Many are inquiring about the apparent silence of Christian leaders, in the face of the intensified suffering of the people and the wave of activism sweeping the Nation. More vehement critics have accused the clergy of being turncoats, callous and insensitive people who are beholden to corrupt officials and therefore unwilling to stand with the masses to resist injustice. The people are angry, possibly like no other time before now, and are calling into serious question, the credibility of Christian leaders, politicians and others in positions of authority.
But we must be careful not to conclude that all clergy who are reticent about public protests or opposition to the Government have been bought over by politicians. Many such leaders are uninformed, politically, and thus remain passive about policy development, despite heightened awareness in some issue areas. This might be due to their ministry training and understanding of the Christian mission. Many, concerned about slipping into a social gospel and a misconception of the Church’s role in society, have avoided involvement in social action. Other leaders may be silent because of their felt need to balance the imperative of spiritual awareness with their social responsibility. They may recognize the twin demands of personal righteousness and social justice: that on the one hand, we have a responsibility to pray for the Nation and its rulers, engage in intercession, prophetic acts and spiritual warfare – yet simultaneously translate these into action in the public arena, policy and government.
The Bible teaches that God intervenes in the affairs of men and charts the course of nations and peoples. As such, these leaders are aware of their responsibility to communicate the need to be sensitive to God’s movement and agenda, and to allow such sensitivity guide our actions as citizens and as members of the society. These are not “either/or” propositions. Christians must operate with both sensibilities. There can be no such thing as being so spiritual as to cease involvement in society. Conversely, we must not become so submerged in social action, that we lose prophetic awareness and sensitivity to the urgings of the Spirit of God.
There is a place for prayer, but there is also a place for seeking accuracy of governance in society. We must enthrone the virtues of God’s Kingdom, infuse systems and institutions with the right ethics and mentalities, and ensure public policies are grounded in the right ethical and theoretical frameworks. The development of righteousness in the soul parallels the construction of a just society. Therefore, throughout the Bible, we see God’s unmistakable concern for both personal righteousness and social justice.
It should be acknowledged that some pastors have opened the door to criticism through uncritical alignment with politicians. They may assume that such liaisons signal influence and authority in society. These leaders have thus earned the ire of the masses for refusing to condemn the same politicians when they do wrong. Certainly, the judgment of our Nation’s decadence will involve a judgment of any unholy alliances between corrupted power and corrupted clergy.
There is also a category of leaders for whom social activism is uncertain, unfamiliar territory. Unsure of the nuances and details of politics and economics, they are unwilling to dabble into matters of which they are uncomfortable and do not have the requisite competencies. This group sees the need for activism, and their awareness of the generalities permits them to make measured pronouncements of support and understanding for the activists; however, they know too little to become hands on activists, and so limit their utterances to the pulpit. The rationale is that it does one no credit to engage in a fight in which he lacks the requisite information or conviction.
Clergymen are expected to stand in opposition to injustice and corruption, and to defend the downtrodden. Happily, activism can take different forms, from participating in street protests to direct involvement in party politics, or even pursuing social change by working with the poor and disenfranchised, providing amenities where Government has failed to do so.
There is also the place of combating the negative ideas and value systems that sustain the corruption and degeneracy that we bemoan in society. Opposition to evil is not only physical; it is spiritual, moral and intellectual. Those who are opposed to evil and desire change should therefore be gracious to one another; for we are essentially on the same side, differing only in our choice of strategies and the means of effecting revolution and transformation. There is room enough for tactical variety in tackling societal ills. Some pastors are much more comfortable in direct social activism, because of their temperaments, experience and callings. Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jnr. and Janani Luwum (the Ugandan Archbishop murdered by Idi Amin in 1977) are examples of clergy who vigorously resisted racism, apartheid and oppression. In any event, we cannot expect absolute unanimity from Christian leaders on all social and political issues.
Jesus said to His disciples “Occupy till I come”. He wanted Christians to infiltrate world systems and operate in every sphere; from corridors of power in government to the catwalks of the fashion industry, operating as ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and sanitizing the world…until the “kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord” and “the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters cover the seas”.
The question of a person’s public activism also rests on where he is on his own personal spiritual odyssey. Clergymen who are reluctant to publicly challenge the status quo may quite simply not have attained conviction about public witness and prophetic activism. Contrary to popular belief, pastors are not all-knowing oracles. They also have to mature into their callings. However from a Christian perspective, there is a time when more prayer becomes spiritual escapism, just as there is also a time when social action guided by nothing more than raw emotion and adrenalin becomes an ineffectual “striving in the flesh”. There is a time to withdraw in order to obtain fresh spiritual and moral strength for the struggle. This was Jesus’ method. He said He only did what He saw the Father do. There is also a time to stop praying and actualize what has been received in prayer. As with all things, the key is discernment of what is needful for each season, and striking the appropriate balance.
Ultimately, the project of redeeming a nation, like that of individual salvation, is a journey rather than a destination. Our constant posture should be the empowerment of Christians to act as agents of renewal implementing the redemption of society, systems and structures. Pastors should equip people with tools with which to accurately decipher their roles and increase their impact in society.
The Church shapes the character and thinking of the people, who in turn shape the character and direction of the Nation. It is said that America’s greatness was rooted in the churches. However, it was not just any church, but those whose pulpits were aflame with the message of righteousness, and a message encompassing all of life. To “occupy”, whether in the activist sense of protesting governmental corruption, or the apostolic sense of transforming earthly institutions into zones of peace and prosperity – is our calling.