Africana Plus  

No 71 June 2006.4

Poverty : a challenge for the Church


In March 1995 a world summit on social development was organized by UNO in Copenhagen. 182 countries had committed themselves to eradicate poverty off the face of the earth in order to prevent a world-wide social explosion. Two specific commitments were even made: first “to accelerate development in Africa” and secondly that “programs to adjust the structures in aid to third-world economies must integrate social development objectives: eradicate poverty, further employment and promote social integration”.

Is this another flow of words or a sign of hope? The counter-summit of the NGO affirmed that the UNO meeting would achieve nothing concrete for the poor and it was therefore a failure. The least we can say is that the world was made aware of the reality that so many people have to face.

Social commitment: an ethical requirement

In Africa we seem to be backtracking on this question of social concern. In the days of independence a strong preference could be observed for socialist movements. But now there is only talk of liberalism, privatization, productivity of economy, of reduction of social services. Social conscience is on the wane.

Our ethical position and our moral reaction in Africa seem not to go much beyond complaints against government policies, their leaders and their corrupt practices, petitions to international institutions like IMF or the World Bank to modify their viewpoint and their priorities. This has to be stressed even if it means a mere transfer of responsibilities and for us an attitude of escapism: escapism from ethical problems, from our part of responsibility in the African Church and society. There are millions of people who hardly survive, millions of young people who have no future, millions of women who make Africa go forward and obtain but a meager reward for their efforts. At the same time there is a tiny percentage of Africans who are extremely rich and others who have a good situation. Do we feel challenged by all that? Do we look at all this as a real problem, inciting us to action?

Rediscover the boldness of our prophetic mission

In many places in Africa our churches are packed on Sundays; we enjoy enthusiastic celebrations, our laity is involved in our church priorities. Meanwhile however there is a discreet exodus of those who do not find there what they need. They do not protest openly, but they go to other religious groups. The regular attendance in Dar-es-Salaam does not exceed 20-25% of the Catholic population. Do we ask ourselves why this is so?

It is here that the prophetic message can help us a great deal. The authenticity of our religious convictions is shown in the commitment of the community of believers and of the whole society, taking into account real life situations. The value of the spiritual life of the church community is revealed in the fruits that we produce in our daily activities. This is what people are looking for in the Church. Words do not impress any more.

Are we not too much preoccupied with the internal problems and needs of our Church? Are we not forgetting that the real sign of the health of our church community is manifested outside the church and liturgical celebrations, namely in social realities and the behavior of its members?

As a church community we seem to find it difficult to discover and live the prophetic dimension of our call. When some Christians more socially aware search for means to express their concerns, they are soon marginalized. Bishops and priests are asked to maintain community cohesion, but when this role becomes dominant, there is a risk to compromise, to stand for the status quo and discipline, and to do something for the poor only in vague and general terms. In this case the practical commitment for an effective combat in favor of abandoned people is no more a priority.

We do not see a tendency in favor of a concrete social action for the needs of ordinary people who fight for projects that would enhance their lives. There is some kind of fatalism that prevents us from finding a way towards change. Meanwhile we see those with power and money dictate the course of public action. We seem unable to organize a common discernment in sociology, economy and politics. Our ethical reflections rarely venture into precise details in those domains.

It is well understood that it is not the role of each missionary to animate such a reflection for his Christian community. A theological and intellectual reflection is needed for that. But that is precisely what is lacking. When it comes to the ethical aspects of politics concerning salaries, social services, habitat, education, price of agricultural products, it seems that we cannot find in Africa people who could guide this discernment. Yet here are sources of injustice and of concrete difficulties that face people. What is the use of preaching the morality of the sacrament of marriage to a family who lives in a single room in an overpopulated urban setting? Would it not be more sensible first to resolve the habitat issue?

The problem with us is that we do not take the real situation of people as a departure point for our common reflection on responsibility and moral obligation. We always start from the deductive method of moral theology that has flourished in other domains. We do not trust the local intellectual abilities to take another point of departure. In fact we lack the necessary boldness to adopt another perspective.

It is said that 20% of the world population live in “extreme” poverty, without mentioning those who live in “ordinary” poverty. As a church community do we not lack some social conscience reflex to fight against such situations? We are repeating the same error that was made about the working class in Europe in the last century.

We consecrate so many resources, staff and money for the training of clergy and religious in Africa. But when it comes to the training and social involvement of lay people in view of fighting against poverty through a sociopolitical action, very few resources are available and those that are mainly come from outside. Why does our social conscience react so weakly? How is it that the celebration of sacraments does not lead us to a greater social involvement? We practice the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, but not of the ordinary bread and we do not seem to have any remorse as a community.

When we talk of the Church as the family of God we call upon a nice African model, but this must not be a way out that would make us forget the sociological realities that are irreversibly destroying the family ethos of the African society, the source of which is in the economical difficulties met by the people and not in moral decadence. People suffer because they simply cannot meet their family obligations.

As the Church of Jesus Christ, we have the very serious obligation to reflect on the manner in which our world can be saved, in letting ourselves be guided by the vivifying presence of Christ.

Let us not think that governments could face such a situation on their own: problems are too vast. The only solution is in the awakening of the entire African society to its responsibilities, and in its involvement in a difficult effort of creation.

The evangelical message can be the leaven, the salt and the light that must awaken the resources of the human community so often paralyzed by the lack of trust and the loss of hope. The Christian community can become the sign of hope in a society crushed by so many negative signs.

Our African churches hunger for spirituality. This hunger can be transformed into a force for change if it is channeled towards a social action that makes our world more human.


Vic Missiaen, M.Afr.

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