• April 25th, 2019
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DIESCHO's DICTUM - The role of the Church in Namibia

By Joseph Diescho

VERY few will argue with accuracy and honesty that the Christian Church has not played an important role in the history of the formation of Namibia as we know our country today. The creation and evolution of our very identity has been a consequence of the arrival and spread of the Christian Church in this part of Afrika. 

Our names as a people and our disparate and collective consciousness formations are dependent upon what the missionary churches did, when they did it, where they did it, how they did it and to whom they did it. It is no coincidence that Namibia today is the most Christian country in the Afrikan continent with over 90 percent of Namibians subscribing to the Christian faith as Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, African Methodist Episcopalians (AME) Orora, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dutch Reformed; and the newer versions of Pentecostal charismatic church formations that are mushrooming in townships today. The bottom line is that they all profess Jesus Christ as both the Son of God and the saviour! 

It is important to, against this background, appreciate the crucial role the church has played thus far in the formation and evolution of Namibia as a country and a nation. 

This background is also helpful in judging whether the church is still relevant today or not, and why.

The Gospel according to Matthew gives an account of the establishment of the church by Christ himself. 

It is about a direct conversation between Jesus and his disciples generally and with Peter specifically about who he really was in the eyes of the many who were witnessing his work and uniqueness in the lands where he was traversing. The context was that many curious people were asking about him as a prophet, some messenger, or fortune teller or the real Messiah. 

When Peter hazarded the correct answer, Jesus spoke the following words to him:  Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shall lose on earth shall be losed in heaven.” To many in Roman Catholic orthodoxy, this is the beginning of the existence of the Pope.

A good deal of Christian theological scholarship has consensus that with this establishment of the church, Jesus gave power to the Christian Church to play an active role in the lives of its flock. It is argued with this sacred mandate the clergy as shepherds in the Christian Church have a permanent assignment to (a) speak with judgement about the life of God’s people on earth, (b) continue to prophesy deliverance and (c) in changing times, speak the truth to power!

During the times of what was called Liberation Theology during the 1970s and 1980s the Christian Church carved a niche for itself when it confronted government systems and dictatorship in South America and Afrika by reminding those in power that Jesus’ essential mission on earth was to deliver the oppressed, to end abusive systems of government and to offer the equality and sanctity of God’s own image wherever they were. 

Liberation theologians assisted in bringing down a few greedy leaders in South America; strengthened the progressive and internationalist voices in Black America; and contributed significantly to the growth of the international solidarity movement that in turn supported the freedom struggles in Southern Afrika – it is this theology that lifted up the freedom voices of the likes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Rev. Allan Boesak and Dr Beyers Naude in South Africa;  our own prophetic voices of Bishops Zephania Kameeta, James Kauluma, Dr Abisai Shejavali, and Father Heinz Hunke, to mention but a few.

In fact, and it must be said that the Namibian Christian Church, notably the Lutheran Church preceded the international liberation theology thrust which was organizationally constituted in 1976 in Dar es Salaam with the creation of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). 

On 30 June 1971, Bishop Auala of the Evangelical Lutheran Owambo-Kavango Church (ELOC) and Moderator Gowaseb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South West Africa (ELC), in reaction to the ruling of the International Court of Justice that gave the occupationist regime of South Africa a breathing space to continue to rule Namibia authored what was termed an Open Letter to South African Prime Minister Balthazar John Vorster. The letter amplified the accusation that South Africa had failed to take cognizance of human rights in Namibia as declared by the United Nations in its 1948 Declaration of Universal human Rights. 

The letter accused South Africa of blatant failure in respect of black Namibians. The letter went on to list a number of the injustices suffered by Namibians – restrictions on movement and settlement, the lack of freedom of expression, the denial of basic political rights, especially the franchise, the policy of job reservation and the migrant labour system, which resulted in low wages and the destruction of family life - and concluded with a call for justice and independence. The signatories of the letter professed: ‘Our urgent wish is that in terms of the declarations of the World Court in co-operation with the United Nations , of which South Africa is a member, your Government will seek a peaceful solution to the problems of the land, and will see to self-sufficient and independent state.’

The open letter sent shock waves through the white community in the country such that the government was forced to recognize church leaders as major players in the political life of Namibia in advancement towards peace and national independence. Prime Minister Vorster yielded to a meeting with a delegation from ELOC and ELC in Windhoek on 18 August 1971. 

The meeting as such represented a confrontation between two irreconcilable viewpoints: Vorster attempted to sell the policy of Separate Development which meant bantustanization of ethnic governments as a solution for the ongoing consternation and to stem the tide of SWAPO on the one hand, and the spirit of the Open Letter which was the political conscientization of the general black population in Namibia towards total and national independence. 

One of the key consequences of the Open Letter was the growing awareness among the workers in Namibia and the oppressed generally to demand justice while among church workers and indigenous people a political theology emerged which sought to reconcile spiritual commitment with political involvement

In the later days of the church-government struggle in Namibia, the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Churches deliberately and courageously chose sides with the liberation movement under the aegis of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and sent chaplains to minister to the Namibian Christians in exile. From the Catholic clergy who went into risky areas to take pastoral care of fellow Namibians who were banished by circumstances from their motherland were Father Heimerikx  (Kaishara) from Otshikuku and Father Werner Afunde,  who is the current Vicar-General of  St Mary’s Cathedral  in Windhoek.

The role of the Christian Church in Namibia to the extent that it contributed to the present, cannot be overemphasized. 

In the beginning of formal education, particularly teacher education, the church played a pioneering role. As a matter of fact, the records speak for themselves that the teachers who came out of church schools and were ploughed back into their communities were not only teachers during school hours, but significant role models in the entire community, even the non-baptised. 

Even though the church did not play a political role per se, the outcomes of the church education changed public life. Consider the contributions of Dobra, St Barnabas, Martin Luther High, Odibo, Ongwediva School for Boys, Okahao School for Girls, Oshigambo, Mariabronn, and even the ethnic based primary church schools for that matter.

Come political independence, things changed, arguably for the worse as far as the role of the Christian Church is concerned. Like the labour unions and student organizations, the church fell prey to the pornography of political power and lost its direction. 

Understandably by virtue of the unquestionable legitimacy of the post-independence government under the leadership of SWAPO, the church abdicated its voice of prophecy to the politicians, and became vulnerable to the skilful art of political co-optation of the state. The dance of freedom was so powerful and alluring that the clergy acquired the new role of blessing the food at state banquets and sitting at the head table. Little did the church realise that power, especially political power has corrosive power over good people. On 5 April 1887, Lord Acton wrote a letter to Bishop Mandell Croughton in the Church of England and offered the following warning: ‘Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely…’

At the moment it would appear that a good number of the clergy are more preoccupied with the material gains they derive from the tithing by unsuspecting worshippers who themselves turn to church for things other than salvation. 

The regular worshippers who flock to the so-called charismatic churches are the most afflicted as the pastors in these churches, some who call themselves apostles and prophets; forgetting that as far as the scriptures foretold, all apostles are dead, and that the Messiah about whom was prophesied, had already come and risen to sit at the right hand of the Father. 

The question remains: Is there a role for the Christian church in a nation like Namibia where there is a legitimate and elected government? The answer is emphatically YES. The church has a role to interpret the purpose of God in the modern world with all its contradictions and paradoxes. The church has an obligation to grow the church of God as a sanctuary for those who are downtrodden and despised due to circumstances they never chose. The church has a duty to console those who are in distress. 

• To be continued

New Era Reporter
2014-07-29 10:18:38 4 years ago

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