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What Steve Biko can teach the Church in crisis today

Steve Biko was an anti-apartheid activist brutally murdered while in police custody in September forty-one years ago. Few would know that he also held firm views on the Church's role in society, as an advocate for the formation of conscience and the struggle for truth at all costs. Anthony Egan, Jesuit priest, historian and professor of ethics at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Wits University considers Biko's advice during this time of profound crisis in our Church.

Though neither clergyman nor professional theologian, Biko contributed to the first generation of South African black theology. Speaking from experience he presented a highly compelling – and critical – examination of Christianity. His starting point was that the Church’s role in forming conscience, explaining human origins and destiny, and claiming a monopoly on truth was an essential, but also deeply ambivalent, part of most people’s lives.

Biko argued that the Church at its best could be a place of personal and social liberation. First, however, the Church had to clean up its act. It had to get over its ‘hellfire and damnation’ approach to preaching, decouple itself from its European-centred worldview and move away from its hierarchicalism.

The latter has come under fire recently in the wake of the clergy abuse scandals. Pope Francis has condemned clergy abuse commendably, as he has also attacked clericalism. But unlike some voices raised in righteous outrage, he has not yet connected the dots. Clergy power is at the heart of abuse – not just child abuse but the abuse of position, resources and authority. It is power, backed up the Church’s claims to having a monopoly on understanding humanity’s origins, destiny and truth itself, that has made and compounded the crisis.

This comes from the Church’s inheritance of an absolutist monarchical model of governance inherited from its European worldview. The Church inherited and adopted the structures and modes of governance of the Roman Empire and feudal monarchies, continuing it into an age where such governance is no longer acceptable to most people. Most of us live in democracies (however imperfect) and object to being bullied by authorities. Yet many put up with it in Church. Or they leave.

And then there’s the question of what we consider truth. The Church is still afraid of science, particularly aspects of science that challenge our presuppositions about sexuality – the subject of most contemporary ‘hellfire and damnation’ sermons today, it seems. Denouncing best available scientific evidence often as ‘ideology’ (taken to mean, one suspects, ‘false consciousness’), rather than seeing what one can learn from it, is unhelpful.

Preventing sexual abuse requires knowledge of paedophilia; it also requires understanding normal sexualities, psycho-sexual development and integration. If we start from inadequate presuppositions we’ll reach useless conclusions. Without frank talk (to borrow Biko’s pseudonym of the early 1970s) we’ll just end up scapegoating people and drive the problem deeper underground.

And without a more open Church I fear this frank talk won’t happen.

Biko’s warning, against claiming a monopoly of the truth, offers us a way out. The abuse crisis has revealed how much we need to learn to prevent disasters from happening. Truth is not something revealed fully, once for all, let alone to a privileged few. We build on basic truths of faith, deepened through scientific study. That is how we build and nourish a truly liberating faith.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Anthony Egan SJ
Anthony Egan is a Jesuit priest who works at the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He teaches at Steve Biko Ethics Centre Faculty of Health Sciences at WITS University. He also teaches in the Ubuntu Programme for Fordham University at the University of Pretoria. He writes for various journals and publications and regularly offers analysis and comment on politics and the Catholic Church.

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