by Anthony Egan SJ

The African National Congress Women’s League defence of Jacob Zuma against religious leaders bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘State Theology’ of the apartheid era. Though few I suspect (even dare I say it within the ANC) take the ANCWL seriously any more, this thinking needs to be challenged.

By the mid-1980s religious communities were in ideological conflict with the South African state – and within themselves. While the government of finger-wagging P W Botha tried desperately to portray its weakening grasp on power as a holy war, of Christianity against Communism, the Christian churches (and institutions within other faiths) were battling between certain tendencies within themselves. Those sympathetic to the regime were pitted against fellow Christians committed to its overthrow, while others tried to stay out of the battle

In 1985 a group of activist Christians produced the Kairos Document, which called on religious activists to resist the state and channel its energies into speeding its demise. They rejected the lack of commitment of those within their ranks, who stayed aloof from the fray, and condemned in the strongest terms, as demonic, the state’s use of theology.

The present stance of the ANCWL bears certain comparison. Their denunciation of religious leaders who have called on Jacob Zuma to resign, arguing that he has already apologised and that our religious duty is to forgive him, is at best misguided, at worst mischievous. Zuma has not apologised for his actions – he has in fact not admitted responsibility. You cannot reconcile with someone who refuses to admit he’s done any wrong.

Similarly, let us examine the underlying theology of the ANCWL. It assumes a blanket righteousness of Zuma and the ANC, perhaps even identifying the party with the state, indeed the party’s will with God’s will. That is what Kairos called State Theology. It also assumes that the role of religion is to forgive and forget, to take the president’s ‘apology’ at face value, and to focus solely on matters spiritual. In short they want us all to take a position of neutrality, what Kairos rejected as Church Theology. It is also, to use a term that needs to be a part of any healthy religious lexicon (but is all too often overlooked), rubbish.

It is rubbish because any sound theology must embrace a socio-political dimension. The world is God’s world; what happens in the world matters. All great religions recognise this in many and various ways. We are not solely concerned with hurrying ourselves to the Afterlife. If we did we’d make suicide a sacrament.

We don’t.

The example of the Kairos Document – and the call by church leaders for a Day of Prayer to End Unjust Rule during the 1980s – should even be revisited in our present era. The crisis in our democracy, with its culture of corruption and elite enrichment, must surely count as a ‘Kairos moment’, calling for a new Kairos theology.  And how outrageous, I wonder, would be a call for a Day of Prayer to End Corrupt Rule?

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