The Anglican Church of SA has failed Steve Biko

If the Anglican Church of Southern Africa will not determine in their synods to confer on Stephen Bantu Biko the status of a martyr – a Black Consciousness leader who died at the hands of cruel men of the apartheid system – then the church might have to answer on “Judgment Day’ why it failed one of its own.

Biko died 45 years ago at the hands of cruel and callous men who blindly served the interests of the apartheid system that had brought great suffering, torment and pain on black people all in the name of preserving white privilege.

But in one sense it would not matter: in Biko’s book, I Write What I Like, Father Aelred Stubbs of the Community of the Resurrection – a monastic order of the Anglican Church based in Mirfield, England – in his 69-page epilogue of Biko’s book, writes why he sees Biko as a martyr of hope for the many black people whose humanity had been stripped of any meaning and dignity by the cal racist laws that defined the apartheid system, which would claim his life.

He writes: “The Church of the Province of South Africa in which he (Biko) was baptised, and which he never repudiated, does not have the right to claim him as its martyr. While the church may facilitate his martyrdom, Biko’s life and struggles transcended narrow religious and political confines. He was the leader of black people in all their manifestations.”

Stubbs, now deceased, then went on to quote Bishop Lawrence Zulu, an erstwhile Anglican Church leader of the Diocese of Zululand, as saying: “Biko was too big for the church.”

This is a harsh indictment on the church. The context is important. Biko identified with the church through baptism, yet he was critical of the church for its message, which he thought did not adequately condemn injustice of the ruling elites.

Whether at the time of his death he was an “active” member of the church, it cuts no ice, and is a factor that should be rendered irrelevant. Church-going means nothing if it is not committed to social action and change, and bringing about a better society, free of injustice and oppression.

People are not good people because they go to church. The teachings of Christ were centred more on matters of social justice and equality of opportunity not for the few, but for the many, so that all may have “their daily bread”.

In the gospels, the Christ Biko knew was the Christ of justice, who frowned on all forms of injustices, and who steadfastly remained on the side of those who were oppressed.

Theology must always be informed by context. The theology of context; the black theology that critiques the world, and the material conditions which allow others to suffer oppression.

Stubbs, Biko’s spiritual mentor, was always on his side to offer him sustenance in his commitment to fighting an unjust regime and an injustice visited on his people by an oppressive National Party minority government.

And this is what he says of Biko and his martyrdom in his epilogue: “But the purified church that will be reborn out of the destruction of this racist society… in that church he (Biko) will be venerated … as a true martyr of Christ.”

Biko died a death of shame, treated unjustly even when he was no longer able to protect himself. His skull was smashed by the oppressors. The question to be asked is: Will the church leaders – not only of the Anglican church, but the body church as a whole – step up, and agitate for his canonisation, to be officially made the martyr of hope for the oppressed of all generations?

For one thing, Biko did not reject Christ. It is the church dogma he rejected, and questioned. He lived within the insights of black theology and all liberating theologies. Like Fr Stubbs, I see Biko as a martyr of hope.

The Anglican Church, it seems to me, has no choice but to begin the process of canonising Biko. The process of canonising Biko must begin now.


  • Mdhlela is a freelance journalist, an Anglican priest, ex-trade unionist and former publications editor of SA Human Rights Commission journals
Jo Mangaliso Mdhlela

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