Chapter 9: Responsible Citizenship in a Christian Perspective, by Milan Opocensky
(Milan Opocensky is Executive Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Geneva.)
Theological Critique of Post-Modernism
In the first part of my letter I wish to deal with some characteristics of our present era at the end of the millennium. It is in contrast to previous periods in the 19th and 20th centuries when people were proud of being modem. Does it still hold? Is it true that we live in modem times? Probably it does not apply to all part of the world equally but it is suggested because our world has radically changed and we live in a new epoch. After 1945 some thinkers spoke about the atomic age with its perils and threats to which we have gradually become immune. But there are other forces which shake the foundations of civilization and render traditional values empty and invalid. You have to judge for yourselves to what extent my comments are applicable to the situation in South Africa.
It seems that post modernism is the new philosophical background of our theological reflection and the entire Christian existence. It is a new feeling. It is a new mentality which is widely spread in the consumer societies of the affluent North. However, there are pockets of luxury and affluence in the South. Visit the Waterfront in Cape Town and you will understand what I am talking about.
According to D. Sölle,1 nowadays the only untouchable value is tolerance. In the time of Enlightenment tolerance was essential and important in the process of seeking for truth. This is no longer the case. Today there are many non-committal truths. In place of identity there is diverse and divergent thought.
We are told that any discourse has its right. Therefore, we can speak about important concepts and values in the plural. In the aesthetic sphere "anything goes." For example, if we examine the fashion and how people dress, then indeed one comes to the conclusion that there are no rules and no regulations. The consequences for the moral sphere is radical openness. The ideal is an open person who is not impressed by anything that is absolute. The time of absolute claims is over. We have to learn to live in the jungle of what is relative and penultimate. Nothing is firm, reliable and dependable. Can a human being bear such a spiritual atmosphere?
Post-modern thinkers react to the shock of totalitarianism. They sense a kind of totalitarian thinking whenever a discourse about progress, emancipation and humanization becomes the master discourse. Anything that claims to be leading and determining is suspect. Whenever a discourse claims a special authority there is a danger of terror. In this context utopia is criticized. According to the post-modernists the utopian thinking of modem times proved to be the most merciless enemy of the people. How can we reconcile this position with the high esteem of G. Gutiérrez for utopian thinking and the expectation that a Christian community should always produce new utopias?
It is counterproductive to protest against capitalism and its recklessness. It is a sign of strength that the capitalist system has liquidated all that is noble and sacred. There is no place for solidarity. The world becomes a market and the market is god. Concepts such as suffering, struggle and solidarity should be put aside.
It is not important to better the world through struggle for peace, justice and a human environment. What really matters is the liberation of an individual. It can be achieved by immersion in the hedonistic world. People are told that sexual freedom and porno-culture are vehicles of human happiness and fulfillment. The ideal is no longer the well-being of a larger community or society. We are guided to be concerned primarily about our individual life and its success. Why bother about history, theory and metaphysics? The question of what is true and false, genuine and fake, profound and shallow is irrelevant. Humans should examine their feelings (Does it feel good?) and perhaps aesthetic experiences. You cannot be happy without being fit, without undergoing sophisticated cosmetic surgery and without regularly being exposed to the super markets of the inner city. The post-modem culture has cancelled any meaning. The real meaning lies in our becoming uncritical consumers who enjoy the present moment and are often manipulated by the market and by the flood of advertisements. Fifth Avenue in New York, Oxford Street in London or Kurfürstendamm in Berlin are the cathedrals and temples of post-modern times waiting for their worshippers who have sacrificed their lives to the idol of the possession syndrome.
It is quite obvious that the biblical (Jewish-Christian) tradition is opposed to the post-modern liberal culture as described above. The post-modern discourse rejects the polarity between life and death, good and evil, love and sin. Our culture is apathetic -- it refuses to recognize suffering and to speak about suffering. And yet, the world is full of painful contradictions. However, in order to avoid the impact of pain and suffering, the tensions and contradictions should be made muddy and invisible.
Biblical reflection is based on memory. "Your God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers. . . . You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:17ff.). Memory and remembering, retelling the story of God’s people is dangerous. Nowadays the market is an idol, a holy place. Everything should be geared to the conditions and demands of the market. In the situation of market predominance the principal virtue is tolerance, which is forgetful and bears everything. The idol demands many sacrifices but they should not be remembered. A broad and magnanimous tolerance cannot tolerate the utopia of the future, the anticipation of freedom and of a common hope for a more equitable life on earth.
The post-modern philosophy eliminates any meta-discourse. We should not be bothered by thinking beyond our immediate needs and feelings mediated by the culture of fun and pleasure. Ideas of preceding modern times are useless. Let us forget the great designs of the Enlightenment and idealist Philosophy. Let us stop critical questioning because it loses its meaning and value. Let us forget everything between input and output. It is irrelevant whether Korean workers sleep on the floor of factories in order to save time spent in commuting. Let us put aside the difference between the elite and the mass culture. Let us try to avoid conflict stemming from a critical attitude. We live in a world where nothing is binding. There is a programed and calculated lack of overview. Our world seems to be a wonderful cultural supermarket. And yet, if we look more closely it is obvious that the perennial problems of personal and collective human existence remain. The features of need and misery may be different, but under the glittering surface we are confronted with all forms of money, power and domination.
Today, as yesterday and tomorrow, we cannot resign ourselves to the idea that there is no reason in history. Humans cannot give up seeking for truth and asking about God. We need to generate new utopias which will motivate us to struggle for a more humane and inhabitable world. We have to analyze the existing forms of escape from reality. One possibility is self-denial which is preached by fundamentalism, leading people into immaturity. Another form is reckless self-affirmation and concentration on one’s own life and individual pursuit of happiness.
Our task remains to tell the story of God’s liberation and salvation. By doing so we strengthen the dignity of human beings and sharpen the conscience of people. It is important to constantly unmask the idols and false gods. We have to cultivate the memory highlighting the suffering and infinite value of dignified life (human life and life in general). Finally, we have to resist the temptation to bless the mechanism of modern society. Post-modern society expects the Christian community to bless and so to legitimatize its ethos. The only answer to such advice has to be the unequivocal refusal and denial of such an invitation. We have to learn what it means to be "in the world but not of the world" (John 17: 14ff).
Christian Political Responsibility
There is no doubt that South Africa finds itself at an historic cross road. No wonder that churches in South Africa tackle the question of political responsibility in a new and urgent way. For all of us it is constantly a pressing question: What is our personal and communal political responsibility? Not only in South Africa but also in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Botswana -- in many other African and non-African countries -- we are confronted with this difficult and urgent question.
You are not newcomers to some of these questions. We have been moved by the Belhar Confession. We have been moved and encouraged by the KAIROS document. Like the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church in Germany (1934) some of these statements are not only your statements and documents, these pronouncements have become our common property -- they belong to all of us in the Church Universal. I wish to express our gratitude for your struggle, inspiration, insights and encouragement.
Christian Existence is Always Political
Let me say simply that the political dimension is a part and parcel of our human existence. We cannot escape the fact that we are all political beings because we participate in political life and by our stance we influence political processes. Also a Christian community is a political factor which should not be underestimated. We am all enmeshed in political life and we should reflect this reality. Even if we say that we are apolitical -- that we don’t wish to deal with political decisions and that we withdraw from the political arena -- we are taking a political decision. Those who claim to be apolitical usually side with and support the forces of status quo.
If we speak about Christian political responsibility we say that our ethics is a political ethics of responsibility and that we derive our norms and principles from the Gospel. In our political decision-making we wish to respond to the claim of the Gospel. The Gospel comes to us as a promise -- but at the same time the Gospel claims us -- claims our entire existence -- our being a political animal. We respond to the claim of the Gospel -- we are as much responsible as we are faithful in our response to the Gospel. We have constantly to ask what is the concrete claim of the Gospel on us and whether we are obedient and faithfully respond to this claim. Each situation requires a new hearing of the Word, our asking what the will of God is a fresh and genuine decision.
The Abuse of Biblical Texts
For centuries the Bible nourished and sustained the Christian community in a unique way. However, we are also heirs of a false and one sided understanding of the biblical texts which deal with the Christian attitude towards a state and authorities. The dominating and widely agreed theology is often a theology which serves the interests of the rulers. Some classical biblical texts have been used and abused in order to affirm the necessity of uncritical obedience and submission. It is our first task to reinterpret certain texts and to teach our congregations what is the original intention of the biblical message.
For a moment, let us examine the text: Fear God, honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:17). It has to be seen in the context of the situation of the early Christian church. It is a situation on the brink of persecution. The overall ethos has been influenced by the Aristotelian political philosophy which later was embraced by the Stoic philosophy. It is an attitude of patriarchal domination in state, in household and in marriage. This ethos emphasizes law and order. In the interest of survival Christians should follow the strategy of accommodation. This is not, however, the only strategy which is proposed by the New Testament. For example, the prophetic author of Revelation sees the embodiment of Antichrist in the emperor and in Rome. The book of Revelation challenges Christians to oppose oppressive power and to accept the risk of imprisonment and death. Whenever the slaves converted to Judaism or the Christian faith the common order of the household was threatened and in this way the political setup of the state was also challenged. The non-Christian attacks make clear that Christians were considered politically subversive in the second and third centuries. Let us not forget that Jesus himself was condemned as a subversive and revolutionary who for some adversaries was also close to the zealots. It seems that the author of the First Letter of Peter wants to weaken the critical arguments against Christians. This writer understands Christian calling as a religious vocation -- it is primarily a spiritual existence. It should be clear that a Christian way of life is not in opposition to the accepted order of a household and of a state. Although we may understand the intention of the author, it is unfortunate that in the long run the strategy of survival has introduced the patriarchal ethos and domestication into the Church. Obedience and the spiritualized message of the Gospel replaced the genuine version of equality. We should bear in mind that not submission, order and obedience but this vision of equality of all races and cultures is one of the peaks of the Gospel.
The First Letter of Peter has to be seen in its proper context. In the same way Romans 13 should be understood not as a universal doctrine of state but as an apostolic pastoral word in the particular, unique situation of a Christian community in Rome. Subordination should not be interpreted as blind obedience (Kadavergehorsam). The Apostle Paul offers pastoral guidance in the difficult question of a Christian attitude vis-à-vis local and regional political authorities. Paul does not speak about the limits of these governing bodies -- he does not speak about the conflicts either. Paul speaks out of fear of anarchy -- he writes against the enthusiastic inclinations. We cannot deny the one-sidedness of Paul’s position and a certain weakness in his argument which has been abused and misinterpreted throughout history by the theology of the court (Hoftheologie) and by the rulers. Paul neither glorifies nor demonizes power. However, political power and political violence in its dialectic is not his theme. The text is short of dialectics which is necessary for dealing with a democratic process. However, in spite of this shortcoming, there is the binding lesson for all of us that we are called to serve God in the political arena.
Barmen 1934 (Thesis 5)
I wish to call your attention to the fifth thesis of the Barmen Declaration of 1934. This was the very beginning of the Nazi era. It was necessary to say a clarifying word in a situation where the Christian faith was contaminated by the ideology which was uncritically glorifying the state, German ethnicity, German mythology and Germans as Herrenvolk superior to other nations. It was the beginning of a racist period which led to the extermination of 6 million Jews and to activities and crimes committed in many other nations. Already in the Thirties we have been confronted with "ethnic cleansing." It was necessary to say that not Jesus Christ mixed-up with the ideology of "Blut und Boden" would do but that Jesus Christ is the only Word of God.
The fifth thesis says that we exist in the as yet unredeemed world. Also the Church exists in the as yet unredeemed world. The state has been appointed by God to provide for justice and peace. It fulfils this task by means of threats and exercise of force according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church’s task is not to glorify the state -- to be passive or to be subservient to the state. In gratitude the Church acknowledges the benefit of the divine appointment of the institution for providing justice and peace. The Church calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s rule, God’s commandment and righteousness. By doing so, the Church reminds us of the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. By referring to the Kingdom of God the Church constantly reminds the state of its original appointment and calling. The Church does not trust and obey the state in the first place. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things. The doctrine is rejected as though the state should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life. On the other hand, the Church should not usurp the commission and the dignity of the state. In recent times-almost 60 years ago -- this was an authentic interpretation of the role of the state and of the political responsibility of a Christian community.
In the New Testament there is a polarity between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 -- between honoring the state and resisting the state. It is an indication that the institution of a state is not a priori good. The state can pervert -- it can become inhuman and anti-human. The Apostle challenges us to struggle against the demonic forces of our times. "We are contending not against the flesh and blood but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness . . ." (Eph. 6:12). The political powers are not isolated, autonomous (eigengesetzlich). They are related to Christ and Christ’s work is related to them as well. Regarding the state and political arena Christians have a perspective of hope. The political institutions can degenerate and can be perverted but this is not a fatum -- a necessity. Because we know of the heavenly Jerusalem we cannot make any state of this world into an idol.
Prophetic But Not Arrogant
Christians should pray for all people, especially for those in positions of authority and power. By its prayer, a Christian community carries and upholds the existence of the polis. Prayer and intercession for those who hold state power is one of the basic political tasks of the Church. If the Church forgets to fulfil this task, the Church ceases to be a church. Intercession for the state is the most central task of a church. If the state is perverted and dehumanized, if brutality and injustice reign, this institution requires our responsibility and our intercessions even more; it is our noble duty to pray for the state so that the state continues as a state in which law and justice prevail. We are responsible whether a state will be a Reichtstaat -- a state in which law and justice prevail. Hypotassesthai tini -- hypotage does not mean a blind submission and subordination but a thoughtful and active respect. A Christian is not called to be submissive. A Christian believer is free in Christ and through Christ -- therefore he/ she is responsible for the entire society which surrounds a Christian community. Because we believe in Jesus Christ as the head of the entire world we take upon ourselves the responsibility for the polis -- for the political form of society in which we live. We should participate in the process of seeking the best and the most appropriate system of political life. If South Africa today is looking for a new political system, Christians should be and must be a part of this process. Because we know of the Kingdom of God, we know the limits of all political systems. It is our duty to come up with critical questions; it is our obligation to be prophetic without being arrogant.
Christians are not indifferent with regard to the forms of political rule. We have to differentiate between order and arbitrariness, between orderly rule and tyranny, between freedom and anarchy. We have to look for a political system which serves the interest of human beings in the best way. We should favour a system which gives freedom of decision-making, freedom of expression, freedom of human existence. Sometimes these freedoms may be limited but they cannot be forgotten or denied. A Christian community is opposed to any kind of dictatorship. Political freedom is not an invitation to arbitrariness but it is a space in which we should exercise our political responsibility. Christians favor a political mechanism which is open and transparent. Any kind of secrecy and hiddenness is in contradiction to a true democracy which is based on mutual control of power. In the long run, secret diplomacy and mafia-like associations are a threat to democracy.
To Proclaim the Kingdom of God
Soon after the Second World War Karl Barth gave some lectures in Bonn, Berlin and other places in Germany in which he tried to reason theologically why it was right and necessary to embrace a socially-oriented democracy. It seems timely for South Africans to recall some of these arguments.
The word of God is both the promise of God’s forgiveness and the claim to our entire life. This makes it impossible to interpret the Gospel in an abstract, theoretical and private (individualistic) sense. We have to be vigilant with regard to structures and institutions. We are not called to bless uncritically the status quo.
The Christian community should not be absorbed by and dissolved in a society or in a state. We should keep a necessary critical distance. If we exercise our political responsibility we should not deny the fact that we are PAROIKOL -- that we are a communion of pilgrims (communio viatorum). We are seekers of the city which is to come (Heb. 13:14). And yet, we have to exercise our political responsibility in this world and for this world - each of us in our respective society, region and political community.
A Christian attitude towards a political realm is differentiated. A Christian community says NO to any absolutist ideology which comes with totalitarian claims. It says YES to a state which is religiously neutral. It is open to a reasonable argumentation in the political realm.
Because God in Jesus Christ became human and is linked with us in spite of our godlessness, human well-being and dignity will be a criterion of all things. Because of the humanity of God we are constantly engaged in the struggle for humaneness and humanization in communal life. Therefore, a Christian community struggles for structures which make possible, defend and protect a fully human life.
Because we know of God’s justice and justification by faith, we can differentiate between God’s justice and human efforts for social and political justice. There is a difference but there is a link between these two levels. We are called to struggle for a justice which gives the possibility of life and of social security.
In Christ we are liberated from powers and principalities which enslave us. We proclaim the ultimate freedom in Jesus Christ. The Gospel equally calls us to struggle against any physical, psychic slavery, against exploitation and manipulation.
The Gospel proclaims reconciliation between God and this world in Jesus Christ. Peace on earth and among people cannot be put on the same level, and yet it cannot be separated from God’s work of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Christ has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation. A Christian community has the responsibility to work for peace in freedom and justice in human society, against hatred and violence.
Our unique and irreplaceable political task is to proclaim the Kingdom of God. By doing so, we indicate certain limits for any human society and community which has an inherent tendency to absolutize itself. By being political (non-political) we usually confirm and sanctify the status quo.
From time to time a Christian may feel compelled to issue an explicit political statement. There is no definable boundary between the pure questions of faith and questions of estimation (Glaubensfragen and Ermessensfragen). Political themes and questions are part and parcel of our preaching and proclamation of the Gospel. We do not live in a vacuum which is totally free from the political issues of today and tomorrow.
The Word of God is concrete, personal and political, and speaks to a concrete situation. In a given situation we should ask ourselves whether we are sufficiently informed and whether we faithfully listen to God’s commandment.
For the South Africa of Tomorrow
In conclusion I would like to commend the KAIROS document. It is an inspiration for all people and especially religious communities which struggle against oppression and dehumanization. However, it seems to me that starting with the KAIROS document Christian churches and communities have to go beyond KAIROS. In this section I draw on the insights of Julian Kunnie.
1) Although it seems that the basic laws of apartheid have been dismantled, there are still important mechanisms in place. It is important to help people to be liberated from apartheid mentality. The South African state still represents a colonial power and machinery. A Christian community in this country is called to introduce such programs in its activity and education which would help people to be liberated from the colonial mind and apartheid mentality. The sin of apartheid lies in the fact that African people in their own land were exposed to the policy of disfranchisement, disinheritance and de-Africanization. I submit that churches themselves are captives of colonialism and apartheid. They are products of this history. This society needs to be liberated from its settler-colonial heritage. The idea of democratic state institutions needs to be fostered and promoted. Julian Kunnie says that in South Africa the state is non-existent -- only a colonial apparatus is. It is the responsibility of Christian churches to be a part of the process introducing a democratically functioning state. It is the primary role of the Uniting Church to make people in this country understand that in the long mm the future lies with the indigenous population.
2) In the KAIROS document I miss a thorough class analysis. What will be the future economic orientation of this country? In many parts of the world the capitalist market economy is considered detrimental to the interests of indigenous people. A Christian community cannot promote uncritically a system which is based on greed, profit-making, exploitation and commodification of all social relations. This kind of system is socially destructive. The market economy cannot be a goal in itself -- it is an instrument of economic mechanism. The failure of socialist economy in Eastern Europe should not hinder Christians from looking for an alternative to the prevailing world economic system. The failure of command economy should not be considered as a victory and justification of capitalism. Frank Chikane has said: "A vision of justice should be combined with political realism and prudence so that foreign investors do not ignore South Africa."
3) It is necessary to pay attention to the situation of women in church and society. They experience triple oppression: classism, racism and sexism, which are intertwined. The contribution of women to the struggle against apartheid has been considerable.
The immediate program in South Africa is decolonization, liberation from apartheid with all its ramifications, de-Europeanization, reAfricanization, socialization -- by which I mean social security, medical care, security for aged people. In all these areas women have a great role to play. And it is a Christian community where women can be conscientized for their active role in society. I hope that the absence of women in he leadership of African churches does not suggest the domestication and patriarchal oppression continue in churches. African women should be actively involved in the shaping of the future South Africa. This process should start in the churches in the first place.
4) Another area is the struggle for a new African self-understanding. How can we help people to confirm their African identity? With regard to South Africa churches should introduce programs which would throw light on the theme "The Gospel and Culture." By suggesting this theme I am not speaking about the racist "separate development" of cultures but rather about the interaction of cultures which are fully affirmed and encouraged. By being Christians we are not called to renounce our own culture. We are challenged to relate Christ to our respective culture and our culture to Christ. Christians need to be seriously involved in the process of re-Africanization. There is a rich religious and cultural tradition in South Africa. We all impoverish ourselves if we do not learn how to appreciate this tradition. Any theology has to be done against the background of African culture. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
5) KAIROS fails to mention that South Africa is a multi-religious society. There has been a contribution of Muslims and other non-Christians in the struggle for liberation. Inter-religious dialogue can facilitate and promote living together with people of different cultures and races.
6) Last but not least: the struggle for Integrity of creation applies also to South Africa also. lam afraid that in South Africa also the theology of creation is neglected. The-dualistic concept of F. Bacon of res cogitans (human being) and res extensae (other creation) has found a fertile soil in South Africa as well. Today we are struggling for the survival not only of human civilization, but for survival of life on the planet Earth. Global warming, population explosion, extinction of many species, maintaining the human environment -- all this involves South Africa. Are we responsible stewards of creation or careless tyrants?
I pray that the churches in South Africa may be given the vision, courage, endurance and strength to be in the forefront of the struggle for a new South Africa.
1. In this part I draw largely on the arguments expressed in the publication ‘Die Sowohl-Als-Auch Faile" (K. Füssel, D.Sölle, F. Steffensky), Luzern 1993.