Breaking Ranks

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By George Weigel

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It is no longer news (although it is often treated as such) when a church group urges disinvestment in South Africa. It is news when a prominent religious leader challenges the common wisdom on what constitutes the best path to a future of freedom and prosperity for all the peoples of South Africa. Such a challenge has been mounted by Bishop John T. Walker of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.

It should be an irrelevant consideration in making judgments about disinvestment, but in this case one ought to note that Bishop Walker is black. Thus his stance has involved a courageous challenge to the received orthodoxies on two fronts: the church world and the black leadership.

And what has Bishop Walker proposed? He has not slackened in his demand for an end to the repugnant apartheid system. He has continued to support the sanctions package adopted by the Congress. He has gotten himself arrested at the South African Embassy. But he has also tried to get people to think beyond the immediate passions of the moment, and to consider the many possible futures of South Africa. “There is a way,” Bishop Walker has said, “by isolating the government totally, we could bring it to its knees and cause a crash of major proportions. Are we going to do that to blacks in South Africa? To destroy the black infrastructure of the country, and then walk away? I say, no, we should not do that.

“If the alternative [for U.S. companies] is to simply pull out and turn over their operations to the South African government or someone who is not in concert with the notion of the destruction of apartheid, then I’d say I’d rather have them stay because we can work with you.”

For his pains, Bishop Walker has been attacked by the moral thought police who have grown accustomed to the unchallenged high ground on this issue. Randall Robinson of Transafrica said that he was “distressed” by Walker’s position, and he accused the bishop of providing “cover” for corporations that really weren’t interested in ending apartheid. Robinson refused to attend a meeting organized by Walker to discuss the “post-apartheid” future of South Africa with American corporate leaders. “Bishop Walker is offering too little, too late,” opined Timothy Smith of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, an agency that, despite its title, has a rather pronounced animus toward corporations and the market system. In fact, though, Bishop Walker had urged the executives who attended his meeting to go far beyond the Sullivan Principles and aggressively challenge the apartheid system.

The saddest comment came from William Deamaley, a spokesman for Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, who tried to paper over the difference between Walker’s analysis and prescription and the disinvestment counsel of other church leaders. Walker was trying to “step beyond” the other leaders’ position, said Dearnaley. Walker was “looking to the future of South Africa.”

Which is, one would have hoped, what Bishop Browning, Randall Robinson, Timothy Smith, the Administrative Board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and all the rest of the disinvestment choir have been doing.

Haven’t they?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.