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We must all be allowed to love each other with honour: spirituality and social transformation

Secular narratives of social transformation are often separated from religious narratives of personal transformation. This division ignores the lived realities of people who are struggling for change. 

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We enter the police station in a mid-size town in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, knocking on doors to find the officer who’s agreed to be interviewed for our research on spirituality and social transformation. A few minutes later, one door opens. “Hello, apologies for not responding, I was having my moment of prayer, but come in”, says a female warrant officer. We enter her small office. A laptop on a shelf is playing a video with a pastor giving a sermon. A document about “spiritual warfare” is pinned to the wall. 

We’re here to find out her views on the role of religious faith in efforts to realize gender equality in contexts where women occupy inferior positions in their households, and where they are regularly exposed to the threat of rape and other forms of violence. A 2012 report from the South Africa Medical Research Council reports that a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours; 37 per cent of South African men admit to having committed at least one rape.

In response to our questions, the warrant officer tells us: “I believe we cannot fight crime without the involvement of the power of God. Churches play an important role...first of all through prayer because fighting these crimes should start spiritually. In addition, faith leaders and churches could also contribute to raising awareness on these issues.”

For her, as for many other people we interviewed, fighting gender-based violence is first and foremost a spiritual issue. No distinction is made between the warrant officer’s public role as a keeper of the peace and her personal faith, a lack of separation that would raise suspicions in other, secular settings. Those suspicions are well founded given that religion has been a force for social injustice as much as social justice, so what is it that turns faith in one direction or the other?

Why do some religious leaders feel compelled to support social change while others don’t? Does the answer lie in a particular reading of religious scripture, or in the spiritual experiences that may underpin religious convictions, or in the feelings of universal love that faith and spirituality sometimes awaken, or in some other factors entirely?

The argument that religious and secular perspectives do not mix is well rehearsed, especially in the world of international development. After all, the goal of ‘development’ has largely been based on a grand narrative of modernity and progress which privileges economic growth, liberal democracy, individual liberty and a secular public sphere - moulding ‘developing’ societies into the image of the West.

Most development success stories are embedded in such secular narratives, even though leaders from the global South like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela have written and spoken about the extensive role that religion and spirituality have played in their own journeys. Religious narratives make development practitioners uncomfortable. Not only do they emphasize the personal dimensions of social change that the development industry tries to avoid, but they also bring elements of religion and spirituality into public discourses that many of those working in this field would rather see disappear. 

But in our conversations with community leaders, religious figures, teachers, police and others throughout Southern Africa, personal and social transformation emerged as closely-intertwined realities. Religious and secular dynamics are inextricably entangled. This raises significant questions for scholars, policymakers and activists who want to support participatory, democratic development whilst continuing to exclude the spiritual dimensions of life and work from the mainstream agenda.

Conversely, religious actors have frequently failed to connect personal transformation with broader processes of social change. In the Pentecostal churches that have grown so quickly in many parts of Africa, for example, membership has proven to be a positive influence on personal agency.  But the idea that such agency should also contribute to the pursuit of social justice is often absent from the perspectives of the churches’ leaders, particularly those who come from conservative theological frameworks which emphasize the primacy of personal salvation. This perspective has frequently been at odds with more theologically liberal frameworks which stress the inclusion of diverse and marginalized voices, and the transformation of personal and community identities.

Yet this tension may be abating as faith-based development organisations begin to adopt approaches in which social and spiritual considerations are joined together. One example is a program run by World Vision International called “Channels of Hope for Gender,” which uses scripture to promote equality between men and women who profess a religious faith. A Pentecostal pastor in Malawi who participated in the program along with 1,260 other people throughout Southern Africa in 2013 told us how reading the Bible in a different manner encouraged him to change the way he acts towards women. “We saw the Bible as one story,” he said, “but now we see that there are different voices, and we need to listen to the voices about what is good in men and women.”

To assess the impact of the program we spoke with other people in the community, including a husband and wife called Ruth and Joseph who run a number of small business enterprises. Joseph keeps livestock and runs a grocery store and tea-house, while Ruth runs a successful tailoring business. It was her success that enabled Joseph to start his own enterprises.

When Ruth was first invited to participate in the gender equality workshops, she and Joseph decided that she was too busy, so he attended instead. They say that the training has resulted in significant changes. Joseph now takes an active role in the household - cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and looking after the children if Ruth is busy with customers. Previously Joseph made all the decisions on household finances, but now the couple make them together. They see themselves as role models for the rest of their village, visiting and speaking to other members of their community about gender equality and what it means in practice.

Later, Ruth commented to us privately that although she really wanted to attend the workshop herself, she knew that Joseph needed to undertake the training much more than she did. She added that before the workshop, Joseph “was not a praying man, now he prays all the time.” From her perspective, Joseph’s spiritual transformation and the transformation of roles and relationships in her family are part and parcel of the same process.

While the program doesn’t always result in such clear and positive changes, this story and others like it highlight how experiences of personal transformation can provide the motivation to engage in broader action for social change. By contrast, recent interest in religious leaders as potential partners in development work has been highly instrumental, focused mainly on religious leaders and their organisations’ capacities as ‘delivery systems’ for services like health and education, and measured against secular criteria that exclude the spiritual, transcendent and metaphysical aspects of religiosity. While the move to engage with religion is promising, this narrow focus risks ignoring or marginalizing the deeper ways in which spirituality is bound up with social transformation.

Timothy Keller for example, the Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, believes that a personal experience of God’s grace is key to an awareness of, and sensitivity to, issues of social justice: “as I preached the classic message that God does not give us justice but saves us by free grace,” he writes, “I discovered that those most affected by the message became the most sensitive to the social inequities around them.”

Similarly, Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission, declares that “seeking justice is a straightforward command of God for his people and part of Christ’s prayer that his Father’s will be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’” so a relationship with the divine is critical in many people’s decision to participate in the pursuit of social transformation. Religious leaders we spoke to in Malawi and South Africa also emphasised God’s love for all humanity as a critical factor in changing their perspectives on male/female relationships.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has emphasised this calling many times: “Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice,” he writes in The Huffington Post, “opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice. It is also a matter of love. Every human being is precious. We are all - all of us - part of God's family. We must all be allowed to love each other with honor.”

About the authors

Erin K. Wilson is the Director of the Center for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. Brenda E. Bartelink is programme advisor for the Knowledge Centre on Religion and Development at Oikos. All the names of our interlocutors in this article have been withheld to protect their privacy.


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