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Opinion - Special focus: Church and state in Namibia

2021-12-03  Reverend Jan Scholtz

Opinion - Special focus: Church and state in Namibia
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With the demise of apartheid, the Namibian churches are realising that there are other issues confronting society. These other issues have been neglected.

However, now the churches are being swamped by ethical issues: pornography, rape, homosexuality, capital punishment, abortion, teenage pregnancy, same marriages and lesbians. The list is extensive panic and confusion reigns because Christian people feel they are confronted by a deluge of moral decay. 

Namibia is a secular state as established in Article 1 (1) Chapter 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia with uncompromised fundamental human rights and freedom. 

What are the issues and what is at stake? A secular state is a modern political invention that was made necessary, initially in Europe and North America, after the collapse of Christendom in the 16th Century, and especially after the 18th Century Enlightenment. It took into account the fact that there was no longer a religious consensus based on the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

State churches continued to exist in various parts of Europe, but after a considerable struggle on the part of descending or free churches, it soon came to be accepted that all religious communities should have the freedom to worship and witness according to their conscience. Hence, the separation of church and state in the United States, and the passing of the Voluntary Act by the Cape Parliament in 1875. The fact that in most modern countries today many different religious traditions and faiths co-exist has made even this even more necessary. The alternative is the domination of one religion.

A secular state does not mean a state without moral values, a religious state does not mean a highly moral one. The apartheid government insisted that we were a religious country and specifically a Christian one. But we all know that this did not prevent the colonial government from policies that were the very antithesis of Christian values. We also know that this did not prevent corruption in high (and low) places, neither did it prevent certain people from visiting the homelands for a gambling binge and dirty weekend. So we ended up, not with moral values, but with a great deal of self-righteous hypocrisy. 

Some Christians now claim that because Namibia is a predominantly Christian country (95% is the figure usually quoted), this entitles Christians to determine the values of the country. Two things need to be said: The first is to applaud those who have taken to the streets to protest against the erosion of national values. 

At long last some Christians, now recognise that this is a Christian responsibility. The second is to remind us that even though 95% of the population may be Christian, there is certainly no agreement among all Christians on the issues at stake, otherwise, all Christians would have voted for the same party.

So, if we had a Christian state we would have to decide which Christian should determine the dominant value for everyone else. Even if we agree that the Bible should be the basis, we would have to agree on its interpretation, and not even “Bible-believing Christians” agree on everything. So, we come back to a secular state. But not a state without moral values, nor a state which rides over religious communities or the freedom of religious conscience.

Laws may well be needed to prevent the erosion of values, but laws can only function if they can be implemented. What is of greater importance is the creation of communities that are committed to moral values, and therefore communities that can act as the “salt of the earth”. What is of equal importance is that the church exercises its time prophetic role in society, keeping those in power accountable to the norms of justice and equality, for upholding these is the responsibility of the state. 

The failure of the state to maintain values in a country that is so religious and 95% Christian – is surely no judgement on its institution nor the government, but on the churches themselves. For the church “to live unto itself” is no longer an option.  Any attempt on the part of the church to confine itself to its domestic affairs will be interpreted as a running away from reality and responsibility and will give substance to the oft-repeated allegation that the church is irrelevant.

But what is morally wrong cannot also be politically right.

2021-12-03  Reverend Jan Scholtz

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