Saturday, October 25, 2008

Churches' role in building a better Fiji

Churches' role in building a better Fiji
Father Peter Chong - Saturday, October 25, 2008

How do we build a better Fiji? This is the important question that will be addressed next week when our political leaders meet with the interim Government. All the political parties have been invited, but a group of important players in Fiji's political history has been left behind, on the reserve bench.
I am referring here to the churches, for I believe, indeed, that they have a significant political role to play in the building of a better Fiji.
Unfortunately, judging from the current political instability, it would seem that either the churches do not know what their role is or that they are not exercising their political roles correctly.
What is the role of churches in politics anyway? What does this mean, practically, for the churches in Fiji today?
To shed some light on the political role of churches we turn to the wisdom gained from years of experience and the guidance of the word of God that lies in the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. Due to limited space and time I have drawn from The World Council of Churches Assembly in Amsterdam, 1948 and from The Catholic Social Teaching (with references to The Church in the Modern World, 1965; Catholic Bishops Synod in 1971, Justice in the World). These documents confirm that churches have a unique mission in the world and in politics. This mission is based on the very nature of the Church as founded in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, who came that we may have life and life to its fullness. The Church is, therefore, entrusted with the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, a mission which it carries out by promoting and protecting the dignity of the human person in all stages of life. This involves a two-fold task: first, to announce the Good News of God's love to all and second, to denounce anything that is contrary to the Gospel or that violates the dignity of the human person.
And so the churches' political role is ingrained in their very natures. To fulfill this political role effectively the churches have to be firmly grounded on the foundation of its political mission which is about the preservation of the dignity of man. The above social teachings of the church caution the churches of the danger of leaving this foundation and aligning themselves to a particular political party or civil movement. The document The Church in the Modern World states clearly that the church's political mission cannot be confused with a political party, nor should it be solely a protest against a political party. The church has its own unique political mission that flows from the very nature of church and the Gospel. This political mission transcends any political ideology, for the church is entrusted the task of safeguarding the dignity of the human person. In fact, she will be more and more a true church when she is free from political affiliations.
Since the churches have a political mission, what is it that differentiates the churches' involvement from that of political parties? In what way does the church involve itself in the political process, since politics and economics are also at the service of human dignity and the common good? The Catholic Social Teachings clarifies this well, stating that it is not the task of the church to offer concrete solutions in the social, economic, and political spheres for justice in the world. Rather, her mission involves defending and promoting the dignity and the fundamental rights of the human person. (John Paul 11, Centesimus Annus: On the Hundreth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 1991) What is implied here is that concrete political and economic strategies are the task of those lay people specialised in these fields. However, the church has the indispensable role of protecting and promoting human rights and dignity.
The church's role is to act as the conscience of society in matters related to the human person. Some liberal churches and leaders may choose to disregard church authority, but in doing so they pay a price - that is, the loss of unity.
Instead of being churches that nourish unity within the community as well as with the wider society, they become the cause of division. They find themselves in situations where they are in opposition to their members because of their political affiliation. Consequently in some cases, they are responsible for depriving their members of the Good News. In doing so, these churches and their leaders turn away from the very thing they are called to be: a force for unity.
There is a further, deeper loss when churches align themselves to political parties or civil movements. The churches lose their prophetic role for the world. They become the servants of a particular political party or group rather than the messengers of universal salvation.
Given the above descriptions of the role of churches in politics, what can we say of the practical contribution of the churches of Fiji in building a better Fiji and in responding to the current political crisis?
The Catholic Bishops Synod document Justice in the World states that the role of the church is a mediatory one. This means that the churches cannot work alone in contributing to the social and political development of society. There should be collaboration amongst the churches, with other faiths, and with civil movements and institutions.
In Fiji, unfortunately, we see churches working alone, becoming politicised, or even refusing to take the socio-political challenges seriously.
So there is an urgent need for dialogue among the churches regarding the current political crisis and the relevant Christian response towards building a better Fiji. We should develop ecumenical forums where we can reflect and discern the message of the Gospel and reflect upon its application to the events of our history or, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, to scrutinise the signs of the times in light of the Gospel. This dialogical forum should also include all religions and all civil movements that have the common interest for the common good.
Unity is our strength in the face of unjust structures. Unity is also the very thing that such unjust structures fear, and that is why such structures work to create antagonism, division and fear within society. Such unjust institutions create divisions and antagonism within society to legitimise their position of authority. It is, therefore, crucial that the churches take a positive and definite step towards a dialogue among themselves, with other religions and with civil movements as a practical way of contributing to social, economic, and political development of Fiji. This I consider as one of the important roles of the churches in building a better Fiji. Another primary and basic task of the churches' political mission is that of educating the congregation, and in particular politicians and those in public office, on the social teachings of the church. These teachings will guide the processes of their political decision making. The church in this way becomes the conscience of society, guiding and critiquing it. The churches act like a watch dog, protecting human rights and dignity. But they cannot do this when they become confused with political party ideologies. It is easy to critique others but hard to critique oneself.
So, do the churches have a political contribution to make towards building a better Fiji? Yes they do. They have resources that society needs to draw from.
The challenges that lay ahead demand from our churches new vision and hope. It is at moments like this that we need we recapture the apocalyptic nature of our faith which directs us towards the future. In doing so we are reminded that there is an end to time, and that the end of time belongs to God. The end is when God will make all things new. But the future does not leave us waiting idly by. Instead, it guides our present commitments towards making a new world.
The Israel of the Old Testament can be described as a landscape of tears a nation that was in a continual state of crisis, suffering, and death. But there was something that made this small nation persevere in hope. It was this: they admitted their helplessness in the face of suffering and death, and they placed their trust in God. They believed that in the end God would liberate them, and this hope kept them together as nation.
With this hope they cried, lamented, groaned, and begged God to justify himself as the God of Israel in the face of suffering and death. God eventually heard their cry.
"I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry."(Ex.3:7) God heard their cry, and in and through God, Moses too heard the cry. (Dorothy Soelle: 2001, 283)
This too is our hope: that our churches and its leaders, politicians, community leaders and chiefs will be people who will be guided by God, to whom time and the future belongs; that they will be people whose souls are so united to God that they will see the world with God's eyes.
They will be people who will see the suffering of the people of Fiji and hear their cries.
These challenging times call the churches to a solidaristic dialogue, a dialogue whereby we will hear with the ears of God and speak the words of God, and so contribute in the most effective manner to building a better Fiji.
Father Peter Chong is a Roman Catholic diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Suva.

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