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‘Churches should get their hands dirty’ – South African theologian

South African theologian Dr Nico Koopman believes churches need to expand their prophetic role in society.

Beyond offering public criticism and visions of a good society, Christians should engage in the analysis and work required to achieve it, he says.

Dr Nico Koopman.

Nico is professor of Public Theology and Ethics at the University of Stellenbosch’s Centre for Public Theology. He was in New Zealand in May.

He describes public theology as making public the rationality and relevance of the Christian faith.

"From a Christian perspective God created the whole world, God loves the whole world, and God is actively at work in the world. We must pay attention to what God is doing in the Church and in the world," Nico says.

"Science, medicine, technology and other human achievements are wonderful gifts of God. The Church must celebrate them as part of the work of God.

"Theologians ask different questions than natural scientists. But the answer to these questions can help us understand and deal with the complexity of life.

"Christians cannot prove their faith through logic or science. The whole idea is that we believe, so we come from the position of faith. Today, however, most reliable scientists say there is more to truth and reality that we can empirically prove with our senses. Contemporary approaches to science recognise that if we cannot empirically prove something, it can still have meaning."

In South Africa, Christianity has had a very public role. During the Apartheid years, one branch of the church supported Apartheid but Black and Coloured Reform Churches opposed it.

During the transition years in South Africa the churches also played important roles in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and developed theologies of reconstruction to help build a new society. These theologies emphasise human dignity and human rights to overcome racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.

Nico says recent attacks on foreigners in South Africa have highlighted the problem of xenophobia. Churches need to reject what is happening but they cannot be watchdogs who just criticize.

"Churches need to work with other institution in civil society such as government, business, trade unions and the media. We need to counter Afro pessimism that comes from the poverty gap between rich and poor. We need to work with other churches to help create jobs."

Churches can also participate in policy making. The South African Council of Churches, Quakers, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Reformed Churches all have offices at parliament and liaise with policy makers.

Churches also provide diaconal services and help government deliver resources to the poorest communities. They are the strongest NGOs and the most trusted institutions in South African society. They are also joined in the efforts to counter AIDS.

"Churches can have a priestly public role by the way they care for poor people and AIDS victims and express their solidarity. Churches can offer a vision of a new society and nurture hope," Nico says.

"But we must think more comprehensively about how we are prophetic. Being utopian is not enough. We have to get our hands dirty, carry out technical, political and economic analysis, and participate in debates about policy making."