Peace in Africa, a personal perspective
I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers for the problem before us. What I would like to do is provide a perspective because Africa is a vast, vast continentΓÇöperhaps three times bigger than the U.S., so I’m not going to pretend to speak for the entire continent. What I would like to do is share and give a perspective. But before I do that, I would like to preface my remarks by highlighting an important personal scripture that has shaped our journey in peacemaking in many parts of Africa, but especially in the South Africa context. It’s from Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 14. I just want to highlight one verse. “For he is our peace. In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall that is hostility between us.”
I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers for the problem before us. What I would like to do is provide a perspective because Africa is a vast, vast continent—perhaps three times bigger than the U.S., so I’m not going to pretend to speak for the entire continent. What I would like to do is share and give a perspective. But before I do that, I would like to preface my remarks by highlighting an important personal scripture that has shaped our journey in peacemaking in many parts of Africa, but especially in the South Africa context. It’s from Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 14. I just want to highlight one verse. “For he is our peace. In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall that is hostility between us.”
As I reflect on this very exciting topic, very big topic, a topic that has many dimensions, a topic that has preoccupied our minds for a very long time, especially those of us who have lived under difficult circumstances, those who have faced constant death, those of us who have lost our loved ones and friends and many of our friends remain unaccounted for as I’m speaking to you. That’s why this topic has become very important to us. I am reminded of a very significant incident in the South African context because I believe it is very instructive in talking about peace, especially peace in the Kairos movement. In the late 80’s when we were facing a very serious crisis, the presence of Apartheid in South Africa, a group of us gathered in a small church to pray one morning. The previous week we had seen a lot of our young people being killed and buried in mass graves. We felt we (I was a young minister then) should gather and reflect and pray about the significance of this time. I recall that one of us said, “This is a Kairos moment—a decisive moment when we are called upon to be faithful as the servants of God. It was a turning point in our reflection because it compelled us to look at our society and to critically examine what had been going on in our society and to try to understand the root causes of this ongoing culture of violence in our community. We came to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally wrong with our society–that we were dealing with tyranny, that we could not do business as usual. This called for a decisive action to engage in acts of civil disobedience. That was our response—that the only way to be faithful to the Gospel is to engage in acts of disobedience as we struggled with our people against the system of Apartheid.
We also at the same time in looking at our society began to ask, “What kind of church are we part of?” “What kind of Christian community are we part of?” We discovered that we were the kind of church which was wishy-washy (if I may use that language), a church that was lukewarm, that didn’t have any commitment, a church which supported the status quo, a church that had lost its prophetic vision, a church that was dominated by resolution-making. Resolution after resolution, and many people were dying in the South African context. Therefore, we opted for what is well known as prophetic theology, especially in third world theologies, the preferential option for the poor, that our role as the people of God at this Kairos moment in our lives, is to take sides with those who are being oppressed and those who are being killed in the South African context. I mention this incident because I believe it is very instructive in helping us to talk about conflict and peace and reconciliation. I believe it is important for us, if we are to talk about peace, especially in Africa today, to understand the context. In other words, we need to contextualize our understanding about the issues related to peacemaking in the African context.
But before I move to talk about what is actually happening on the ground in the Africa context and in many parts of Africa, especially many parts of Africa where we are actively involved, I would like to highlight our understanding of the concept of peace. We need to have a deep understanding of peace– that peace signifies salvation, especially in the African world-view—wholeness and integrity. It also signifies community, righteousness, justice and well-being. So, we have many ways, and one of the significant ways we highlight, especially in the South African context when we talk about peace, is that justice creates peace. And I want to underline this because I’ll be reflecting about that as we talk about issues that we confront in Africa. And one of the important ways we shall be talking about peace, especially in the African context, is a word which is commonly known as ubuntu, a deep sense of humanity, of relatedness, that as people we are part of the corporate body of the people of God. The notion of corporate personality as we know it in the Old Testament is that you cannot exist as an individual, but we are a part of the larger community. So that concept continues to play an important role in our understanding of peace, shalom. Shalom is a very wholistic concept in our own struggle within the African context.
Why is peace urgent in Africa today? I would like to begin with a brief observation of the context. Why should we be focusing on peace at this particular time? We have no choice and I believe that as part of our call to faithfulness, we are all invited on the basis of the gospel to participate actively in peacemaking in every aspect of life. It is not something that is optional. That is why I am troubled by so many Christians who support the war. I am deeply troubled by what I hear in this country. When I was at Lancaster post September 11, I became extremely uncomfortable because I was very vocal about my stance about what was happening in this country and what was happening in the world. Because my view of that time was that as people of God, our views should not be shaped by popular culture, but by the imperatives of the gospel.
Let me remind you of some very historical aspects about this very important topic. Africa has suffered for many centuries under all kinds of violence in Africa. The first manifestation of this structural violence, of the destruction of human life and the misery and the suffering of people, was the whole experience of slavery. People were uprooted in many parts of Africa. We found that this is a very important aspect in understanding why Africa is in a crisis. We have not recovered from slavery. We have not, because slavery continues in many forms in many parts of Africa. Then our people have been uprooted in many parts of Africa, some of us even today. The next stage of this very serious problem of promoting what I call the culture of violence in the African context came with colonialism. The structure of violence of colonialism was imposed. Africa became a playground of the Super Powers. They could pick and choose where they wanted to go. They divided Africa in any way they could, and that laid the foundations for conflict in many parts of Africa. I will say more about this, but what was behind this structural violence of colonialism was the tactic of divide and rule. And that continues to be a problem. We can talk about the genocide, for example, in Rwanda and trace the root causes of genocide, which just happened in 1994. We can trace it back, for example, to the Belgians. They deliberately favored one group against the other. And they encouraged the slaughter of one group by the other. Here I am referring to the Hutu, but I will come back to this. So that we face this issue of tactic of divide and rule. The playground of the super powers–I am going to give you some examples of what that did to Africa. The Super Powers, Russia and the U.S., played a key role in promoting conflict in Angola which resulted in a huge population of internally displaced persons.
Why does Africa need peace so much today? I want to highlight a few things that have happened since the independence of Africa. We have also seen the flawed imposition (I know this is controversial) of the multi-party system of democracy. It hasn’t worked in many parts of Africa. We’ve seen the emergence of oppressive regimes, military regimes, dictatorships, and we continue to experience the lack of creative leadership in many parts of Africa. We’ve lived under constant fear because of these factors that I’m highlighting today. Today we see a lot of people who have been uprooted in many parts of Africa. We have today the highest population of refugees, almost 4 million. We have many people who have not experienced normal life, especially in Angola, for the last 27 years because of war. During the seventies, we have seen regimes in Africa, promoting strife and conflict, creating massive upheavals in the life of the people, creating huge numbers of misplaced persons who are moving around with no place to go. And the infrastructure, because of this ongoing conflict in Africa, has destroyed many of the communities, destroyed our mission stations. Many of our economies in Africa are dysfunctional because of this ongoing regional conflict.
Today we have a huge number of orphans. And let me talk here about the AIDS pandemic. Because of the ongoing regional conflicts that have been taking place in many parts of Africa, this issue has not been addressed seriously. We see this whole program of death in many of our communities, especially in Africa. The number of people living with AIDS has increased with no care provided by governments. The problem of AIDS has been so devastating that the potential labor force is being destroyed. You know, I need to be careful how I say this because I have to go back to Africa. Some of us have said that our governments are run by unscrupulous individuals in Africa. There is a certain truth about that. Corruption is rife in many of our communities. For example, in the Congo, Mobutu ran his state for many years as though it were his own little kitchen. He paid the bills of the state from his own personal account. There was a deep crisis, and that crisis shows itself today by the lack of infrastructure. No school system, no health system for the poor in many of our communities. And sometimes I wonder if we were not actually involved in many parts of Africa, the situation would be far worse. So we face a crisis, a deep crisis, in many parts of Africa today.
For example, we have young people in Sierra Leone whose limbs have been amputated in the last war. Removing people’s eyes, chopping their hands–this is modern Africa. We’re not talking about so-called “primitive” Africa. But we’re talking about Africa today. Many people have lost their lives and continue to lose their lives. As I am talking to you, every 28 minutes, a woman is raped in my society. Every 20 minutes as I am talking to you, someone is being raped, especially in the South African context. You see the ongoing chaos in many parts of our communities around the issues of land. There is a deep crisis. People have been killed, people have lost their land. So we continue to live in a state of perpetual crisis. And in this state of perpetual crisis, many of our people are not experiencing any peace, they are not experiencing shalom. But more and more people have been killed, and more and more people have died. An on top of all this perpetual crisis that is going on in the Continent today, we still have the heavy burden of debt. We are still held hostage in many parts of Africa to paying the debt to IMF and the World Bank. And as I was out for a few hours traveling in Angola, I asked one of the passengers, “How come you do not have normal schooling systems here?” “How come you are spending more time as churches building schools instead of focusing on your spiritual life as ministers?” He said, “Well, we cannot just focus on our spiritual life, but our government must continue to pay the debt owed to the world bank, and we must build schools for ourselves.”
The most chilling example which I am sharing with you today is captured in two important books which I have put on the table. And I want to urge most of you to read these books: “Africa, a Continent that Self Destructs” by Peter Schwab and “Africa in Chaos” by George Ayittrys.
I am not here to be the bearer of bad news. We are discovering that one of the challenges we are facing today is that we have to find our own solutions as African people. We need to engage in dealing with these problems from our own perspective. We cannot always rely on outside help, but we need to go within ourselves to reclaim our own sense of spirituality as we begin to address some of these critical issues. And I want to share with you some good news now. There is a growing consciousness among African churches today that we need to recognize the emerging corporate forces in Africa that are making a commitment to resolve ongoing conflicts. And one of the most exciting organizations that has been actively involved (and I worked for them at one time) is the All Africa Conference of Churches, which has been actively involved in programs of conflict mediation in all parts of Africa. I was part of a delegation some years back to work to resolve conflicts in the Congo. Under the auspices of the All Africa Conference of Churches, peacemaking efforts are being encouraged. Churches are being challenged to be peacemaking at a time when there are many unresolved regional conflicts in Africa. Where there has been ongoing conflict as in Rwanda, the church is playing a very active role. In Angola, the churches have taken upon themselves to bring about peace—peace building, peacemaking in that land. Young people in that church are beginning to take an active role, and I want to highlight Bishop Tutu’s commitment, “There is no future without forgiveness.” There is no future without forgiveness, and therefore there is a need for us to begin to work on issues of reconciliation. And the young people have taken it upon themselves to work on this. I met young people in Angola who had organized themselves, and I’m glad that our office has begun to support them financially—who are organizing throughout Angola to promote peace in many of our communities. More and more, there is a great realization that we need to strengthen organizations that seek to foster peace and reconciliation.
We have to affirm our commitment to the Organization of African Unity. I was surprised the other day, when people have founded organizations like the OAU are abandoning organizations that promote peace in the world, as we have seen in the recent war working outside the United Nations program. But there is a deep commitment in collaborating with the organizations of OAU and the churches in Africa. We are all working together to promote peace and reconciliation in many parts of Africa, as well as to promote human rights. There is collaboration, working together, to promote peace in many parts of Africa within the non-governmental sector and other religious groups. There is ongoing conversation between Christians and Moslems.
Our love for Africa is to reach out to all, regardless of race, religion and status. Whether friend or foe. We seek to build a church as a community of love which welcomes people of every race, class, sex and nation. Uniting even those who were enemies. Though the church in its human expression remains imperfect, it is a body of Christ heralding the reign of God. Membership in the body which transcends national boundaries unites believers throughout the world in communion and in witness. I believe that, as I have highlighted, for many of us in Africa believe, if we do not adopt this path of peace as the churches, as leaders, as teachers, as ordinary individuals, Africa will continue to experience a deep crisis in many of our communities.
I am pleased that David Vargas has spoken about his heroes. This is very important if we are to be focused. One of my heroes is Bishop Tutu because of his deep commitment to reconciliation and peacemaking. He has shaped my life, he has played a very important role in my life, and continues to be a shining light of the gospel, as he reminds us, “There is no future without forgiveness.”
As an imperative of the gospel, peacemaking is no longer an option, but an expression of our faithfulness. We believe there will be peace in Africa because communities are realizing this is the only answer. The challenge I believe is to identify leaders and organizations that are committed to peacemaking in Africa and support them. It is my hope and prayer that Global Ministries as its commitment to peacemaking will support the Decade to Overcome Violence and that we will join the Peace Churches in their radical commitment to peacemaking, and that as the Africa office, we will continue to support peacemaking projects in Africa. Thank you.