Preaching ethics, morality new struggle for religious leaders

Political parties have been visiting churches to conduct their campaigns. Picture Henk Kruger/Independent Newspapers

Political parties have been visiting churches to conduct their campaigns. Picture Henk Kruger/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 6, 2024


Prof. Bheki Mngomezulu

Historically, religion and politics have been inextricably interwoven. This happened both consciously and unconsciously.

Until the signing of the historic Peace of Westphalia in 1648, there was no separation between the state and the church. It was for this reason that the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church controlled the world both politically and religiously. From 1648, there was separation between the state and the church. However, the link between the two institutions remained.

During slavery, religion was used for different purposes. Slave owners used it to make the enslaved people docile and obedient. On their part, the enslaved used religion as their defence mechanism. They invoked it in their revolts against their masters. Drawing from the notion of equality before God, they asked their masters why they were oppressing them if everyone was God’s creature with the same rights and privileges?

Within Africa, missionaries wittingly and unwittingly cleared the way for political subjugation through religion. They promised Africans a better life after death and convinced them not to hold onto worldly treasures. The message was that those who suffered in this world would live a happy life after death. Some Africans bought into this idea while others resisted it.

By the time colonial oppressors arrived, missionaries had already done the bulk of the work for the colonial governments. What was not clear was whether the white people did not want that “good” life after death or if they had it as their second choice after claiming all material possessions belonging to the African people.

As Africans cast their eyes into the future with many promises, their white colonialist counterparts took everything that belonged to them. This included the land which was the backbone of their survival. So began human suffering among black people. This was the seed that would germinate and ignite the struggle for freedom.

The liberation struggle across Africa, including South Africa, included the political and religious leadership – in addition to the academic leadership. Religious formations such as the Catholic Bishops Conference, South African Council of Churches, Hindu, and Muslim churches, among others, played their different roles in the liberation struggle.

Religious leaders preached peace and harmony. Some were persecuted by the colonial governments and accused of inciting violence against white oppressors. In the South African context, the political and religious leadership joined hands in their fight against white oppression. Following the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 which excluded the black majority, these leaders, together with traditional and academic leaders, took a conscious decision to do something.

The formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), later the African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein, included these leadership types. Noticeably, the historic meeting was held in church where Zulu hymns were sung.

With the adoption of apartheid as a government policy in 1948, these different leaders had more reason to work together. Leaders like iNkosi Albert Luthuli personified such unity. He was a chief, an academic, a pastor, and a politician of note who led the ANC during the Defiance Campaign from 1952. It was his leadership prowess which saw him becoming the first black African to win the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize.

During apartheid, pastors provided counselling to the victims of the ruthless apartheid regime, buried the dead, harboured many liberation fighters, and continued to pray for peace.

Some used their international contacts to mobilise support against the apartheid regime. In the main, the church brought hope in a hopeless situation.

During the early 1990s, South Africa embarked on a new trajectory. This followed the victory of FW De Klerk in the race to lead the National Party. Feeling national and international pressure, he announced that his government was going to release Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and unban liberation movements. He kept his promise.

The Groote Schuur Minute of May 4, 1990, and the Pretoria Minute of August 6, 1990, paved the way for the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) talks. These talks were a precursor to the first democratic election in April 1994. Throughout this time, religious formations supported the transition through prayers, financial and material support.

Thirty years into democracy, religious formations have a different mandate. There is leadership deficit, trust deficit, moral decay, dishonesty, complacency, and many social ills which continue to reverse the gains made in 1994.

Some church leaders decided to be actively involved in politics so that they could influence change from inside. These included Mvume Dandala (Cope) and Kenneth Meshoe (ACDP). Other religious formations and their leaders opted to make their contribution from the outside.

Given the challenges our country is currently faced with, religious formations must be visible. They must continue to pray for the emergence of good leaders and the re-injection of conscience among politicians.

On a practical side, they must teach congregants about morality and the need to avoid being complicit to all the wrongs that politicians engage in. Importantly, religious formations must speak openly against the wrongs committed by politicians. Remaining silent is tantamount to condoning what politicians are doing.

Historically, religious formations had a different mandate. The context has changed, and so has the calibre of the political leadership. Therefore, the religious leadership must embark on a different struggle. Prayer alone will not be a panacea to the social ills. Practical action is necessary.

*Prof. Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL