Burundian gov’t shouldn’t make catholic clergy scapegoats for failures

Burundi Catholic Bishops

Burundi Catholic Bishops

Once again this author is perturbed, though not surprised by embattled Burundian government’s bitter take on the Roman Catholic clerics alleging they are worsening the crisis “through interfering in politics” as opposition sympathizers.

Last weekend the spokesperson of the ruling party CNDD-FDD Gelase Ndabirabe lashed at civil society organizations and opposition parties outrageously attacking the Catholic Church for what he termed: “deviating from their mission of preaching the word of God and involving itself in politics”. The Church’s alleged connivance with anti-government forces is neither the first nor the last.

In the last column on Burundian political turmoil, I made a precise comparison and contrast of Burundi’s chronic civil wars to Rwanda’s post-colonial misrules, subsequent inhuman mayhem of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis and the bitter lessons Rwandan government drew from previous culture of impunity.

However, due to topic precision and limited space, I couldn’t highlight on the role of the Roman Catholic Church particularly and religion generally, in their execution and being accomplices to crime of genocide and other crimes against humanity. And in the Rwandan 1994 genocide literature, there are explicit and irrefutable accounts of the Catholic Church and other religious affiliations’ commissions and condoning of the genocide; majority of persecuted Tutsis sought refuges in churches and were either slain there by the clerics themselves or they tipped the government genocide masterminds.

In fact, if the religious leaderships of the Habyarimana regime condemned the genocide plans outright, it wouldn’t have probably happened or claimed over a million victims in just 100 days; for the majority were slain hiding in churches countrywide.

So, what exactly is the born of contention between Mr. Nkurunziza’s government and the Roman Catholic Church? That clergy should be indifferent to the current suffering and socio-political vulnerability of their followers? Or do they mean to say, the churches should emulate the notoriety of their Rwandan counterparts in condoning impunity? In any case, aren’t the religious clergy Burundian citizens in the first place?

These questions oblige one to reflect on medieval and present relationship between the church and the state. They have not simply been two kinds of institution, but one particular area of political and religious thought, where I believe very strongly, that concerns of Church and state overlap- and overlap positively and creatively; the Church contributes to the identity we call the identity of a citizen. And this identity goes to the historical context in which the language of ‘citizenship’ first appeared in the ancient world, in Greece and Rome.

Thus, the true definition of a citizen is somebody who is not a slave. A citizen is someone whose choices and destiny are not owned by someone else. And a citizen therefore is someone who has a voice in the community, who is protected as an individual by the law and who can in a significant degree decide the circumstances of their personal life while a slave is someone who enjoys none of those privileges.

So to be a citizen is to have both a public and a private dignity – the public dignity of being a decision-maker, someone whose voice is guaranteed a hearing, and the private or personal dignity of contributing what you have to a common project, a public project, a vision or purpose shared in the community. To be a citizen is to be responsible for maintaining your environment, your personal and social environment.

A voice guaranteed a hearing and a person protected by law: even in the Roman Empire—which was certainly not a model of contemporary democratic governments—that reality had some residual force. And of course one of the most powerful examples of that is the stories we encounter in the book of the Acts of the Apostles in Christian scripture, where St Paul is able more than once to surprise and alarm soldiers and administrators who are ready to bully or torture him, by reminding them that he is actually a Roman Citizen and that therefore there are certain things that they cannot do to him.

When he is summarily thrown into prison in Philippi and released by an earthquake, in one of the more dramatic episodes of his career, he demands an apology from the civic authorities the next day because they had failed to treat him as a citizen.
Having said this, the church and state cannot be one and the same; each occupies a separate realm of authority and responsibility, but they also have an intrinsic and direct relationship to each other consistent with Biblical truth, wisdom and human reasoning.

My common understanding is that, there’s no Biblical imperative for the church to establish and enforce criminal laws to govern society, wage war with other nations, or levy taxes on citizens. These responsibilities are relegated to secular government for the common good of all according Romans 13:3-6.

And although religion is founded on moral values while circular states derive authorities/mandates from circular laws, the authenticity of such laws depend on whether they (laws) are moral virtues- for the common good or not; thus, humane laws are differentiated from draconian laws meant to serve interests of the greedy rulers.

In a nutshell, the role of the church/clergy or Catholic Church to put it in the Burundian context, like in Rwanda and several countries on the globe, it constitutes more than 75 per cent of the national population, which matters great with its set objectives and mission of guiding and enlightening followers of God.

The best way to expound on the role of the clergy on human dignity, peace and development it’s suffice to mention global legendries the United States religious and civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther Jr. which successfully fought racial segregation or Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his colleagues who ended the brutal Apartheid rule in South Africa.

And to quote Martin Luther Jr. positive “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle. So we must strengthen our backs and work for our freedom because a man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.

He is also on record saying: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter and an individual has not started living until he can rise above the confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” So on that note I argue all the Burundian clergy, civil rights civil society activists to rise up for peace and tranquility.

On the other hand, it’s high time President Nkurunziza’s government stopped the blame game, rose about their egoistic instincts and sat with the perceived opposition enemies to resolve grievances peacefully and sweet-heartedly as legitimate citizens with shared interest for its then and only then that sustainable peace will prevail in the poor African nation.