Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mvume Dandala: A Christian In Office

Without question, Mvume Dandala has been one of the most widely respected church leaders in South Africa's recent past. A Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church from 1996 to 2003, and most recently General Secretary of the All Africa Council of Churches, Dandala is best known outside the church for mediating an end to the violence between ANC and Inkatha supporters in Johannesburg's hostels. He is known to be a man of integrity, and of deep holiness.

But this was in a previous phase of his life. As the political culture of South Africa degenerated into cronyism and corruption, a section of ANC members saw an opportunity to break away from the ruling party to form The Congress of the People (COPE). And they approached Dandala to lead the party into the most recent election.

For many, this would have been an immediate career-defining move, and a high promotion. But not for Dandala. The request resulted in a time of soul-searching, prayer, and discernment. He had always agreed with Archbishop Desmond Tutu that the place of a pastor was outside partisan politics--at least in a "normal" situation. And Dandala has always had “a pastor’s heart.” But South Africa was descending into abnormality--at least in terms of its professed democratic vision. So Dandala asked to be released from his position as pastor, effectively laying aside his clerical collar, in order to bear witness as a politician.

As he spoke to our group, I could hear the struggle in his voice. The questions he faced were stark. How could he, a well-respected Bishop, expose himself to abuse as a politician? Would the give-and-take of parliamentary debate, and the often-unsavoury nature of partisanship--corrupt him. But the alternative, in his view, was to perpetuate the idea that party politics was "unholy"--a significant issue given his Methodist theology. Even this calling must be sanctified. So he agreed--and agreed to suspend his credentials with the church. But he remains a Christian fulfilling what he and his spiritual advisors considers a redeployment by God.

But he also had a message for the church from his “new” location. Pastors need to engage in “political education”: shaping members as citizens aware of their responsibilities. They should remain non-partisan, but at the same time passionately informed about the political process.

Dandala’s talk raised a number of important issues for our discussion group (and others who joined us), and had us arguing rather loudly--to the point of being asked to “quiet down” as we were disturbing the sleep of our fellows! Here were some of the issues raised:

1. What is the nature of citizenship for Christians? Are Christians citizens of one city (the New Jerusalem)? Or two?

2. If party political involvement is entered into, what are the norms that govern such involvement for Christians? Is creation, cross, or resurrection most determinative?

3. Should the church always and necessarily understand itself as neutral in its activity during the world? Should it understand this neutrality as “a-political”? “Pre-political”? “Post-political”? “Differently political”? When Mvume Dandala decided to “enter politics”, and set aside his office in the church, what was he doing?

4. How should the teaching office of the church (Bishop) be employed with reference to #1? Is it additional to catechesis? Or part of it?

5. What should be the system of accountability of Christian political office-holders to the church? What are the implications of a president who professes to follow Jesus disobeying his Bishop (George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq comes to mind)? What would the electorate think of a bishop excommunicating a President?

6. Can #5 be addressed positively (i.e. that there is a role for the church) without reinstituting Christendom?

7. Finally, a question asked by one of our members: what can Mvume Dandala do that Rev. Frank Chikane (who was both a pentecostal pastor and Director-General of Thabo Mbeki’s office) could not?

It’s possible to read Dandala’s decision as a form of kenosis, and perhaps even of embracing a form of suffering. And I do think his soul is in danger, given the recent cut-throat practices of South African parliamentarians. But Christians are sometimes called to dangerous and risky service. St. Augustine said that a Christian should not seek office, but neither should he [or she] refuse to serve when called upon. I remain unwilling to make a conclusion—which is probably just as well. But I do commit to keeping the former Rev. Mvume Dandala in my prayers.

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