Dr Janice McLaughlin, MM
“Speaking truth to power” is one definition of prophesy that suits the papers presented in this collection. Prophets have the courage to stand with the victims of injustice, to challenge the perpetrators of injustice or to call attention to wrongdoing or injustice.
The prophets that first come to mind are those in the Old Testament - Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Too often forgotten are women prophets like Miriam, Ruth, Sarah and Esther. The Exodus story of Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt has long inspired oppressed groups in their struggle for freedom, including those in Southern Africa.
But prophecy did not end with the Old Testament. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Jesus made the struggle for justice and peace the cornerstone of his message. He singled out just treatment of the poor and the oppressed as criteria for those who wanted to follow him. Jesus not only proclaimed a message of justice and peace, He was the message.
Still, Jesus was not the last prophet. In every generation we find courageous men and women who speak out against injustice and take sides with the poor and oppressed. They are people like Oscar Romero of El Salvador; Desmond Tutu, Dennis Hurley and Nelson Mandela of South Africa; Donal Lamont in Zimbabwe; and the four churchwomen, two from my religious community, who were murdered in El Salvador, to name but a few. These are witnesses to the truth, inspiring and encouraging us in our own desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
In her book, Prophets, Words of Fire, Megan McKenna describes a prophet as “a truth-teller, using the power of God to shatter the silence that surrounds injustice.”1 The prophet calls us to repentance and transformation. “A prophet arises as a statement that justice has departed from our midst and that we are generally in a state of disrepair and disgrace,” she says. “The prophet takes sides, as does God, with the victims, those who know injustice and unnecessary pain.”2
Furthermore, the poor themselves are a sign to us of what is wrong in the world. As McKenna reminds us:
The poor and the crucified of the world confront us with truth, holding up a mirror to our lives and values, our sin, and our collusion with the systems of the world that destroy other human beings as a matter of course. Their existence, their shortened lives, their sufferings, and their premature and violent deaths cry out for mercy and for people to join their struggle.”3
The African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching (AFCAST) is a regional network established to spread the prophetic voice of the church in East and Southern Africa and to encourage Christians on the African continent to take sides with the poor and oppressed. One way we do this is by organising regional seminars on current issues that affect people’s lives such as agrarian reform, corruption, women and children’s rights, war and peace and poverty eradication.
We also make the social gospel known through various other means such as publications, our website (www.afcast.org.zw), research, a set of guidelines for teaching Catholic Social Teaching, and our involvement in our individual countries in bringing the social teachings to bear on economic, social, political and cultural practices.
“Prophetic Voices in the Church” was the topic of an AFCAST seminar held at Arrupe College in Harare, Zimbabwe, in November 2006. This seminar revealed that the church in the region has been taking courageous action for justice for many years. At the same time, it revealed that the church sometimes fails in its mission to society. This booklet brings together the papers presented at that seminar for wider dissemination and discussion. It is also meant to serve as a stimulus to individuals and churches in the region to search for creative and meaningful ways to put the social teachings into practice.
Dr David Kaulemu, AFCAST Regional Coordinator, starts the dialogue with his paper on Zimbabwe, in which he identifies some of the challenges facing churches during the current crisis. He characterises the crisis as moral and spiritual as well as a crisis of leadership, including leadership within the churches. Pointing to the divisions among Christians in terms of how they define the crisis and assign responsibility, he examines various responses and suggests that a prophetic church would be part of the solution to Zimbabwe’s multi-faceted problems.
Sr Specioza Kabahuma, a member of the Daughters of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, has been the justice and peace coordinator of the Catholic Church in Uganda for nine years. Her presentation shows that while the Ugandan Church has often been prophetic, it has failed to address root causes of oppressive structures as well as some of the problems within its own structures, such as its attitude towards women and children. Although the Catholic Church in Uganda is part of an inter-religious council that is ecumenical, Sr Specioza laments that the prophetic message remains “up in the air” and calls for efforts to make it part of people’s everyday lives.
Bishop Method Kiliani, Auxiliary Bishop of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and chairman of various episcopal sub-committees, closes the discussion with an overview of action for justice in Tanzania. Acknowledging that the Catholic Church did not raise its voice during the colonial period and, indeed, actively discouraged its members from participating in the struggle for independence, he says that it did provide leadership in the fields of education and health. For example, it prepared those who would lead the country to freedom, such as the nation’s first President, Julius Nyerere, who was guided by Christian values in his actions.
Bishop Kiliani stresses the importance of networking with others and of working with the laity. He feels, for instance, that the formation of the Christian Professionals in Tanzania has helped to sensitise the bishops to current issues and that the Christian Social Services Commission that brings together all Christian denominations has helped to influence the way the government functions. He draws attention to the problem of conflicts between Christians and Muslims and calls on all to be “agents of peace.”
As you listen to these voices, I encourage you to reflect on the following questions: Who are the prophets in my life? What are the issues that require prophetic witness today? What are the debates around these issues? What decisions are being made about these issues? Who is making the decisions? How are they being made? What action is the local church taking? What action can I take on these and other critical issues?
1 McKenna, Megan, Prophets, Words of Fire, Orbis Publications, Maryknoll, NY, 2001.