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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
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Entries in Church and State (4)

Tuesday
Oct182016

Dangerous echoes of the past as church and state move closer in South Africa

Dangerous echoes of the past as church and state move closer in South Africa

Dion Forster, Stellenbosch University

The Global Values Survey shows that religious organisations remain among the most trusted institutions in South African society. They enjoy higher levels of public trust than either the state or the private sector. This trust should not be abused or manipulated.

This is a challenge in most societies in the world. South Africa’s particular circumstances are complicated by a difficult historical relationship between the church and the state.

The state has often abused the church to garner votes and misinform, or to silence, its population. The church, on the other hand, has at times given moral and religious sanction that allowed the state to perpetrate significant injustices.

The issue of church and state relationships remains important for a number of reasons. First, South Africa is a deeply religious society. About 85% of its citizens are Christian, while a further 3% belong to other faiths.

Second, it has a clear precedent where an inappropriate relationship between the church and the state led to wide scale human rights abuses in the country’s apartheid past.

There appears to be a reemergence of the abuse of the trust that South Africans place in religions. This is a dangerous situation. An example is the governing ANC’s courting of the largest mainline denomination - the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

When it does not find favour there, it reaches out to independent churches, which are the fastest growing religious groupings in the country.

The church and apartheid

The rise of apartheid politics in South Africa was inextricably linked to apartheid theology. It was the heretical theological views about how society should be structured, and whom God favoured, that gave the moral and religious sanction for a so-called “Christian” nation to perpetrate unimaginable human rights abuses.

At the turn of the 1900s the fledgling Afrikaners nation (Volk) developed a theology in which they viewed themselves as chosen by God for a particular task.

When the National Party came to power in 1948 they had the firm backing of the white Afrikaans churches. The churches – on the Nationalists’ behalf – used the bible and covenantal theology to construct a view that white Afrikaners had special rights at the expense of black South Africans, who according to the policy of apartheid, had none. Particular moral and religious values practised in the church and the home, became the laws of the nation.

Given the close relationship between the church and state, the moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church was jokingly referred to as the “second most powerful man in the country”, while the Dutch Reformed Church was referred to as the “National Party at prayer”.

This dangerous relationship detracted from the role of the state to protect the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of their faith. It also eroded the ministry of the church, which should hold the state accountable for its service to the people. The church also needs to be free to exercise its religious and moral mandate without political interference.

These religious and moral convictions separated people according to race and privileged a minority at the expense of the majority. We are still facing the consequences of those actions and choices.

Abusing public trust in religious institutions

Many gave a sigh of relief when the state and the church were disentangled at the end of the apartheid era. Sadly, that form of separation was short lived. Once again a governing party, in this ANC, is crossing that line.

Recently, Reverend Vukile Mehana, the ANC’s former chaplain general, defended President Jacob Zuma’s claim that people who voted for the ANC would go to heaven, while those who voted for other parties would go to hell.

Just before the 2014 elections Mehana, who is a very senior Methodist minister, encouraged pastors in Cape Town to solicit votes for the ANC, saying:

You cannot have church leaders that speak as if they are in opposition to government … God will liberate the people through this (ANC) government.

He would have done well to heed former Methodist Bishop, Peter Storey’s warning that:

the years since 1994 have surely persuaded us that democracy is not to be equated with the arrival of the reign of God.

So, how did this happen again? Of course there are many complex reasons that lead political parties to want the trust, and moral sanction, of large constituencies such as churches.

On the other hand, there are many church ministers and members who seek the power and opportunity that comes from being connected with political parties and party officials.

Mandela, the Methodists and unintended consequences

My 2014 research, showed that the path for the current abuses of church and state relationships came from former President Nelson Mandela’s relationship with his church.

It was not Mandela’s intention to co-opt the church, or abuse the trust that society places in religious institutions. But in a period in South African history when the narratives of reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and reconstruction were so central, he found a natural partner in the church for the project of rebuilding South Africa. He said:

Religious communities have a vital role to play in this regard [nation building]. Just as you took leading roles in the struggle against apartheid, so too you should be at the forefront of helping to deliver a better life to all our people. Among other things you are well placed to assist in building capacity within communities for effective delivery of a better life.

Mandela worked with faith leaders and church communities, and because he was viewed as a “good person” and a trusted leader, he won their confidence. Senior church leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, worked alongside President Mandela in nation building initiatives.

The state also became accustomed to working with faith-based organisations, which in many poor and rural communities are important, and necessary, sources of support, development aid, and social identity.

But, as successive political leaders, and their political parties, came to power, their intentions seemed less honourable. Many outspoken activists and church leaders had been co-opted into senior government and party-political posts. And formerly trusted allies, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, started facing a backlash whenever they challenged political corruption or ineptitude.

And so, South Africa once again finds itself in a precarious position where a powerful and important social institution is being co-opted by political power. Political leaders are losing their religious and moral impartiality to serve the interests of particular churches and denominations at the expense of others. Political independence and religious freedom are once again under threat.

Of course there are many honourable religious politicians, independent and prophetic religious leaders. But, South Africans would be wise to heed the caution of motivational speaker Rob Bell:

A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage.

Dion Forster, Head of Department, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Theology, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Wednesday
May282014

Why Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is wrong - law infused by religion is a bad idea

 

 

The lead story in the news this morning (28 May 2014) is a report that South Africa's Chief Justice, Hon Mogoeng Mogoeng, wants to "infuse laws with religion" to raise the moral fibre of the nation. He was speaking at the Religion and Law Conference at the University where I teach (Stellenbosch University).

 

While most faiths do develop the moral fibre of their adherents, this is not something that should be put into law! Yes, faith has a public role, and should have positive effects on public life, but religion should not get preference from the legal system of a nation. The law is intended to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious perspective. Laws should be based on the principles of justice and our shared human dignity - whether a person has a religious belief system or not, or differs with the religious beliefs of a minority, or majority, of the population, their rights should be protected in law. Religion on the other hand is based on beliefs that are not commonly shared, in fact some beliefs may run contrary to our common human rights (like the treatment of women and girls in some faiths, or the disregard of the rights of persons with a same sex orientation). Most people who want religion to be enfranchised in law want their religion, or religious convictions, to occupy that privileged place. I am guessing that Judge Mogoeng inadvertently expressed such a view. Indeed, nations like South Africa are deeply religious, and so we must take note of religious convictions and religious groupings. But such individuals or groupings should not be accorded special place before the law. Civic organization should enjoy the same access to the law and the same rights and privileges as a religious organization.

This does not mean that religious persons and organizations have no role to play in society, or in serving the nation. Quite to the contrary, campaigns such as Unashamedly Ethical and EXPOSED - Shining a light on corruption are wonderful examples of how people of faith are engaging social issues. The law protects their right to express their views and gather others to encourage them to change their values and behaviour. It was not always so in South Africa, a government that called itself 'Christian' oppressed its citizens, robbing them of their rights and dignity. No, we need a just, ethical, secular state that protects the rights of all citizens, including those who are religious, to be able to express their views in society.
By a secular state I do not mean a state that relegates faith from the public sphere and confines it only to the private realm.  Rather, I think of a secular state as one similar to that espoused in the constitution of South Africa - that is a state that is not partisan to any one religious group, or to persons with no faith perspective. Such a state recognises the importance of faith in shaping people's lives, their values, choices and actions, and so protects that right. Yet it does not accord higher value to any one group than another.

 

A religious state is a bad idea! I developed this idea in my recent book 'Between Capital and Cathedral: Essays on Church and State Relationships' (co authored with my friend from UNISA, Dr Wessel Bentley).

 

On the issue of a Christian government in any nation - I personally believe it is naive of believers of any faith to think that having persons of their faith persuasion in power will make things better for all. What Christians should pray for, and work for, is a just, ethical and unbiased government that looks out for the interests of all of the citizens of their nation. It is the role of the Church and believers to bring people to faith, that is not the role of the government. We should not long for a modern form of Constantinianism. Faith driven political agendas are destructive to faith and society.

 

Here's my view.


  • You don't want an anti-religious government (like that in the former USSR or China, where people of faith are persecuted). Faith is an important part of life. People should have the freedom to practise their faith as long as it does not destroy the rights of others.

  • You certainly also don't want a religious government (we have simply seen too many of these kinds of governments abusing people! Governments like those in Iran, and even the calls for 'religiously sanctioned wars and killings' in America which have confused religion with foreign and public policy) are harmful to faith and society! The problem with a religious government is that politicians are seldom 'religious persons' first and politicians second. Most politicians are politicians first, and they hold some religious conviction when it suits them. Also, if the religion in power is not your religion, or they belong to a different expression of your faith (e.g., Catholic instead of Protestant, or Suni Muslim instead of Sufi...) it can become extremely abusive. I certainly believe that we should have Christians in government, they should be salt and light! But, I don't believe that the Church should abdicate its role and function to the state.

  • No, I believe that one should work for an honest, impartial, just, servant minded secular state. A state that will protect and uphold the rights of all of its citizens, giving equal space for all to exercise their positive beliefs. Such a state serves the nation well and protects the freedom and rights of its citizens to live out their faith convictions within society. We have just such a system in South Africa. It can be uncomfortable for extremists and fundamentalists. But, I believe, as a Christian, it is the way of Jesus to make space for others. Let our love, not our laws, win the hearts and minds of those who hold different convictions from our own. I will write some more about this in the weeks to come.

Some years ago I was privileged to hear a lecture by Professor Martin Prozesky at the Joint Conferences on Religion and Theology at Stellenbosch University. The title of his lecture was the following: 'Is the secular state to blame for the decline in moral values in Southern African society'.

I recorded the lecture using my Macbook - so the sound quality is not all that great. It is not all that bad, but there were some instances when a few desks and chairs were moved in order to get some extra persons into the venue who arrived late. So please just skip through those bits.


The gist of the lecture is this: Does a secular state contribute towards the decline of moral and ethical values? Many religious groups and faith communities would seem to suggest that this is so. Martin makes an exceptional argument that a secular state (not to be confused with secularization) makes for a high moral and ethical standard in society.

The reasons, as stated above, is quite simply that the only alternatives to a secular state (i.e., a state that his not swayed in an direction by religious beliefs) is a theocracy (such as nations in which Islamic law is applied in the name of God), a anti-faith states (such as the USSR under Karl Marx). Neither of these are desirable for truly moral and ethical development. Rather, what is necessary is the kind of freedom that allows all citizens to participate in developing ethics for the common good of the whole of society.

He makes some wonderful statements about what ethics is in its broadest terms. He also discusses the notion of a secular state and makes reference to problems with Southern African constitutional democracy.

I found it most interesting! I would love to hear your comments and feedback!

Here's the lecture - it is a 10MB mp3 file.

If you do use this lecture or download and share it could I please ask that you reference it to Professor Martin Prozesky, 22 June 2009 (Stellenbosch), and also please send a link back to me here at http://www.dionforster.com


Thanks!

 

Wednesday
Mar192014

Rev Vukile Mehana - Pastor, Politician or financial Profiteer? You decide.

I have been watching the rise in power of Rev Dr Vukile Mehana - the Chaplain General of the African National Congress (ANC) with some interest in recent years.  

It would seem that he holds powerful positions in three of the most significant sectors of South Africa society - party politics, religion and big business (see the reference to his interests in a media company considered to threaten media freedom in this article, and some broader information on some of his business interests in this Business Week article.)

Is he a Pastor, Politician or financial Profiteer?  What do you think?

Consider this in the light of a recent World Council of Churches document on the the 'Politicization of religion'.

Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the CCIA comments on this phenomenon, “The politicization of religion and use of religion in politics has often added to polarization, social divides and conflicts in traditionally tolerant communities around the globe".

I'd love to hear your perspective! Please post a comment below.

Wednesday
Aug012012

Fidling the books - Shabeens and the South African textbook crisis

My friend Steve Hayes posted the great quote from Jonathan Jansen on his feed today.
"There are 26000 shebeens in South Africa,” mused a friend the other day, “and every week a major breweries company successfully delivers crates of liquor to every one of them.”He continues: “There are also 26000 schools in this country, and yet we cannot deliver textbooks to all of them. We do not have a skills crisis.”
It comes from this very helpful articles on News24.

I agree that we do not have a skills problem in South Africa. As I write this post I am sitting in Uganda. When I compare the infrastructure that we have in South Africa we are truly blessed! We have the systems, the policy, the budgets, the civil servants... What we lack is integrity and servant leadership.

It is a scandal that in a country such as ours where 79.8% of the population profess to be Christian that persons of low scruples should be allowed to govern the nation, eroding public confidence in their ability to deliver promised (and available services)! The Church needs to be more vocal in addressing these critical issues in South Africa.

My friend Dr. Wessel Bentley and I have just completed a new book on the relationship between the Church and the State. It is called 'Between Capitol and Cathedral'. In it we, and a number of more senior theologians and practitioners, reflect on the role of the Church in forming a society that honors God's intention for the people - justice, equality, full human development, freedom and access to God's grace.

As Prof Jansen points out in the quote above, if we can find a way to distribute alcohol to 26000 taverns and shebeens on a weekly basis, surely we have the means to distribute textbooks to 26000 schools once a year!? But, it would seem that we lack the will to do what is right.

First, I want to ask you to pray for Minister Motshekga and her team. Pray that they will have the courage, the will and the resources to serve our nation well.

Second, if you are a Christian who has stumbled upon this obscure little post, please can I ask you to take a stand. Make your voice heard! Why don't you just send a tweet to express your views at @dbe_sa, this is the Department of Basic Educations twitter feed. Since it is public they are bound to respond.

Corruption has a name, poverty has a face, we have a voice!