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Opinion - The deafening silence of Namibian churches on genocide

2022-05-10  Staff Reporter

Opinion - The deafening silence of Namibian churches on genocide
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Prof. Paul John Isaak

This article examines the post-colonial silence of Namibian churches with special reference to the 1904 to 1908 genocide. From historical praxis, Christianity in Namibia has been seen and used as a weapon of breaking down (as a tool of colonialism and apartheid). For example, the association of Christianity and colonialism was so strong that many mission stations were fitted out as German military bases. To put it differently, western Christianity was responsible not merely for the glorification of European civilisation, but also to subject Africans to the four Cs: Christianity, Commerce, Civilisation and Conquest or the gun. In the case of Namibia, these four Cs resulted in Lothar von Trotha’s Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination proclamation) on 2 October 1904. Consequently, the Christian and colonial discourse became in the words of George Steinmetz “the devil’s handwriting.”  

Such devil’s handwriting became a sad historical reality in Namibia, whereby German colonialism and white South African apartheid demonstrated their political-military dominance and superiority. Sadly, Christianity itself was used in the service of colonialism. It became signs of spiritual and European cultural dominance. 

One can observe such developments with the case of the Lutheran Christuskirche in Windhoek. It is a gothic Lutheran church built in 1910, just shortly after the genocide. The building of this church is not as innocent as it looks. Deliberate attempts were made by the German colonial power to present their colonial history, including Christianity, by beatifying the evil face of colonialism and genocide so that it should look innocent, holy and humane. To camouflage the history of brutality and killings, churches such as Christuskirche were built to combine the political-military and the spiritual-cultural modes of domination/colonisation. 

In this church, one is seeing an entire wall filled with a plaque listing the names of every German and European killed during the colonial wars. The dedication along the top of the plaque reads: “In respectful memory of the comrades who have fallen since the creation of the German Protectorate and of the German citizens, women, and children who have given their lives for the Protectorate since this date, dedicated by the Schultztruppe and the population of this country.” As usual, such monuments or plaques never mentioned the indigenous victims of such wars, massacres and genocide. 

Likewise, a closer re-look is needed on the role of the mission societies who established Lutheran Churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN) and the German Lutheran Church in Namibia (DELK) as well as the Roman Catholic Church. The Rhenish Mission Society (RMS) from Germany started missionary work in Namibia in 1842, and thereby established ELCRN and DELK; the Roman Catholic Church started in 1865 in Namibia before the genocide, and likewise the Finnish Missionary Society in 1870 and established ELCIN. 

The RMS was an active participant in the oppression of Namibian Christians. For example, at the start of genocide in 1904, the RMS issued a pastoral letter to justify the 1904 to 1908 genocide of the Ovaherero, Nama, Damara, San etc. The RMS states in the pastoral letter of 1904 that Namibian Christians had “raised the sword” against the German colonial rule “which God had placed over” them and, therefore, “whoever took the sword would also perish by the sword.”

Instead of issuing a protest letter or protesting Christian voice, the Roman Catholic Church in Namibia and the Finnish Missionary Society remained neutral. They remained neutral while Namibian Christians were persecuted, subjected to the genocide history, denied basic human dignity, rights and freedoms by German colonialism as well as land and livestock expropriated and given to the European settlers. Better expressed, the church was in Namibia doing missionary work and proselytising during that time when genocide was ruthlessly carried out. Such neutrality of the church has been described by Martin Luther King as “the hottest place in hell” reserved “for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

These missionary societies and the Roman Catholic Church in Namibia directly, or by means of neutrality, reduced God’s mission to conversion, the erection of churches, and gaining “a place in the sun.” The main tenet of this line of thought was based on a Western Weltanschauung, which was a combination of Darwinism and pan-Europeanism. It involved the uncritical acceptance of colonialism, or using it to convert Africans to Christianity, and suggesting that the ‘underdeveloped’ people needed colonial protection. 

So, let us now throw down the gauntlet to the Namibian churches as a Christian challenge: they have to break their silence on genocide history. Let us ask ourselves why we as Christian churches in Namibia are silent, just like our mission societies during the 1904s? Today, it is our faith convictions that God is expecting from the Church to speak out prophetically, thereby avoiding to betray its evangelical mission to address the issue of genocide. Better expressed, evidence is mounting that the church in Namibia today is faced with a crisis of confidence in self-understanding and its public responsibility. In the face of so many contemporary issues and challenges, the church remains silent. 

Today, the expectations from the Church as Namibian Christians remain clear: The Church has to stand up (and be counted) together with the Namibian Government, the Namibian reparations movements and entities such as the Ovaherero Genocide Committee (OGC), Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Council for the Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide (OCD-1904), the Nama Genocide Technical Committee, and parties like NUDO, Swapo, PDM, LPM, etc. The Namibian government, together with all these reparations movements and political parties, have in our recent history expressed themselves on the issue of the genocide. We have on record their voices, but sadly the voice of the church remains missing, or is just silent.  

I dare to state that all Namibians, except the churches, have committed themselves to restorative justice. In other words, all of them are in favour of a trialogue among the Namibian government, the elected representatives of the affected communities, and the German government on the genocide issue. Such a trialogue approach seems the only solution from the side of Namibia because it gives Namibian negotiators better alternatives when dealing with a superior power such as the Germans. In short, we are a few people, and cannot be divided by the European powerhouse. 

Therefore, the prophetic demand is to hear the prophetic voice of the Church on the 1904 Genocide. Such truth- telling prophetic voice has to be expressed in solidarity and as agent of reconciliation, unity and justice. Not in mere sympathy, but in identification with all Namibian reparations activists, the Namibian government and political parties. 

The church must do that to be faithful to one of the first African Church Fathers in the second century, Tertullian. He said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In short, the blood of those who were killed during the 1904-1908 genocide must regenerate the prophetic ministry and voice of the Church today. In such contexts, the Church must be in the thick of the process of genocide. If the Church is there, we shall be able to avoid the danger of false reconciliation that may be imposed by the powerful; the politics of “forgive and forget”; or “for the sake of economic and political stability, a public debate on past wrongdoings be avoided at any cost”, or “let’s accept what is offered now and we shall negotiate for greater good later.” 

Instead, the prophetic voice of the Church must speak the truth faithfully and in bold humility. Our churches are able to do so because today, Namibians have been liberated and are courageous to stand firm without being intimidated by anyone, and are ready for liberative action and the core demand for restorative justice. In short, God’s Word redirects Namibian Christians and churches to earth, where we ought to be engaged together as the government, political parties, genocide reparations movements and churches to seek “memory justice” to the past on behalf of our Christian ancestors who died during the genocide so that their names and memories will never be forgotten. 

The Christian churches are called upon to break the wall of deafening silence on genocide, thereby following the footsteps of our first black Namibian Lutheran Bishop Leonard Auala, who said: Kalunga oko eli (nevertheless, God is present). So, with God’s help, let Namibian churches and especially the Church Leaders and Bishops be prophetic and say loudly: Here We Stand on Genocide, and we demand restorative justice since the entire story is about genocide, apology and reparation.

2022-05-10  Staff Reporter

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