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Separated by the desire to be good


When I was growing up, Christmas was recognised as the period when everyone made an effort to be good. In the townships, people tried to clean and decorate their houses. Attempts were made to buy presents for loved ones and to be generous. In rural areas, people gathered as families. Those working in towns came back with exciting goods. This was one time of the year that many went to church and tried to talk to God. The Christmas period was enjoyable.

Yet some found it a trying time. In spite of the preparations, cleanliness and the openness of heart, Christmas was, for many, a period of disappointment. For some reason, families were split by personal differences, old rivalries and new jealousies. In the city, there was always too much drinking, which caused violence in homes, streets and pubs. The dirt and disorder that resulted from activities done in the name of Christmas was too much to bear.

There is something about attempts at doing good that brings about its opposite. As we face another new year, we ought to look at the way we want to be good and the means we use to be good in order to avoid repeating terrible personal and social histories and to strengthen positive ones.

Recently, I attended an interfaith conference. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Evangelicals mingled with members of the Baha'i faith, Muslims, Buddhists and African Traditionalists. They listened to each other sympathetically as they sought to have a deeper understanding of each others' faiths. It would be misleading to suggest that they agreed with each other in everything. Yet many of them publicly appreciated their areas of agreement.

They related to each other like civilised, mature human beings. It was good to see participants laughing, shaking hands, sharing, talking and eating together. They had the spirit of social solidarity.

As I went home after this conference, I could not stop wondering why its spirit is not replicated in the rest of the world. It is clear that each faith aims at the good. Yet differences in understanding the nature of the good and how to bring it about often lead to disagreement, war and suffering. It has led to discrimination, oppression, cruelty, terrorism and many other evils. Why is that the apparent search for the good and God has lead to so much evil?

This paradox has been replicated in realms other than the religious. In politics, economics and the social realm, this paradox is lived daily. For some reason, the period when we all desire to be good and work hard to be good is the period we experience the most violence and disappointment. This was true of the past century. Pope John Paul II observed in Pacem in Terris: A Permanent Commitment, that "The 20th century had begun with great expectations for progress. Yet within 60 years, that same century had produced two world wars, devastating totalitarian systems, untold suffering, and the greatest persecution of the church in history."

People join faith traditions in different ways and for different reasons. Some are born into particular faith traditions, some grow into them and others are converted to them. However, once they become part of a faith tradition, it is as if they had joined an army. They are systematically educated to see themselves as the good people, in search of the good. But the good itself becomes an abstract object, separated from real human beings, human relationships and real social arrangements. The good, which is described in different ways in different faith traditions, becomes the exclusive focus and purpose of all life.

In the imagination of the religious, the one purpose of life is separated from day-to-day relationships. In fact, those who do not share the same faith tradition are soon identified as disturbers of the peace, if not enemies of the peace. Being in the world becomes like walking in one of the mine- infected war zones. At this stage, ordinary decent human beings turn themselves into agents of inhumanity. They gain their perfection through terrorist acts. Wives see their husbands and husbands their wives as obstacles to their holiness. Children wonder why God allowed them to be born to their evil parents. Relatives find reasons for disconnecting from each other.

This is the paradox. The process of identifying the good is also the process that creates possibilities for evil. When the good is defined narrowly, we are sure that the world will be full of evil in the form of suspicion, tension, violence and war.

Pope John Paul II has written in his new year message about the need to recognise the goodness in every human person. We must pray that peace in the world must become a permanent commitment that is realised in our day-to-day lives, relationships and cultural practices. For us in Africa, it must be realised in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burundi, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the rest of the continent. We must not allow ourselves to be separated by the desire to be good.

  • Dr David Kaulemu teaches ethics at the University of Zimbabwe.

    Publish Date: 18 January 2003

    ©Copyright 2003, The Witness (South Africa)

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