Chapter 7: Theology and Politics: A South African Perspective, by Simon S Maimela

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 7: Theology and Politics: A South African Perspective, by Simon S Maimela

(Simon S. Maimela is President of UNISA and an active member of EATWOT.)


The relationship between theology and politics or religion and politics is a very difficult one for some people. There is often a misunderstanding that the coupling of theology and politics would lead theologians and churches to be absorbed in politics at the expense of the furtherance of the gospel and salvation of people.

The question as to whether there should be any relation between theology and politics has often arisen in the countries where there is constitutionally no "official state church", and therefore where the separation between church and state is invoked. In such countries ministers of religion are encouraged and indeed expected to stick to religion and to leave the realm of politics to the so-called experts or professional politicians and bureaucrats. In consequence, the extent to which political decisions and actions raise theological questions and vice versa is never clearly confronted and reflected upon and clarified. This is because people often work with the mistaken assumption of confining the meaning of "politics" to "party politics", and of casting votes in which case the church as church is expected to take a "neutral" stance in order to avoid alienating or dividing its constituents who might hold different political persuasions. Thus by involving itself in "party politics" the church might give a wrong impression that it favors one party and against another.

Put somewhat differently, it is when the word politics is understood to be identical with party politics that a confusion arises, regarding whether religion has anything to do with politics, leading some people to call on the church and its ministers to abstain from making political utterances.

However, we want to suggest that the word politics need not be understood in this narrow sense of "party politics". In its broader sense the word politics means human attempt to structure or organize life or society for the benefit of the people concerned. It is in this sense that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in his rejection of Platonic dualism correctly argued that human beings are by definition political beings. As such they organize life and construct structures and institutions to regulate their relationships among themselves. Even individuals, when they do such planning as budgeting for their financial needs, work in order to place meals on their tables, decide where to send children to school or do shopping in order to get the value for their money et cetera, they are involved in politics. Therefore, politics, like the air we breathe, is unavoidable whether we are consciously aware of this or not.

If "politics" is understood in this broad sense, then the church and theologians cannot afford to stand above politics in the situations they find themselves, for to do so would be an abdication of their responsibility. For, whether we admit it or not, political decisions and actions involve the people about whom God cares very much and, therefore, political exercise has theological dimensions. It is against this background that our countryman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has rightly argued that the church has to be concerned about the secular things such as politics and economics, education, medical aid, the rent and housing, food prices et cetera. This concern arises out of the fact that Christians believe that God, the Creator, is the Lord over human life in all aspects -- be it political, economic and social. Indeed, it is impossible for Christians and churches to be non-political because to do so implies that there are substantial aspects of human life over which God and the gospel have no say. Such apolitical stance will create an unacceptable dualism between the spiritual and the material aspects of life, implying that there is another Lord who is in charge of the political sphere than God, our Creator and Redeemer. Indeed, to invoke the separation between religion and politics in order to uphold this sort of Platonic dualism is to suggest that human beings somehow belong to the powers that be, that is, they are at the mercy of political authorities who can do what they please with them without any fear of rebuke from God through the prophetic ministry of the Church.

It would further mean that, as Creator, God is totally indifferent to what happens to and among human beings and how human beings treat one another. Significantly, the witness of the Church over the centuries has denied the possibility that God is indifferent to what human beings do to themselves and to the life that has been entrusted to them, because every human being must one day account for their actions before their Creator. For this reason what happens to and with human beings makes the difference as to whether they are under the dominion of some demon or the dominion of God, who cares about human life and has, in Jesus Christ, demonstrated a willingness to come to its defense. The cash value of this claim is that the problems of politics and theology are not as separable as it is often assumed by those who are ready to advise theologians and preachers to stick to religion and not meddle in politics.

It is important to note that the inseparability between religion and politics has been part of church history since 313 AD. when, for better or worse, the Emperor Constantine the Great declared Christian religion as religio licita, that is, an approved religion. From that time on Christians began to identify their welfare and the protection of the gospel with the fortunes and the security of the Roman Empire. We may, of course, regret the fact that this alliance between church and state has allowed the ruling classes to co-opt Christian religion in order to legitimate the interests, the hopes, the struggles and the ambitions of the dominant elites at the expense of the oppressed and powerless sections of society. In consequence, the Church and its theology, reflecting and being conditioned by the values of the ruling classes developed a religion of oppression and exploitation which justified the economic bondage and domination to which the majority of human family became subjected. Commenting on the misuse of religion to legitimate the interests of dominant classes no lesser an individual than the French Emperor Napoleon, when, with deep insight, observed:

As far as I am concerned, I do not see in religion the mystery of the incarnation but the mystery of social order: it links the idea of inequality to heaven which prevents the rich person from being murdered by the poor. How can there be order in the state without religion? Society cannot exist without inequality of fortunes and the inequality of fortunes could not subsist without religion. Whenever a half-starved person is near anothers who is glutted, it is impossible to reconcile the difference if there is not an authority to say to him: "God wills it so, it is necessary that there be rich and poor in the world, but afterwards in eternity there will be a different distribution" (cited in Lindberg 1981:37).

It was in response to this misuse of religion that led the Enlightenment thinkers to question the idea of state churches which, in the name of religion, condemned the so-called heretics and persecuted many people who were perceived to be a threat to the security of the Church and state. Tired of these persecutions, thinkers of the Enlightenment called for a principle of Criticism so that all dogmas could be subjected to and be justified before "the bar of reason." In so doing, they helped to cultivate a spirit of anti-dogmatism, anti-religious fanaticism and toleration in matters of faith and personal conscience (Maimela 1987:9).

Taken at their face value the demands of "reasonableness" in religion and the choice in matters of personal belief appear innocent and worth embracing. However, this spirit of tolerance was interpreted by the liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries to mean that religion is a private and personal matter between God and the individual, an individual who must be left to live without interference from other authorities regarding what one must believe or how to lead one’s life. This liberal mood is summarized beautifully by Welch (1974:31) who points out what the plea for anti-dogmatic reasonableness reflects:

The general tendency to the secular and the bourgeois in the (18th century) life, the desire to settle down to relative security and a life governed by "good common sense" as one well-satisfied with his or her lot, (the lot, that is, of an educated and financially secure English person in a mercantile culture), not thinking too highly or too humbly of oneself, but seeing oneself as a pretty decent sort of a fellow, entitled to some pursuit of self-interest, and certainly not to be preoccupied either with the joys of heaven or the torments of hell.

The consequence of this non-interfering kind of religion was the conception of God as a being who stands aloof from human affairs. After all, the Copernican revolution and scientific advances had revealed that the world and humanity operated according to certain natural laws, laws of cause and effect which should not be violated by providential interferences as religion claims.

In the 19th century both the Church and theologians were caught unprepared to deal with the liberal’s insistence that God be banished from public life through the restriction of the gospel to a private life of individuals, but the Church was willing to pay the costly price for its survival when it accepted the view that religion is a private matter. In practice, this meant that religion has no place in the realm of politics, economics, and other socio-cultural spheres -- leaving thereby the realm of law and order, science, the state, racism, sexism and classism and other forms of social oppression beyond the reach of the Gospel.

The emergence of religious revivals and pietism in the 19th century did not help much to overcome this dualism, because of its overemphasis on the cultivation of private virtue and piety. For, priests bought wholesale the motto of liberalism and its individualism, which effected the separation between the private and public life, the realm of the inner life and external realm, between the secular and the sacred spheres, and between the Sunday faith and weekday morality.

The upshot of what has been said is that the thoroughgoing separation between the secular and the religious spheres is a recent development during the 18th and 19th centuries, which lead to the confusion regarding what relation religion ought to have with politics. Regrettably, some Christians concluded that theology and the Church have no place in the public matters which are better served when they are left to the so-called experts. Not surprising, it has taken the Church a long time to develop a critical and prophetic theology with which to confront the social evils and oppression which have condemned the majority of the human family to abject poverty and dehumanizing life.

Against this dualism, between the internal and external, private and public, a dualism which has led to the exploitation and oppression of many human beings, I contend that followers of Christ have no other option but to take an active interest in the earthly, secular things such as politics and economics because Jesus would not permit us the luxury of dwelling in a "spiritual ghetto unrelated and unconcerned with real life issues". I am persuaded by Archbishop Tutu’s contention that we must resist socially oppressive forces because the God whom we worship is one who:

Cares enormously about children in resettlement camps, who must drink water to fill their stomachs because there is no food; he cares about shivering women at Nyanga whose flimsy plastic shelters are being destroyed by police; He cares that the influx control system together with Bantunization are destroying black family life not accidentally but by deliberate government policy; He cares that people die mysteriously in detention; He cares that something horrible is happening in this country when a man will often mow down his family before turning the gun on himself; He cares that life seems so dirt cheap (cited in Maimela 1986:43).

It is because God cares so much about the life the Creator has made that God is not useless and irrelevant to human struggles for political freedom, but is worthy of praise and worship. In consequence, Archbishop Tutu believes that he cannot be the disciple of such a caring God and remain aloof from socio-political involvement. For he is conscious of the fact that in their interactions with one another, human beings, by virtue of being social beings, are of necessity political beings whose actions have both political dimensions and involve moral responsibility before God and their fellows.

It is the God who seeks the lost, who binds the broken-hearted, who rescues the afflicted and is the comforter of the weak. Because of the love, concern and care that this God shows to those who call on him/her, the God portrayed by liberation theology is able to elicit human response of faith and trust. This portrait of God in liberation theology is impressive enough to move, inspire and involve those who have encountered God’s love in acts of love and liberation towards their human fellows. It is the God about whom Archbishop Desmond Tutu could, with exuberant tone and deep insight, testify:

we worship an extraordinary God who says that in order for your worship of me to be authentic, in order for your love of me to be true, I cannot allow you to remain in your spiritual ghetto. Your love for me, your worship of me, are authenticated and expressed by your love and your service of your fellows (cited in Maimela 1986:49).


In conclusion, the debate about the relationship between theology and religion sheds some light from another perspective, which, often betrays a conservative mind-set. Put more crudely, when people demand that religion should be kept separate from politics, and especially that the Church should not preach politics, they usually say that the preacher must not meddle in "dirty politics". The thought here is that the Gospel and the Church are concerned with things which are clean and lovely, with holy things, with the soul and the hereafter, with exalted things. By contrast, politics is seen as dirty, as concerned with "worldly" things, unworthy and unholy things, things which should not be allowed to pollute the Gospel and the Church. Politicians often solemnly admonish the Church and its preachers and clergy to confine themselves to their task and leave politics and social life to the politicians, particularly the government. These politicians, of course, do not speak of politics as dirty, but they base what they say on the same sharp distinction between the Church (or Gospel) and politics.

We may approach the question of the meaning of politics from two angles.

First, we can consider the concrete question of what is that politicians and particularly the government are doing. A government makes laws which citizens must obey. These laws govern the lives of the citizens; they set out to improve certain conditions and to create other conditions; they determine what is right and may be done and what is wrong and may not be done?

Secondly, we may look at the question from a slightly different angle. Politics, and the government in particular, have to do with the structuring of the society. It is the government which determines how the money gained from taxation is to be applied, how much is spent on armaments, how much on large industrial projects and so on. Such decisions can change the whole course of events in a country and so change the lives of millions of people. It is the authorities who determine whether national service shall be made compulsory for young men and women, how long that service shall be made compulsory for young men and women, how long that service shall be and what they will do. Have all these things nothing to do with the Gospel? Has the Gospel nothing to say about war and peace, about our lives and how our lives are changed by the projects of politicians? In South Africa politicians used to determine where men and women may live and where they may not live, where they may work and where they may not work, where they may vote and own property, who will have free and compulsory education and who will not. Such are the all embracing decisions they make! Has the Gospel nothing to do with all these? Does the Bible have nothing to say about what our community should be like? Do we not have Amos and James in the Bible?

Enough rhetorical questions, the Gospel has a great deal to do with politics. It would therefore be wrong for us to assume that the Gospel and politics can be kept in separate compartments. The Gospel has much to say to the politician and to the government. Or did Elijah and Jeremiah and Amos and Jesus not have much to say to the authorities of their times?’ But this argument still has not clarified what is meant by the term "political theology".

Let us approach the problem from another angle. People of Jesus’ time felt that they were quite defenceless against supernatural powers. They were at the mercy of diseases and catastrophes over which they had no control. Their faith in God was shaken by natural disasters. As recently as two centuries ago the earthquake in Lisbon (1755) which killed thousands of people, raised the question of the existence of a God of love, because things beyond human control, things in and outside nature threatened human existence.

The events of the Twentieth Century have made this kind of question even more pertinent. Not only have natural disasters such as earthquakes occurred; atrocities of apocalyptic dimensions have been committed by the so-called civilized nations. There was Auschwitz, a German concentration camp where millions of Jews were killed during World War II. There were Hiroshima and Nagasaki where nuclear bombs killed thousands of people in a flash: not only soldiers, but also women and children and unborn infants. These were not natural disasters, they were political disasters. These were carefully planned and executed events in which politicians and governments took decisions.

Has the Gospel nothing to say about things like these? Has the Church no message of judgement upon the racial hatred of the Germans and their murder of the Jews? All these things occurred as a result of political decisions, dirty political decisions.

Was it not, however, precisely for sinners and for the enemies of God that Jesus came? Does John 3:16 have nothing to say about mass murder and about the oppression of human beings? In truth, the Gospel has everything to do with politics.

In our century we have even come to see such matters as disease in a new light. Disease is not simply the fate of an individual assigned to him or her from above. One can become ill by working under bad conditions, by living in a badly built house, by being underfed. One can die of an illness because efficient medical services are not available. Has the Gospel nothing to do with this kind of thing? If not, then it was a mistake to do medical missionary work.

Stated briefly, we no longer live under conditions of cosmic powerlessness and slavery that characterized the lives of people from the first centuries of the Christian era until quite recently. We live in a political world, a world in which human political decisions have tremendous influence over people’s lives and opportunities and circumstances. Because the Gospel is concerned with our lives, with love to God and neighbor, the Church has an indispensable message for our political life.

Three important points need to be noted. First, it is a delusion to believe that some churches are not involved in politics. All churches and religious groups have a political influence. Even those churches that do not criticize politicians and the government are involved in politics. By their silence they support and promote the government’s actions. Simply by saying nothing, they accept what is happening and sanction it by silence.

Secondly, let us note that politics can indeed be dirty but that it does not need to be dirty. A.A. van Ruler has called politics a holy matter, and he was right. Reformed theology has always called for the sovereignty of Jesus over all society. God created the earth and mankind and has made us responsible for one another. How we live together, what our community looks like, how we act towards the poor and the underprivileged, who may marry whom, who may live where -- all these matters are God’s business. A government that does not heed the message of the gospel cannot do the will of God. Therefore, the church which is not continually expressing the will of God to the government is not fulfilling its calling. For, in the first place, no politician or government can by herself, himself or itself know the will of God for all the difficult situations in a society. They are dependent upon the word of God and on the Church as the proclaimer of that word. Further, it is often difficult for politicians and for a government to carry out God’s will, particularly if the government has been democratically elected but finds out, after the election, that it has to act in ways which are unpopular with the voters. If, in such a situation, the Church does not let its voice be heard clearly and persistently, then it is abandoning the government to its fate and denying the Lord Jesus Christ.

The third important point is: The scope of political theology is much wider. It does not concentrate only on abuses. Political theology is based on the insight that human beings are increasingly creating their own history and destiny. We are responsible for the shape which our lives will take today and tomorrow. The things that determine our lives are our own creation.

Cars, trains, the radio, machines they may never be switched off, these things which so determine our lives are our own creation. How much food is produced, and what people’s standard of living will be, are increasingly determined by planning and are less and less dependent upon forces beyond human control. This situation is usually defined as the political situation in which we live. We must accept responsibility for the world as it is today and as it will be tomorrow. This all-embracing, human-made society is created by political decisions, and so in a sense the whole of life may be called the political situation. It is here that men and women express themselves. This is where things can be changed.

Political theology, then, means the one that interprets the Bible with an eye to this political situation. Who should have a say in the decisions which determine our lives today and tomorrow? Who has the right to share in the prosperity that is now possible? Is there any limit to the things we may make and alter (heart transplants, artificial insemination, "test-tube babies," nuclear weapons -- more than enough to destroy all forms of life on earth!)? Can we regard it as acceptable that two or three people can determine the destiny of all humankind -- those people being for instance the leaders of the United States of America, the Republic of Russia and China? For whatever reason, one of these men or women could decide tomorrow to wage nuclear war and within 24 hours all human life on earth could be snuffed out.

Has the Gospel anything to say to this human-made history? This is the most fundamental and legitimate question posed by political theology. Although many forms of political theology may be unacceptable and have endorsed unbiblical concepts, the basic starting point of political theology is sound. God has created the earth and loves the world (even though it is a sinful world). This belief has decisive consequences for our activity in the out-and-out political situation in which we all live.

The view expressed above is soundly rooted in the biblical tradition (which affirms the sovereignty of Jesus Christ in all areas of life). Although most of us probably grew up in different traditions, we might nevertheless agree that people fall into either of two categories: those who accept God without the world, or those who accept the world without God. This is the basic difference (somewhat oversimplified) between Christianity and atheism. The majority of the established churches have separated God from the world, thinking that those who serve God can have nothing to do with the world. God may well be concerned with the soul, with our inner lives, with the intimate community life of our small groups, but we cannot "leave dirty politics alone." By contrast the atheist has chosen the world, and has absolutized politics, and let go of God.

Neither of these extremes is the truth. For as we have increasing awareness that creation in the world we live is not a completed act in some remote past but continues here and now and must be carried forward to its completion through political action. It is thus incumbent on theologians to develop a theology of cultural and social transformation because such a theology can be the only one which truly is political theology. Such a theology will be the one which is capable of inspiring and impelling Christians to live creatively and positively for God and their fellow humans. Political theology and creative political will thus remain a chance and opportunity to work with God for our fellows’ liberation and freedom until victory of love and justice for all is finally won. To that end God will not let us rest and a good political theology could even less afford to be tranquilizer and therefore make us slumber.1



1. For a major statement on the theology of social transformation and creative change, see my God’s Creativity Through the Law (Pretoria: University of South Africa, 1984).


Lindberg, Carter. 1981. "Through a Glass Darkly: A Histoiy of the Church’s Vision of the Pour and Poverty" in The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 33.

Maimela, S. Simon. 1986. "Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- A Revolutionary Priest or Man of Peace?" in I. J. Mosala and B. Thagale (eds.), Hammering Swords into Ploughshares (Braamfontein: Skotaville Publishers).

Maimela. S. Simon. 1987. Proclaim Freedom to my People (Braamfontein: Skotaville Publishers).

Welch, Claude. 1972. Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Volume I (New Haven: Yale University Press).