“We commended the Church for speaking against the evils of apartheid, why the dichotomy now? It is not only short-sighted, but, I would argue, ahistorical too” says Mphuthumi Ntabeni. Church leaders, he says, have the obligation imposed on them to vehemently speak out. If Archbishop Thabo Makgoba had remained silent in his Christmas sermon, he would have betrayed the very roots of his calling.
When the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, reminded us that the message of Christmas is “about breaking the yoke of oppression, allowing justice and peace to embrace us and enabling hope to shine in dark places,” it drew criticism from some. He said that Christmas was the appropriate moment to remind ourselves that anything that “robs the poor of their dignity, that prevents them from realising their potential, that any act of corruption, no matter whom it is carried out, is an act of theft from the poor, and that any infraction of the principles of good governance perpetuates the enslavement of the marginalised”.
This reminded me of a debate I recently had on social media when the editor of the Southern Cross, Gunther Simmermacher, posted a piece on the eighth anniversary of the Stephen Brislin’s inauguration as Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town. The praise was worthy, but I felt I would love to hear more of his voice on issues of social justice. The debate, on social media, included additional voices, many feeling that the Church does more through Justice and Peace (J&P) and the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO). As board member of J&P in the archdiocese of Cape Town I had my reservations. My point was that we also need to hear the head of the Church in the archdiocese and the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishop’s Conference (SACBC – Brislin is the president) talk more about the socio-economic issues of the region. Makgoba is a good example of this.
I mention all this to highlight the fact that the concern over the separation of powers is not limited to the Zuma faction and others who have come out, guns blazing, against Archbishop Makgoba’s Christmas message. They took exception, especially, to his suggestion that the recently elected African National Congress (ANC) leadership act boldly and decisively in making a clean break with the Zuma legacy of corruption by recalling him immediately. He said that if they do not they face the fate of all African liberation movements who fail to adapt to new challenges and lose power. Some see this as an overreach by the Church. Most interesting to me was an open letter, written by Israel K Mkhize, who claimed to be speaking as a Church historian. He started his critique with the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine, to demonstrate the dangers of the Church being to close to state affairs.
The open letter has a point in cautioning the Church from being used for political purposes. Constantine helped Christianity to be established as a universal religion, hence Roman and Catholic, because Rome was the great global empire then. In the process of doing this he also helped save the lives of Christians who were being persecuted by the previous emperor. But, by making it a state religion, he also tinkered with its structure and diluted its evangelic purpose into what philosopher Soren Kierkegaard termed ‘Christendom’. This in turn led to the abuse of the Christian religion for imperial, and later colonial and racist purposes. In the age of the Enlightenment, the Church rediscovered something of her true vocation and a separation took place between Church and State. It has since tried to maintain its balance. But one can argue that the Catholic Church, on whose shoulders fell the greater criticism around the separation of the two powers, swung the pendulum too much in the opposite direction.
The correction came when the popes started issuing Encyclicals that touched deeply on social justice issues. Since the release of Rerum Novarum in 1891, the first of the modern wave of social encyclicals from the Catholic Social Teaching, the Church has rightly felt the need to be completely immersed in human affairs, and to share the joys, struggles and hopes of her people. This, in Latin America and Africa, led to Liberation theology – which played a crucial role in our political struggles in South Africa also. Since then, the Church’s main emphasis, in it social teachings, has been to promote human dignity and a just society. Hence it always sides with the poor. This led to the introduction of the ‘just wage theory’, and other principles for protecting the rights of workers, such as free association. All this is geared towards a just society. In fact, most of what is regarded as Social Democracy in European countries today emanates from Catholic Social Teaching.
Hence I find it extremely shortsighted to criticise the Church with overreach when she speaks against the evils of our age. We commended the Church for speaking against the evils of apartheid, why the dichotomy now? It is not only short-sighted, but, I would argue, ahistorical too. We can accuse former president Thabo Mbeki of many things – but never of being a ahistorical. I am reminded of the speech he made on the celebrations of the 120th anniversary of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, in 2012. He said:
“The African National Congress of South Africa, the oldest modern national liberation movement on our continent, was born out of our country’s Ethiopian Churches. Indeed the African nationalism which drove our national liberation movement was described as Ethiopianism.” He went on to remind the audience that the first president of the ANC, Rev John Dube, was a pronounced Ethiopian. Mbeki said that given the “Church has a continuing responsibility to contribute everything it can to assist our country successfully to address its challenges… Corruption destroys lives and communities, and undermines countries and institutions. It generates popular anger that threatens to further destabilise societies and exacerbate violent conflicts… Corruption translates into human suffering, with poor families being extorted for bribes to see doctors or to get access to clean drinking water. It leads to failure in the delivery of basic services like education or health care. It derails the building of essential infrastructure, as corrupt leaders skim funds.” Mbeki closes by quoting the Roman Catholic cleric, Dominican Father, Albert Nolan: “The history of the preaching of the gospel in our country is closely bound up with our social, political and economic history. The preaching of the gospel in South Africa has never been politically neutral even when, in recent times, some Christians have imagined that they have transcended worldly matters like politics and economics.”
This to me is the premise of Archbishop Mokgaba’s message. He is not only acting according to our history, but is also fulfilling the authentic calling of the Church. If it is not a matter of great concern to a Church leader when the country is riddled with corruption, then what must be? What are Church leaders if not prophets crying out against the injustices metered out on poor people, against God? If this does not impose an obligation on them to vehemently speak out, what should?
It’s worth adding here that Nobel laureate and former ANC president Albert Luthuli was a lay preacher of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA).
Christians are called to actively involve themselves in building a just world by analysing their own realities and devising responses in light of the Gospel. Makgoba has demonstrated great leadership qualities by speaking truth to power. He is what Pope Francis says about bishops: leaders who need to smell like sheep they tend, rather than wolves who feed on them.
It is also rather fascinating (and contradictory) to accuse a faith leader of meddling in politics so late in the game. Not only did the ANC have clergy and journalists in their very foundations, but clergy spoke courageously against the evils of apartheid way before it became a fashionable to do so. The history of the struggle for liberation in South Africa has its seeds in religious activism. The Church also became the only refuge for many of the politically active in this country. Think, for example, of Regina Mundi in Soweto. This place of worship not only hosted political meetings and the funerals of comrades in the 80’s. Think of the of Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Fr Smangaliso Mkhatshwa and others who rose to prominence as the foundation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the real force behind the political liberation of this country.
Interestingly – or, perhaps not – the Zuma administration is the only one that has questioned the role of the Church in our politics. No prizes for guessing why.
What is clear is that the clergy of South Africa betray their calling and roots when they don’t speak out against the current evils of the ANC administration. Why? Because as people who helped establish the organisation, they are also complicit in its failures. SA.