|The Church & The Struggle
by Hugh Ellis
The Christian Church had an ambivalent relationship with Namibian
nationalists during the dark days of the liberation struggle, and this is
reflected in the literature available on the subject.
On the one hand, organizations like the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) and the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) provided valuable support to SWAPO and other liberation forces. On the other, the more conservative churches did much to discourage such political activism.
Phillip Steenkamp, writing in Namibia's Liberation Struggle: The Two Edged Sword argues that once the church had decided to speak out against injustice in Namibia, it was in a unique position. The Apartheid authorities had no problem with banning political parties, trade unions and ethnic bodies. But, as self-proclaimed guardians of western and "Christian" morality, they could hardly be party to banning the church.
Set up in the late 1800s by European missionaries, one might expect the Namibian church to have been conservative. But, says Steenkamp, by the early 1960s, a large number of black clergymen had been trained, and congregations were mostly black, especially amongst the Lutheran and Catholic churches whose members were mainly from Owamboland.
In 1964 and 1967, the two largest Lutheran churches in Namibia sent letters to the South African government warning that the confiscation of land as seen in the Odendaal plan would lead to chaos. They were ignored, and the removals went ahead anyway. But the protest movement within the church had begun.
In 1971, the Lutheran, Anglican and other churches were parties to an open letter sent to then South African Prime Minister John Vorster, supporting the opinion of the International Court of Justice that the South African occupation of Namibia was illegal. The letter ended with the statement:
"Our urgent wish is that you, in terms of the declarations of the World Court in co-operation with the United Nations, your government will seek a peaceful solution the problems of the land, and will see to it that human rights are put into operation, and that South West Africa may become a self-sufficient and independent state."
When Swapo took up the armed struggle in 1996, it presented further problems for the churches. In Church and Liberation in Namibia, Peter Katjavivi says that a split developed between the churches with a more white-based membership, and other denominations which had more black members. Anglican bishop of South West Africa, Colin Winter, was quoted as saying that the controversy surrounding "Jesus Christ Superstar" was more important to some of Windhoek's white ministers than public floggings in Owamboland.
Some churches had problems with supporting an organization that was conducting a war, albeit a justified war, against a government. As the years progressed, however, few were able to stay silent in the face of increasing human rights abuses by the South African authorities.
However, when SWAPO, the chosen champion of the United Nations, was implicated in maltreating detainees in the 1980s, the churches faced a crisis situation. Some pastors, such as Siegfried Groth, who was later to write the controversial book Namibia: The Wall of Silence, was one of those who did speak out. Steenkamp says, however, that the umbrella body, the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN), was more reluctant to do so.
Another crisis was to occur when the South African government set up the Turnhalle Administration. Some clergymen felt obliged to support what seemed like the best hope of a peaceful solution. But the more radical clergy were unconvinced. Steenkamp quotes Dr de Vries, one pastor from the Lutheran Church who chose to brake away from the Swapo supporters:
"The people of this country is no longer voiceless and voteless, and political parties and their leaders can now to a much greater extent speak for their people."
Not all were convinced.
When Independence came, the churches were one of the many victims of the euphoria that resulted. With no external enemy to fight, much of the external donor funding to the CNN's development projects dried up. People wondered what the church could have to say in a free Namibia. Steenkamp says that church attendance dropped off dramatically after Independence - by an much as 75 per cent in some congregations.
With the AIDS crisis came a new chance for the church to become involved in the affairs of the Nation. The activities of groups such as Catholic AIDS Action - set up three years ago to provide care and counseling to those affected by AIDS and to sponsor prevention campaigns, have inspired the nation to fight the epidemic. Lucy Steinitz, coordinator of Catholic AIDS action calls the fight against the disease "a new liberation struggle" - and believes that the country's religious consciousness is a vital weapon in this war.
Christuskirche in Windhoek
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