Charismatic renewal and politics
Thirty years ago a group of leaders of the charismatic renewal in the Anglican Church in South Africa met in a consultation at the KwaNzimela Conference Centre in Zululand to discuss the relationship between the charismatic renewal movement and the political situation at the time.
As I’m engaged in a research project on the charismatic renewal in southern Africa, I thought it might ber worth posting something about the consultation here, partly to try to get it straight in my own mind, and partly to invite others who were present, or at least aware of the issues involved, to share their reminiscences, and what it looks like with hindsight.
I was, in a way, the convener of the event, partly at the request of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Bill Burnett, and of others who were concerned about what was happening or what was not happening.
The political situation was that P.W. Botha had been prime minister for three years, and it was becoming clear that South Africa was making the transition from the police state established by the previous prime minister, B.J. Vorster, to rule by a military junta. It was, in effect, a military coup, though a rather slow one.
It seemed to be a tradition in South Africa under National Party rule that the concerns of the person who became prime minister became dominant when they became prime minister. So Dr Verwoerd was the Minister of Native Affairs under Malan and Strijdom, and when he became prime minister in 1958, his “homelands” policy went into top gear, with the concomitant ethnic cleansing. When Vorster became Minister of Justice (including police and prisons) in 1961, be began to lay the foundations for a police state, increasing the powers of the police, introducing detention without trial, and putting the police beyond the scrutiny of the courts. When he became prime minister in 1966, he already had this machine at his disposal to control the country and suppress any more than token opposition. P.W. Botha was Minister of Defence, and on his watch South African troops invaded Angola. When he became prime minister in 1978, supreme power began to be transferred from the police to the military, and the army began to play an increasing role in suppressing internal dissent, something that had previously been the job of the police. In line with this, there was increasing use of the total strategy/total onslaught rhetoric.
By 1981 the charismatic renewal had been around in the Anglican Church in South Africa for some 25 years, since the mid-1950s, but it only became widespread in the 1970s, when several bishops became actively involved in it, one of the most active of whom was Archbishop Bill Burnett himself.
The charismatic renewal was also an international phenomenon. In the 1950s it had been largely home-grown and isolated, more or less confined to the Anglican diocese of Zululand, where it had started in the movement called the IViyo loFakazi bakaKristu (Legion of Christ’s Witnesses or V/F for short). In the 1970s it became much more widespread, and affected many Christian denominations, when non-Pentecostal denominations began experiencing phenomena that had previously been more or less confined to the Pentecostal Churches, like speaking in tongues, healing etc. The 1970s were also the era of the cassette tape recorder and car cassette players, and so the teachings of speakers at international charismatic conferences were circulated widely and discussed in hundreds of prayer and Bible study groups, denominational and interdenominational, thoughout South Africa (and indeed throughout the world).
Some academics came up with theories that the charismatic renewal in South Africa was a manifestation of white escapism. It was something that attracted white people and enabled them to cope with their fear and insecurity in the political situation. This, however, overlooked the fact that the charismatic renewal was a worldwide phenomenon, and was not confined to South Africa, and also that in South Africa it had started among black Christians, and specifically among black Anglicans. Many Anglicans who were not involved in the charismatic renewal, and who were opposed to it, tended to take this view.There was, however, also a certain amount of truth in it. Some Anglicans who were involved in the charismatic renewal did tend to ignore the political situation, or expressed the rather naively optimistic view that if everyone in South Africa got baptised in the Holy Spirit everything would come right.
This is the background to some of the concerns that were aired, or meant to be aired, at the consultation.
I think that the main concern was that there was a disconnect between the Christian faith and the Christian response to the political situation. Those involved in the charismatic renewal movement tended to ignore the political situation and regard it as too much of a worldly concern. Those Christians who were concerned about the political situation tended to analyse it in purely secular terms, and did not try to understand it theologically. And most of those who attended the consultation felt somehow caught in the middle.
To put it in a nutshell, there was charismatic theology and there was liberation theology, and what was lacking was charismatic liberation theology.
As far as I can recall, the following people attended the consultation
- Bill Burnett (Archbishop of Cape Town)
- Jacob Dlamini (Suffragan Bishop of St John’s, Umtata)
- Victor Africander (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- Peter Beukes (priest, Diocese of Zululand)
- Richard Hughes (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- George Bush (overseas volunteer working at KwaNzimela)
- John Madikida (priest, Diocese of St John’s, Umtata)
- Wycliffe Nombekela (priest, Diocese of St John’s, Umtata)
- Ivan Weiss (Archbishop’s chaplain)
- Stanley Syson (priest, not sure where from)
- Errol (Pepsi) Narain (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- Vernon Lund (priest, Diocese of Natal, later left to form a Neopentecostal denomination)
- Henry Naidoo (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- Colin Peattie (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- Hamilton Mbatha (priest, Diocese of Zululand)
- Niall Cooper
- Tim Bravington (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- Richard Martin (priest, Diocese of Port Elizabeth)
- Ross Cuthbertson (priest, Diocese of Natal)
- Sr Gertrude Jabulisiwe CHN
- Sr Audrey Clare CHN
- Sr Veronica Mary CHN
- Sr Claudia CHN
We met from 10-13 November. We prayed, we studied the Bible, we discussed the political situation and responses to it. And then we all went home.
I’m not sure that the consultation made any significant difference, though afterwards Bill Burnett seemed to think that the main danger came from secular liberation theologies rather than from the apartheid system itself.
I’d be interested in knowing what others who were present at the consultation think happened there, and if it accomplished anything, and for those who weren’t there, what they think of the issues.
Some of my concerns at the time were well expressed in a book by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway, called Up to our steeples in politics, so that I photocopies the introduction and gave copies to the other participants.
In one of his letters to the Christian in Corinth, St Paul uses
the imperative, katallagete: In Christ’s name, we implore you to
be reconciled (katallagete) to God!” (2 Cor 5, 20). This word,
directed to Christians and the Christian communities, is of
interest to “the world” only if the world find it interesting, or
if God should, in his own purposes, decide to interest the world
in it. This book is primarily an effort to understand the
implications of Paul’s imperative, katallagete, for Christians at
the end of the 20th century.
We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the
Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the
world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink
bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe
that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special
kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior
which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and
living as God made us in Christ.
This book is a series of statements about our understanding of
why St. Paul uses the imperative form of “to reconcile” and how
that “why” speaks clearly and unmistakably to what the world
defines today as social issues and political problems. It is, for
that reason, a discussion of our conviction that the Christian
communities have failed in their calling, their ministry, because
(at their liberal best) they sought to do for the world what God
has already done for the world in Christ: the work of recon-
This book talks about our conviction that “already the axe is
laid to the root of the trees” (Lk 3, 9) because the Church is
trying to share shirts and food with the poor as imperative
programs of social action, programs the Church apparently
believes are required by a law of God. We are trying to argue in
these pages that St Paul’s imperative – Be reconciled to God! –
mans that God wants not doing, but being, not welfare, but wit-
ness. Sharing? Yes! Not as a program, but as a parable, a
thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.
In our day, we in the Church have tried to do God’s job, while at
the same time rejecting the only job God puts before us. We have
tried to reconcile people and groups of people by using every
gimmick and technique that culture uses to sell its automobiles,
deodorants, civil repression and international warfare. We have
tried surveys, group dynamics, T-groups, political activism,
sociological and psychological processing, and all the well-known
foolishness of church socials, retreats, picnics, bowling alleys,
swimming pools, skating rinks, gymnasiums, counselling centers,
marriage-and-the-family instruction, relevant ministries and
updated theological schools – all pleasant, on occasion even con-
troversial, but having nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the
mission of Christians as ambassadors of, witnesses to, what God
has done for all men in Christ.
But we in the Church persist: we are still hopeful that though
all these means we can build a kingdom in which all things will
be set right between man and man (and occasionally between man
and God), refusing to recognize that these means are an attempt
to build a kingdom by our guidelines and blueprints, by our
sociology and politics, not by what God’s reconciliation has
already done for the world in Christ. In this book we are trying
to confess that the goals of the contemporary Church – that is to
say, the Church of St John’s by the Gas Station, the Christian
College, the denominational and interdenominational seminary –
the goals of these Christian communities are blasphemous. The
reconciliation the Church is seeking to accomplish today by these
subterfuges has already been wrought. The brotherhood – the “one
blood” of Acts 17, 26 – that the Church makes its goal today is
already a fact. And because this is so, that very fact judges our
goals and our efforts to achieve brotherhood by social action as
blasphemous, as trying to be God. Instead of witnessing to
Christ, the social action of the Church lends support to the
totalitarianism of the wars and political systems of the 20th
century. By its social action, the Church permits and encourages
the State and culture to define all issues and rules and fields
of battle. The Church then tries to do what the State, without
the Church’s support, has already decided to do: to “solve” all
human problems by politics. And this is specifically the
political messianism of contemporary totalitarianism and of
Revelation 13. “Politics” by definition can only “adjust” and
“rearrange.” It cannot – as politics – “solve” anything. But the
Church’s social action encourages the very movements in the con-
temporary political processes which are moving us straightaway
into 20th-century totalitarianism.
And, in another place,
The alternative would seem to be that the Church either once again serve as chaplain to the status quo — ‘too bad about the methods but they did get violent, you know” — or else equate the revolution with the kingdom of God and join it uncritically and with abandon. Much of the “white church” is apt to do the first. Some of the “black church” is apt to do the latter. And if we are confronted with one or the other as the Church’s grand strategy, where does it lead us except to where we are now? Is either the mission of the Church? If the status quo had more to be said for it, or if the consummation of past revolutions had a better record, the answer might be simpler. (And we must be careful now, lest we say “a plague on both your heads” and thereby side, in pious neutrality, with the stronger.) If there is a mission for us, it is one that God has provided, and not we ourselves.
And the problem is that many whites involved in the charismatic renewal tended, at best, to say “a plague on both your heads” and thus sided, in pious neutrality, with the stronger. And, at worst, they would gather in their prayer meetings and pray for “the boys on the border” without stopping to ask what “the boys” were doing there in the first place, or where “the border” actually was. In some cases “the border” was inn the middle of a foreign country, like Angola. In other cases it was deep in the heart of South Africa, between white-owned industries and the black residential townships where the workers, on whom the prosperity of those industries depended, lived.
(Sorry if this seems somewhat garbled – WordPress logged me off while I was writing it and lost some of the text, and I keep seeing new bits that I thought were there but aren’t)