpit to speak truth to power are jealous of the growth of prosperity gospel churches.
This tradition of speaking truth to power is deeply rooted in biblical narratives where the ancient prophets confronted the powerful, even at personal risk to their life and limb.
Writing in the Daily Maverick, Catholic priest and ethicist Fr Anthony Egan, SJ, took his audience to the 1930s to remind us that the tradition of speaking truth to power in South Africa is nothing new.
“Bishop Franz (Francis) Hennemann, a Pallotine priest who was bishop of the then Western Vicariate (centred in Cape Town) was something of a prophet in the 1930s. While many bishops equivocated about segregation and apartheid, Hennemann drew on Catholic Social Teaching to issue a remarkably prescient warning – twice,” writes Egan.
He adds: “Calling apartheid ‘noxious, unChristian and destructive’, he denounced in particular its implementation ‘in the name of Christian civilisation’. Cited by the National Party as a means to counter Communism, he warned that they were equating Christianity with whiteness. He notes that: ‘The truth is, there is no such thing as ‘white civilisation’, and there never was. If it is ‘white’ exclusively, it is not Christian, and if it is Christian, it is not ‘white’.”
There are some who point out that the obvious difference between the Kairos Document and the Bishop Hennemann era and the present, is that the apartheid state and government was illegitimate, whereas the present-day establishment is popular and democratic.
The flaw in this argument is that it assumes legitimacy of the state makes it incapable of being questioned or, if necessary, to be called to account. To them, Donald Trump’s presidency should be beyond criticism because Trump is a democratically elected Head of State.
As stated above, Saul and David were also anointed by God but they still did not escape the rebuke of the prophets.
It is also interesting and worth noting that some of those who insist that politics “has its place” would have been on the opposite side of those who, during apartheid, were saying the same thing or who were vehemently opposed to the exclusion of our sports’ teams during apartheid on the grounds that “sports and politics don’t mix”.
So, go ahead and criticise Makgoba if you believe he is wrong. But if your basis for rejecting what he says is that he should stick to church business, then you probably have no idea what business the church has been in for thousands of years. SA
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