Religious leaders must reclaim their role in world politics

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My grandfather, Nelson Mandela, fought a repressive apartheid system. It was, for the most part, a political struggle. But Desmond Tutu proved to him that another, often underutilised force can tackle the pressing social-ethical issues of our time: religion.

Tutu’s death came at a time of mounting crises, including Covid, the refugee crisis, climate change racial tensions, misogyny and bigotry, to name but a few. These are global challenges which often divide us in potentially catastrophic ways. The world desperately needs leaders who, through faith, understand the realities of these issues. They should come forward and offer solutions.

Tutu became a household name by challenging the repressive South African status quo with his unshakable Christian beliefs, aided by the philosophy of “Ubuntu”, or communality. He never shied from using religion as a shield against immorality.

For years, he confronted apartheid by invoking Christian values against those who committed atrocities. He risked life and limb, time and again, to ensure equal rights for all. It was for this reason, among many others, that my grandfather appointed him Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Yet, as the Baptist minister Michael Eric Dyson argues, while Tutu believed restorative justice and forgiveness were vital to preserving humanity and confronting evil, modern society struggles to move forward. There is a deficit of moral leadership, of principled women and men who offer models of social change.

This is where we should draw our most important lesson from Tutu. He understood that religion should be used as this bridge between faith and real-world issues, acting as a platform for political activism which inspires and compels. Today there are already important examples we can learn from. Take the Buddhist monks who marched against the military junta in Myanmar, or those confronting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Or Dr Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, who became the most senior Islamic leader to visit Auschwitz, leading a delegation of Muslim leaders there to symbolise a groundbreaking shift in attitudes that have lasted decades and spanned continents.

And closer to home in South Africa, the Muslim World League runs the Mercy and Peace institute, providing a safe space for victims of abuse, especially the women and children whose lives are threatened by domestic violence and human trafficking. This is where faith and religious values come into the equation, helping solve real world issues. Elsewhere, leaders like Rabbi Arthur Schneier host powerful interfaith dialogue talks around the world. 

But these examples are unfortunately the exception, and not the rule.

Compared to the late Tutu, far too many of today’s religious leaders have fallen short. They have a tendency to confront the world’s mounting sufferings by issuing banal declarations — often only to their own followers. Although their rhetoric may be inspiring, they lack the conviction to ensure their words inspire action and progress.

It’s important to want change. But it’s just as important to illuminate the path towards change. Tutu and my grandad were a lot alike in their determination to do as much. In the world we live in today, where people are vilified for honouring their voices, we need more people like them, especially during these days of the pandemic, extreme poverty and inequalities.

Both men knew that injustice, in any form, warranted a response. As South Africa and the world mourns the passing of Tutu, religious leaders must learn that our communal problems require more than just empty rhetoric. This is how they can respect the legacy of action, inspired by faith, that he championed.

Rest in peace, Archbishop Tutu.


Ndileka Mandela is the head of the Thembekile Mandela Foundation and the eldest grandchild of Nelson Mandela

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