Have Media Abandoned Their Social Responsibility? (speech full text)
By Professor Wilfred Mlay
I think that this question deserves no time for reflection, introspection, research, or field work. It requires no analysis. Just go to any place in Africa, any household, any small township, any church, any media house. Listen to any coffee conversation, tiptoe into any academic or lecture hall and ask them what are the issues, the concerns, and immediately it will be apparent to you that in this society there is a great need of someone with some responsibility. To put it another way, someone has abdicated his responsibility for society.
Look at the mass poverty around us. The Millennium Development Goals should be achieved in 2015. Yet in Sub-Saharan Africa poverty has increased over the last seven years. There has been some improvement here and there, but overall poverty is on the increase. Africa has more orphans today than at any other time. We in the media are publishing child abuse, corruption and bad governance. Some extremely rich people are living side by side with the extremely poor in the same nation. This is a society in dire need of someone to take responsibility.
My key argument is that actually we do need the church, the academia and media, to each play a rightful role in society for there to be wholeness, and when these three entities or institutions are playing their rightful role they will be able to tame a fourth institution — politics. Then it will be possible to provide opportunity for social progress and development. These four entities are like four poles, and society is the arena on which they play. When there are good checks and balances between the four, then society progresses. This is where we find most of our industrialized countries in the Western world making progress.
When we talk of social responsibility in the Christian context, I cannot but think about creation in its very essence. God created heaven and earth and looked and saw that everything was good, and he created man and woman after his own image (Gen. 1), and he gave them authority over everything he had created. God gave social, economic, political, and physical responsibility to man over all creation, which includes the people who were to come, because he said multiply and increase and fill the earth. Social responsibility is a mandate given by God to man. Now man organizes the society and decides to develop institutions. Each institution has its role to ensure that this mandate is being fulfilled. Whatever society you go to, there are these institutions to ensure that this mandate is fulfilled.
The individual, the community, the state, private and public cooperation have a certain measure of responsibility for the well-being, progress and prosperity of what we call society. You may call it a sense of obligation. This is not legislated. It is part of our DNA. God put it there right from the time of creation that somehow — even in our most selfish moments, when we realize that the well-being of a neighbor will affect our well-being, we do something about it. Of course there are incentives to enforce legislation.
These days the term social responsibility has been hijacked by business corporations, and most of the big corporations have a department of corporate social responsibility. Publicity is the bottom line. The media cover every activity under corporate social responsibility in order to increase their market share. That is one definition of social responsibility: To increase your market share. Even churches do it. Social responsibility is the inner obligation that we have from Genesis that says we have an obligation to take care of one another, of our social systems, to take care of the well-being of those who are part of who we are, because in it will be our well-being and the hope for our own progress and prosperity.
The church is called to care, and Jesus gave the model of what the church is supposed to be, right from the beginning. When Jesus proclaimed his mission to the world, he quoted Isaiah (Luke 4:18). There were four things he was about: preaching good news to the poor; freeing prisoners and all who were bound by evil demons of oppression; restoring the sight of the blind (including knowledge, understanding, and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong); and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. In the Gospels, Jesus systematically pursues this mission and fulfills it.
After he had been with his disciples for along time, Jesus sent them out two by two and said to them, Go out there, heal the sick, do everything you have seen me do. When you have done that announce to them the kingdom of God is coming, the rulership of God has come in their midst. They can take off the shackles of all the other rulers who have been holding them in captivity. Now they are free, because their salvation has come, their savior is here, and they are now free men and women.
This is the mission of the church. Why are there so many blind people when there are so many churches in Uganda? Why so much ignorance, so much oppression? Why are people under bondage when the church has been here over 100 years? What have we been doing all these years? The churches have been mushrooming everywhere, but something has gone terribly wrong. People don’t know the good news. Witchcraft has increased. We build more churches, more schools, but the witchcraft business is booming. You find so many people who will come out of our schools totally unable to read or write. What went wrong? Remember the missionaries? They built those beautiful hospitals and our local churches took them over. Some of them are relics falling apart. What went wrong, what happened?
Jesus uses two metaphors referring to the church — light and salt. Where there is adequate salt, food is tasty and people are happy, there is not much rot. Why is there so much rot in society today? Where is the salt of the church? Why is there so much darkness? Where is the light of the church? A man does not light a candle and put it under a bushel, so what is dimming the light of the church? What has blunted the saltiness of the church?
I have a soft spot for Uganda. I grew up under the East African Revival movement. William Nagenda led me to the Lord in 1955, when I was in high school. Those days the church was the church. Not only did Christians preach the gospel and bring people to the saving knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but they also acted as a community. The church is called to be community. Unfortunately, these days the church has become an institution. It is a place you go to, like you go to a supermarket to you get your groceries. Now you go to church for entertainment, for some emotional relief, temporary emotional relief, just as you would go to a bar and take a beer. Today the church is not a community, broadly speaking. Of course there are exceptions.
For a church to take social responsibility, it must rediscover its community life first. Today we have so many churches that are preaching the prosperity gospel and actually exploiting the poor. The levels of poverty are going up with the growth of prosperity churches. Why is this the case? Because they promise utopia and no pain, no cost, and poor people who want to get out of poverty are willing to go to these churches and hope that tomorrow they can be relieved of all of their problems. Why is the church silent about this? How can we talk about corruption in politics when there is corruption in the church? I want to suggest that this is corruption in the church. When we allow some churches to use the gospel to exploit the poor and we condone it, that is corruption. If we are full of light, people should be able to see the distinction between the cathedral here and another meeting in the cinema hall downtown, where people are told to plant a seed and wait for the harvest. Then the church will play its rightful role. When will the church rediscover community?
I am essentially an angry man. World Vision has given me the privilege to travel this continent, and I go to places that I would not have been able to visit. I have seen people living like animals while the people they elected to office, the people they empowered to lead them, are living like Arab sheiks. They live side by side and there is no compassion, no sense of shame. The church is there preaching good news, but not to the poor, because we are not there with them. God created the world by just a word from his mouth, but he still came down and lived our life (2 Cor. 8:9). “Though he was rich, for our sake he became poor so that we might become rich.” Does that describe your church? Does that describe you? We can’t talk about the lack of moral values in politics, in business, and complain that society is going to the dogs when these things are happening in our churches. God gave us his mandate, a special mandate for the church. Where is the compassion? Where is the self-giving sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ? Where is the ownership by people in our community or even in our churches?
It is irrelevant to talk about the church going into the world. The world doesn’t even know we are there because we have become so much like them, even gone beyond them. The church cannot stand by and point fingers because we are a mirror of society. When we discover community, when we fully become a community of saints living like light and salt, then the world around us will stop and take notice, but not until then. Don’t put bigger microphones in your churches and think people will pay attention. The world out there is looking for light, to taste the salt, and then and only then will the world change.
No society can survive without its academic institutions, because it is in academia that knowledge is produced. Knowledge helps to preserve, promote and propagate society. There is no progress in society without academic institutions. It is the role of the academy to ensure that society has knowledge for its own survival and progress. The only reason why we are still surviving in Africa today is because of the transfer of knowledge and technology.
We have killed our institutions and the ones we have adopted. Little or nothing in university budgets budget is earmarked for research. How many of you are constantly looking for funds in a publish or perish environment? How many of you are doing work for someone else or fulfilling someone else’s agenda? Academia becomes relevant and fulfills the social responsibility when it addresses issues that are relevant and genuine for the well-being and progression of the particular society. When Rockefeller or Ford give you money to do research on poverty or any other thing, don’t think good about it, because you are fulfilling their agenda.
The most starved people in terms of resources and opportunities to access more knowledge are the very people who have the capacity — the people in academic institutions. The agenda of our society is not the agenda of the knowledge we produce or the knowledge we propagate when we are in the classroom. Although this message is utopian, we have to reach a time when we say we are ready to take off and now we will address those issues that are genuine and critical for the well-being of the society. That’s when we will begin to fulfill our social responsibility. The church is the custodian of value and has the God-given responsibility to bring light into the darkness of society, to usher in the kingdom, to free society from the shackles of ignorance. The church needs to work in partnership with academia, the producers of knowledge.
How do the media come in? In my view, the media are the vehicle through which knowledge and values are transmitted and accessed in society. The media communicate the knowledge produced in academia and the values taught by the church. This means they need each other. You can produce a lot of knowledge, but you need a good communicator to disseminate it to different levels of society. I have a high regard and respect for people who work in media.
The media have a pivotal role in disseminating values, and knowledge that enable society to grow and to develop. Like the church, the media have a prophetic role. When things go wrong, when things are not working well, the media play a pivotal role to ensure that the wrong and the right is known to the people, who have the ability to choose right and avoid the wrong and bring the culprits to book. The media should stand for and discuss freedom, justice, and morality. Look at the media in East Africa. Who owns the media? Front pages are sensational. Whoever pays the price calls the shots.
The church not only has the responsibility but also has the opportunity to play a key role in academia and in media and to influence them. I am not saying only the church should control media and academia. I am saying they should be offering the example. We are seeing more and more institutions that are run by the church, we are beginning to see the church entering the arena of media, but the question still remains: How are they playing their social responsibility?
Beacons of Hope
I would like to mention a few examples of people who have distinguished themselves in these areas. They are beacons of hope that things can be different. In the church, do you remember Archbishop Janani Luwum? Here is a man who stood up to Idi Amin and said these atrocities must stop, and he paid the ultimate price. What if the entire church had stood behind the archbishop and said we will march as one and go to the president and say, “Thus says the Lord: You are a murderer”? More recently Canon Gideon Byamugisha, when the church was grappling with the AIDS crisis, stood up and said, “I am HIV-positive and I am living positively.” With the help of other institutions he started ANARELA to bring help and encouragement to those in the church living with AIDS.
In academia we have Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner for environmental protection, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer. In media, Lucy Oriango and Charles Onyango Obbo have been exemplary.
Professor Wilfred Mlay, who is based in Nairobi, Kenya, is a regional vice president for Africa with World Vision International.