Friday 22 March 2024

The role of the faith community in the public discourse and in shaping South Africa’s future state

 The sixth and final Lenten reflection from Archbishop Thabo Makgoba on the role of different sectors in South Africa. Earlier reflections are all available on the home page of this blog.

The daily lessons which I read as I prepared this column were, at their heart, about the importance of service to people and to all God’s creation, carried out “in remembrance of him”. As religious leaders, such service calls us to stand in the gap that enables the transformation of individuals, societies and oppressive regimes and systems.

This is often unpopular. As Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town...” (Mark 6:4) When in 1989 our Archbishop at the time called for a huge peace march in response to police killings, the young activist Cheryl Carolus demanded: “Who gave you the mandate, Father Desmond?”

But supporting Archbishop Desmond’s position, Gandhi has been quoted as saying that “Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected, don’t understand either.” Alternatively, as John the Baptist aptly puts it, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy as he preaches and baptises in the wilderness of Judea, “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. (Matthew 3:3)

Yes, we can and must roll up our sleeves as religious leaders and get our hands dirty. But our key role is also to have the theological imagination to articulate and develop paths which lead to God’s justice and peace. I have called this a New Struggle Theology, a theology of equality.

Our mandate is to pursue the justice of God, to put a spotlight on those who are on the periphery; to read the signs of our times and say, “Thus says the Lord.” As we do so, we need to be mindful that we are not the only ones with this calling; that we don’t know everything, nor do we possess all the solutions. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, and as Passiontime reminds us: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

Last week on Tuesday, together with bishops of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church, I visited the Vatican, where we met and prayed as we renewed our commitment to pursue our vocation to serve especially those who live and die in apartheid contexts—the excluded, those discriminated against, those taken hostage or the relatives of those who have died in conflict. While it was key that we prayed together, we also gained the perspectives of others, and we resolved to seek to act as peacemakers and to continue to do so under the guidance of God.

Throughout our meetings and our prayers, I was intensely aware of our shortcomings, of the enormity of the task we have set ourselves, and of our own need to be equipped for it. But I was also assured by the fact that we are not alone, nor do we need to be self-sufficient; we are part of the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us and empower us.

We need to have the courage to acknowledge our shortcomings and our mistakes, to weep, to embrace our weaknesses and to work to heal our brokenness. Yes, religious leaders do mess up – just like the cunning business people, politicians and leaders of other sectors of society I have been reflecting on this Lent. It pains us when they have hurt instead of healing, when they have destroyed instead of building, when they have betrayed trust instead of building it. Some can be swayed by terrible ideologies that maim, destroy, are genocidal, or are racist, discriminatory and evil. Some are manipulated by the love of power and money and forget their main vocation, to work for the justice of God and the transformation of societies.

Before writing this column, I consulted a number of leaders in various fields on what I should say.  Their rich responses were too numerous to include all of them, but they mainly focussed on what religious leaders should be doing, not only in our churches but also through church NGOs, family trusts and the like, to create public spaces to reflect on ethical and moral concerns.

A family member who supports the SA Communist Party told me that “church leadership” is far too quiet and confused in democratic South Africa. Our views are all over the place, he said, and it is unclear what we stand for. He urged us to adopt a faith leadership manifesto, and at annual conferences to pinpoint one social issue to concentrate on for the next year, then to choose another one the following year.

A devout religious colleague said we are too busy as religious leaders; that we have too little time to pray and reflect deeply on contextual matters, as our predecessors did in apartheid times. This prompted the question: What happened to the “see, judge and act” models for small groups? Yet another respondent, a parishioner, a retired priest and once a liberation fighter in exile, criticised us as just wanting proximity to people and places of power, getting drunk on these associations and forgetting the poor.

A Muslim friend, a former journalist and published author, said she still has hope in the power of interfaith action to foster peace, but urged us to intervene where society hurts the most, and to improve our track record in bringing about gender equality and ending gender-based violence.

A retired bishop from a different denomination noted that religious leaders’ voices have historically been an equalising force for disenfranchised individuals without a voice. His strong criticism of the current political environment underlined the need to continue to play this role. Today's environment, he said, is basically set by political and social networks that have evolved into platforms for fake news and propaganda, empowering disruptive voices, ideologies and messages, essentially trying through illegitimate means to hijack democracy.

Of course, as one would expect, political leaders often dispute the notion that moral and religious convictions should be part of public discourse. But if we were to exclude them, we would cut ourselves off from a wide range of considerations, issues and truths that often matter in the way we govern our lives together. In my lifetime, sharing secular views with a religious overlay has made  for a richer, sometimes disruptive, but clearly higher-level discourse, a better kind of democratic citizenship and the cleansing power of transparency.

Hearing competing viewpoints tests our abilities to be active listeners, focusing on understanding versus replying. It helps us to test our limits, to rise above the crowded field of mediocrity and to find out how far we can go as learners, listeners, and champions of moral and values-based leadership. Most importantly, it allows us to share with each other what we believe, without stereotyping and genuinely searching for what is in South Africa’s best interests.

When South Africa came to a consensus about ending apartheid and delivering full civil rights to all adult citizens, regardless of race or gender, we did so for different reasons. Some advocated the equality of all human beings as children of God. Others argued on the basis of self-evident truths about human nature. Yet others cited the overall increase in happiness that would result from equal treatment. Not everyone accepted the premises of all of these arguments, but that did not prevent us from reaching a common understanding and alignment in which different people accepted the same conclusion from quite different arguments. So there is no objection in principle to religious arguments in political debates.

During the past decade and more, religious leaders have “stood in the gap” to try to transform the lives of individuals and our society in many varied ways. We have undertaken “walks of witness” in Ukraine, in Alexandra in Johannesburg when xenophobia was at its height, in areas of Cape Town lacking proper sanitation and in the Johannesburg city centre after a devastating building fire. We have partnered with others in building school toilets at Jane Furse in Limpopo and in promoting healing at Marikana.

We have, through visits and advocacy, raised the plight of people in Lesotho, the DR Congo, Lesotho, Tigray in Ethiopia and South Sudan. We have raised out voices against corruption in the public and private sectors, advocated sustainable development in the mining sector and lobbied the Paris climate talks.

Just this week, on Human Rights Day, members of different faith groups in Cape Town walked from Simonstown to the city – the equivalent of the length of the Gaza strip – as part of the internationally-organised Gaza Ceasefire Pilgrimage. In May, the SA Council of Churches will co-host with Kairos Southern Africa a Global Israel anti-Apartheid Conference, in which we will engage with representatives of Palestinian churches to find paths to sustainable peace with justice.

And as we head towards elections in South Africa, we will be bringing moral pressure to bear on the process as part of creating a free and fair climate for voting. Apart from calling for special prayers for the election on Sunday May 5th we will act as election observers on May 29th..

During our visit to the Vatican last week, two young ladies approached me and a Roman Catholic bishop, opened a big plastic bag full of rosaries, and asked us to bless them. In unison, we did so in the name of the Triune God. Smiling and thanking us, one of them explained that she was getting married and wanted to give each of her woman guests a rosary.

That episode illustrated the intangibility of how so much of our faith works—a precarious blessing from those who have travelled from afar, the telling of a story by a bride and now she and her guests will share that blessing. On landing in Johannesburg from Rome, I shared the iftar with a friend and colleagues, breaking the Ramadan fast with them. And soon I hope to meet with South African Jewish leaders to discuss our differences over Gaza.

The outcome of such engagements can often not be immediately or easily assessed, and in pursuing them we have to be prepared to be prophets without honour in our own homes. But the reality is that we brought nothing into the world, and we will take nothing out of it, and while we are here we are under a Gospel imperative to model God's love. We will do that by striving together to make the world a more just, a more equal and a better place than we found it.

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