By Fr Blaise Jailos*
Every time the Catholic Church in Malawi issues a Pastoral Letter, there are dissent voices from politicians as well as some lay faithful denouncing the Church for interfering in a field which is not her domain. We may recall the famous 1992 Pastoral Letter – Living Our Faith – which was termed seditious and the Catholic Bishops were detained and accused of interfering in politics.
Before the 2020 Fresh Presidential Election, the Catholic Church issued a Pastoral Letter termed ‘A Further Call for a New Era in Malawi’ which received mixed reactions from politicians and some Christians. Some politicians openly reminded the Bishops that religion and politics do not mix.
I can safely say that every time the Church involves itself in matters perceived as politics has led to her being accused of abdicating her responsibility of taking care of souls and making disciples and then engaging in politics which is seen as earthly thus interfering in the realm of politicians. It is the wish of the politicians to be left amassing unlimited political power from the unsuspecting citizens, hence the call for the Church to keep off. However in spite of this call the Church fearlessly continues to get involved in all areas of human life including politics. What justifies this involvement?
Religion is a controversial and complicated subject in religious studies with scholars failing to agree on any one definition. However, Oxford Dictionary defines it as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Scholar Emile Durkheim defines religion as ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden’ – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.
Furthermore, Max Lynn Stackhouse defines religion as ‘a comprehensive worldview or ‘metaphysical moral vision’ that is accepted as binding because it is held to be in itself basically true and just even if all dimensions of it cannot be either fully confirmed or refuted’. All these definitions help us to understand and draw out the function of religion which is the heart of every Church.
Politics is a multifaceted word which has been defined in various ways leading to different approaches in its application. For instance, Harold Lasswell defines politics as ‘who gets what, when, how’, while David Easton, defines it as ‘the authoritative allocation of values for a society’.
Furthermore Vladimir Lenin, defines politics as ‘the most concentrated expression of economics’. And in Wikipedia politics is defined as the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources.
This short paragraph shows us that politics indeed is a multifaceted word which when well understood can help us understand and appreciate the role of all agents of politics in their attempt to create a just society. But still what justifies the Church’s involvement in politics?
Church, as a family or people of God, is ideally built on the values of the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus Christ. These values are justice, peace, righteousness, truth, love, dignity of the human person and special care for the marginalized (option for the poor). Although these are values of the kingdom, they are to be lived in the world where the Church is present as a foretaste of the Kingdom to come.
So, by her very nature and mission, the Church should always endeavour to cultivate these values which are necessary for creating a just society. Involvement of the Church in all aspects of a society’s life is regarded as her prophetic mission. Therefore, the Church which is the ‘body of Christ’ as hierarchy and faithful has a responsibility to participate in all aspects of a nation’s life be it social, economic, political or otherwise. This is a divine responsibility.
The church has a duty to promote transformation, development, good governance and liberation of humanity through Gospel values particularly those of love and justice. The church cannot therefore teach and promote these values in a vacuum, she has to be involved in the earthly life of her people, and this calls for her involvement in all spheres of life which include politics.
As a matter of fact, the Church’s involvement in politics is not new because the Old Testament shows that God himself is a God of politics. Exodus 7:1-5 shows God’s involvement in politics when he said to Moses, “see, I have made you like God to Pharaoh…and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretched out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it”.
In a typical style of politics God was saving the Israelites from the oppressive government of Egypt. There was a lot of politics being played between these two parties, God and the Egyptians, in which each of them wanted to show their power. God wanted to protect and save the Israelites who were working as slaves in Egypt because God is always known as an Advocate of justice and a Protector of the poor. God decisively intervened in Egyptian politics and liberated the Israelites. Every time the Church intervenes in the social-political life of the people she serves, she is participating in God’s liberating mission.
In the New Testament we see how religion and politics deal with each other. Jesus openly denounced the policies and manifestations of the Pharisees that oppressed the poor and marginalized. For example, Jesus gave that parable of a good Samaritan where one of the Jews did not show interest in helping the wounded person. Through Jesus actions, we see how much he was involved in the lives of the people he preached to.
Therefore, through the Words of Christ such as Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” and His actions, the Church draws its strength to get involved in politics of the life of her people.
Her involvement is an authentic way of living the Gospel of Christ which are justice, peace, love and unity. These core values must be seen and lived in the society where the Church is present.
The Mission of Christ is to promote both human and spiritual development on earth. As such, the Catholic Church here in Malawi and elsewhere has the duty to help Christians to live their faith through justice and peace. The Church needs to continue to be a peacemaker and reconciler in this country where regionalism, tribalism, corruption are being embedded in the hearts of many Malawians. So whenever the Church speaks out for what is just and against social injustice, it is wrongly viewed as being partial towards political opposition, her voice is needed more than ever before.
The Church has to continue remaining that sign of hope and guidance to many Malawians of goodwill and continue to impress upon them the need for concerted efforts to avert social, political and future economic crisis. The Church has to continue empowering the faithful to stand up for social, economic and political justice, in order to enhance the mission of Christ here in Malawi.
The Church takes seriously what Ps.82:3-4 says “We must defend the rights of the poor and the orphans, and rescue them from the powers of evil me.” This is the prophetic calling of the Church.
*Fr Jailos, smm, is general manager of Montfort Media