Christians, for now, live across the whole of the globe. With tears in my eyes, I fear that this will not be the case before my life ends. Christianity is set to move from a truly global faith to a regional faith, as a world beset with problems and rabid Christophobia forces Christians to flee their homelands. This poses a question, which for Western Christians is altogether too academic (for now), but for Christians in huge parts of the world, is a real question. What should the Church do and how should it organise in a ‘failed state’?
You can spot a failed state when you see things like the following: The government loses control over the totality of its own territory and is unable to exert its authority over parts of the country; with non-state actors seizing control. Ineffective governance through corruption, leading to the breakdown of law and order; with a failure of public institutions. A failed economy, and widespread lawless violence. All of these can be accompanied by a humanitarian crisis. Now that we have this picture in mind, let us state the patently obvious – Christians do live in a number of failed states.
Think of Venezuela which, due to its communist government, has experienced a severe economic crisis beset with hyperinflation, political instability, and social unrest. The country is struggling to provide basic necessities such as healthcare and maintaining public order. Think of South Sudan which, after gaining independence in 2011, has faced significant challenges including ongoing conflicts and economic collapse leading to humanitarian crises. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo beset by persistent armed conflicts, weak governance, and challenges in maintaining control over its vast territory. These have two economic woes; social unrest and its own humanitarian crises, which are pronounced in the eastern regions. Think of Nigeria in which political corruption is normal, economic inequality rife, and insurgency by groups like Boko Haram abundant. Islamists have a free hand and inadequate public services leave people struggling on a daily basis. Think of Lebanon where a combination of political, economic, and social challenges and man-made disasters such as the massive fertilizer explosion of 2020 have crippled every aspect of life, and where a veritable Islamist army has a free hand, leading to tensions with the “not-to-be-pushed-around” Christians in the country.
I’ve made my case – I am sure. So what then? And how can Christians respond? Since Christians think every problem needs a theological discussion (an aspect of Churchianity I grate against), let’s start with a robust theological answer that emerged from the Church of Latin America, in their own examples of failed states. The insight they came to was what came to be known as Liberation Theology. Now, before you scream “cultural communist,” I am not suggesting we should simply adopt it without revision or modification. However, I do think it offers a scaffold upon which the Church can organise an effective ‘Churchianity’ to the issues of the failed state, both inside such countries and beyond. Let’s look at what Liberation Theology teaches and, bear in mind, the problems that these groups faced were extreme poverty!
Liberation Theology believed that Christians should have solidarity with the poor and those on the economic margins in their struggle for economic justice and social dignity by advocating for their rights and working for their emancipation from economic bondage that tied them to their poverty. Whilst it asserted “GOD loves all and has a preferential love for the poor,” amongst the many issues a Christian could be involved in, this one had a preferential priority to side with the poor in challenging the institutions and structures that keep people poor. They fashioned a spirituality, interpreting the Scriptures to their context and, through a filter of the cause of Liberation, applied the texts within Scripture to the economic injustices they were seeking to fight against. They sustained a critique of the social, economic, and political systems; attitudes, beliefs and practices that held the poor in the position of poverty. These included capitalism, imperialism; neo-colonialism, amongst others. They avoided over-spiritualisation by emphasising the liberation of the whole person; body, mind, and soul. They sought to apply the principle of liberation to all aspects of life. They also emphasised being practical in dealing with problems with reflection and prayer; thus it moved many of those influenced from mere intercessors to activists in the cause of the poor.
This was best expressed in the development of what became known as ‘base communities.’ These were groups of activists operating within the Latin Church system, inside parishes and across Dioceses. These base communities focused on formation and education; deepening the understanding of the Christians about social issues, biblical teachings, and the realities of the marginalised. They engaged in mainstream Catholic spirituality and discussion on topics of social justice. They emphasised the importance of critical analysis of the economic, social, and political context in which the poor lived; drawing from the experiences of the poor, trying to identify structural causes oppressing them. The base communities worked as a network of solidarity across society where mutual support was emphasised. People could share their struggles, others would offer help, challenges would be met together, success celebrated together, and failures and defeats mourned together. The aim was to create a sense of collective empowerment in which the community would seek to address its challenges extra status (outside of the state). They emphasised the practice of integrating reflection along with action; to act on what was learned. Actions had to be concrete and particular. GOD was very much at the heart of their lives as these Christians cultivated deep spirituality with the knowledge of GOD Who was on their side. Christian teachings were paramount at the forefront of their understanding of the struggle they faced. Of particular inspiration was the Exodus story. They sought to cultivate and develop leadership, deliberately fostering leadership skills, and developing the capacities of members who then took on responsibilities within the base community and wider church, thus becoming agents of change.
Now that it is clearer, let me give a summary assessment. Liberation Theology and the base community network really is an effective road to walk down. It mobilises, organises, and sustains Christians upon a real cause of justice, and frames and roots the struggle in a fertile and rich Christian spirituality. However, it has the wrong telos. Its end goal is the cause of the poor which is not a bad political ambition for a Christian. However, the real telos of the Christian has to be the expansion of the Kingdom of GOD. This Kingdom, which is not of this world, is wrought only by the triumph of the Church in this world. Therefore, the real focus of this kind of thinking, spirituality, network, and activism is to see Christians triumphant over all of their enemies and in all spheres of society; the chief struggle of which is the plight of the persecuted Church.
How, then, do all of these things string together to help us as we reflect on the Church in a failed state? Well, it starts with the base communities. Christians need a nexus of organisation as our parish/club churches are pointed towards other goals. Most to the worship and GOD, a huge number to the teaching of His word, and too many for the prosperity and enrichment of the pastor; they are divided by denomination; of which their structures, specifically hinder mutual cooperation. These ‘base communities’ could operate as ‘societies’ or ‘groups’ within the whole body of Christ; cross-denominational organising of Christians – to this end – in such a way that can synergise with particular fellowships, fostering unity, cooperation, and above all, solidarity. All whilst cultivating leadership and awakening Christians to activism in their failed state! These communities, where numbers permit, can organise the marshalling of resources and manpower to act where the state is failing to act and provide for the Church what the state is failing to provide. Once this has been secured for the Christian, it will be better placed to help those outside the fold as part of an evangelising effort.
Christians outside of failed states (most of you who will read this) can still organise their own base communities to affect the same results for the persecuted Christians abroad and confessors (Christians suffering discrimination) in your own country. They can apply the same principles and ideas, but applied to an internationalised context; mobilising Christians in the ‘functioning world’ to act in solidarity with Christians in failed states, as well as mobilising Christians to tackle any and all examples of Christophobia at home. When possible, the networks in the functioning and failed states should work together; pairing up and offering direct support to extra instituta internationis. Christians need to accept that we do not have any state backers any more; no one is on our side; there is no cavalry, and no one is coming over the hill to help us – we must organise to help ourselves! The base community could just be a handful of people in an area of a city, working with others to educate, engage, mobilise, train, organise; and finally resist; helping solve the problems the Church faces in failed states. Naturally, their applications of this principle can work for all Christians in all contexts.
All of this should be cultivated in a deep Christian spirituality; forming our thinking around Christian beliefs, values, ethics, history, customs, traditions, and practices. In short, a clear and visible Christian identity. The base communities should also be critically analysing what the Christians of failed states need, what persecuted Christians need, and what we can do to help ourselves in affecting change for the purposes of seeing a triumphant church over all of her enemies and in every sphere so life. I can not stress the importance of the cultivation of an undiluted, uncompromised Christian identity in this endeavour. The Church is an international body of people; Christians need to think and act internationally.
Consider some examples: base communities organising self-defence classes for Christians, base communities organising to provide power amidst power shortages, training up health care professionals to aid the church, organising community projects to build wells, organising to build homes, to defend against Jihadi attacks, secure food supplies, and aiding Christian refugees. They could organise protests and political hustings, put up candidates for election of sympathetic politicians, organise micro-loans, set up businesses, and get involved in Church governance. The applications are limitless. These base communities can work with other Christian organisations and one another and, through their activism and work, seek to engage more Christians and establish more base communities in more fellowships to widen the network.
Christians are really suffering in failed states! We need, as a whole body of Christ, to empower them to act where the state has failed to provide and show solidarity with them in the face of their suffering.