It’s not just up to Christians to lead the way to a just, ethical society

Cyril Ramaphosa is right when he says that Christians in South Africa must stand up against rape and corruption. In fact, Christians should be doing a lot more standing up – against rape, corruption, crime, violence of all kinds, atrocities carried out by the SAPS, exploitation of workers, substance abuse and rampant selfish consumerism. My perception, as a non-religious person, is that many churches stay far too silent on the real challenges that face our people, preferring instead to focus on narrow scriptural issues or encouraging a culture of self-enrichment rather than service to others.

However, I am puzzling over his claim that “there is no better agent than Christians and the church to raise the morals, the moral consciousness of our nation,” and that “it falls on us as Christians. We must say this is a sin. This is a crime. Rape is a sin and it is a crime. We are the ones as ­Christians who must stand up and say, corruption, we will never ­accept it, because it is a sin. It is a crime.”

Surely in a multi-faith society, which also has a number of non-believers, that duty must lie with all institutions and individuals concerned with spirituality and/or morality, ethics and values. By singling out Christians, he appears to be saying that it is their exclusive duty to take on this responsibility on behalf of the rest of us and to provide guidance to the rest of us.

Now I am aware that he was addressing a Christian congregation, so it is logical for him to have focused on the duties of that particular faith. But he could have made his point in a more inclusive way. He could, for example, have said that all faith-based institutions in the country have a duty to show leadership in the fight against rape and other anti-social and immoral behaviour in South Africa. He could have added that, because Christians are in the majority, they carry a particular burden of responsibility for taking on this task.

But he didn’t. He made it a Christian issue, or at least that is what the media would have us believe.

And what about those of us who do not believe in a supreme being or whose spirituality is not practised through any of the established religious institutions, Christian or otherwise? Do we not also have the right and responsibility to determine honest, ethical, caring, charitable, loving principles of human cohabitation and to promote them? If so, would it not have been better for Ramaphosa to have said that?

The problem with not saying it is that it will reinforce the notion that some Christians have about the superiority of their religion. They genuinely believe that the only way to ‘salvation’ is through Jesus Christ. This means, therefore, that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, humanists and other non-Christians are doomed to eternal non-salvation because a lack of belief in Jesus is seen as an irredeemable obstacle. (I am not even going to begin to address the problem of the difference on issues of morality within the Christian faith!)

Apart from the theological problems posed by such a view (and I am not saying Ramaphosa shares this view – I am saying that what he is reported to have said feeds into this view), it doesn’t make sense politically. Ramaphosa has a primarily political persona – personally I was not even aware that he was a Christian, though the media seems to suggest that he is – and so his aim in such instances should surely be informed by political imperatives. And the political imperative in this instance is to ensure that everyone, Christian or not, religious or not, spiritual or not, takes responsibility for addressing the crisis of morality facing our country. While I would appreciate churches playing a much greater pastoral role in influencing morality in the country (more for the purpose of caring for people than for converting them to their church), I would not necessarily be seeking my moral direction from them, nor will people of the Islamic, Hindu, Judaistic, Buddhist and other faiths.

What I believe we should be focusing on is not the exclusive right to moral superiority of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, communism or any other religion or belief system. I would prefer for us to be identifying those values which are common to us all – and for everyone, regardless of creed, to encourage everyone to live according to those values.

In the late 1990s, a very useful document was drawn up by an interfaith grouping which attempted to do just that. The document, which was supported by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, people of the B’ahai Faith etc, encouraged all people to sign the following pledge:

I shall strive to:

  • Be good and do good
  • Live honestly and positively
  • Be considerate and kind
  • Care for my sisters and brothers within the human family
  • Respect all people’s rights to their beliefs and cultures
  • Care for and improve our common environment
  • Promote peace, harmony and non-violence
  • Promote the welfare of my country as a patriotic citizen

The values set out above are fully in line with our Constitution and especially of our Bill of Rights. They are values that can be supported by all, regardless of creed. They are values which recognise the right of people to have different creeds and their responsibility to work for the common human good, regardless of those creeds.

I would much rather hear Ramaphosa and others encouraging this sort of approach, rather than seeming to give the responsibility for moral leadership exclusively to one religious grouping.

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