It is said evil thrives when the good among us keep quiet. This is as true in the religious community as it is in every other sector.
It is now common knowledge that the faith community has been going through bad publicity because of the dubious things that have been happening in some church organizations. From allegations of commercializing of religion to the abuse of followers, the church world in South Africa has been rocked with scandals.
In many communities, religious leaders are looked to as the custodians of socially acceptable moral norms. When religious leaders themselves, or charlatans masquerading as guides in the realm of faith, take advantage of naïve and often vulnerable followers, this harms the very fabric of social life in South Africa. There is, therefore, a burden of responsibility on all religious leaders, not only to distance themselves from such, and to isolate them, but to take a proactive stand to oppose such practices and ensure that perpetrators are brought to book The religious community can choose to keep and submit to the reality of human frailty, arguing that for all have sinned and come short of God’s moral standards. But that will be a self-defeatist attitude and would not help.
Therefore, it was heartening last week to see religious leaders from diverse strands of faith coming together to take forward the work that was started by the CRL Rights Commission when it investigated the commercialization of religion.
The time has come for the collective of like-minded and responsible religious leaders to retake this mantle and provide guidance and protection to communities who have been taken advantage of. Working with government, both in terms of the social and community as well as the legal and security aspects, the religious leaders have committed themselves to develop comprehensive measures to ensure that South Africa rids itself from the misuse of religion for - ill-gotten gains, personal enrichment, abuse of woman, children and the vulnerable, and the erosion of faith, the most basic of human rights, to a means for criminality. They have committed themselves to do so in keeping with the rights-based framework of the constitution and with due appreciation for the rich diversity that constitutes the tapestry of religious faith in South Africa.
Indeed, there are instances when many of us in the Christian faith have felt that the actions of some among us not only tarnish what Christianity represents but cheapen it. What kind of image will the unchurched have after seeing people being exploited by what are supposed to be fellow Christian leaders?
The abuse of people in the name of religion is not unique to Christianity and it should, therefore, sicken all of us to think that people who have been exposed to only the dubious practices of some will only have this one image of our religions.
Sadly, because they have been turned off from religion by the reports they hear and see in the media, for example, they may never experience the countless beautiful and intricate facets of any particular faith. They will only remember the horror stories of people being fed snakes, grass and petrol – which are things that have recently happened in the name of religion.
I am glad that the abuse of people’s beliefs systems is something many credible religious leaders in our country are ready to tackle head-on. Many of us are keen to embrace a peer review mechanism that will make it possible for us to be accountable to each other.
To get to this point was not easy and was indeed preceded by differences between Religious Leaders and the CRL Rights Commission. However, we found each other, and we must thank both parties for being frank with each other without necessarily entrenching themselves in their positions. There is a consensus between the Commission and the religious community that the latter is best placed to chart the way forward, of course, assisted by the Commission.
The Commission has given the religious sector the task to itself find solutions to the problems that have been identified. We are conscious as the sector that our actions impact, whether positively or negatively, a lot of stakeholders. In going about finding solutions, we will be dialoguing with ourselves but also with a variety of stakeholders.
To this end, we will have a summit of all religious leaders that will be held next year on the 13th of February. The summit will be all-inclusive and involve every religious organisation in the country. Without pre-empting it, it will be inward looking and one expects some catharsis moments by the religious sector.
An iterative process with stakeholders is expected to be happening at the same time. Critically, the summit is expected to focus on the following key aspects: the legal/constitutional framework, developing a code of conduct, developing an accountability system to society and ourselves as religious leaders, working out a relationship framework with the CRL Rights Commission, healthy relationship with the CRL, developing and adopting core values for our multi-faith society, and creating a partnership framework with the Legislature across all three spheres of government, namely the Department of Home Affairs, SAPS and SARS.
We believe that on that day we will be able to adopt a document that speaks to the aforementioned aspects and we will work with Parliament to assist us in terms of giving legal or legislative effect to the document.
A task team has already been set up to coordinate and arrange the summit and I am pleased with its multi-faith character.
Encouragingly, religious leaders are coming out as a collective in dealing with the challenges the sector has been facing. Like Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana prayed at the National Day of Prayer two Sundays ago – we have taken too long to speak, we have taken too long to take action, and we ask the nation to forgive us for this.
By our silence, we have allowed these things to thrive. Now we are saying: this far and no further.
We are encouraging all church and religious to get involved and participate in this process.
PASTOR RAY MCCAULEY IS THE PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES AND CO-CHAIRPERSON OF NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL (NRLC)