Man smiling in a clerical collar
photo courtesy of Bishop Zac Niringiye

By Dr. David Zac Niringiye

The Lord’s Prayer as political engagement

Dr. David Zac Niringiye is the retired assistant bishop of the diocese of Kampala, Church of Uganda, in the Anglican Communion. A theologian, pastor and civic-political activist, Niringiye was active in civil society-led social justice, peace and anti-corruption campaigns in Uganda. Niringiye’s books include The Church: God’s Pilgrim People. He holds a PhD in theology and mission history from Edinburgh University.

From early in my life, I have been shaped by questions: What does commitment to Christ and the gospel require? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in my own context? I grew up in Uganda under the shadow of Idi Amin and other political leaders wielding tyrannical power over us. I have seen close family pay the ultimate price for these evils. In my life and work, I have been deeply engaged with the highest levels of politics and the most marginalized and oppressed, from community-level work in Uganda to politics between nations. As a bishop in Uganda, I was engaged in the slums of Kampala. When it rains heavily, these marginalized places get flooded. In one area, where we had a wonderful ministry, a child drowned in their home because of the rains.  Her mother had woken up to the whole home flooded and the child was sleeping on the floor. On the other side of things, I had many dealings with people of wealth and power. I became chair of a national council that was monitoring governance. I attended cabinet meetings and African Union meetings where I came to see firsthand how politics works or doesn’t work, in my country. Through all this, I have come to realize that the public square matters, that what really changes societies is politics and business.

So then, what is the gospel mandate for how the church engages in the public square? Is the impotence of Christianity around the world in the face of social injustices, gross abuses of power, greed, racism and violence a reflection of the impotence of the gospel? Or could it be that many church communities around the world actually have a political theology that misrepresents the gospel of Jesus?

The inability of the church to carry out a potent political witness is largely because much of the actual political theology of the church is based on notions of power, a theology that seeks to put people in the highest levels of power to make the Bible the law of the land. In recent history, many Christians have interacted with the public square seeking dominance. The idea of whose voice is loudest, which idea wins and shapes the way we interact together, what values we should live, what prayers we should pray, is all a contestation for dominance. In other words, they are playing the same game that politicians are playing all over the world. To quote the American political scientist Harold Lasswell, when you boil it down, politics is all about who gets what, when and how. And as we’ve seen in Africa and around the world, those who have political power are more able to access public goods than others. Rather than allocating benefits to citizens according to justice or need, they do so in ways that benefit themselves politically, often along lines based on ethnic, regional or religious boundaries.

Christianity has often found itself a part of this political structure. By wrongly interpreting Jesus’ call as one as gaining numbers through the provision of social services to attract adherents, churches have unfortunately found themselves co-opted and captured by those with political power who do the same. We see churches yielding themselves over to political leaders as their megaphone to come and pray, such as with President Museveni of Uganda who, as the guest of honour at a national prayer event hosted by Ugandan churches, prayed for his country while violently upholding his own regime.

In contrast to the Christianity of dominance, seen in politicians and pastors who pray in public for political gain, is Jesus’ own prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is a commitment to see God’s purposes and plans for all creation fulfilled, the flourishing of human dignity and the integrity of creation. Praying “Give us today our daily bread” is not a prayer for the self, but for ourselves in connection to the other, our neighbour—our neighbour across borders, religious divides, our neighbour who hates us or loves us—that all be given what we need to live on this earth. And to pray “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” emphasizes “us” rather than “me” or people who look and think like “me.”

So to pray the Lord’s Prayer is truly radical and counter to the political violence that grips this world. To pray these simple sentences is a commitment to dismantle the current political and social order of inequality and violence and to seek a path where all have access to the table. This calls us to discern and support policies and legislation that ensure equal opportunity and access for all people, regardless of what they look like or what religion they are. It requires us to work with state and non-state actors in creating institutions and partnerships that can act as a check and balance for political stability. The Lord’s Prayer inspires us to create a new political language that works for the common good, rather than one couched in domination and violence. Authentic churches that follow this way of Jesus will find themselves engaging the powers and structures of greed and injustice in love, challenging corruption and abuse of power, speaking and acting on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.