State vs the church: sour romance

SHARE   |   Monday, 26 March 2018   |   By Keitebe Kgosikebatho
State vs the church: sour romance

As faith based organisations congregate in different parts of the country while some cross the border into neighboring countries for their ritual pilgrimages and night vigils over the holidays, STAFF WRITER KEITEBE KGOSIKEBATHO examines recent developments in the church and the relationship with the state. She finds a longstanding romance gone bad.

In 2008, the Botswana government took a decision to audit religious organisations and their activities. The audit was necessitated by fears that some of the practices of some religious bodies were at variance with the law. Soon afterwards, the nation saw the state moving swiftly to tighten the regulation of the church and its operations in Botswana. In 2015, a Bill that will change how churches are being operated in particular the increase in number of members required to register a church from 20 to 250 was passed into law by Parliament. An increase in the expulsion of pastors of foreign decent of pentecostal charismatic and highly  episcopal African independent churches, otherwise known as Fire churches, from the country has left congregants fuming over the development. Some sections of society have also raised concern about the heavy handed approach, accusing Government of interfering with citizen's freedom of association and religion. In some instances the state has even gone to the extent of de-registering some of the said churches, a recent example being the closure of controversial Shepherd Bushiri's Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) Church in Botswana. A legal tussle between the state and ECG is currently unravelling before the courts over the decision. The state however has over the time maintained that its actions are not in any way hostile and cause for a bumpy relationship between Government and the church. In 2013 when responding to MP for Kanye South Abram Kesupile who had asked him if he was aware that the deportation of some pastors or church ministries was causing panic to members of their congregations who lost spiritual and theological leaders critical for the advancement of their churches in Botswana, Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs Edwin Batshu feigned ignorance. Batshu said he was not aware that deportation of some pastors or church ministers is causing panic to members of their organisations, further explaining that pastors/church ministers deported from Botswana were deported in accordance with the provisions of section 41 (1) (C) of the immigration Act.

Commenting on recent developments in the church, Reverend Dr. Prince Dibeela of the UCCSA said as a matter of principle the church should be independent from the state and should be self-regulatory. “The Church should not be told by the state what to do, when to do it and who to accept as its pastor,” charged Dibeela. He is of the view that at the same time the church has a prophetic role in relation to the running of the country and that it should be concerned when there is an increase in poverty, the gap between the rich and poor and mismanagement of the country’s resources which is currently the case in Botswana. “Sadly because the church is co-opted, it is currently silent amid all this,” he said. According to Reverend Dr Dibeela umbrella bodies of churches should be vocal and speaking out against any maladministration concerning the church. These bodies, he says, should also be the ones regulating churches and their activities. “It is not a role that should be played by Rre Batshu because he is a politician and his actions always going to be political,” he said. Dibeela bemoaned that though they as members of the church community in Botswana have always advocated for the establishment of a regulatory body comprising of top government officials and representatives of the church bodies their proposal was ignored by the government. “The government wants to do everything by itself,” he said. For his part Former Associate Pastor at Love Botswana Outreach Mission in Maun Pastor Gary Tlhalefo Pelotshweu, who is now based in the United States of America said the relationship between the church and the state is two sided; in a sense that government is doing well to protect its people and on the other side treading very dangerously on the line to trampling on religious freedoms. According to Pastor Pelotshweu, the state should not feel the need to control what its people believe because that is very close to dictatorship, adding that a free and democratic society is comprised of different preferences. He however noted that the church on the other hand has failed to self-regulate hence the reason why the state is getting involved and intervening to maintain order. “The church should be true to itself. Teach people the right things. Evil only conquers when good men do nothing. The good churches should collaborate, set aside personal agendas for the greater good of the nation and pressure Parliament for the power to self- regulate,” he said.

Awkward romance 
Local churches, which form part of the civic society operating in a predominantly Christian society, have been accused by academics of behaving like an extension of Government. Researchers Kenneth Dipholo and Adam Mfundisi observe that churches in Botswana are too cozy with Government to the extent they have abdicated their mandate of playing a watchdog role and advocacy against excesses by political leaders and public office bearers. In a research on "The State and the Church in Botswana", Dr Kenneth Dipholo and Adam Mfundisi argue that the church in Botswana has not been active in promoting popular participation in the affairs of the republic. “Owing partly to its erstwhile cohabitation with the state, its contribution to Botswana’s parliamentary democracy has been negligible and inconsequential,” they wrote.  Further stating that on occasions when the church has openly differed with the state, its role has been muted and its utterances have often been couched in the language of peace-making and adherence to discipline. Dipholo and Mfundisi’s research paper, captured in a book released at the end of 2017, examines the relationship between the church and the state in Botswana’s parliamentary democracy. Their main argument is that while the church and the state co-exist, the former has adopted an inferior position in its interaction with the state. “Put differently the church has not been active in promoting popular participation in Botswana’s parliamentary democracy," they found.They further observed that though  citizens  are required  to give particular  attention to common interests; and to be willing  to challenge infringement  not only of their own rights, but also of the rights of others, especially the underprivileged people and minorities and that parliamentary democracy demands  that  citizens be actively involved in the systems and processes of the state, Christianity to a larger extent as practiced in Botswana teaches the opposite of active  citizenship and produces adherence to the status quo. “Its teachings are couched in the language of peace not only in the sense of the absence of war or living in harmony with oneself and others, but also in the sense of excessive paternalism and conservativism,” they argued.

Further pointing out that the highly complex relationship between the state and church is often taken advantage of by the former, which uses its constitutional prerogative for making laws to maintain control and influence over the church in a way that makes the church an appendage of the state. And giving examples of the church’s handling of hot issues of national interest like that of Abortion, HIV ,Abstinence and fidelity and capital punishment, Dipholo and Mfundisi illustrated how the church in most cases failed to speak out and saw it ‘proper to mortgage  its founding principles  in order to preserve its intimacy with the state. They submit that the relationship between the church and the state in Botswana is so intimate that the church seems affiliated to the state. And that in line with the doctrine of separation of church and state, the church in Botswana has avoided getting involved in the hurly-burly of day to day politics to the extent that it has seemed uninterested in issues of national concern. The two scholars hence concluded that the church and state  in Botswana are intimate, and the overly close relationship has resulted in the church sometimes being naïve enough to trust the state, to the point of not voicing its own moral  viewpoint and hence , in effect  engaging in self-censorship. Speaking last year at  a public lecture  titled:  Church and State relations in Botswana after Khama: Revisiting Kgama III of the Bangwato and Rev Hepburn, organised by Kgolagano College in Gaborone a local leading theological academic and  Dean of Academics at Kgolagano College, Reverend Dr  Obed Kealotswe, argued that  Christianity has become secularized since it shifted from the poor to the rich and powerful who use it to maintain  their elitist  status  at the expense  of the poor who find refuge  in the exploitive Pentecostal  charismatic  and highly  episcopal African independent churches (AICs) where churches are owned by individuals. He argued that this trend is a serious threat to Christendom which he says needs some serious critical theological reflection. “In the modern world and Botswana in particular, charity is done by Non-Governmental Organisations headed by the rich who ease their guilty consciences by providing their excess resources to the poor. The centrality of love and justice which is the core of Christian faith has been lost by the church of Botswana,” said Dr Kealotswe.

Church has Aids
Another theology scholar, University of Botswana academic, Professor Musa W Dube, who was recently honoured by Stellenbosch University with a degree Doctor of Theology (DTh), honoris causa and has established herself as one of the leading voices in postcolonial biblical interpretation, fearlessly critiques African churches’ response to HIV and Aids.  Through her writings, she firstly continues to hold churches accountable for failing to respond adequately to the pandemic. Boldly proclaiming “The Church has Aids” in 2002, she sought to challenge African churches to transcend denominational divides to fight HIV and Aids in their communities. Secondly, Dube has urged African churches to proclaim life amidst the debilitating effects of the disease by showing care and compassion, reintegrating individuals with HIV and Aids into their communities, and stressing the need for antiretroviral drugs for those affected. Thirdly, this formidable scholar has championed the use of song, drama and poetry in the battle against HIV and Aids, retrieving true African cultural practices and oral theology. By harnessing advanced critical study along with indigenous resources from her African culture to challenge readers of theology to read the Bible in refreshing and responsible ways, African postcolonial feminist theologian Professor Musa W Dube epitomises socially engaged biblical scholarship.