Religious leaders should talk politics

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IOL ST_Moria0 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Thousands of ZCC worshippers converge in Moria in Polokwane for Easter celebrations. The writer says ZCC Bishop Lekganyane should be free to express his views on society and politics. Picture: Masi Losi

Leaders of all faiths should not pretend they are keeping a distance between politics and religion, for there is no such space to be kept, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - Across the globe, the welfare of fellow human beings is, or ought to be, of concern to all. Politicians come up with quasi-economic policies principally to improve the human condition. Many ridicule these as plays to get votes.

Economists say they, and only they, know better.

Academics and other intellectuals pontificate about solutions proffered especially during election time and throw their hands in the air. Churches and mosques offer food and shelter to the needy to respond mainly to poverty – our greatest challenge.

The need to eradicate hunger and poverty has spawned the establishment of social movements. It has also seen many governments toppled.

It is a universal call to action. None of us could reasonably be secure, in comfort and truly happy when so many around us suffer the ignominy of a life of want.

Year after year, election after election, politicians regurgitate plans they hope would herald a metamorphosis needed for the attainment of a better life for all.

Ah, but how long, as Bob Marley sang, shall we sit idly by when our homes, our souls, our being are trampled without much questioning?

It was with this in mind that my interest in what the ZCC Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane had to say about how his members should vote was piqued. Lekganyane counselled: “(Pray for) the wisdom to elect leaders who will not forget about you once you have elected them. Leaders who do not confuse public funds with theirs.” He went on to say that Nelson Mandela, while not a saint, “understood that his (role) was to serve the people, not himself”.

Politics or word of God?

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said his reading of this was that Lekganyane could not mention Nkandla because he “must maintain that non-partisan position” church leaders adopt.

Another analyst, Prof Lesiba Teffo, said he believed Lekganyane’s remarks had everything to do with the R246 million upgrade of President Jacob Zuma’s home in Nkandla, adding: “He is part of the community and he is using his position to say this is wrong.”

In the end, what we have are extrapolations of what Lekganyane’s prayer was about. Did he, in fact, want to communicate a message to his 12 million members that they should not vote for Zuma because he is not intelligent; he has forgotten about the people; he is not like Mandela and that the upgrade of that palace in Nkandla is, given the poverty in our country, selfish?

Could it be that this is what the ZCC head thinks?

This is a reasonable reading of his message, given what is going on in South Africa. However, Lekganyane did not say so.

Perhaps he is limited by the distance about which Mathekga speaks or perhaps he, knowing the history of church and state, has chosen not to make what could be seen as overtly political statements. The point is – who knows?

Let us look elsewhere in the world.

In Italy, Pope Francis published what is known as Apostolic Exhortations.

He writes: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

Is the exhortation mere evangelising or is it political? Indeed the pope is correct to ask further: “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?”

In the UK, four churches came together to criticise the government’s unjust social spending cuts that targeted the very poor.

In the US, John F Kennedy, a Catholic, felt compelled to address the issue in 1960 ahead of his election. In an address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote…

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials… I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me.”

Therein lies the rub.

Politicians take decisions on matters involving religion. Christianity was taught in our schools. It has now largely been phased out. We mainly take days off for Christian holidays, but what about holidays of other faiths? Is it our political establishment’s view that some faiths are more important than others?

How do these issues impact on the minds of people to whom religion is important? Do these affect how they vote? As Kennedy put it, does organised religion feel the need to impose leaders or use their numbers to remove leaders they did not agree with?

Importantly, that they do not communicate these thoughts or beliefs does not mean they do not think them.

Kennedy spoke as he did because he was burdened. But so are many leaders today. Contemporary politics is intertwined with religious beliefs.

Christian fundamentalism, for example, remains strong in the US today.

The kamikaze terror we saw in New York on September 11 and the response by those who wanted to burn the Qur’an, for example, are proof enough that the separation of religion and politics is artificial.

The truth is that religious leaders have political views.

And Lekganyane’s view that members must be possessed of the wisdom to choose leaders who will not focus on themselves – read build mansions for themselves when the poor suffer – is ostensibly political.

When Pope Francis makes the comments he makes about poverty, inequality and exclusion, he is making a political statement. When the UK churches challenge their prime minister and government about welfare, they are making political statements. When Pastor Ray McCauley writes that Zuma must take responsibility for Nkandla on these pages, he makes a political statement. Ditto Desmond Tutu.

Leaders of all faiths should not pretend they are keeping a distance between politics and religion, for there is no such space to be kept.

If they feel the ANC government is doing well, they should stand up and be heard. They have such a responsibility to their members – regardless of their political leanings – to provide guidance.

When they do so, they must also accept that Kennedy was right to say he, as a Catholic, does not speak for the church and the church does not speak for him.

So if the ZCC bishop has views on Nkandla, I think he should be possessed of the courage to say so without creating confusion. He should know he will be criticised – including by some of his members, who may even suggest a breakaway.

But to not speak your mind clearly is to sabotage your own communication. It is to preserve a unity not based on agreement or critical engagement.

That is falsity that should not be countenanced by faith leaders.

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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