Bahamian religious leaders are often leagues behind our political leaders on the ethical dimensions of a broad range of public policy issues. Many of the former have buried the inspiration of Genesis, the urgency of the Prophets, and the salt and light of the Sermon on the Mount, under a bushel.In seeking to discover the plenitude of this great Sermon in today’s Bahamas, it may be best to review a Speech from the Throne or legislation before the houses of Parliament, rather than the sermons of far too many religious leaders.
If the Master came back today to question ministers of the Gospel and ministers of Government, he may find that it is mostly the former who have hidden their talents under mounds of convenience and caution, fear and trembling.
Surprisingly, He will discover that the commands to care for creation and to bind the wounds of the Samaritan are often heeded more passionately by those who collect taxes on Caesar’s behalf, than those who collect tithes on His behalf.
It was Nero who was supposed to fiddle as Rome burned. Instead, there are those rabid homosexual hating ministers who are happier attacking a few gay cruise ship passengers than addressing the environmental damage some of these ships may have caused to many more Bahamians. Clearly, some minsters prefer the easy assignment of the Pharisee over the labour of being genuinely prophetic.
On a host of ethical questions related to matters of public policy, much of the religious community has been reactionary or silent, inconsistent or incoherent. Or they have been obsessed with issues of individual morality while ignoring the demands of social ethics. For example, what is the ethical point of view of the various Christian communities on the pressing issue of access to health coverage?
On the matter of marital rape, the heads of the mainline churches had to be pushed and prodded to issue a statement. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, many of the Churches offered generous material assistance to the victims.
Sadly, they offered precious little public leadership in terms of addressing the aftershocks of demonization following the Government’s humanitarian and temporary suspension of repatriation exercises.
For some denominations, the social questions of the day are typically sidelined by a fixation with matters of sexual and personal ethics. That will remain their ethical point of view. Presently, they seem closed to conversion. For them, the social dimensions of the Gospel are mostly secondary to issues of personal morality.
When they do speak on matters of social concern from the death penalty to gambling, their pronouncements are usually formulaic and simplistic. They have divined that it is sufficient to simply invoke Scripture. In a democratic pluralistic society, inclusive of differing denominational positions on various issues of social ethics, such an invocation is neither sufficient nor convincing.
For example in our religiously pluralistic society, the Roman Catholic and Baptist communities have different points of view on capital punishment. Churches have a civic obligation and a pastoral duty to translate their religious convictions into language accessible to the wider society.
The greater problem is that some denominations, who do have a broader tradition of social reflection, often do not know how or when to speak, beyond brief asides in sermons. These denominations are typically weak at social analysis, and preaching and writing on the ethical dimensions of public policy.
Because of their traditions of social reflection and reason, as well as their impressive social ministry and outreach, three denominations have a greater responsibility to translate their Biblical convictions into contemporary witness on matters of social justice.
They have, in this critical ministry, the ancient wisdom of Matthew 5 and Jesus’ invitation for his followers to be salt and light. They also have the voices of gifted and articulate leaders, namely Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick Pinder, Anglican Bishop, Laish Boyd, and the President of the Bahamas Conference of the Methodist Church (BCMC), Rev. William Higgs.
All three Church heads are committed to a greater inculturation of their denominations in Bahamian soil. Central to this mission is offering intelligent and prudent ethical reflection on a complex of public policy issues.
This is hard work, especially amidst administrative, fundraising and other demands on their energies and time. But, it is work that cannot be avoided or done on an ad hoc and disjointed basis. This work is essential for the maturation of the church and state as well as the relationship between these social actors within the context of the broader civil society.
The Roman Catholic community has led the way, utilizing a social tradition that is many centuries old. In the Bahamas, it has, over the decades, issued thoughtful and nonpartisan statements on a range of issues. Because of its treasury of wisdom and past leadership, it has an obligation to speak more, and more proactively. Sadly, too often, its silence is disheartening.
The Anglican community also has an obligation and an opportunity. That opportunity arose with the election of Bishop Boyd. In the past, this community’s ethical voice was often skewed by leadership that was nakedly partisan. That partisanship often undermined the tone and substance of the Church’s social witness in the public sphere.
But the obligation to speak also comes with responsibility. When Bishop Boyd eventually issued a formal statement on the marital rape proposal, it was late and somewhat disjointed. Just as he has found his voice on various matters of Church polity and governance, the Bishop will also have to find his public voice on a broad range of matters of public policy.
In this enterprise, he will find a partner in Archbishop Pinder. He may also find a partner in Rev. William Higgs, President of the BCMC. The three heads will not agree on every issue.
But, they may find in one another, fraternal bonds and common ground, and opportunities for ecumenism and collaboration. Along with entering into dialogue with the state and other social partners, these heads may wish to begin a dialogue among themselves.
They will have much to talk about during this moment of kairos and occasion for grace that has placed them as denominational heads. They may have a conversation about their journeys of faith which have made them companions of Christ, albeit in different communities of faith.
They may also discuss the shared evangelical spirit which inspired their respective denominations to build impressive educational institutions, and provide an extraordinary range of social and charitable outreach.
Further, what is the shared insight of the moral imagination as regards human dignity that led their denominations to generally oppose the death penalty and support, with some qualifications, proposed laws penalizing marital rape?
The Christian life is one of surprise and paradox. Today, those on the cutting edge of social witness and prophetic ethical reflection in the Bahamas are the so-called older, mainline churches, not the more recent denominations, despite the latter’s far superior utilization of modern mass media and technologies.
Christianity can never be limited to social justice and charitable outreach. But, those Churches which lack a deeper appreciation of the social dimensions of the Christian ethos have rendered the salt of the Gospels less savoury, and have made dimmer, the presence of the Light of the World.
Illuminating and salting the world with the transforming power of the Gospels is not for lightweights or the unprepared. Those religious leaders who are called to reflect on the social questions of the day, through the prisms of Scripture and their own social traditions, must be prepared beyond their own timidity and tentativeness, as well as beyond any lack of preparation or study.
As with those they lead, this will likewise require conversion on the part of various heads of Churches. Their voices are essential in elevating a moral dialogue that is often shallow and nominally Christian in tone and substance.
•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.