Dolamo, R T H
University of South Africa

A message of hope for the world engulfed in hopelessness: an EATWOT perspective on the theology of hope


Some of the objectives of the General Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of ThirdWorld Theologians (EATWOT) held in Ecuador between September 24 and October 01, 2001 were to review the work of the organisation for the past twenty-five years of its existence, and to recommit itself to doing relevant theologies that would be responsive to the needs, aspirations, fears, and hopes of its regions. National liberation, socio-economic liberation, women liberation, and ecological liberation were some of the issues that were looked at. Challenges posed by globalisation, deepening poverty, killer diseases such as HIV/Aids, unabated brutalisation of women and children, escalating depletion of natural resources, degradation of creation, eruption of new conflicts and strife, and the general lack of democracy in some of EATWOT regions, were faced with courage as issues of divine imperative.


Members of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), an intercontinental association comprising members from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as minorities from the United States of America and Oceania, met in Quito, Ecuador, for their fifth general assembly from September 24 to October 01, 2001. It was also an occasion to celebrate their silver jubilee as an organisation. They deliberated on the theme, “Give an account of the hope that is in you: weaving threads of our continuing struggles into a tapestry of hope in the twenty- first century” and the theme itself was inspired by the text from 1 Peter 3:15-16, Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you (RSV).

Since the independence of these developing countries from their colonial masters and the establishment of democracies in those countries, freedom of religion and expression have not been given sufficient space to grow and to deepen. What in fact happened was that religion had been used and still continues to be used by the rich and the powerful to protect their wealth and power at the expense of the poor and the weak and as a tool to control, manipulate and keep the poor under perpetual bondage. As I shall attempt to show later, South Africa is no exception.


Africa, Asia, Latin America, as well as Oceania, each with its millions of people and vast diversity of cultures, religions and languages have their own problems, but all of them are affected by the phenomenon of globalisation. In spite of its grandiose promises, globalisation has resulted in a greater gap between the rich and the poor and it has intensified the sufferings of people. The Third World is plagued by impoverishment, the absence of good governance, religious intolerance, terrorism, the HIV/Aids pandemic, and the effect of an idolatry of power and self-indulgence. All of these form the material from which EATWOT weaves its tapestry of hope.

The people of the Third World are not resigned to their fate. In Ecuador, through exposure to some of the indigenous and African-descended communities, a major prison and centres for women and youths, we encountered women and men who suffer and struggle. We listened to their cries and hopes for a better tomorrow. We sensed a deep spirituality in them, which is rooted in their struggle for survival and dignity. Their resistance itself breeds a theology of hope. The increasing evidence of resistance against absorption or elimination by the dominant cultures confirms their hope that diversity will remain a positive factor in human culture.


3.1. Indigenous peoples

Peoples from all continents are theologising on the historical processes of exploitation that have deprived them of their rights to ancestral homelands, languages, religions and cultures. EATWOT rejects theologies and church life that legitimise abuse of mother earth, annihilation of peoples and the invasion of the global market. A radical development of theology is required to help bring justice. As an association, EATWOT is committed to resist the exploitation of creation. Indigenous peoples still face problems of endangered cultures and lands. In this regard EATWOT favours a theology of creation that will provide them with plenitude.

EATWOT is committed to work in solidarity with indigenous and marginalised peoples to preserve the environment. EATWOT sees this as a divine imperative that it cannot ignore and it regards it also as a divine imperative to analyse and uncover the deceptive language of those who benefit from social exploitation.

In all continents, indigenous peoples are offering paradigms in their theology for promoting holistic life, distinct from foreign expressions. It is a sign of hope that EATWOT can draw upon native spiritualities with their reverence for mother earth, humanity, and all of nature. There is a holistic interconnectedness and interrelationship in such spiritualities. They help EATWOT to weave together the threads of its continuing struggles in the tapestry of hope.

3.2. Racism and violent conflicts

Some countries of the Third World are experiencing violent conflicts of religious, ethnic, and class nature. EATWOT rejoices, however, at the various attempts at dialogue and engagement with peoples of other faith communities. The role of the African churches in engaging peoples of other faith communities on matters of justice and peace is a sign of hope. Countries at war, including those marked by ethnic or religious divides, are sorely in need of justice, forgiveness, restitution, and mutual accountability.

It is a sign of hope that victims of colonisation have found a voice and space for their grievances, especially at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa from August 28 to September 7, 2001. Victims of racism, colonisation and slavery are now demanding reparation and compensation for the harm done to them. Theological groups are encouraged to undertake studies on the issues of slavery, colonisation and reparation.

3.3. Women’s liberation

Women all over the world are discriminated against and marginalised. Their bodies are used, misused and discarded. In the Third World they are the poorest of the poor. They cry out to be heard and they dream of a world where violence against them and girls will be only a distant memory. They have struggled and are continuing to struggle against the hierarchical and patriarchal structures in all institutions, be they families, governments, churches, or entire societies.

Many women throughout the world are showing signs of life and hope. All is not lost. There is hope as women and men of faith struggle to engage in gender dialogue and action. There is hope when EATWOT tries to understand the Word of God through gender perspectives, critiquing texts that are violent and affirming texts that bring wholeness to women and men. There is hope when women are treated with dignity. There is hope when men listen to women’s voices, and when they critique their own socialisation as men for the sake of a new humanity. A particular challenge for men is to redefine their masculinity in the current patriarchal system, as part of human liberation. There is hope when women and men struggle together to break unjust structures and strive to usher in a new humanity and a new creation.

3.4. Third World theologies

Black religious and social movements have nurtured theology in black communities in the USA, South Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. These theologies have gone through several phases. Today they blend economic and political concerns with ecological, cultural and women’s concerns. Our black theologies deconstruct traditional understandings of God, and they develop relationships with ancestors, new expressions of faith in Jesus Christ, and a renewed commitment to justice and reconciliation.

During the general assembly, EATWOT dialogued on controversial theological issues. Among them were new experiences of God’s revelation, the names given to God, the meaning of salvation through Christ, other Christological issues and the nature of the church’s mission, and a commitment was made to continue to dialogue on these issues.

3.5. Interfaith concerns

With regard to interfaith concerns, EATWOT spoke about the qualities (eg openness, humility, respect for the other, and honesty) needed for dialogue that contributes to justice and peace, and recognised also the need for both a critique of philosophies of absolute truth, and a profound and radical renewal of systematic theology.

EATWOT theologies, with their option for the least among us, form a polyphonic chorus consisting of systematic and ethical thought, biblical work, indigenous theologies, black theologies, feminist theologies and ecological concerns for mother earth, and it reaffirms the steps taken in liberation theologies, with all their myriad developments.

The divisions between and within our churches are nonetheless a painful reality. While seeking to weave the threads of the unity of humankind, EATWOT members need to work together to make manifest the oneness and catholicity of Christ’s church. In this regard, EATWOT needs a greater effort in doing theology together and making table fellowship a visible reality.


The Assembly concluded with a message of life, a sense of accountability and commitment, and many tasks at hand.

EATWOT would contribute to the development of a just and liberating global ethics. The growth of peoples’ movements for justice, especially against neo-liberal globalisation, is an indication of the forces building for an alternative economic and social order. EATWOT can support such movements and take advantage of the growth of communication to form or relate to networks for social justice.

Since in today’s world there are many fundamentalist movements provoking tragic conflicts, movements that also affect theologies and churches, EATWOT reaffirmed its macro-ecumenical vocation toward unity between Christian denominations and all religions of the earth. EATWOT invited its brothers and sisters doing theology to continue in prophetic engagement with the common, poor and oppressed people, and in a fruitful dialogue with cultural and religious pluralism.

Members of EATWOT are seeking alternative communities and sustainable spiritualities of hope. This implies moving forward with a common focus, giving voice to the hope that needs to be realised in interfaith praxis for justice and peace with an option for the poor, and integrity of creation. The focus on interfaith praxis is intercultural, interreligious, and interspiritual.

One of the great achievements in EATWOT theologies is a critical and constructive biblical work that we wish to continue, strengthen and deepen. Re-reading of the Word of God adopts cross-cultural hermeneutics that is gender conscious. Aware that the Bible itself was written within specific socio-cultural and historical contexts, EATWOT engages in a reading that respects and at the same time takes a critical stance vis-à-vis these diverse contexts. In this way, EATWOT strives to hear anew God’s Word as good news of liberation for the peoples of our time.


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act number 108 of 1996 has replaced the apartheid constitution. Whereas the apartheid constitution determined our movements along racial and ideological lines, our democratic constitution guarantees us, as full citizens of South Africa, rights that were denied us in the past. Indeed, the Bill of Rights is of so much importance that it is already discussed in chapter 2 of the Constitution:

This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity and freedom (section 7(1)).

To make sure that these rights are respected and protected, the Constitution makes provision for State organs such as the Public Protector, the Human Rights Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, and the Commission for gender Equality to be established. Moreover, one of the most fundamental and radical changes is the fact that the constitutional system that was based upon the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is replaced by the principle of the supremacy of the constitution in chapter 4 of the Constitution. When participating in legislative processes and debates, minority groups could still appeal beyond parliament to the Constitutional Court for redress. Gone are the days when the Nationalist Party majority would impose its will on all of us. With this kind of a bill of rights, Sachs (1990:7-8) believes that our country is in line with the 1978 United Nations’ Bill of Human Rights.

The Bill of Rights guarantees us among other rights, “Freedom of religion, belief and opinion” (section 15), “Freedom of expression” (section 16) and “Freedom of association” (section 18). South Africa is no longer ruled by a “Christian government” as it was under the Nationalist Party; it is, under the African National Congress, a secular government. Some Christians complained about the ANC-led government as communist and atheist. I believe the Constitution simply acknowledges and even appreciates the reality of religious pluralism in South Africa.

Theoretically, it is easier to speak of the right to worship, to interact with whomever, to say whatever as one’s conscience dictates and so on, but it is difficult to put into action one’s faith and conscience. Some questions, therefore, beg for answers, such as: How enforceable are these rights? How much is government doing to protect these rights? And how willing are the civil society, labour, and business to promote these rights?

From the praxis point of view, the religious community in South Africa has had problems with the government. Our faith demands of us to yield fruits of love and justice. Together with labour, business, and other non-governmental organisations, the religious community has been in the forefront in the quest for socio-economic justice under apartheid. As people of faith under the new democratic dispensation for example, we are worried about the government’s macro-economic policy dubbed “GEAR” (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution) because, far from transforming society, GEAR promotes capitalism and widens the rich-poor gap. Privatisation of State enterprises and assets has not only stalled job creation, but has also resulted in job losses. The limited resources, especially financial, are squandered through corrupt practices so much so that the government is not able to meet its social, health, education, and welfare obligations. As poverty deepens, crime escalates, and political power is being centralised, the stark example being that the state president has the prerogative of appointing premiers and that premiers have the prerogative of appointing city mayors and the voters are no longer crucial in such appointments. The government brooks no opposition and is becoming increasingly intolerant of the labour movement.

There are nonetheless, some signs of hope:

a) South Africa is a democracy and the Constitution, at least on paper, protects our rights including the right to worship without persecution.

b) Land restitution and Reform Laws Amendment 1997 (Act 63 of 1997) makes provision for land restoration.

c) Labour Relations Act 1995 (Act 66 of 1995) strengthens the workers’ power base by increasing ownership of their own labour.

d) Employment Equity Act 1998 (Act 55 of 1998) addresses the question of groups who have been historically marginalised in the workplace, such as blacks and women by legislating for affirmative action measures.

e) Government seems to be serious about rooting out corruption, and is committed to transparency and accountability. The Scorpions under the directorship of the public prosecution are doing sterling work.


Our faith is two dimensional, namely the love for God and for neighbour, including creation. Our faith in action implies concretising the freedom of religion, conscience, and expression as enshrined in the Constitution in the preferential option for the poor, the “least” among Jesus’ friends. We must prophesy and work against exploitation of the poor, abuse of women and children, neglect of young people and degradation of creation. We must cooperate with people of other faiths and cultures, in as far as they subscribe to the humanisation and liberation projects as taught by Jesus and made manifest in Him when He inaugurated God’s reign.


Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996 (Act 108 of 1996).

EATWOT. General Assembly Documents and Papers. 24 September to 2 October, 2001.

Government Gazettes.

Sachs, A 1990. Protecting Human Rights in a New South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press. United Nations 1978. The International Bill of Human Rights.


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