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Does a bible belong in Parliament?

Immediately after leading him in the taking of the oath of office, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng gave the newly inaugurated President, Cyril Ramaphosa, the bible he had sworn on; and thus started a new Justice Mogoeng controversy. In a secular state such as South Africa, is gifting the head of state a bible appropriate ? Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya considers this potential conundrum.

Since making public his stance and practice of his faith, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng  has been an issue of debate ever since his name was mentioned as a potential head of the South African judiciary.

In broad terms, the main criticism was that as an evangelical Christian, he “believed too much” and would thus allow for his Christian beliefs to cloud his jurisprudence. Though many of his critics will not admit it, they have had to eat humble pie. Justice Mogoeng has been stellar in his role as Chief Justice. He has almost universal respect as a lawyer and leader of the judiciary.

Pity, his detractors will say, he still likes to pray in public spaces and in non-theist spaces, an example of this was at the swearing-in ceremony of new Members of Parliament where he asked MPs to take three minutes to pray silently or meditate. The Chief Justice himself notably went down on his knees to pray for the country and its political leaders. This did not impress everyone, particularly the secularists in society and in Parliament.

Is Mogoeng trying to turn South Africa into a theocracy by stealth? It is worth mentioning here that there exists a body of thought in South Africa that the national anthem (or part thereof), Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika (literally God Bless Africa) is probably unconstitutional because it invokes a theistic concept into a secular space.

The simple answer is an emphatic no. The Chief Justice emphasised at the same seating that the MPs had to swear “obedience to the Constitution and nothing else [but] obedience to the Constitution”.

A more nuanced answer is that he is doing what many Christians have become increasingly shy to do: live his values and faith publicly. He is saying what is becoming unfashionable in a society increasingly hostile to religion. He is saying his faith has something to say about curing the ills of his society. However, it is fair, to ask whether this is his place – being the Chief Justice that he is.

Who should be speaking?

If it is not for Justice Mogoeng to publicly declare the Christian message at this time, as there is a groundswell of opinion that it is not, then it is the duty of the Church and the country’s Christians to speak up.

The concerns about Justice Mogoeng say more about the role that the Church, has played in shaping the social ethos in South Africa. Rather, it is a judgment against the Church’s presence in the social-political space.

It is correct that the South African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) would issue a statement that says: “We expect all the political parties in the sixth Parliament, and not just the ruling party, to put the country first and work collectively to develop effective measures to arrest the collapse of the economy and the looting of the state resources, and to spur economic growth so that it creates jobs.”

The Church should not only be seen and heard just before and just after the elections, but throughout the parliamentary term of office. It must speak out when those who govern depart from what the Church sees as the values of the Kingdom of God.

The Church must not only speak out against politicians, but also to the powerful business sector. The stories of corruption constantly unfolding attest to how the greed of politicians and business people has robbed the country – especially the poor – of their democracy dividend.

A Church that has the preferential option for the poor as one of its guiding principles should be expressing itself a little louder on how political decisions impact on the health, quality of education, joblessness, employment conditions and housing for the poor.

If the Church does that consistently, the likes of Chief Justice Mogoeng will not stick out as outliers of what being Christian is about. Justice Mogoeng should inspire Christians and other believers to show that our holy texts are about the here and now.

The moral, ethical and extent of the social sin in South Africa cries out for a faith community to live by, and preach the gospel. Christ is interested in the everyday lives of the living, and not just in the afterlife as secularists and some fundamental Christians think.

* 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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