In the last few weeks, I have been thinking a fair bit about religion in the public sphere in South Africa and have – not for the first time – been rather dismayed by the level of discussion. This is a topic that could fill several books, but I wanted to record a few points here, even if they only serve as a springboard for further reflection.

I couldn’t help being struck by the juxtaposition of two clusters of discourse around this topic in the course of the same week. The first was the reaction (here, among other places) to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech suggesting – in rather measured tones – that religious traditions could make a positive contribution to the social good by influencing our legal framework. The second was a conference at which a group of Christians got together because they were concerned that freedom of religion is under threat in South Africa.

The problem, as I see it, is that the shrillness of the reaction to the Chief Justice’s speech only serves to underline the concerns of those who feel that freedom of religion is under threat, while the issues around which certain Christians seem intent on lobbying – such as the right to spank children – only confirms the prejudices of the secularists who see religious groups as inherently oppressive and basing their arguments on an arbitrary appeal to (often conflicting) religious texts.

In the midst of the heat-without-light reaction to Mogoeng’s speech, Ryan Peter published a helpfully sane article entitled “Are today’s secularists really secular?” In it, he argued that, instead of wanting to keep a neutral secular space, today’s secularists are rather seeking to impose their own views on others. While Christians should not be able to impose their ethical standards on others – and, predictably, much of heat generated had to do with sexuality – neither should secular society be able to impose its norms onto Christians, and, presumably, the followers of other religions.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it does not go that far, and I fear that the idea of a neutral public sphere is something of a modern illusion. Acknowledging this does not mean retreating into theocracy, but it does mean that the sort of conversation the Chief Justice was initiating is a conversation that needs to be had. And it forces us to reflect on where our social values and norms come from, the different weight that we give different “rights,” as well as their sometimes mutually incompatible nature.

The fact is, there are areas in which the law will inevitably curtail freedom of religion in one form or another. Should the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses be allowed to die because their parents’ religion does not allow blood transfusions? Should Quakers be exempted from paying taxes that fund the military because their religion requires them to be pacifists? Should Christians who appeal to certain biblical verses be exempted from laws prohibiting corporal punishment? And, if they are going to base their argument on such verses, what is to stop another group arguing that stoning adulterers is a religious duty? The list could continue and it is small wonder that secularists accuse religious believers of cherry picking from often conflicting religious texts.

Yet there are also weighty matters at stake at stake here. Not so long ago, a Methodist minister who had been disciplined by her church for supposedly marrying her female partner, took her church to court on the grounds that they had discriminated against her unconstitutionally. While she didn’t win, it was not inconceivable that she could have done so (and she is continuing to appeal the judgement) and some of her most vocal supporters are precisely those people attacking Mogoeng’s speech. Moreover, while the forthcoming Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill has been amended to exclude religious bodies, there are nevertheless voices that would like to see religious groups forced to comply with what is seen as gender equality.

These are real issues and they will not ultimately be solved simply by appealing to a supposedly neutral public sphere, for it is precisely the values of that public sphere that are being contested. This is not to suggest a retreat into theocracy, but rather that we should critically examine where the values of the public sphere are coming from and what they are informed and nourished by. Neither secular nor biblical fundamentalism is particularly helpful here – and the former can be just as fundamentalist as the latter. But what is notably absent – at least as far as I can hear – is a robust articulation of the Christian vision of the human person in the South African public discourse.

Of course it’s understandable, given our history, that South Africans should be wary of the role of religion in the public sphere. Too often, Christianity has come to be identified with a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity in which human potential is stunted out of deference to an arbitrary and vengeful God. And yet, ousting and controlling God does not so much mean freeing human beings as redefining and reducing them. For what is at stake is not so much God as humanity – what it means to be human. For ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, to quote the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. And the life of a human being is the vision of God.”


Some brief and probably disjointed appendices:

1. I’m not the only one who has noted the lack of any local forum for discussing issues of religious or theological concern in a serious way, and now Ryan Peter has come with a new initiative which looks promising. Do go and look at The Christian Blogger, which he is in the process of setting up.

2. Very close to the surface of any discussion on religion and public life are questions of sexuality. I’d better not start on this now as it probably requires a separate post – if not several books – and I sort of wish someone else would write it. But there are important questions that need to be probed, especially on the contrast between how such discussions play out in our context with how they played out in the early Church. (Of course, there are other issues too – individual autonomy, economics, etc. – but they too will have to wait).

3. I’ve recently started listening to the podcast series Paradise and Utopia by Father John Strickland on the rise and fall of Christendom – and on how the faith of the early Church influenced the society around it. It raises issues that are not unrelated to this post and which I may say more on again.

For those who don’t know him, and for anyone looking for a bit of economic and Christian sanity, and, even more so, anyone likely to be taken in by the Tea Party rhetoric, you would do well to read Father Ernesto Obregon’s blog, and especially his last post The witheld wages cry out to the Lord of hosts.

I don’t intend entering North American* debates, the details of which I neither know nor plan to spend much time on, but they do unfortunately have consequences for the rest of the world. And reading Father Ernesto’s posts – and some of the discussions after them – make me grateful that not all Americans live on another planet…

       *My apologies to Canadians, but I don’t know what the appropriate adjective is for citizens of the U.S.A.

If I were still Catholic I suppose I should be singing the Te Deum like they do when a pope is elected. Not sure what to do now, but I presume that the basic principle is the same. I’ve just seen that Mubarak has resigned (see here, here and here). I know that lots of questions remain, among them whether this popular “secular” space that has opened up in the Middle East can continue. But I’m still overwhelmed that such change is possible, a bit like Madiba being released, the Berlin wall coming down and so on.

I don’t have time now to discuss the more serious questions about Christians in the Middle East (and I kept toying with posting something after the attack at the beginning of January but decided not to because of the complexities involved), but for those interested who haven’t seen it, you might want to look at this article on Christians and Moslems in Egypt which provides a slightly different perspective to some of the western Christian voices one hears on the topic.

Update: This is also worth reading.

Owen the Ochlophobist has a really good post on Plastic memories that is definitely worth reading. He writes:

So often the discussion of the drastic changes in the human psyche and human social order seen in late modernity are framed in language of the supposed culture wars, etc., but I think much of this misses the point – as if “correcting” divorce, abortion, homosexuality, etc., can happen or is fundamentally meaningful in a culture which throws everything away. …

I was intending to post my own thoughts on related matters as a prelude to recommending his post, but have just deleted them, and really need to stop. And in any case, Owen expresses these things far better than I do and what I did want to say was still half-formed.

Another update: Joe Koczera has a post on this tragedy here.

Update: They’ve been freed – Al Jazeera report here, and BBC here.

From the BBC World Service (18:05 GMT):

Gunmen take hostages in Baghdad church

Gunmen have taken around 40 worshippers hostage in a central Baghdad church, Iraqi police say.

The gunmen first attacked the stock exchange in the Iraqi capital before moving to a nearby Assyrian Catholic church, where a Sunday evening service was being held.

At least six people were killed in the attacks, police said.

The gunmen are reportedly demanding the release of al-Qaeda members imprisoned in Iraq and Egypt.

According to the police, several other people were wounded.

The attackers are also holding two priests at the Our Lady of Salvation Church, the Chaldean Bishop Shlemon Warduni told the AFP agency.

“What we know is that a number of worshippers and two priests are being held hostage at the church by terrorists,” he said.

A local television station, al-Baghdadia, said it had been telephoned by the suspected attackers, who claimed they were from the organisation Islamic State of Iraq – an umbrella group embracing al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

The broadcaster said the men were demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.

It reported that the men spoke in classical Arabic, which could imply that they are not from Iraq.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Baghdad said the church in Karada district was surrounded by security forces and the area sealed off.

There were reports that the gunmen threatened to shoot the hostages if the church is stormed by security forces.

In 2008, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen and found dead two weeks later.

We clearly need to pray. But this also reminded me of something Steve Hayes wrote here:

The destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East surely cannot be described as an unintended consequence of the invasion. It was both forseeable and foreseen, and therefore must have been intended. It is an integral part of the Bush-Blair legacy. It is said that one should not ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance and stupidity, but the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth cannot have been that stupid…. can they?

May God have mercy on us all.

I really am more or less offline, but it would be it would be most worth your while to read Aaron Taylor’s Beware of earthly treasures in the Guardian. I had no idea that Aaron wrote for the Guardian (at least I’m assuming it’s the same Aaron?) until a post by Deacon Stephen, whose Mere ideology: the politicisation of C.S. Lewis is also worth reading, made me aware of it. Having recently had an interaction on similar matters at Koinonia, which I must confess left me feeling rather disorientated and feeling that people are just coming from very different worlds, I am rather pleased to see Orthodox Christians challenging such ideologies. I’m really not able to get into a discussion on this now, but I would recommend reading this.

I’d been trying to avoid the row over the mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero as a peculiarly American storm in a teacup that I am incapable of understanding. But when the British Tablet dedicated a lead feature article to it I decided I’d better take notice. It’s a valuable article that I would highly recommend. But it made me even more horrified at the fear mongering Islamophobia that I’ve seen online, including on Orthodox blogs. And it also inspired me to visit the Cordoba Initiative website, which seems something well worth supporting, unless one actually wants a clash of civilisations.

JERUSALEM – 31 December 2008 – 430 words

Statement from Church Leaders in Jerusalem on devastating situation in Gaza

We, the Patriarchs, Bishops and the Heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem, follow with deep concern, regret, and shock the war currently raging in the Gaza Strip and the subsequent destruction, murder and bloodshed, especially at a time when we celebrate Christmas, the birth of the King of love and peace.

As we express our deep sorrow at the renewed cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and the continued absence of peace in our Holy Land, we denounce the ongoing hostilities in the Gaza Strip and all forms of violence and killings from all parties. We believe that the continuation of this bloodshed and violence will not lead to peace and justice but breed more hatred and hostility ­ and thus continued confrontation between the two peoples. Accordingly, we call upon all officials of both parties to the conflict to return to their senses and refrain from all violent acts, which only bring destruction and tragedy, and urge them instead to work to resolve their differences through peaceful and non-violent means.

We also call upon the international community to fulfill its responsibilities and intervene immediately and actively stop the bloodshed and end all forms of confrontation; to work hard and strong to put an end to the current confrontation and remove the causes of conflict between the two peoples; and to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a just and comprehensive solution based on international resolutions.

To the various Palestinian factions we say: It is time to end your division and settle your differences. We call on all factions at this particular time to put the interests of the Palestinian people above personal and factional interests and to move immediately toward national comprehensive reconciliation and use all nonviolent means to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the region.

Finally, we raise our prayers to the Child in the manger to inspire the authorities and decision makers on both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, for immediate action to end the current tragic situation in the Gaza Strip. We pray for the victims, the wounded and the broken-hearted. May the Lord God Almighty grant all those who have lost loved ones consolation and patience. We pray for all those living in panic and fear, that God may bless them with calm, tranquility and true peace.

We call on all to observe next Sunday, January 4, as a day for justice and peace in the land of peace.

+ Patriarch Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
+ Patriarch Fuad Twal, Latin Patriarchate.
+ Patriarch Torkom II, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate.
Fr. Pier Battista Pizzaballa, ofm, Custody of the Holy Land
+ Anba Abraham, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.
+ Archbishop Swerios Malki Mourad, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.
+ Abune Matthias, Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate
+ Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayyah, Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate.
+ Bishop Suheil Dawani, Episcopal Church of Jerusalem & the Middle East.
+ Bishop Munib Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land.
+ Bishop Pierre Malki, Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate
+ Bishop Youssef Zre’i, Greek Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate.
Fr. Raphael Minassian, Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate

Jerusalem 30 December 2008

Source: Independent Catholic News

There are various things that I have avoided mentioning on this blog, partly because I don’t have time to get into arguments on topics that I may feel strongly about but which are not directly related to the central purpose of the blog. But partly also because there are some things that I cannot easily find words for and which can only be expressed “in groans too deep for words”. But that can sometimes leave me with the uneasy feeling that I am discussing “theology” or “spirituality” divorced from life, and cut off from the suffering of those who cry out for deliverance. In Gaza, in Zimbabwe, in Congo and elsewhere…

Lord have mercy on us all.

P.S. Meg Funk has a much more explicit post on the situation in Gaza.

I was initially trying to ignore the U.S. election campaign because, well, it’s quite annoying being reminded of how dominant the superpower is. And I couldn’t help thinking that all the enthusiasm about Obama was more hype than anything else.

Then I thought of highlighting this post by Steve Hayes in which he describes himself as being more relieved than elated at Obama’s election, and which pretty much sums up my feelings on the American presidency – he is a South African after all! Or this one by Byron Smith (an Australian), which provides a thoughtful reflection on the dangers of messianic expectations.

But I must admit that I am beginning to be just slightly infected by some of the enthusiasm. When I read Peter Gilbert describing how a vast cloud had lifted I could not help but being reminded of our South African elections in 1994. I don’t want to overstate the comparison, much less to place Obama in the same category as Nelson Mandela. (And even Madiba was not the Messiah). And there was hype and emotion involved that tended to blur some of the real issues. But it did nevertheless do something important for our national identity, providing hope for a different type of society, and providing an end to our status as a pariah nation. It certainly did not usher in the Kingdom but it was nevertheless a formative experience that I look back on in gratitude, however messy South African reality may have become.

So, yes, I do rejoice, if rather tentatively, with those who are rejoicing and hope and pray that it makes a difference, not just for the U.S.A. but also for the rest of the world.

(And if anyone is inclined to raise the abortion issue in any isolated fashion, I would recommend this post).