We spoke with Dr. Godwins Lwinga, who successfully defended his dissertation at ETF Leuven on June 1, 2023. His dissertation is titled “Addressing Corruption: The Ethics of uMunthu and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Resources for a Responsibility-Based Anti-Corruption Approach in Malawi.”
About a month ago, you successfully defended your dissertation, entitled ‘Addressing Corruption: The Ethics of uMunthu and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Resources for a Responsibility-Based Anti-Corruption Approach in Malawi’. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about what made you choose to study the issue of corruption in Malawi?
As a Malawian citizen, I noticed through reports and my own observations that Malawi has a large problem with corruption, which is affecting the socio-economic development of many Malawians. At the same time, the country is very Christian: over 70% of Malawians identify themselves as Christian. To me, it was of an indication of Christians’ little impact in their daily living. Otherwise, one would expect energetic anti-corruption efforts by the Malawian Christians and the Malawian churches, yet the efforts that are available are largely state-promoted and quite removed from the public. Subsequently, I asked myself how it is possible that the Christian calling to high morality has, apparently, so little impact in the day-to-day life of Christians in the public sphere? I see it as incumbent for Malawian Christians to fight corruption – my dissertation seeks to help with that task by promoting responsibility at grassroots level. In developing this solution, I drew on Bonhoeffer’s ethics of responsibility, which I correlated with the Malawian concept of uMunthu.
In your dissertation, you seek to contribute to the task of combatting corruption by drawing on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as on the African cultural concept of ‘uMunthu’. Can you tell us a bit about your choice for this combination? Why choose these and bring them into conversation with one another?
When I was searching for a theology that would speak to Malawian audience, or a theologian that I would enter into dialogue with I became enthused with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as I found in him a squarely Christologically motivated appeal for Christians to rise against evil, even up to the point of dying. Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on following Christ’s example, by living vicariously – responsibly – for others, resonated strongly for me with the Malawian concept of uMunthu (‘I am because you are’). Within Africa, the philosophical notion of ubuntu expresses the concept of personhood or humanness. It forms the basis of all considerations of what constitutes healthy relations in African societies: “Our existence lies in the collective existence of humanity.” This distinctly African concept recognizes that persons and groups form their identities in relation to one another.
In your dissertation, you write about the peculiar relation between ‘church’ and ‘state’ in Malawi, which goes back a long way; what are some unique features of this relationship?
State and the churches of Malawi were in an unofficial ‘marriage’ partnership until early 1990s when the country adopted multiparty democracy. The partnership was beneficial to both regardless of differences in their causes and aims. The Scottish missionaries invited the British to colonize Malawi (then Nyasaland). Colonial rule was formalized in 1891 with introduction of stringent laws, oppressive to the native people. The missionaries were ambivalent in dealing with the British rulers since they were from the same continent. When the British rule collapsed in the early 1960s, the state, now run by the natives, also established laws that did not promote the freedoms of Malawians. Any attempt by the church leaders to openly rebuke the state was followed by harsh consequences. The church had no choice but to stay in an ‘unhappy marriage’. Today, the church is not under strict surveillance. The church is free to speak against bad governance without fear of severe repercussions. From my knowledge, no church leader has been arrested for speaking against or advising government. Government listens. However, it does not always take the advice that comes from the church.
On the basis of your research: What are some concrete steps that the Church as a whole and that individual Christians in Malawi can take, to combat corruption?
The church and Christians can help combat corruption through these steps. First, promoting responsibility should be focused on strong spiritual formation of the younger generation. This generation should grow up knowing that unethical conduct displayed in forms of corruption is unchristian, unloving and a crime against another. Second, the church has to realize that its prophetic voice needs to start impacting from within and not just meant for the government officials as seen in the church communiques. The church should take a reflective approach where the message on corruption first speaks to church officials and members before it speaks to the public officials. Thirdly, the church should adopt a long-term vision and a strategic investment in building up the skills necessary for civic engagement in 10, 20, 30 years to come. For this to happen, we need to start now by ensuring, at the basic level, that for example the Sunday school program is run on solid biblical and sound theological teachings.
As a young doctor, what do you see as your own responsibility in (the Church of) Malawi? What are some next steps for you, in your work?
I believe my new status gives me an opportunity to influence decision-making within the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia, particularly when it comes to taking bold steps in combating corruption as one of the church’s key civic responsibilities, by empowering Christians with the ethical framework to do so. My responsibility is to continue equipping Christian lay leaders with theological knowledge and leadership skills. I plan to form small groups, comprised of church leaders and ordinary Christians, in various CCAP Synod of Livingstonia congregations, through which I can talk about the importance of responsibility as an ‘answer to the call of Christ’. I also plan to organize conferences for pastors on themes surrounding responsible leadership and ethics.