The Obligation of Ethiopian Religious Organizations in Dispensing Social Justice: A Call to Action

An injured protester waits for help after several people died during the Irrechaa, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By Tamrat Belay

In the recent quest for justice, freedom, equality, and democracy in Ethiopia, several citizens have suffered egregious treatment at the hands of the ruling party- EPRDF. In a short span of time, hundreds of innocent citizens have died; tens of thousands of people have been incarcerated; and millions more have been subjected to live under a constant reign of terror. What makes the recent incidence so appalling is that this tyrannical regime, with the support of one of the most equipped militaries in Africa, has cold-bloodedly murdered its own people whose only crime is daring to seek change. Following such horrendous act, various international organizations have unequivocally condemned the unacceptable behavior of the government and have stood in solidarity with the Ethiopian people. Surprisingly, however, most influential religious institutions in the country who ostensibly wield moral authority have preferred to remain either neutral or silent in the face of such brazen onslaught perpetrated by the regime against citizens. This article is an attempt to underline the spiritual and moral obligations of Ethiopian religious institutions to step forward and speak out against injustice and stand tall in the defense of justice and truth whenever the occasion calls for. It is the prerogative of religious institutions to see to the fact that social justice (in the sense of fair and proper administration of laws to all citizens regardless of race, ethnic origin, class, gender, religion, etc.), is done as these square with the natural law that demands equal treatment of all human beings created in His image.

 

As is known, Ethiopia has been enjoying religious freedom following the demise of the Marxist junta. However, this freedom is increasingly encroached upon by the daring interference of the government in the internal affairs of religious organizations. Citizens routinely complain about what they see as the direct or indirect involvement of the government in religious affairs, including systematically directing the election of religious leaders. The recently declared state of emergency has categorically made illegal any teaching that the government deems as opposing its ideology. This includes teaching by religious institutions as well. It appears that this is a move to censor the content of religious teachings, and it is not hard to predict what the regime’s next move would entail unless the religious institutions would wake up and fight this divisive ideology. I honestly believe that it is only a matter of time before the regime sets in motion the persecution of religious institutions. Thus, it is long overdue that religious organizations woke up from their slumber and began equipping their followers with the basic divine teachings, such as unity, justice, equality, freedom and liberty. I believe that these ought to be one of the cardinal missions of religious organizations (I would like to remind readers that my discussion here in this article focuses more on Christian religious organizations; I will try to discuss about other religious organizations in a separate article). To this end, it is imperative for the religious organizations to take the following to heart:

 

Telling truth to power

Ethiopia is a diverse country with a long-standing tradition of tolerance with respect to religion, ethnic identity and other differences. Governance under the EPRDF regime is primarily structured along the ideology of divisive ethnic politics, which is contrary to the teachings of the church. Families are divided based on ethnic identity; taxpaying citizens are treated differently in the same land. As witnessed by the Human Rights Watch and other international organizations, Ethiopia is ranked at the bottom of the list among nations for its record on social justice. In Ethiopia, there is a glaring absence of fair and just distribution of resources and opportunities among its constituent members.  Far from being merit-based, educational and job opportunities are offered on the basis of party affiliation and political loyalties. What makes the practice more troubling is how open and blatant it is to the extent that it has virtually become the modus operandi of the system. There were times when this writer was asked to present a political party membership card in order to be able compete for a postgraduate scholarship. The writer personally witnessed multiple incidences where scholarships offered to individuals from foreign governments and institutions were made to expire because of the refusal of government officials to give support as the individuals (including the writer) had no party affiliations. The saddest of all is that almost all leadership positions, including those in academia and research institutions, which should have been awarded meritocratically have often been awarded on the basis of party membership and ethnic identity. As a result, mediocres would often come to the leadership positions in large institutions which are constituted by highly qualified personnel. Such a practice kills staff motivation and productivity; it breeds inefficiency, encourages corruption and eventually becomes an impediment to national advancement. In Ethiopia where such phenomena are endemic, church leaders ought to have a moral responsibility to speak out.

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What is more, in any advanced societies, there are laws and trusted institutions that protect minorities from an arbitrary exercise of power. When the strong unfairly treats the weak, the law holds them accountable. And hence the weak and the minority feel protected and exercise their rights as everyone else free from any coercion and intimidation. In countries, such as Ethiopia, where there is no independent judicial system, churches still remain places of peaceful arbitration. When the military and security forces are engaged in a killing spree and citizens are subjected to live in terror on regular basis, the church cannot bury its head in the sand like an ostrich. It should strive to speak out and call upon the perpetrator to desist from its unlawful act. It should stand for the protection of the weak and the powerless, and see to the fact that justice is served, and the community heals on the basis of genuine reconciliation between the parties involved. Part of which includes speaking the truth to power whenever necessary.

 

Promoting social justice is not an optional extra but an integral part of the church’s’ mission

As it is boldly written in the scripture, the mission of the church is basically to serve the oppressed- the people who live under the bondages of slavery. This includes those who are under the yolk of both spiritual and physical slavery. One of the most thoughtful teachings of Jesus Christ is found in the Book of Luke, chapter 4:18. It read as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed“. I believe that the church exists to accomplish the liberating mission of Jesus Christ.

 

The church is the last healing place and hope for human anguish. It is a place to cry, rejoice, practice freedom with equality- a place to live outside the polarized world. People sleep, live, stay and relax in the church yard. When people are tormented by the pain of the physical world, the church is the only trusted refuge where one can get solace and renew hope. I strongly believe that the church has an obligation to engage in social justice in such a corrupted system. Though the obligation has several facets, it includes the following:

 

  1. a) Spiritual obligation: Church leaders’ ministry is metaphorically expressed as a sheep-tending vocation. A shepherd has two main responsibilities- feeding the flock and keeping them safe. This includes protecting the flock from possible danger, and also helping the damaged to recuperate, shortly. David, was an exemplary shepherd who fearlessly used to fight with lions and bears to rescue his sheep. I believe that the current church leaders have a paralleled obligation both to feed the devotees with the right divine teaching, and also protect from the danger of killings and prosecutions by tyrants. In other words, as the church is teaching its members for the eternal life that comes after death, it is important that she should also be cognizant of the fact that members need peace, safety, prosperity and protection here on earth. The church cannot stay passive when the poor are oppressed and justice is ruined. Her role should go far beyond conducting funeral services when citizens are slaughtered by the tyrant government.

 

  1. b) Moral obligation: The church is traditionally viewed as a fortified tower that serves as a refuge to victims in the time of war. If a victim runs and gets to the church yard (equivalent to an embassy compound), that person is safe from a possible persecution by the enemy. This has been the social norm for years. The church serves as an agent of reconciliation if not as a hiding place for criminals. When the Ethiopian protesters hid in the church yard for their safety (e.g., the incidence at Saint Mary’s church during the 2005 political violence in Addis Ababa), the church had a moral obligation to protect those who trusted its system. Otherwise, the long-standing reputation – the tradition of trusting church systems- will be gradually eroded. As it is written in the Bible (Matthew 5:13), the church is like “the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything”. In the current situation in Ethiopia, the military can assault or plunder church premises without any moral qualm. I think this is not only an ungodly practice, but it is also an act that is disrespectful to the holy place. The church should univocally denounce this type of repeated violations of the sanctity of the church premise and exercise the moral authority she wields over the dispensing of protection to the soul that seeks refuge under such authority.
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  1. c) Historical obligation: Historically, peaceful protests have their roots in the church. The Black American freedom movement in America was spearheaded by church leaders. Most of the prominent civil right leaders in America, including Martin Luther King Jr., were church leaders. Most people are familiar with the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who stood against the unjust treatment of Black Americans in the United States. As a member of the society, he was angered by the denial of justice and the systematic oppression of his community, despite the legal protections guaranteed in the Constitution. In the face of this injustice, Dr. King used nonviolent resistance by mobilizing religious networks and churches to collectively take action against the prevailing injustice with respect to the black community. He recognized the potential impact of unified voices of the religious organizations and their leaders in forcing the government to make changes that take into account the needs and concerns of all its citizens.

 

The renowned Ethiopian Pope and martyr- Abune Petros- was executed in 1936 by the Italian occupying force for publicly condemning colonialism, invasion and massacre. He daringly protested and unequivocally denounced the brutal treatment of Ethiopians by Italian invaders. Several church leaders also paid an ultimate sacrifice during the Derge regime because of their sharp criticism of the military government. The majority of them were punished either by killing or by throwing them in jail, although a few of them who were lucky fled the country and spared their lives.  I wonder if we can find in today’s Ethiopia such fearless and outspoken religious leaders who are determined to stand tall and fight for the freedom of citizens who are shackled by their brutal oppressors.

 

Conclusion

Church history is replete with stories of saints and martyrs who had stood up for the truth. Martyrs had sacrificed their lives in their daring confrontation against the rulers who were intoxicated with their twisted ideologies. The Bible, for example, narrated the story of John the Baptist who was beheaded because of his rebuke of Elizabeth for her sexual impurity; Samuel confronted King David for his unfair treatment of the poor. We need such exemplary leadership from the current church leaders who can boldly declare that all human beings are equal, and “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Galatians 3:28). We need church leaders who dare to say that there should not be any discrimination in the treatment of citizens based on ethnic identity, gender, social class, religious background, etc.; that all citizens deserve equal treatment. Church leaders may not be required to directly involve in politics; however, when injustice reigns, they should be willing to stand in the frontline in order to protect the oppressed. They should speak truth to power and fearlessly rebuke dictators. All the prophets were persecuted for that reason. The duty of church leaders is to stand with the oppressed, not to be in cahoots with dictators. The church should protect the weak and feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, empower the voiceless, and proclaim peace to those who are under bondage. That is what I mean by standing for social justice. Moreover, the church together with other religious organizations should play a role in cultivating and upholding useful cultural values, including respect for each other, looking after one another, reverence to the environment, nature, fighting corruption, and promoting economic and social justice, etc. The church should see to the fact that the erosion of these cultural and spiritual values will undoubtedly damage the integrity of the country, and, hence, should stand guard against any deleterious impacts to such cherished values.

 

Tamrat Belay (PhD)

A former university professor in Ethiopia.

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