Rodney Schofield considers debt and apology

The conference on Racism held in Durban last September attracted much media attention, particularly over the issue of Israel, but also on questions about land reform which certainly touch Malawi and other countries in Southern Africa. The debate needs to be seen within the context of a steadily broadening agenda about the relationship between rich and poor in today’s world. When Jubilee 2000 was founded in 1993, its target was Third World debt relief. When Third World countries themselves joined the campaign in 1998, they pressed for debt cancellation. And now Jubilee South, as it is known, has opened up the whole history of colonization, focusing on the causes of debt. Reparation for past wrongs is the growing issue; and it is precisely here that churches, although today in the forefront of campaigning on behalf of the world’s poor and agents of much well-targeted aid, need to examine their own mission history very carefully. Did – no doubt well-intentioned – missionaries contribute to the dispossession of tribal lands, either by appropriating some to their own use or by giving tacit support to settlers who did the same? Did they in bringing the Gospel at times unnecessarily and through ignorance disrupt the culture that they found?

Whose debt to whom?

How far the former colonial powers still have unfulfilled obligations to the countries they once governed is a moral and political issue of great concern in SADC countries. Although the West has been fairly generous with aid in recent decades, it is legitimate to ask how such funds compare with the profits generated through mining and farming in imperial days, and whether there is not still a balance to be corrected. The question is, who is in debt to whom? Is it possible to assess where the line runs between exploitation and development? Can we distance ourselves from the actions of our forebears, if in some degree we are the beneficiaries or at least are perceived to be their moral and spiritual heirs?

In Malawi white-owned farms and estates were never very extensive in comparison with Zimbabwe and South Africa, nor did the number of colonizers and other newcomers together ever extend beyond about 10,000. In fact, titles to land were scrutinized fairly rigorously by the early governors, and it was later under Dr Banda that much common land was seized for the use of his African cronies. Even land and property belonging to the Anglican Church of Malawi was taken, and not all of it has yet been handed back. So if there is to be a squaring of accounts, it must certainly not be done with any racial or religious bias. If only this could be eliminated in Zimbabwe too, whose rapid disintegration is now destabilizing even Malawi’s investment prospects, there is the potential through regional cooperation to put bitterness behind and to take advantage of trade and tariff barriers steadily being eroded in Africa’s favour. Yes, even if globalization has its ruthless downside, there is a growing global awareness that we belong together for good and ill: that if one suffers, all suffer – and therefore that it is no longer in anyone’s real interest for the indignities of the past to be perpetuated today.

A Papal Nehemiah

For John Paul II, the dawn of this third millennium has seemed a golden opportunity to try to come to terms with the past. He has pushed forward with hopes for ecumenical rapprochement, not least with the Orthodox Churches. At the same time he has seen the need for healing gestures in paving the way for reconciliation on other fronts. How remarkable that he has confessed some of the Church’s past mistakes in meetings with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Peace and unity in the world, he has so vividly demonstrated, cannot proceed without a degree of humility and an awareness of one’s own errors. He has effectively adopted those words of Nehemiah, at a time of post-exilic reconstruction, ‘I and my father’s house have sinned’ (Nehemiah 1.6).

In other parts of the world it is good to note that certain Christian Churches have given similar prominence to this vital task of acknowledging past failings and shortcomings. Thus, in 1993 an apology was issued in the name of Canadian Christians for the imposition of an alien schooling system which did nothing to respect, let alone to foster, the native Indian culture. The following year Anglicans in Japan (Nippon Sei Ko Kai) put out A Statement of War Responsibility, admitting guilt for not preventing or challenging atrocities that took place. Our present day ‘blame culture’ would like to force all sorts of other confessions, no doubt in the hope of converting these into hard cash. But that is to miss the point. The Pope suggests that we should have a moratorium on blaming others, and instead should explore our own collective or individual consciences.

Sub specie aeternitatis

To do this is not a sign of weakness, a betrayal of what ‘our’ cause has traditionally stood for; nor is it a white flag of surrender in the teeth of hostile pressure. In reality it betokens the maturity to recognize that none of us has an adequate defence when arraigned in God’s court of reckoning. We may well act, and saints and heroes of earlier days will certainly have so acted as well, in good faith and with sincere Christian intent; and yet all of us may on reflection have cause for regret. Whether in thought, word or deed, our good intentions will not have rendered us inerrant nor infallible. Even an authoritarian Pope can admit as much!

Contrition before God allows him to work through us anew in refashioning his world. It looks to him to forgive and to heal the divisions and injustices we have brought about ourselves, perhaps heedlessly, because of our limited perceptions. It displays faith in God’s power to overcome the dead weight of the past and the impasses of the present. Perhaps too penitence on our part is a vital witness to others that may attract their faith, encouraging them to place their hopes alongside ours? Is there in fact any better starting point to address the tensions, suspicions and long-standing feuds, whether in secular situations such as the land and compensation issues of Southern Africa, or in religious contexts where too readily we have come to accept animosity and polarization as the Christian norm?

God has surely endowed all of us with many blessings to be used for the common good. One day we shall be called to account for our stewardship: will we have spent our energies in humbly pursuing that good, in pressing ‘forward in faith’; or will we, as some Africans may still find themselves, be consumed with regrets, ever-ready to complain how our birthright has been taken away? In fact, in that Genesis story, both players gain in spiritual stature in complementary ways: Jacob through his contrition, and Esau through his magnanimity, making conflict quite redundant.

Rodney Schofield teaches at Zomba Theological College, Malawi