See Part 2 of this article
In Africa and other parts of the world, May 25 is designated Africa Day. According to the South African government: “Africa Day is intended to celebrate and acknowledge the successes of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU now the AU) from its creation on May 25 1963 in the fight against colonialism and apartheid, as well as the progress that Africa has made while reflecting upon the common challenges that the continent faces in a global environment.”
The preamble to the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) – the successor to the OAU – refers to, among other noble ideals, “unity, solidarity, cohesion and cooperation”, “political independence, human dignity and economic emancipation”, “liberation of the continent”, “peace, security and stability” and “good governance and the rule of law”.
The AU has designated 2020 the year of, “Silencing the Guns” – one of the many objectives that feature in the AU’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want – “a robust framework for addressing past injustices and the realisation of the 21st Century as the African Century”.
“Silencing the guns” is about ending all violent conflicts, including gender-based violence, in Africa. Simon Allison observes, as many others will have, the AU and its member states “will have to work miracles” to achieve this laudable goal by the end of 2020.
Attempts to achieve the ideals listed in the AU’s institutional framework, if not done in love, will ultimately fall short.
The meaning of love for Africa’s citizenry
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “all the Law and the Prophets” — Matt 22:37-40 (NIV) — depend on these two commandments. Put differently, these are the fundamental instructions that Jesus gave to every follower of Christ. They are foundational to everything that God asks of those who believe in and follow Him.
Paul describes love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” — 1 Cor 13:4-7 (ESV).
For these reasons, Christians should generally be better citizens.
In Joshua 1:8 (NIV) we read: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful”.
What then, should we expect to find in those regions or countries of the world with Christian majorities?
Christianity in Africa: the quantity and the quality
In 2015, three of the 10 countries in the world with the largest Christian populations were located in Africa: Nigeria, DR Congo and Ethiopia. Africa is currently home to the highest number of professing Christians in the world. Christians make up more than 45% of the continent’s population.
Pew Research Center surveys conducted from 2008 to 2017 suggest that the world’s most committed Christians live in Africa, meaning they “pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives than Christians elsewhere in the world”. Yet, much of what we see and experience in Africa does not reflect the love that Jesus modelled and commanded.
In a previous piece on the relationship between Christianity and politics in my home country of South Africa, a territory with a population that is reportedly more than 80% Christian, I highlighted and offered possible reasons for the disjuncture that can exist between the claimed religious commitments of majority Christian populations and their lived realities.
I refer to these lived realities, broadly, as the challenges of governance. These could include corruption, terrorism, crime, poverty and unemployment, unrestrained population growth, intrastate conflict, lack of quality education, famine and poor health.
Let us consider for a moment the three African countries with the largest Christian populations in 2015. Nigeria, with a population that is 58% Christian, scores 27/100 on Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. DR Congo, where 95.8% of the population is Christian, was home to “Africa’s First World War” (1994-2003). The country continues to struggle with conflict and security sector reform – a process that is fundamental to initiating and sustaining development in a post-conflict setting. Today, Ethiopia, a country whose population is 62.8% Christian, is threatened by ethnic violence and forced displacement.
The call to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ in an undeniably political world
Speaking to disciples during His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world” — Matt 5:13-16.
I have argued in my writing on South Africa that the disjuncture between the number of South Africans identified as Christian and the state of South African society, suggests a failure on the part of professing Christians to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ across all spheres of society, including politics. The same applies to the rest of Africa and indeed, other parts of the world.
Politics is important because it has a daily and, potentially, everlasting impact on the well-being of every human life, created in the image of God. Hunter Baker argues: “The laws of politics have their impact on human lives just as the laws of physics do”. Paul Geren (1963) writes: “If our existence is set in a political context, Christians are called to politics, some to leadership and all to concern. To refuse this calling is to leave a gap which is both quantitative and qualitative: quantitative in that some decisions are taken in the political realm and Christians can have little effect unless they are engaged politically; qualitative in that the cutting edge of many struggles is political and the Christian cannot be engaged at the decisive edge except through politics”.
Unresponsiveness to the call
Bob Dylan sings, the political world is a space where “Love don’t have any place”, where “Wisdom is thrown in jail, It rots in a cell, Is misguided as hell … Where mercy walks the plank … Children unwanted”, where, “Courage is a thing of the past … Where peace is not welcome at all”.
If the political realm is as grim as Dylan describes, how then shall we redeem it, if not by being salt and light? Dylan is accurate in his assessment, only to the degree that people, including Christians, remain unresponsive to God’s all-encompassing mandate.
Jesus asks: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” — Luke 6:46 (NIV). God has ordained Christians to be agents of a heavenly Kingdom on Earth. The instructions to love, to be salt and light and to disciple the nations, inform this mandate.
The failure of Christians to engage politics at all, or to engage politics without God’s word at the forefront of their thoughts and deeds (Joshua 1:8 and Matthew 4:4), is a failure to be salt and light in a highly significant and pervasive sphere of human relations.
The Christian who refrains from engaging the political fails to exploit fully the opportunity to influence for Christ and extend His Kingdom. The Christian who does engage politics, but fails to do so biblically, fails to bring his or her being and God-given agency fully under the lordship of Christ. It is not enough to say: “Jesus is my Saviour”. He must also be Lord over my political thinking and my political doing. He must be Lord over my political being.
The failure noted above, for which there may be a number of reasons in a given country, must form part of any explanation of the incongruence between the large numbers of professing Christians in Africa and the challenges of governance experienced in many parts of the continent.
This is not to deny the impact of Africa’s colonial history, the restrictions on freedoms under many of Africa’s post-colonial governments, and the continued impact of foreign actors on the wellbeing of Africa’s people.
The responsibility to exercise faith and to be salt and light in the political sphere rests with every follower of Christ, irrespective of geographical location, political circumstance or the degree of influence that accompanies his or her occupation or socio-economic standing.
However, to focus our attention exclusively on this responsibility of Christians broadly, with the hope of overcoming challenges of governance, is to deny the substantial influence exercised by those occupying positions of political power, irrespective of their faith. In the midst of Covid-19, for example, we are reminded of the bearing that governments have.
The significance of political leadership
The responsibility of all Christians to engage politics and to do so according to God’s Word, even in instances where it is exercised faithfully in a country by a meaningful number, does not negate necessarily, the negative impact of political leadership that is motivated by anything other than a sincere desire for the wellbeing of people.
Hypothetically speaking, it is possible for a head of state or government, even a professing Christian, with sufficient coercive force at his or her disposal, to deny the legitimate interests and potential impact of a politically active and biblically aligned Christian majority.
If, as John Maxwell argues: “Everything rises and falls on leadership”, it stands to reason that the wellbeing of nations will rise and fall depending to a substantial degree at least, on the nature and quality of their political leadership. The Bible and secular sources attest to this.
Proverbs 11:14 (NLT) reads: “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers”. In Proverbs 29:2 (NLT), King Solomon writes: “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan”.
In his commentary on Isaiah 3:1-4, Maxwell writes: “God had a strategy for judging Judah, and part of His judgement involved removing good leaders from the nation. No organisation or nation can prosper without good leadership. People suffer with poor leaders at the helm. God knew the way to impact the nation was to change its leadership”.
Jo-Ansie Van Wyk argues: “Africans are some of the poorest and least developed people. In order to change these conditions, African leaders have to make a difference and pay more than mere lip service to the idea of an African Renaissance”. Hellicy Ngambi believes: “The success or failure of every nation is a true reflection of its leadership”.
Chester Crocker writes: “In Africa, as in every region, it is the quality and characteristics of governance that shape the level of peace and stability and the prospects for economic development. There is no more critical variable than governance”.
While addressing Christian leaders at a prayer breakfast in Harare in 2017, Zimbabwe’s incumbent president said: “If we, in leadership positions, as the people of influence within our nation, conduct ourselves with righteousness, continue upholding justice, honesty and peace, then the entire nation will be transformed for the better”. Have truer words been spoken by an African president?
Due to their positions and enhanced access to resources, Africa’s statesmen generally, but heads of state and government in particular, yield greater political influence. Note, for example, how the Constitutive Act of the AU begins: “We, Heads of State and Government…”
For Andre Mangu: “Of all forms of leadership … political leadership – in particular in a nation-state – occupies a special position because it is vastly more visible and, ostensibly at least, more important”. He agrees, however, that “Although there are many political leaders at all levels of power, the most important are heads of state and government”.
This truism is not unique to Africa, but in a continent where institutions of collective (democratic) governance remain relatively underdeveloped, the influence of a head of state or government becomes paramount. Crocker writes, for example, that, “in Africa, where the rule of law is in competition with the rule of men, leaders play a strikingly critical role, for good or ill”.
To be continued in Part 2