The Church, Academia & Social Responsibility?
The purpose of this essay is to explore the question of whether the Church and Academe have abandoned their social responsibility.
In truth, this question warrants no time for reflection, introspection, research, or field work. It requires no analysis. It is apparent in every place in Africa, every household, every small township, every church and media house that there is a great need for someone with some responsibility in our society. Someone has abdicated his responsibility for society.
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 it has had before. Stories of child abuse, corruption and bad governance are rife in the media. Some extremely rich people are living side by side with the extremely poor. This is a society in dire need of someone to take responsibility.
The Church, the Academe and Media each need to play their rightful role in society for there to be wholeness and then they will be able to tame a fourth institution — Politics. It will then 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 checks and balances between the four, society progresses. This is the reason why most of the industrialized countries in the Western world make progress.
In the Christian context, social responsibility begins with creation. God created heaven and earth and looked and saw that everything was good, and He created man and woman in 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, increase and fill the earth”. Social responsibility is a mandate given by God to man. Man then organized the society and developed institutions. Each institution has its role to ensure that this mandate is being 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 society; a sense of obligation that is not legislated but is part of the human DNA. God put it there right from the time of creation that somehow — even in the human being’s most selfish moments, when they realize that the well-being of a neighbor will affect their well-being, they do something about it. Of course there are incentives to enforce legislation.
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 term social responsibility has recently been hijacked by business corporations, and most of the big corporations have a department of corporate social responsibility. In this case, however, publicity is the bottom line. The media cover every activity under corporate social responsibility in order to increase the company market share. Even churches do it.
The church is called to care, and Jesus gave the model of what the church is supposed to be. When Jesus proclaimed His mission to the world, He quoted Isaiah in 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 a long 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? 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. More churches and schools have been built, but the witchcraft business is booming. Many people come out of our schools totally unable to read or write. What went wrong? The missionaries built those beautiful hospitals and our local churches took them over. Some of them are relics falling apart. What went wrong?
Jesus uses two metaphors referring to the church — light and salt. Where there is adequate salt, food is tasty and there is no 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 grew up under the East African Revival movement. William Nagenda, a Ugandan evangelist from the Revival 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 to go to, like one goes to the supermarket to get groceries. Now people go to church for entertainment, for some temporary emotional relief, just as they 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? 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? 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.
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? The church is 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?
People live 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 and no sense of shame. 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. 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.
The world around us will only notice the church after the church fully becomes a community of saints living like light and salt. It is not bigger microphones in the churches that will draw 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 academia to ensure that society has knowledge for its own survival and progress. The only reason 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 adopted. Little or nothing in university budgets is earmarked for research. 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. Unfortunately, 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. We have to reach a time when we say we are ready to take off and can 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? 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.
The media have a pivotal role in disseminating values, and knowledge to different levels of society to 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 need 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. Unfortunately, the media in East Africa, for example, does not take up this role all the time. 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. It is running more and more institutions; but the question remains: How are they playing their social responsibility?
BEACONS OF HOPE
There are a few people who have distinguished themselves in these areas. They are beacons of hope that things can be different. In the church, Archbishop Janani Luwum 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.