Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pastors (or bishops) and politics

Pastors and politics, has always been a thorny issue. We cannot run away from the truth that pastors have always been a political leader, of sorts. The announcement of Dr ( it is real, I think !) Mvume Dandala, as the presidential candidate for COPE has again revived the debate on whether it is prudent.

I would argue that it is unwise of Dandala to avail himself for COPE. This is not (yet!) a debate on the policy of the particular party. Whilst pastors have political power and do speak out on public issues, and whils the church should engage political leaders and policies with the ultimate values and principles, it remains critical to guard the tension and distinctness of the different spheres of church and state. As a true Calvinist, I affirm that God reigns over every inch of our existence. Yes, many times it is argued that religion and politics should not be mixed. Many of the wars and fundamentalisms that we find which give rise to the carnage in Nigeria, Gaza, Bosnia, some would argue, is precisely because of this mix. What need to be made clear though is that here the key issues here is fundamentalism, whether it be ideological, ethnic or yes, religious. To affirm and be informed by a particular ideology or to affirm the salience of ethnic identities, does not mean that our public engagement would be exclusivist or discriminatory or worse, violent. The values that sustain our public engagement and discourses, in one way or the other are always informed by deep seated spiritual and religious imaginations, stories and roots. The articulation of these in an open pluralist society is critical for building inclusive national identities.

I however do not think that the church should 'take over' state, education, culture and impose ecclesial law on society. The moment when a particular faith or church imposes her practices and beliefs upon society, then it have started to blur the lines, which is there to ensure critical checks and balances within society. This is when church leaders, by the mere fact of their religious affiliation and credence, are accepted as credible, irrespective of a critical intellectual engagement of what they stand for. We need to affirm that the state, as based upon, but also as limited by the constitution of the country, carries within its mandate the key notion of having to legislate, in terms of the consensus or majority of a broad spectrum of people and interest groups. This means that politics is not necessarily the space for debates about ultimate realities; it is simply a space where negotiations and power determine the compromised choices. Indeed, politics is the art of the possible. For this, pastors will walk the uneasy tight rope of their ultimate (spiritual) loyalties and the compromised choices that is at hand. This is the reason why a party like ACDP remains ineffectual in engaging government on those issues that they hold dear- their leader remain somewhat of an embarrassment to Christian public engagement.

To come back to the decision of Dandala, I would argue that his unquestioned strength and authority lies in his role as a church leader, not as the leader of a political party, with a mandate that they purport to get from 'the people'. Whilst his teaching has evidently been informed by a contextual theology, which correlates theology and context, I think he would still insist that his ultimate loyalty is to Scripture (here, it is a Calvinist speaking on behalf of a Methodist, I concur!). This will mean that in due course, he might be accused of compromising his ultimate values and that which have made him to be who he is today. He cannot go into power politics of today, innocent or, as some would have it, 'baggage-free'. The notion that COPE is a party, of Mbeki-ites, who remained quiet in the face of the Tshabalala-Msimang's disaster or the Jackie Selebi-mafia protection, or worse, the way in which inequality has increased under these former MP's, ministers and cronies, will haunt them and, like the emeritus-Archbishop Tutu, questions will surface on who they are listening to. It is ironic that the other pastor, who COPE also donned on their stage, Dr Allan Boesak, at some point when he 'came home to his church', confessed that 'he had listened more to Mandela then to the voice of the Holy Spirit. I wonder: Mvume Dandala, who are you listening to ?

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