Can a religious person be a politician and a true religious leader at the same time?
Haben’s devotional -1 Can a religious person be a politician and a true religious leader at the same time? By Haben Zeray This month as we thought and celebrated Easter for the huge sacrifice that was done for
Haben’s devotional -1
Can a religious person be a politician and a true religious leader at the same time?
By Haben Zeray
This month as we thought and celebrated Easter for the huge sacrifice that was done for us, we are also entering into a season where we memorialize, honor and show our respect to all those who sacrificed their lives and those who are now disabled and all those who struggled for Independence of Eritrea. Eritrea is an independent country now but its people are not free yet. I boldly say we are not free because our people live in a militaristic dictatorial system and I know the condition of Eritreans on the ground now. I saw lots of exit plans from this yoke of oppression and found out that one of the things left to do is our prayers and supplication to God. This act puts a lot of burden on our religious leaders and I write today to clarify the contradictions between those who say a religious leader cannot be political versus those who say, yes a religious leader should boldly speak out against any societal injustice.
From the bible we know the saints were persecuted not because they were politicians but because they were (fighting) against social injustice and corruption. Perhaps any person can be misunderstood as “political” in a derogatory way, when church leaders mention governments mishandling of social and cultural issues, for it is difficult to defend the victims without mentioning the aggressors. We have many religious leaders of our times who are and were examples of courage and change in their countries and communities. These leaders tried to follow the example of Jesus, who always sided with the poor, the sick or disadvantaged. Rev. Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the late Martin Luther King Jr, The Eritrean Abune Antonios who was wrongly deposed, and the current Catholic Pope Francis to mention a few. Therefore, if a religious person stands up for justice and makes a stand for the oppressed, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned and speaks against those who hunger for power and self-enrichment then I welcome this leader both as a spiritual leader and a politian who stands for the truth and justice. In other words, legacy is written based on what this spiritual leader does with his/her responsibility. Character and good deeds remain with us here on earth as a legacy, and the leader’s faith gets rewarded above.
The statement I just made is my logical conclusion but not the interpretation of the bible for I am not here to interpret the bible. Moreover, interpretation of the bible is what divides all the church denominations and religious groups. Therefore, since I am not a priest or a minister I am going to leave theological response to scholars of the bible. For me the practical issue is not so much of a religious person pursuing politics, it is rather what should civilians like me expect from a religious leader, when the government intrudes into his/her church or mosque or faith? It used to be our priests, monks and nuns, and other religious leaders focus was to serve their congregation. Their days were consumed with prayer and supplication and visitation of the needy and the sick. Now with PFDJ system, the life of a religious leader is complicated. We have confronted new issues which in the past were non-existent that tests one’s faith. When a government tells you contrary what God tells you , do you follow the government or the bible? This is the debate that probably would make it to a great town hall meeting .
On another level, the challenges we have are not issues of theological differences it is rather the oppression of our citizens at large. By oppression I mean the denial of our right to live as free people; the absence of justice where court systems do not function properly; and the citizens respect is non-existent. It is this total social injustice which divide Eritreans between those who side with the ruling party (oppressors ) and those who refuse to accept the system (oppressed). Personally, I see it the fight between “good” and “evil”. (Allow me to digress a bit-the PFDJ leadership and followers object to this kind of simplistic division, because simplicity exposes them too much and would be faced with questions they cannot answer and would bring them closer to accountability. Instead they would rather create enemies all over the map by creating divisions among Eritreans by religion, politics, regional divides and further by complicating matters with our neighbors). In this fight of “good” and “evil” as ordinary people we have a lot of expectation from our religious leaders. We expect them to stand for the “good” and fight “evil”. Anything contrary to that would mean they have forgotten their calling and should not be fit to lead the public in religious matters.
When people flock to churches, they usually go burdened with complex spiritual, emotional, marital, family and other issues and their longing or hope is to find an exit to these burdensome issues. There are others who have settled these issues in their lives by their prayers and their stronger faith. The spiritual leader should play a key role in such complex and multitude needs. The spiritual leader should be able to bring those two groups together and have them benefit from each other. He/she should be the agent of peace and harmony among members and in the community. Further, the spiritual leader is faced with those who can’t make it to their church because of illness, or maybe they are in prison. This leader has the responsibility to visit, to pray and encourage his congregation to participate in the visitation of the imprisoned and the sick. The bible does not advocate discriminating between political divides, rich and poor, with those we agree or disagree. The leader is called to bring these needs to God and to his/her congregation in prayer.
Where is the contradiction then? Well what should a religious leader do when the government comes and meddles in his/her church affairs? Religion should be private or personal but the Government of Eritrea dictates what you should believe by restricting permits to many Christian denominations. They have disallowed the freedom of worship to certain groups in Eritrea and even have gone further to imprison many of the leaders without due process of law. Christian Eritreans were raised to respect the priest and have the fear of God. As humans when all else fails, when we get depressed, when a loved one passes, when we become so poor and cannot meet our needs we only have one “exit” or relief to such hopeless situations. When all else fails we revert to the common denominator of life, to our light at the end of the tunnel, that is hope in God. We say “Igzeabher yefelit”, God knows, He will take care of me and we survive because of this divine expectation or “hope”. This is the last resort of our survival and the government of Eritrea is denying this right to many of our brothers and sisters. To this the religious leader should stand up and say ‘NO”. Call it political, social or activism, when your last dignity gets violated, if the church leader and his/her congregation do not stand up and oppose this then society will morally crumble right in front of our eyes. When hope gets taken away from you there is nothing else to live by. Think about it!
The religious leader should accept the fact that his congregation comprises of people from different faiths, different political beliefs, highly educated and not so educated, rich and poor even people from different countries including from Ethiopia . With these differences he/she should give a message of hope that resonates to all and should be extra careful not to offend anyone in a discriminatory way. But being cautious does not mean to live in fear of those who do evil. Additionally, the congregation should be welcoming to all and not be divisive. Here is the fine line that requires wisdom,: no one should use the pulpit to convey their own political convictions (“Pro or against”), and everyone should denounce social injustices that goes against the holy church and human dignity. This is the crux of the matter and in our difficult days we have to rely on courageous and wise church leaders and on the compassion of God to save our country from this journey to the bottomless pit.
May God show his mercy on all of us and bring a lasting peace to our country.