•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soon after the government’s introduction of legislation to outlaw rape within marriage, the debate on the matter began spinning out of control, fuelled substantially by fear and misinformation, before being rescued in great measure by a new generation of Christian leaders.Mercifully, what could have descended into a slippery slope was elevated into a tipping point, an occasion for conversion, a moment when our post-independence democracy took a critical and perhaps decisive step.
While leaders should learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past, they should also learn not to refight recent battles which no longer apply. We are not replaying the referendum fight of 2002 as regards women’s rights – a lesson some in both major parties are starting to learn.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick Pinder, Bahamas Conference of the Methodist (BCCM) President William Higgs, Anglican Bishop Laish Boyd, joined by Seventh-day Adventist President Pastor Leonard Johnson, largely set the moral pace for many others.
Their chorus of statements must have embarrassed and surprised some of those political and religious leaders who “rushed to wait” in divining how the wind of public opinion, not the breath of a new spirit, might blow on this issue, by calling for more time for consideration or review or crass calculation.
In contrast, the heads emphatically expressed their views on the core moral issues in the bill, inclusive of whether rape can occur in marriage, and also advised the Government as to how they believed the legislation might be improved. They did not need a national commission to tell them what their positions should be on such a basic matter of justice.
Their combined advocacy appears to have muted some of the babble which would have erupted had they not stepped in, in a timely manner, preventing the verbal promiscuity by others, which often leads to foot-in-mouth disease.
Moreover, the respectful tone of their advocacy served as a pastoral correction and civics lesson for those talk radio bloviators who hurled personal abuse against some government ministers.
Though the aforementioned faith leaders have publicly reflected on other ethical questions in the recent past, this is a defining moment as to how they will continue to engage the state and civil society in dialogue on the moral dimensions of public policy issues as old as gambling and as recent as the bioethics of end of life care in the 21st century.
In so doing, all of them -- individually and perhaps, with more frequency, jointly -- are defining their own pastoral visions and refining the contemporary role their respective traditions will play in helping to shape how the common good is arrived at through debate in the public square.
It bears repeating: a critical lesson behind the marital rape statements by these heads of denominations is how the modern Church serves as a dialogue partner in a democratic, secular country, albeit one seasoned, influenced, and illuminated by a mostly Christian society. Within this horizon, the Church must decide how to be salt, leaven and light.
The Bahamas Christian Council’s (BCC) statement on marital rape was unfortunately and mostly a demonstration of how not to engage others. It was not only the Council’s conclusions that were problematic. As significant, difficulties arose from the manner in which they arrived at their conclusions and their obviously limited appreciation for the pluralistic nature of a modern Bahamas.
Pluralism is not a dirty word, and is not limited to diversity in terms of ethnic, racial and other identities. There is also moral and religious pluralism, with a diversity of responses to some of society’s more difficult moral questions.
Moreover, there is pluralism among various denominations as evidenced in debates on issues such as capital punishment, with various communities using the same scriptural sources, yet interpreting these quite differently.
Those used to or content to employ the refrain from the children’s hymn – “For the Bible tells me so” – to support their militantly pro-death penalty stances do not fully appreciate how much of the Christian tradition or Western society’s view of this life issue have evolved.
It is as if the Enlightenment, various democratic revolutions, and the appropriate separation of state and church never occurred. We are not a theocracy. The Church enters into debates on the moral dimensions of public policy as a dialogue partner -- albeit one with an extraordinary moral mandate – not as a guardian council such as in Iran.
As such the Church must translate its religious and moral ideals into language discernible by others in a pluralistic society, others who may not hold their faith and convictions, but who may find moral guidance and wisdom in its pronouncements. Such pastoral and democratic humility characterized Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick Pinder’s Statement on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, 2009.
With confidence in his tradition, his language was an invitation to dialogue, rather than a soliloquy or screed: “Consultation and dialogue are essential aspects of the formation of public policy in a vibrant democracy. As a dialogue partner in the current public conversation regarding the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill . . . I offer this contribution on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.”
The problem with some of those denominations called to reflect on critical national issues is that while they have confidence, they do not have a richer tradition of social teachings out of which to offer such moral reflection. Moreover, many of these denominations, while referencing scriptural sources – mostly the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and St. Paul – do so through a fundamentalist mindset almost oblivious to the modern world.
While not as comprehensive as in Roman Catholicism, the Methodist and Anglican traditions also enjoy a body of reflection on the social questions of the day. When commenting on these same questions Archbishop Pinder draws upon a social tradition which arcs from scripture to a body of social teachings which are encyclopaedic.
The drafters of the BCC marital rape statement and much of the leadership of Council lack such a tradition, the poverty of which has characterized many of their statements on public affairs.
That the opening quote in the Council’s statement was taken from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who adopted it from a Catholic philosopher-theologian, has already been remarked upon.
How could the Council, without acknowledging its roots, borrow the words of an ancient bishop, yet not heed the guidance of a contemporary Bahamian-born bishop more steeped in that tradition than those who seemingly adopt the Alice-in-Wonderland approach to both scripture and other sources of wisdom?: Words mean whatever I say they mean!
Dr. King, a Baptist minister, loyal to his own tradition, understood the need for his and other more recent communities of faith to plumb the moral wisdom of the ages. His Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which was also directed to many Roman Catholic leaders who similarly counselled go slow on a matter of equality, is a moral statement many of today’s leaders should study.
They might wish to study it along with John Ansbro’s Martin Luther King Jr.: The Making of a Mind if they wish to explore the catholic mind of a moral giant and martyr, whose ministry of salt, leaven and light still inspires many other struggles for civil and human rights.
It is far too easy for some to borrow religious trappings, such as titles and splendid garb and splashes of purple and red from other traditions. It is an entirely different matter of moral imperative to have something to say that is attentive to the needs of the times as well as intelligent, reasonable and responsible, and that may lead to genuine conversion of hearts and minds.