U-C: What I See

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Reflections on the role of the Church in the Congo


I’ve chosen to write about the following conversation using an alias for the person with whom I was speaking. Though I don’t believe he has said anything or I have written anything that could be considered problematic, the political situation in the DR Congo is extremely tenuous at this time, and I think it is wise to err on the side of caution. I’ve chosen the English name “David,” so as not to inadvertently point to someone else here in the CPK.

David is a young pastor and a professor at one of the theological schools here in Kinshasa. I’ve spent three days with him this week, and the more I get to know him, the more impressed I become by his analysis of the Church and how it must engage with the State. He speaks English quite well, making it possible for us to communicate directly without the help of a translator.

Last Saturday, David accompanied us on a hair-raising drive one hundred kilometers up onto the plateau of Bankana in order to visit churches in two small communities. The road was paved the entire way, but the potholes were deep, the drive was mountainous, and the road was often blocked by vehicles that were broken down. Public transportation in the countryside in that region seemed to be mostly on the huge trucks that were loaded with produce and other goods. The tires on most of the trucks were almost five feet high, and the top of the cab was typically ten to twelve feet high. Now imagine packing the trucks with bags of charcoal, or grain, or vegetables so that it towers at least twice as high as the cab of the truck, with goods tied onto the back of the load that extend another five to eight feet from the rear of the bed. Finally, picture people from the villages sitting up on the very top of the load or perched on the sides as the truck creeps along at ten to twenty miles per hour. There were dozens and dozens of these trucks, each loaded the same way. For a while, we counted the broken down vehicles beside or blocking the road, and they averaged one per minute as we sped along in our Toyota Land Cruiser.

Our driver spent the entire day (a total of more than seven and a half hours during which we held on in the back of the Toyota) with his foot pressing either the gas or the brake to the floor. We would speed along at sixty-five to seventy-five miles an hour, and then suddenly come to a screeching halt as we negotiated a particularly large pothole or found our way around another broken down vehicle. At the end of the day, one of my mission co-worker colleagues told me that he was a fairly new driver, who had just taken six months of driving school, which made me chuckle. Somehow “Driving School of Kinshasa” seems to me to be an oxymoron. Anyway, we said our prayers, God was the co-pilot, and we appeared to make it through the day without being implicated even in the death of a chicken or goat.

Now picture eight of us in the back of the Toyota having a discussion about theology, and me trying to scribble notes on a pad of paper, and you’ve got an idea of our day. Throughout our trip I’ve been trying to engage pastors and students about how they understand the relationship between faith and politics. This time, I began by asking David to talk about his favorite African theologians, and I struck gold. He became highly animated and we conversed about his ideas for the next two hours.

He began by saying that Africans must stand against the conventional wisdom that if they wait passively, God or their ancestors will intervene. The idea of the wisdom and active engagement of their ancestors runs deep in the culture and the psyche of the people here. David explained the theology he tries to cultivate in his students. “We assess our needs and resources, and we partner with one another to share our resources to change our situation and better our lives. Finding the keys to unlock those resources for the good of the people is the job of the Church.”

He suggested that one of the first questions that must be asked is “Why are we poor?” “Why, in spite of our best efforts, do we remain in crisis?” It is the job of the church not only to ask those questions, but to provide a genuine sense of hope for people who are in despair. “The hope must be real,” David said.

David succinctly described the problem that confronts the church. “We live in the Garden of Eden,” he said, “but we don’t have even the most basic access to the economy.” He reflected that ninety-eight percent of the people of the DR Congo are suffering, and there isn’t even a rudimentary respect for democracy or the will of the people. There has not been a democratic election here since the Belgians left and the Congolese first gained their independence back in 1960. Mobutu ruled this country with an iron fist for thirty years(1965-1997), and his rule – like the last ten years since he was kicked out – was characterized by violence, war, endemic poverty, and lack of access to basic education or a good job. “Political authorities have no respect for the people,” David said. “That’s why so many of us have our hopes pinned on the elections that are supposed to take place on June 30th.”

The current President is Joseph Kabila. He assumed power when his father, who took power by force, was assassinated in 2001. Two years ago, in an attempt to broker a peace accord and end the factional fighting that was going on across the country, Kabila was forced to accept four vice-presidents, each associated with a different faction. As one person here put it, “in this country, we know that one plus four doesn’t equal five, it equals zero.” There is widespread agreement among people I’ve met that the government is entirely ineffective and the violence continues.

So in light of the poverty, the continuing violence, the lack of meaningful space to participate in democracy, and the growing despair, what is the role of the church? When I put that question to David, he became quite energized. Off the top of his head as we bounced along in the back of the Land Cruiser, he laid out a meaningful plan for the engagement of the church in the political process. What follows is as close to a direct quote of his words as I could transcribe as we drove.

First, pastors must preach democracy. The word of God is created for everyone. The wealth of God’s world is created for everyone. One person cannot own what is everyone’s to share. That person can manage the wealth, but not own it.

Second, we must model democracy in our daily lives and especially in the lives of our churches. The church should be the training ground in democracy for our people, so that they learn how to participate and engage in the process.

Third, we must awaken our people - our Christians - to enjoy democracy and to offer their gifts for the betterment of the community around them.

Fourth, we have a problem, which is that being a politician here is synonymous with being a liar. If you go to a village and tell someone you are a politician, everyone will automatically assume that everything you say is a lie. As a result, Christians have been discouraged from getting involved in the political process, but that is exactly the wrong conclusion. We must stand against the web of lies by becoming involved in politics ourselves and helping to create a new thing.

Finally, we must be involved in monitoring the elections. People trust their pastors and the leaders in their churches. If we can provide them training in how to evaluate the elections and the democratic process, people will turn to them for help in understanding what is taking place. Even further, if our pastors are confident that we are moving in the direction of openness and democracy, they could go a long way toward reassuring people that there is hope and that it is worth trying to engage in creating a better government. In a country where violence is often seen as the answer, this is extremely important.

David said that the Word of God is preached in context. “Our context is a crisis that is no accident. This crisis was not created by God, it was created by people. The government is dying and the people are dying.” He referred to Jeremiah 28:11, in which Jeremiah prophesies peace for his people, suggesting that the yoke of the oppressive Babylonian Empire on the people of Israel would be broken within two years.

David went on to say that “our activities cannot be separated from their political consequences. A government must be evaluated by what it does to help the people have a better way of life. Since 1960, how many schools have been built by the State? What about hospitals? Where are the roads, or where is even the most rudimentary infrastructure to support our people? Where are our taxes going? The Church must use all means at its disposal to demand that the government take appropriate responsibility.”

Finally, David gravitated into a set of instructions about how to approach the elections that he and other pastors are trying to promote across the church. “We are saying to the people that we must say ‘no violence, but no mercy if the government does not respond to the will of the people.’ We want a clear accounting of what the government has done for us in the last two years since the new government was established. We intend to use our pulpits, television and radio to spread the message that the government must show its humility and be accountable to the people. Our people are nonviolent by nature, but they are weary of being lied to and they are restless. It is the job of the church to channel their energy in positive ways.”

As David spoke, I thought of church leaders I’ve met in Guatemala who confront such a similar history and a similarly intractable and overwhelming reality. How does the Church stand against a legacy of forty years of State sponsored violence and war? How does the Church create the capacity of people to build a democracy that demands transparency and accountability from its officials? How does one begin to help a people who have been so beaten down to trust the electoral process enough to engage in the process and to believe there can be a better future?

Here in a country where almost half the population is under the age of fifteen, in a country where the history has been conquest, colonization and corruption both by outsiders and by military strongmen who themselves were Congolese, in a country where unemployment is the rule and poverty is a way of life for all but a handful of the privileged, it is the job of pastors to try to create something new. If David is to be believed, that is a task that is being embraced by his students as they prepare for ministry. They deserve our respect, our prayers, and our active engagement to support them in this overwhelming task.

Peace to you, from a land that knows no peace,