The church in the society

State of the Nation; a limited vision

Religion played a major role in the struggle for a democratic South Africa. The State of the Nation address of President Zuma saw little use for it and the debates for a new South Africa sideline the role of the Church

It is surprising that religion and spiritual values are being reduced to the level of pious platitudes. Many of those in leadership roles have come from Christian backgrounds and Catholic Schools.

What does the church contribute to the building of society? What can it contribute to a vision for the future? To push religion aside, one of the great molding forces of civilization, is surely a great mistake.

It is the role of politics to organize and distribute power. It is the role of economics to control and distribute wealth. The media have taken upon themselves to be the masters of the distribution of information. What is it that the Church and the faith community distribute?

The Churches’ task is through its experience of God to give birth to a vision of life which forms fraternity – the great missing dimension- for equality and liberty are everywhere promoted.  And from true fraternity come friendship, trust, love, marriage, loyalty, faithfulness and the family. This of course underlines the dreadful scandal of a disunited church, the very thing Jesus worried about as He prepared to die.

Modern, secular society believes that the only two institutions which can deal with social problems are either the state or the market. Those on the left prefer the state, those on the right favor the market. But modern, secular society is wrong. The new South Africa can not be held together simply by the coercive use of power or by the regulated mechanisms of the market. In fact, power and money are precisely what conflict and violence are about.

Families, religious congregations, faith communities, fellowships, voluntary organizations are not held together only by political aims or by economic interests but by love, loyalty and faithfulness.

Take the example of Sipho Radebe (not his real name). From a rural village in the former Transkei Sipho is an executive in one of our banking institutions.   The Radebe family lived in destitution in a hidden rural village. His father was a miner who sent home R20 a month. With a little vegetable garden his mother fed the family. Looking at his family 30 years ago you might have said they had nothing. But you would be very wrong. For they had family, they had a vibrant Church community and they had faith. They were rich in social capital.

They had a family in that the father and mother loved the children and were faithful to each other. Whatever they had was given to the children, they shared an experience of what it is to be human, what it is to be African , what is to be part of humanity. Sipho grew up convinced of his true human worth.

The Radebe’s played a key role in the community of the church. There they taught the faith, lead the choir, shared in the responsibility of the parish council. The Church was where they met decent people who valued loyalty, friendship, human warmth, dependability. Further, it opened the doors of education, it allowed them to experience the exercise of leadership, it assured them that God had a plan for them and that they had a role to play in the world. The Radebe family had faith. And it was this faith that allowed them to break free from poverty, dependency and despair.

The state and the market are impersonal. There are problems they cannot solve. Those problems belong to the family, the community, and the congregation. It is these which give us the power to change personally, in the heart and in the spirit.

People in the past were poor, but they had faith, they had community, they belonged and so they had hope. The mindless violence, the drugs, the rampant sexuality, the alcohol abuse, the poor schools show that the state and the market alone can not solve the suffering and hopelessness around South Africa.

Secular leaders need to remember that we live in Africa. The strength of Africa has been in spiritual values and it is only through these that we can build a democratic state. Therefore it is in our homes, our churches, our Catholic schools that values are kept alive which are dying elsewhere; fidelity, altruism, decency, civility, reverence, restraint. Without these values human dignity cannot survive. Without honesty and justice democracy is just a charade.  And without these values the liberal democracy that is South Africa today will discover that it faces a huge social pathology that it will be totally unable to solve.

The time has come for us to work together as faith communities in genuine partnership with governments on one hand and with business on the other, to create local welfare initiatives based not simply in the power of the state, not simply on the world of the market, but on our faith in human beings.

Because it is that faith which changes lives and rebuilds the landscape of hope.  It is this that secular society does not understand.

Bishop William Slattery ofm


Posted in Bishops Corner.