The church’s role is to be political

In his book, The Culture of Disbelief, Yale legal scholar Stephen Carter laments that “our public culture more and more prefers religion as something without political significance, less an independent moral force than a quietly irrelevant moralizer, never heard, rarely seen”.

Contrary to this view, Pope Benedict XVI (as cited by D Vincent Twomey) saw the self-limitation of reason, the distinguishing mark of modern Western civilisation, as having led to the banishment of religion to the private sphere.

In contrast, Colin Bird, in his article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (2013), Does Religion Deserve Our Respect? observes that the past four decades have witnessed a striking religious revival and ferment. Religious leaders and movements have become more politically assertive; as examples, one might cite the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and associated political extremism, the ascendance of the Christian right in American politics, or Pope John Paul II’s role in the demise of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s.

The place of religion in public life has become, and remains, a topic of intense debate.

In the South African context, Bird’s views are exemplified by the raging debate between some men of the cloth and President Jacob Zuma on whether the church should immerse itself in politics. Escalating the issue, Bird says, is to attempt to “relieve some of the tension, misunderstanding and confusion that shroud the current debate about the place of religion in public life”. Since the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the church has often been silent on matters of national importance. Its role has diminished; it is failing to define what its mandate is.

What happened to the once-vibrant church leaders who challenged apartheid, risking their lives in a just cause? It may be that the dearth of the prophetic voice is another reminder that the church is struggling to define itself post-1994.

In opposition to apartheid, the church took a radical and militant approach. It was not afraid to say, like the prophets of old: “Thus says the Lord …”

A colleague, the erudite Reverend Sipho Mtetwa, a pastor of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in KwaZulu-Natal, speaks of communicated prophetic pronouncements premised on God being filled with loathing for the racial, tribal, creedal and gender divisions that were preached as divinely sanctioned under apartheid. Liberation theology and black theology sought to implode the myth of racial supremacy.

Since 1994, that critical and militant voice has been muted. Prominent theological thinkers such as Frank Chikane and Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa were absorbed into the government machinery, making it difficult for them to raise their voices as prophets. This development has led to paralysis in theological and ecumenical reflection on sociopolitical, economic and cultural realities.

It could be argued that this silence derives from the mistaken construal by many that, after 1994, all was well, and that the age of critical engagement had ended with the new democratic dispensation. Today, we find ourselves bemoaning corruption and other social ills in democratic South Africa.

The church has been silent on endemic corruption in the public and private sectors. It has been silent on violent crimes against women, children and the elderly, and on the unabated carnage on our roads. It has not spoken out about the contradictions in what South Africa’s freedom fighters died for and the current culture of entitlement and the obscene levels of opulence juxtaposed against abject levels of poverty, or about the violation of human rights, whether by multinationals, corporates, mines or individuals.

I believe the church is still eminently placed to influence public opinion on matters affecting the nation. One would like to believe that, sooner or later, the church will regain its prophetic zeal and provide the moral leadership we so desperately need today.

In his article, Pope Benedict XVI: Joseph Ratzinger on Politics, Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at Seton Hall University in the United States, asks what the task of the Catholic Church is in the political sphere. Ratzinger’s reply, is, in the first place, education (understood not simply as schooling, no matter how important that is): “The church must awaken man’s receptivity to the truth, to God, and thus to the power of conscience. It must give men and women the courage to live according to their conscience and so keep open the narrow pass between anarchy and tyranny, which is none other than the narrow way of peace.”

For politics to recover its sense of direction, argues Ratzinger, what is needed is the recovery and public recognition of those moral norms that are universally valid.

This will remain ineffective if not accompanied by the integrity of those who hold public office. Such integrity alone engenders trust. This can be achieved not only by devising structures (laws, institutions, ethical guidelines, and commissions), but also by acting in accordance with conscience, properly understood.

In short, Ratzinger’s main concern was to draw attention to the need for the state and civil society to engage in dialogue with the Catholic Church (and other religious groups) to forge a new moral consensus. But he rules out direct political action by the church. He warned, before his election as Pope Benedict, that “the attempt, carried to extremes, to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads more and more to the brink of the abyss, toward the utter annihilation of man”.

Ratzinger’s central concern is the need for society, both local and global, to recover the divine element in our humanity, which includes moral consensus, without which society flounders and humanity is endangered.

Against this background, men of the cloth such as Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba should be commended for taking their rightful place in helping to make this world a peaceful place to live in. It is unfortunate that this can degenerate into mudslinging between the highest office in the land and some men of the cloth, but it would be wrong for the church not to be political.

The task of the church is to do theology in context — in social, economic and political contexts.

South Africa needs to hear what the church is thinking and saying in the present political context. The church cannot extricate itself from politics because it cannot refrain from the task of reflecting on the implications of its faith within the political context.

“For believers,” writes historian Mark Noll, “the demands of the faith should always provide the framework for political action, rather than the reverse.”

Spirituality is often described as theology lived out. A person demonstrates his or her theological conviction by living the life of the spirit. Christian theology encourages an engaged spirituality, which lives out its theological convictions in social life. An engaged spirituality seeks to be true to the essence of theology, which St Anselm of Canterbury defined in the 11th century as fides quarens intellectum — faith in search of understanding.

An engaged spirituality refuses to be aloof but seeks to express the horizontal dimension of our faith in the social arena. An engaged spirituality seeks to understand its theological underpinnings in the context of the sociopolitical challenges in which we exist. The church should immerse itself in the affairs of South Africa and offer a ray of hope. Instead of fearing defilement by the vagaries of politics, the church should dirty its hands and join the crusade to come up with possible solutions to the problems besetting the country.

Many Christians have felt, and feel today, that the church should confine its activities to the so-called spiritual realm and avoid entanglement with the world in any way. But I believe the church should be vigorously involved in both spiritual and social change. The gospel demands it. Christians can never respond fully to the breadth of God’s call simply by emphasising the spiritual dimension.

As the Congregationalist theologian JS Whale wrote in 1941: “To live in the Spirit means to be redeemed from the clutches of this present evil world and to walk in newness of life. This can only mean newness of social life, since there is no other kind of human life.

“There is no other way of knowing God than by responding to his claims upon us; and his claims are made here, just where we live …”

“The Gospel can never be unethical without ceasing to be the Gospel. From the beginning to the end it is concerned with moral realities, and therefore with time, and with this strange world of necessity and freedom wherein God has set us …”

Whale’s words are as relevant now as they were when they were first written. The church’s continuing credibility and relevance lie in recovering its earlier prophetic fervour for the sake of the public good.

Dr Vusi Shongwe works in the office of the KwaZulu-Natal premier. These are his own views.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Cyril & co rise as Ace’s plot bombs

Magashule’s group and ANC outsiders have made moves to get the president and others to also stand aside

Q&A sessions: Where are the Zuckerbergs of South Africa?

Haroon Meer, the founder of the multimillion-dollar startup Thinkst, talks about international acclaim and South Africa’s need for more tech builders

More top stories

Africa could produce a Covid-19 vaccine sooner than you think

In mere months, Moderna transformed an old Polaroid factory in America into a state-of-the-art vaccine-production centre. Why can’t we do the same?

Condemnation of UCT lecturer misses context

Groups slam UCT professor’s Hitler comment without an understanding of the lecture’s purpose

Environmental organisations demand halt to unnecessary plastic production

NGOs are calling on the department of environment to introduce stricter measures for companies manufacturing and using plastic products

Ramaphosa announces ‘substantial changes’ to armed forces leadership

The SANDF has made headlines over the past year for all the wrong reasons. The new appointments to the Military Command Council aim to offer stability

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…