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Levelling the playing field: Development, religion and the entanglement of social and personal transformation

Date:17 September 2014
Author:Religion Factor
An Anglican Church in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where the authors interviewed congregants as part of their research. Source: The authors
An Anglican Church in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where the authors interviewed congregants as part of their research. Source: The authors

Stories of transformation in development contexts tend to be separated into secular narratives of social transformation, and religious narratives of personal transformation. Yet, as  Brenda Bartelink and Erin Wilson  discuss in today’s post, reflections from people living in these contexts suggest this division is an artificial imposition that makes little sense of daily lived realities…

On a recent trip to Malawi and South Africa as part of a research project on faith and development, we had the opportunity to interview a number of community leaders about their views on the role of religion in addressing social problems, specifically related to gender inequality and gender-based violence. One such interview was done with a police officer in a small community in KwaZulu Natal, approximately two hours drive from Durban. Reliable statistics on rates of gender-based violence in South Africa are difficult to obtain, since in most cases rape and domestic violence go unreported, according to a South Africa government report from 2011[1] and confirmed by our interviewees. However, a 2012 report from the South Africa Medical Research Council reports that a woman is killed by an intimate partner every 8 hours in South Africa. Approximately 37% of men admit to having committed rape, and while rates of homicide have decreased between 1999 and 2009, the numbers of women killed by intimate partners has increased from 50-57%.[2]

We entered the local police station and wandered around for a while, knocking on doors, trying to find the police officer that had agreed to be interviewed. After waiting for a while and beginning to wonder whether there had been some kind of mix-up, a door opened and a woman looked out. ‘Hello, did you knock? I’m so sorry, I was having my moment of prayer. Do come in.’[3] We enter her small office and learn that she is the Warrant Officer at the police station whom we are to interview. She offers us a seat, whilst arranging her desk. A laptop on a shelf is playing a video with a pastor giving a sermon and a document about spiritual warfare is pinned on the wall behind her.

We begin by asking her some questions about the most significant crimes in the area, which are assault and rape, most frequently of women. We then ask about the specific challenges that exist in the community around addressing these crimes and what she thinks are the most appropriate and effective ways to address them. Then we move to the specific topic of religion – what role, if any do or should religious leaders and religious institutions in the community play in addressing these problems? Is it important that they are involved? She responded:

Definitely it is important. I believe pastors need to be informed because they will intervene with prayer. I believe we cannot fight crime without the involvement of the power of God. In prayer, my God tells me that there is nothing that we cannot do. It is very important it is the first of all things that need to be engaged in by pastors.

She adds : ‘Churches play an important role in this, first of all through prayer because fighting these crimes should start spiritually. In addition, faith leaders and churches could also contribute to raising awareness on these issues’.

Development success stories are very much embedded within a secular narrative. Religious contributions to such social transformation are frequently downplayed if not ignored. Look, for example, at venerated heroes of social justice and transformation such as Mahatma Ghandi, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Llama and the “world’s first secular saint”, Nelson Mandela. Each of these figures have written and spoken about the significance of religion and spirituality in their journeys of personal transformation on the way to becoming champions of change in their own societies. Yet such discourses make development policymakers and practitioners uncomfortable. Not only do these stories emphasize personal dimensions that are a critical but neglected component of social change, they also bring elements of religion and spirituality into public discourses on development that those working in the development sector, particularly those from so-called “Western” contexts, would prefer disappeared.

For the past few weeks we have been interviewing people from different communities in South Africa and Malawi – Christian leaders, members of religious congregations, community leaders, including teachers, police and local government representatives. In our conversations with them, we have explored themes specifically related to the promotion of gender equality and the role of religion and faith in pursuing that goal. Both contexts are predominantly Christian, though in Malawi there are also sizable Muslim communities. What these discussions reveal is that religion and spirituality are a central part of the way people live their lives, that stories of both personal and social transformation are closely intertwined and that what scholars and policymakers commonly refer to as ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ dynamics are inextricably entangled. This raises significant questions for how scholars, policymakers, practitioners and activists particularly coming from a Western, secular perspective can pursue truly participatory, democratic development whilst continuing to exclude the religious and the personal from the development agenda.

The argument that divisions between religious and secular perspectives do not make sense in many parts of the world is now well rehearsed. The goal of ‘transforming society’ through development has largely been based on a grand narrative of modernity and progress, but a particular version of modernity that privileges economic growth, democracy, individual liberty and a secular public sphere — in short, moulding developing societies into the image of the West. The mixed successes of this project have been critiqued by numerous commentators for a variety of reasons, from the failures of neoliberal economic models to equally distribute wealth, to the questionable human rights and democratic records of a number of developing countries. Yet rarely have questions been raised about the secular tendency within the development sector to exclude the spiritual, transcendent dimensions of human existence.

Many of the people we have been speaking to, however, highlight how significant spirituality is in both personal and social transformation. A programme manager with a major faith based development organisation in Malawi expressed that: ‘As human beings we are soul, spirit and body, but we [development workers and the government] forget the spiritual and the soul. The spiritual influences how you think and act’. In addition, a community leader we spoke to in the same area said: ‘In our life there are several areas we need, one of them is spiritual, without that we cannot make it’. For both of these interviewees, coming from their different perspectives, transformation always has a spiritual dimension.

Yet, just as development practitioners have often overlooked the role of the personal, the spiritual and the transcendent, failing to connect the social transformation they pursue with changes in individual attitudes and behaviours, religious actors have frequently failed to connect personal spiritual transformation with broader processes of social change. Christianity is often primarily focussed on personal transformation. In fact, transformation is a key theme in Pentecostal churches that has proven to be a positive influence on personal agency. Yet the idea that such profound personal transformation should and could also contribute to the pursuit of social justice and societal change is often absent from the perspectives of many religious leaders.

The question that arises, however, is – why  should  religious actors make this connection? Religion is frequently assumed to be a private, personal, individual affair and as such, has little relevance to or meaning for broader social processes and transformations. Yet if we look at the religious traditions themselves, this focus solely on the individual and personal is far less clear. Take these few verses from the Christian scriptures:

“He has shown you, oh man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

“Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness as an everlasting stream” Amos 5:24 (one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s favourites)

Matthew 22:34-40

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, our your soul and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like it: love your neighbour as yourself”

In addition to approximately 2000 other verses in the Bible that refer to issues of poverty and justice, as well as a strong theological and historical tradition of championing the causes of the poor and the oppressed, Christianity has a clear emphasis on social justice and transformation as well as personal change.[4]

The reflections of the religious leaders and community members that we have spent time with in the last few weeks echo this commitment to religion as an agent for social as well as personal transformation:

A pastor in Malawi told us:

‘My position is part of that, people see that I live what I preach. The message of truth should be in what I speak. My intention is to go with the way the world is moving, I want to be part of that and spread the word of God through interacting with people in how they live’.

‘We saw the Bible as one story, but now we see that there are different voices and we need to listen to the voices about what is good in men and women. Men and women are accountable to God’.

In this last quote, the pastor refers to a faith-based program, run by World Vision International, that explicitly uses scripture to promote gender equality, Channels of Hope for Gender. Other interviewees in Malawi were equally effusive about the changes that resulted from participation in this program. One pastor commented:

‘I have also noticed change. Now I have learnt more on spiritual life. In my family life, I always make sure there is peace and love and this is because of lessons learned from gender workshops. With my spouse, we realize that it is important to be an example to other people. We are also part of many groups promoting change. I have friends with whom they have taken the change to other groups, choirs, leadership groups, shared experiences after workshops’.

We also spoke with a husband and wife, Joseph and Ruth, who run a number of small business enterprises. Joseph has a grocery store, tea house and livestock business while Ruth runs a successful tailoring business. Indeed, it was Ruth’s success in business that enabled Joseph to start his own enterprises. While Ruth was first invited to participate in the gender equality workshops run by World Vision, they decided together that she was too busy with her business, and so Joseph attended the training instead, resulting in significant changes in terms of gender equality in their household, which they believe has also contributed to positive changes regarding the income and well-being of their family as a whole. Such changes include the fact that Joseph now takes an active role in the household, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, bathing the children and looking after them if Ruth is busy with customers. Where previously Joseph made all the decisions with regard to household finances, now the couple make these decisions together. The couple see themselves as role models for the rest of their village on positive gender relationships, visiting other people and speaking to members of their community about gender equality.

Later, Ruth commented to us privately that, although she really wanted to attend the workshop, she knew that Joseph needed to do the training on gender more than she did, that the problem in terms of gender equality in their relationship was more with Joseph than with her. She added that before he did the workshop, Joseph was not a praying man, now he prays all the time. From her perspective, Joseph’s spiritual transformation and the transformation in the family in terms of gender equality were part and parcel of the same process.

While the program does not always result in such clear and positive changes, what these stories highlight is how an experience of personal spiritual transformation can provide motivation to engage in broader social activities to promote social change, specifically in this case regarding gender equality. In their emphasis on both personal “religious” transformation and social “secular” transformation, these stories reveal that these categories that development scholars and practitioners so neatly separate – religious and secular, personal and social – are in fact deeply, inextricably entangled. Despite the broader engagement with religion in development that is occurring, there continues to be a disconnect between the sector’s emphasis on ‘secular’ social transformation and religious emphasis on personal spiritual transformation. The recent interest in religious leaders as potential partners in development, for example, has tended to be highly instrumental, focusing mainly on religious leaders’ and organisations’ capacities and potential according to secular development criteria that almost entirely exclude spiritual, transcendent and metaphysical aspects of religiosity. While the move to engage more with religion is in itself promising, there remains the risk of further ignoring or marginalizing how spirituality is bound up with transformation and development.

One possible way of avoiding this risk is to remind ourselves that it is not only secular development organisations that are committed to social transformation. Religious communities are also called to be agents of social justice. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, one of the great champions of change of our age, has emphasised this calling on religious actors, in particular the Christian Church, to be a voice for the voiceless and an agent for social justice.

“Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice. It is also a matter of love. Every human being is precious. We are all — all of us — part of God’s family. We all must be allowed to love each other with honor”.

Or as a senior executive at World Vision has put it: From a development perspective, development needs to be participatory. For this to happen, we must level the playing field between the powerful and the powerless. This levelling of the playing field can really only be done by agents that have the respect of both. In many contexts, in particular in developing societies, these agents are often faith leaders, though other actors can obviously perform this role too. From a faith perspective, this means that faith communities and faith leaders should become a voice for the voiceless.

This piece is an extended version of a post originally written for OpenDemocracy. You can read the original here.

Erin K. Wilson   is the Director of the Center for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domainin the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen.

Brenda E. Bartelink is programme advisor for the Knowledge Centre on Religion and Development at Oikos.  

[1] p2

[2] M. Faul, 2013. “South Africa Violence Against Women Rated Highest in the World”  The Huffington Post . Available at Huffington Post Accessed 1 September 2014; Abrahams et al, 2012. “Every Eight Hours” Available at Accessed 1 September 2014

[3] We have withheld the names of our interlocutors to protect their privacy.

[4] We of course recognize that Christianity also has a significant history of violence, oppression, marginalization and exclusion, but this does not negate the social justice focus that is also found in this religious tradition. The two sit in tension with one another.


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