The Role of Liberian Christian Church Leaders: A Case Restated

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 5, 2002

In an article I penned recently, I attempted to raise issue with the seeming silence of the (Liberian) Christian Church in the ongoing crises permeating our country. My view was that although the Church has a great deal of moral responsibility and authority to be vocal about issues between the government and the governed, the Church has remained silent, and, in some cases, has been eager to enter into some unexplained partnership with the government - a government whose reputation is questionable, to say the least.

I have always known from experience that anytime one tackles the sensitive position of religion in society, there are immediate outcries. Understandably, people are protective of their religions. I, therefore, expected some rebuttal to the views expressed. But when the rebuttal came less than forty-eight hours after the article was published, I was amazed.

The rebuttal came from one Mr. George Werner, apparently an "authority" on Liberian church matters. Although Mr. Werner quickly stated that it was not his aim to dismiss my claims outright, he wrote: "However, reading his essay gives one the impression that he has little or no knowledge about what or who the Church is and the role of the Church in any society."

As if that wasn't enough, Mr. Werner continued: "Furthermore, he seems not to be aware of the historical position of the Christian Church in Liberian politics, let alone the Church's role in Liberia since the April 12, 1980 coup d'etat." He did not elaborate, but accused me of lacking objectivity.

Mr. Werner, after berating me, set out to deal with the meat of the matter I raised. Has the Church lost its conscience, was one question I posed. He answers "no". What I was hoping Mr. Werner would do was to give our readers some concrete and verifiable examples of how the Church has demonstrated its conscience over the years. Instead, he went on to elaborate on the lexicographical definition of the word "conscience" as if I don't have enough vocabulary in my repertoire to discern a common word.

I took the liberty to jot down a few remarkable examples of "conscience in action" demonstrated by religious leaders:

During the Vietnam War, some Buddhist monks set themselves afire as a demonstration of conscience. They were religious leaders who protested the evil of the war waged against their country to the extent of sacrificing their lives! Those horrific scenes (broadcast by television worldwide) made a remarkable impact on the collective conscience of ordinary Americans who redoubled their efforts to bring pressure to bear on their government to stop the war.

At the same time some Catholic priests joined the ongoing anti-war efforts and some of them were blacklisted by the government and hunted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as common criminals. These remarkable stories were narrated by Professor Howard Zinn in his fascinating book, "A People's History of the United States." These priests eluded over-zealous government agents while being sheltered and shielded by common citizens. This was clearly an example of moral leadership.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., meantime, used his pulpit and his authority as a religious leader to boldly criticize the war in Vietnam as well as to spearhead change in race relations through the civil rights movement. He is now held in high esteem, years after his death, for his persistent demonstration of moral leadership.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi was another leader who demonstrated spiritual strength and forced a powerful nation (England) to abandon its dominion over India. He did this by urging his countrymen to participate in acts of civil disobedience. In one of Gandhi's biographies, written by Louis Fischer, Gandhi reportedly said: "I am a Christian, and a Hindu and a Moslem and a Jew", prompting many to refer to him as the world's most Christlike person. Indeed, Dr. E. Stanley Jones, a prominent American missionary who spent many years in India and many hours in communion with Gandhi said of him, "And so, one of the most Christlike men in history was not called a Christian at all", according to the biographer Louis Fischer.

I think the point has clearly been made that good Christian leaders must have the guts to stand up and speak against tyranny (and other forms of bad government) and not stand by. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is known the world over for his condemnation of the evil system of apartheid. He, too, used his pulpit to give hope.

Mr. Werner praised Archbishop Michael Francis who has shown compassion and understanding. However, Mr. Werner fails to name any other church leaders who have demonstrated similar fortitude. (I am not claiming that none exists). It is safe to say that Archbishop Francis stands above the rest, we both agree.

To my question: "Aren't there enough Catholic priests, Episcopal clergy, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and other church leaders who are appalled enough to challenge the government's immoral stance on the issues of the day?" Mr. Werner gave a long list of church organizations that are "contributing to the postwar rebuilding process." Impressive, but that doesn't answer the question posed. Let me make it clear that I do not downplay the role of any of these organizations, although I cannot verify their effectiveness or neutrality in dealing with the issues at hand.

Dr. J. Gus Liebenow, in his famous classic book, Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege, wrote in 1969: "As with economic groupings, the potentially independent role of religious association in the Liberian political process is narrowly circumscribed. A loose form of interlocking directories ensures that the clergy of most Protestant churches, the lay organizations within the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, and the officers of the YMCA and other semi religious societies remain under True Whig Party control."

Dr. Liebenow also observed: "Despite the official posture, repeated in 1967 by President Tubman himself, that Liberia observes a strict separation of church and state, this is not the case... Far from being neutral, indeed, the political leadership of Liberia regards the churches as instrumental to the continuation of the existing power relation." His book was banned and the government called those charges untrue. But it was too late; the truth had come out.

In a recent paper entitled: "The Liberian Christian Church and Political Salvation", the author, a fellow Liberian, Mr. Nat Galarea Gbessagee is even more sweeping in stating the case. He quotes the Reverend Alexander Crummell, before concluding: "... it was only logical for the church to turn a blind eye on the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of Liberia by the Americo-Liberian elites, as the Church saw nothing morally wrong and repugnant about subjecting the people to virtual slavery as domestic workers while denying them citizenship, education and decent standards of living in the land of their ancestry..."

Mr. Gbessagee did not stop there: "Indeed, abundant evidence exists in countless volumes of history books, pamphlets and other materials on Liberia that underscored the connivance, complacency, and inaction of the Liberian Christian Church in perpetuating the great division that necessitated the 1980 coup and the on-going civil strife in Liberia."

In the article under review, I quoted James Baldwin who said: "...a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless..." In response, Mr. Werner vigorously defended the Church and dismissed my concern as if such an idea has never been pondered. But here is a famous example, you be the judge.

After the Nazis had systematically executed millions of German Jews, in an apparent attempt to annihilate the entire race, the survivors accused their neighbors and fellow citizens of not coming to their assistance during their moment of trials and tribulations. Accused was the Catholic Church of Germany. Some even accused the Church of collaborating with the Nazis in their evil effort. In the eyes of the Jews, the Catholic Church was on trial for its lack of action - moral action.

The Catholic Church vehemently denied the charges and attempted to dismiss them. But the Jews, being the persistent people that they are, continued to make their case - their Christian friends and neighbors had been spineless and had demonstrated an inability to exercise moral judgment and confront an evil regime!

Finally, Pope John Paul II publicly acknowledged the veracity of some of the charges. The Catholic Church, although never admitting to conniving with the Nazis, admitted that it had idly stood by and done very little to help their fellow citizens. They finally apologized after about half a century. The Catholic Church had been spineless!

On the issue of "cutting deals with Satan", Mr. Werner seemed apologetic for the Taylor regime's shortcomings. He seemed to be of the opinion that it is "our collective fault", not just Charles Taylor's that we are in such a deep mess. I disagree!! Charles Taylor methodically assembled an army of thugs and hoodlums with some ruthless advisors and set out to seize and exploit the country. In the process, about two hundred and fifty thousand human lives were lost and the country has been set back a hundred years (developmentally), according to some sources. The international community of nations has been trying to ostracize the administration, referring to our dear country as a "rogue" or "pariah" state. And we all share equal responsibility? Isn't that a little far fetched? I certainly think so.

I think I make a pretty strong case here, but it is interesting to note that Mr. Werner accused me of lacking objectivity in my analyses. He also warned " must be taken to research assertions that are purely distorted and questionable." However, it is my understanding that Mr. Werner works for (or is associated with) the National Catholic Education Secretariat, a fact he chooses not to convey to his readers. Are the views expressed his personal views or did he write from an official capacity? One wonders if that may have had a bearing on his "objectivity".

As for me, the views expressed were strictly mine and I wrote simply as a concerned and observing citizen. I made no attempt to write "authoritatively" because I am hardly an authority on the great subjects of religion, politics, sociology, philosophy, journalism, etc. I simply write about Liberia because I care! It may now be too late for me to become an "expert" in these great studies. If I wait any longer, I'm afraid I'll have to wait forever. That's a choice I reject! That's why I write now!

In the meantime, while people like Mr. Werner will attempt to dismiss me as being ignorant or my views as being insignificant, I take consolation in the fact that some others take my views very seriously. A case in point, recently Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr., in his article "When Fools Become Critics: The Platitudes of Ike Coleman" referred to this very same piece as a "well written and brilliantly analytical article." With such high and unsolicited praise coming from such a premier intellectual giant and accomplished academician, I rest my case.

One finally point, for the record. Mr. Werner seemed to have missed my point or intentionally distorted my position to make his point. However, let me make it emphatically clear that I am not presently involved with any present efforts to violently overthrow the government. I am also not advocating or inciting any future wars. However, from my position as a social critic, I am here to serve notice that as long as Charles Taylor and his cohorts and cronies, as well as sympathizers, continue to act unscrupulously, criminally and with total disregard for human dignity, there will be a war next time. And when the people of Liberia finally wake up, I hope they will fight fire with fire. It may be their last alternative.

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