How Liberated is Christian Liberation Theology in South Africa? – Farid Esack (2001)


what you ascribe to leaders

 you take from the people.

Take from the leaders

give to the people

 for leaders are colourful flags.

They wave and waver as the wind blows

as people work the bellows

and make the whirlwinds thunder. — Ari Sitas

1. Introduction

A number of ideological and religious factors have combined to ensure that the impact and depth of Christian liberation theology in South Africa had been vastly overrated. This presentation argues that inside South Africa – despite a deep commitment to it by a few Christian activist organizations and theologians its roots remain rather shallow and it its basis has a dubious authenticity and integrity.

These reflections are not offered as the result of any serious study of liberation theology in South Africa. They are the perceptions of a participant observer. They are, simultaneously, the reflections of a friend of a number of the leading lights of Christian liberation theology in South Africa and of someone who has been deeply moved by their witness for a non-racial and just South Africa. Indeed, not only have I been personally inspired by them and their witness, my own theology has undergone remarkable shifts as a result of my encounter with their courage and commitment to our country and its people.

I shall look at some of the factors responsible for its over-ratedness and the convergence between the short-term political interests of the church and the agenda of liberation theology. This convergence, I believe, has enabled liberation theology to be presented as having the support of their broader churches. In actual fact, the leading figures in liberation theology – despite their prominent positionns – have remained confined to the inner margins of their ecclesiastical structures.

 The tensions between the church and those on its inner margins do not only arise from the fact that the South African church lives in different worlds as, indeed, it does. They also emerge from the fact that some of the most ardent and prominent advocates of liberation theology have adopted an adhoc anti-apartheid theology rather than a comprehensive theology of liberation and inclusivism.

2. An Inflated Liberation Theology

A number of Christian activist organizations such as the Ecumenical Action Movement, Students Union for Christian Action and some mainline church organs such as the Board of Social Responsibility (Anglican) and the Justice and Peace Division (Catholic) have been in the forefront of the struggle to teach and actualize liberation theology in South Africa and to liberate their churches from what the Kairos document describes as ‘state theology’. These organizations and the activists involved in them are, however, not the ‘recognized symbols’ of South African liberation theology as far as the Western world is concerned. Despite the courage of numerous clergy activists in the struggle against apartheid, the witness of countless other committed Christians and the revolutionary theological works of the likes of Charles Villa-Vicencio and Albert Nolan, liberation theology never came to be easily identified with South African Christianity in non-Church circles. The fact that the image of liberation theology in South Africa is essentially that portrayed by a few leading figures is itself a reflection (indictment?) of its depth in South Africa. The ignoring of these ‘ordinary’ entities who have operated at a community level and the focus on a few star personalities raise a number of issues about the nature of liberation theology in South Africa and the outside Churches support for it, albeit a particular manifestation of it.

The factors responsible for the overatedness of South African liberation theology and the importance of figures such as Beyers Naude, Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak may broadly be categorized under political, religious and personal.

2.1 Political Much of the outside world has since the seventies until the late eighties with the disintegration of the Eastern European communism focussed consistently on the South African struggle with an overwhelmingly supportive lens. For the world at large there were few struggles with the apparent ‘obviousness of moral correctness’ of that struggle; It was a raw manifestation of justice against oppression and truth against falsehood. ‘To be human in this age’ as Tutu said, ‘is to be part of the struggle against apartheid’. With hindsight, this seems to be an extraordinary statement of no mean measure self-centredness. At that time though, he was merely echoing the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of South Africans and their friends throughout the world.

A number of factors combined to heighten the support for ‘the struggle’. This includes its ‘obvious moral correctness’, an inability or unwillingness to confront racialism on home turf (European/American) and considerable white guilt at the crimes of apartheid. (The corollary should not be ignored; active support for other struggles was diminished. While many activists across the globe saw the anti-apartheid struggle as merely a part of a larger struggle to create a new world their energies were often concentrated entirely on South Africa.)

A number of South Africans were always conscious of the unbalanced share of ‘solidarity work’ devoted to our struggle and of the questionable motives behind such commitments, the short-term political advantages ensured by it precluded any political or moral focus on it. We, however, turned a blind eye to the use of our struggle as part of their butterfly dance of escapism and digression from the far more challenging question of racialism in their own areas. This, of course, raises profound questions about our integrity and the authenticity of our commitment to non-racialism and justice, an issue which I have discussed elsewhere.

This political solidarity coalesced with religious motivations, which further enhanced the solidarity work and greatly contributed to the prestige enjoyed by South African religious figures involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.

2.2 Religious

The image of Christianity had been rightly tarnished by the oppression of South Africans in its name. This abuse of Christianity and of its scripture led to a desperate desire on the part of international Christianity to distance itself from the theological justification of apartheid by Christians – more specifically the Reformed ffamily – in South Africa. I do not think that it is pure coincidence that the overwhelming financial and active support which liberation theology in South Africa enjoys emanate from countries where the Reformed tradition is the dominant one.

2.3 Personal

Religious figures involved in the South African liberation struggle fulfilled some of the deepest yearnings in other societies for untainted heroes. Many British saw in the Archbishop of Cape Town a symbol of hope for the Anglican family, a redeeming factor in that country’s history of complicity against the people of South Africa. The fact that he did much of his theological training as well as his curacy in Britain certainly facilitated his ‘adoption’ and elevation in Britain and in other countries where the Anglican Raj holds sway. Similar connections can be made between Allan Boesak and Beyers Naude in the Netherlands. The USA yearning – particularly that of the Black community there – for unblemished role models – played no mean role in this regard.

When referring to Latin America or the Philippines then the central ideas of liberation theology are far more likely to be known than its advocates. The opposite is true for South Africa. The star personalities are far more known than their ideas or works. The implications of the elevation of personalities in our struggle for liberation for the meaning of empowering the powerless, of liberation, democracy and accountability remain unexplored. It was Brecht who said ‘I pity that nation in need of heroes.’

This is not to suggest that Christian religious leaders active in the liberation struggle or serious theologians who engaged in the search for a biblical response to the trauma and challenges of a divided and unjust society were not ‘worthy figures’. Nor do we wish to deny the undoubted heroism, courage and charisma of many of them; it is the disproportionate attention accorded to them and its implications for liberation that concern us here.

Furthermore, Justice and Peace divisions in the mainline churches, while sincerely created to streamline ‘awareness raising’ work in the church often became the excuse for the Church as a whole doing little or nothing about political issues.

3. How entrenched is Christian liberation theology?

Despite the enormous prestige and power which these figures have acquired and the numerous institutions at whose leaderships they stand they have remained confined to the inner – sometimes even outer – margins of their churches and institutions. This applies as much to Archbishop Desmond Tutu as it applies to the unknown activist among the Galileans. Prophets – and here I am using the word in the Christian sense – will in some ways always be confined to the margins of society. An acknowledgement of this, however, is required for an authentic sense of where one’s flock really is. Liberation theology never acquired majority – less still a universal – appeal to ordinary church congregations, local parish councils or to synods. These entities have, by and large, remained deeply wedded to conservative ‘spiritual’ and accommodationist theology and suspicious of liberation theology. Villa Vicencio, particularly, has pointed out how, on issues of justice and the legitimacy of tyrannical regimes, the churches ‘have not with any degree of enthusiasm taken a stand.’ Confessional statements such as the Kairos documents hailed throughout the world by liberation theologians and studied in small church solidarity groups in Den Bosch in the Netherlands remain unknown – even unread – to the vast majority of clergypersons in the church. The Kairos Document and the Lusaka Statement need to be located on the margins of the dominant identity of the church, although they identify a central ingredient of the gospel itself.

How does one account for the fairly rapid rise of figures such as Boesak and Tutu within their church structures? In some cases a major factor was undoubtedly the religious, pastoral and personal integrity possessed by some of these figures. (A factor which allowed people such as Beyers and Frank Chikane to remain deeply respected by their communities despite being regarded as traitors and petty politicians respectively). The fact that that we are dealing with religious figures, however, does not exclude political factors responsible for them being elevated within their church structures. Political influence, oratorical skills and, later also international standing were important factors in the elevation of these figures. Subsequently, the presence of these entities in the forefront of the struggle for justice became a convenient way for churches to participate by proxy in what was clearly ‘becoming’ a just cause and – more important – a winnable cause. Ordinary parishioners and church council members were seldom the congregants at political funerals, services or meetings in their churches. The vast majority of such congregants were political activists with little or no religious commitment. Numerous activists will testify to the great difficulty they have had with local structures when applying for the use of church premises or when requesting the participation of ministers in some form of political action or the other.

I have described liberation theology in South Africa as of ‘dubious authenticity’. To my mind, liberation theology’s essential concern is about the harnessing of religious faith and commitment for the transfer of power to the powerless, to ensure justice for all and to remove all human impediments to Allah’s Grace reaching all of Allah’s people. This process involves believing communities and is by definition participatory and reflective rather than personality centred. How does South African liberation theology square up to notions central to liberation?

First, there have been numerous attempts to draw ordinary church congregants into political campaigns organized by some of the entities referred to earlier on. These attempts were often the result of a deeply felt anguish that Christian faith in South Africa necessarily implies participation in the struggle for justice and that non-participation is subversive of faith. Equally true though, was the religious activist’s perception of ordinary congregations as mere captive audiences for our campaigns and a large recipient community for our pamphlets. Whatever the motives, there has hitherto been little serious and ongoing attempt to get communities to seriously re-think the essential nature of their theology in a divided and unjust society. This ‘serious re-thinking’, so intrinsic to the praxis-reflection paradigm of liberation theology, have remained confined to the few religious activists on the margins of their churches and the even fewer scholars who have written about liberation theology. More significantly, none of the ‘stars’ of South African liberation, to my knowledge, participated in communitarian reflection with other religious activists – or other ‘stars’ for that matter – in order to sharpen or to challenge their own theological insights. (The possible exceptions are those clergypersons such as Albert Nolan who also belong to a specific religious order and live within a small religious community. While they may not make excellent TV copy their theological insights have won them enormous respect.)

 Second, There has been little attempt to restructure the basis of Christian community life or that of the Church in order to make it conform to a new participatory or liberative theology along the lines of, e.g. base religious communities in the Philippines or Latin America. These few attempts – as far as I could observe – did not enjoy support from the established church. This is of course not surprising: A government is hardly likely to vote itself out of office. A few Christian scholars have consistently pointed out how the Church remains wedded to not only racialism but also how its authoritarian structures militate against democratic notions. Little of this debate however, has reached the Church as an institution and it is yet to begin to perceive itself as an entity that needs to be divested of power in order to become of the powerless. This powerful church interacting with powerless community organizations often led to bitter tensions between the two.

A fairly common scenario reflective of this tension during the eighties was the following: Community organizations and trade unions would often carefully debate a course of action which would require some form of religious participation or the other such as a march to parliament from the cathedral. At the last minute key religious figures – or even a single figure – would decide against it. People came to march – fully aware of the dangers and having spent hours debating the move – only to be vetoed by someone responsible only to his conscience, synod and God. Religious leaders often argued that they were not a part of the decision making process when people decided to march. Activist responded by asking if they were not part of their communities where decision are taken or does the church operate in splendid isolation? Needless to say, from an activist perspective – the frustration that this caused was considerable because they lacked the confidence to go it alone. State respect for religious institutions remained intact throughout the darkest days of the various states of emergencies; albeit with ever narrowing application. This meant that activists remained in need of these institutions and personalities for ‘cover’.

Throughout this period it seemed as if these institutions remained aware of this need and did little to shed its authoritarian modes of operation in order to make the church – community organization relationship a more democratic one. The Church and most of its personalities-institutions in the forefront of the liberation struggle have remained rich and powerful entities whose theology is still informed by its privileged position but who look benignly upon the poor and dispossessed. In this regard it is significant to note that there is little to distinguish between a powerful church and the ‘stars’ of liberation theology. With one or two exceptions, the preferential personal option for the poor and a personal commitment to austerity, simplicity and poverty are remarkable only in its absence. The ones who actually continued to exercise this preferential personal option were often the ones marginalized by the church and, in some cases, even by the ‘stars’. The fact that those who in their personal choices embody liberation theology remained marginalized in their own churches and unknown to the outside world speaks volumes about the credibility of the church in a divided society and the uncritical views of its global friends.

 iii. The absence of a feminist perspective or a commitment to non-sexism by most of South African liberation theology is further evidence of its rather dubious authenticity. The written works, the continuing overwhelming preponderance of men in the overall liberation theology scene and, above all, personal relationships all testify to the absence of a comprehensive commitment to justice. The voices arguing that ‘any form of liberation which does not address itself to the emancipation of the whole of life should be seriously challenged for misrepresenting the concept of liberation’ have been far and few between. In some of these respects the South African scenario is no better than that of, say, Latin America. The significant difference, though, is that in South Africa the enemy is, by and large, viewed as a short-term apartheid regime or a white minority oligarchy rather than all the socio-politico-religious structures which entrench division and injustice.

 Third, despite the fascinating inter-religious nature of the struggle against apartheid and the presence of prominent religious Muslims and Hindus in it, there has been little or no attempt to come to terms with religious pluralism at a theological level. While Christians – more specifically figures such as Naude, Chikane and Tutu – have been very supportive of this inter-faith solidarity there is little to suggest that the question of religious exclusivism, salvation and Christology are being re-read in the light of that solidarity. I was astounded to read the response of Allan Boesak, one of the leading lights of liberation theology in South Africa in an interview with his church’s magazine. He was questioned about the ‘negative impact’ that the sermon of a Muslim cleric in his church could have on the faith of his congregants. One would have thought that he would have said something to the effect that that Muslim cleric is also a brother in Christ because of our common suffering. Instead he said: ‘Do you not appreciate the fact that for the ten minutes that he preached and we had to listen to him, he, in fact had to listen to my sermon for forty minutes!’

The last two factors especially lend credence to the view that what the world views as South African liberation theology is an adhoc process of a narrowly focused anti-apartheid theologising. The pre-occupation of an authentic liberation theology to my mind would be a serious attempt to come to terms with all the implications of divisions and injustice for Christianity and Scripture in South Africa.

Any form of liberation theology must necessarily define itself in terms of what it seeks liberation from. It is thus not too difficult to appreciate the current dilemmas facing those who have defined their theology in terms of a narrowly defined apartheid. As the post-Apartheid South Africa takes shape the challenges facing Christian liberation theology in South Africa are immense; to re-define itself in terms of liberation from power, poverty, sexism and religious exclusivism. There are such attempts being made. These attempts however, need to step out of the shadows of heroes before the world really becomes aware of them and before they can truly claim to be liberated.



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