THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN THE DEMOCRATISATION PROCESS IN ZIMBABWE
This essay interrogates the Church’s social responsibility in the struggle for democratic change in Zimbabwe. The motif of this investigation is the Church’s calling and her mission. Theologians are generally agreed that the Church is a manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. Pete Henriot writes, “A God who is not involved in the lives of the people is no God at all. A Saviour that is not involved in the lives of the people is no Saviour at all. (The Post, Lusaka, 11 December 2007). In the same vein one can argue, a Church that is not involved in the lives of the people that it seeks to serve is no Church at all. From this understanding of the Church, one can conclude that the Church is a transforming and empowering community; it is the continued presence of Jesus the Christ on earth. This implies that the Church cannot afford to be indifferent and isolated in the face of our socio-political and economic challenges. The critical questions that define the Church’s role in search of peace are:
• What is the role of Christianity in the light of our human experiences of pain, hurt and suffering?
• Has the Church been an instrument of grace in a polarised political environment?
Church activism in the context of social disintegration and national polarisation demands a practical social and political engagement with the relevant arms of the state and the relevant political players/ parties toward a socio-political contract which will give birth to peace and democratic space for all and to all. The climax of this moral role learns from divine justice; “I have heard the cry and seen the suffering of my people.” (Exodus 3: 7). This is about reconstruction and transformational theology. Such theology is interested in the promotion of social justice and human development. Such a role has to be informed by Jesus’ declaration: “I came that all may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10), and “My peace I leave with you.” (John 14: 28). The Church’s role is explored using access points that include liberation, reconciliation and reconstruction, vis-à-vis democratic values of the quest for human dignity and participation of all people in decisions that affect the quality and direction of their lives.
Being Church to a nation in crisis
Bosch (1979:20) argues that the Church can either legitimate the status quo or call for its reconstruction and transformation. The first option tends to be a narrow and naïve perception that the Church cannot engage in political matters because it is not a political entity. The second notion employs the Jesus methodology of reaching out to the broken heart, bruised and scandalised persons. It places the Church at the centre of human creativity and healing. This second option reminds us that the Church is a living and loving community, it is in the world to serve human beings as an attempt to make this world a better place to live in.
It is observed that by preaching justice, promoting peace and human welfare; the Church stands above narrow political issues. For Bonhoeffer (1974: 127) the Church exists for others just as Christ exist for the Church. It is from such a context that the late Rev. Professor Canaan Sodindo Banana would argue that the Church must continue being a watchdog of democracy and ensure that no impediments are placed on the path of those wishing to exercise their God-given rights (Banana C.S. (1996: 78).
The Church has, in general, affirmed that the democratization process calls for a creative dialectic of liberation, reconciliation, reconstruction (renewal) and democracy. Liberation, reconciliation and reconstruction are values that are mutually inclusive in the agenda for the attainment of democracy, particularly in the renaissance from colonial oppression and dictatorship. In this context, the Church has shared in Christ’s redemptive healing ministry in the struggle for democratic space in Zimbabwe. This is true because “Christianity is not primarily an idea, creed --- or an ecclesiastical institution, instead it is a way of life that is basically concerned with quality relationships” (Lindgren 1965: 55).
The Catholic Church in Zimbabwe’s role in the promotion of democracy is visible through its Pastoral Letters as issued by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishop’s Conference (hereinafter called Z.C.B.C.). In May, 1998, the Z.C.B.C. issued a pastoral letter “Working For The Common Good”, The Bishops observed that the social disintegration had its roots in the growing trends of poverty, the shrinking economy and government’s lack of initiative to attend to these challenges. In particular, the Z.C.B.C. declared; “Our Conviction is that if we are able to dialogue constructively, openly and widely, with a special concern for the vulnerable, we will unite together----- for the common good of Zimbabwe….”(Page 2). In the same letter, it is noted; “an Economic System that brings so few people into the world is seriously flamed” (Page 2). The letter also states that a government that closes space for the ordinary citizens deserves no respect. The Z.C.B.C warned against the weird economic policies that the government was employing and the closure of democratic space saying; “Genuine Dialogues between State and all Sections of Civil society is required” (Page 3). On 17th April 2000, the Z.C.B.C. issued a strong statement condemning political violence. The pastoral letter entitled ‘Easter Message’ reads, in part: “The real problems of this country …cannot be solved by violence... Threatening, insulting and racist language cannot be tolerated. The laws of the country that protect people from abuse and physical assault must be enforced. The courts must be respected.” This statement positioned the Church as the voice of God and the voice of the suffering masses. Sadly, the sentiments expressed in the Easter message were quickly forgotten even by some of the bishops serve for the few who continued to be advocates of social justice amidst the continued violence by those who had the political sword/ weapon in their favour. The clumsy road toward the 2008 March 29 Harmonised Election was discerned through ‘God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed.’ In this pastoral letter, the ZCBC declared that Zimbabwe was in a crisis, both politically and economically. The ZCBC noted the nature of the crisis as being characterised by:
a. A crisis of governance
b. A crisis of moral leadership
c. A spiritual and moral crisis
In their summation of the crisis, the Z.C.B.C. concluded, “No to power through violence, oppression and intimidation! We call upon those who are responsible for the current crisis in our country to repent and listen to the cry of their citizens.” (2007:10).
The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (hereinafter called ZCC), the country’s largest Ecumenical movement, played its prophetic role during the liberation struggle (1970s) and in the late 1990s when Zimbabwe’s political and economic misfortunes became a glaring reality. The ZCC gave birth to the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly (hereinafter called NCA) in 1998 while working closely with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Interestingly Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai became the first popular chairman of the NCA. Through this joint initiative between Church and civic society the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was to be born. One can safely say the Church with other civic groups played a midwifery role at the birth of MDC. The idea of forming a political party did not come from the church.
Sadly for ZCC, when the NCA became extremely vocal in its demand for a people driven constitution the Council of Churches chickened out of the whole process. Sadly, the painful years of the struggle for democratic space have seen the Council of Churches taking a back seat hence the emergence of the new prophetic Church bodies that took it upon themselves to advance the struggle for democracy. Since 2000 ZCC has issued out cautious press statements on the prevailing political and economic problems. In 2005 just before the General Election, the Z.C.C. declared that “all citizens were encouraged to exercise their right to vote without fear” But the Council did not condemn those who made others afraid to exercise their democratic right to vote.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (hereinafter called EFZ), a grouping of the Evangelicals and Pentecostal Churches in Zimbabwe has, in general, a negative attitude toward secular concerns. The main thrust of this Christian organisation is “winning of the lost souls.” The E.F.Z. has generally avoided making pastoral statements on the prevailing socio-political economic state of affairs. Their vocal national statements are those that have been issued in collaboration with other Church Bodies.
Christian Alliance is a grouping of those citizens who feel called to stand for peace and justice while fighting against all forms of injustice and violence that tends to demean God’s good creation. Christian Alliance was formed in October 2005 as an initiative of the Churches in Bulawayo. Its mandate is prophetic action. This Christian grouping brings together faithful believers from across all Christian denominations. The thrust of Christian Alliance is that of resisting political decay and violence.
The activities of Christian Alliance include public prayer meetings, which were dealt with under POSA (Public Order and Security Act) since the ZANU PF government feared that such prayer meetings were giving rise to resistance by the masses. This was an attempt by the ZANU PF government to muzzle the Church from exercising its democratic and religious mandate as the voice of God to a broken people.
A Christian Alliance sister organization the Institute of Theological Reflection Today (ITRT) provided a theological platform for discourse/ dialogue on prophetic witness. Its programs increased awareness on the role of the Church in the promotion of democracy, Religion and Governance and those issues that relate to justice. The ITRT has brought about a sense of urgency in praxis theology. It has revitalized the meaning of liberation theology.
The birth of the Save Zimbabwe Convention SZC witnesses to the climax of the Church’s struggle for a democratic Zimbabwe. This movement was launched on the 29th July 2006 as a joint initiative of the Churches, civic society and some political parties as a rallying platform for a democratic Zimbabwe. The initiative was convened and chaired by the Christian Alliance (the Voice of the Church). One can argue that the constituting of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign climaxed the struggle for democracy as it brought together all like minded people and thereby enhanced the struggle for democracy. It was not surprising that ZANU PF boycotted the Convention. The sad thing though was that after the SZC meeting the government security agents terrorised the leadership of CA.
It is necessary to point out the fact that Christian Alliance provided spiritual guidance and space for prayers. Such prayers would ultimately lead to 11th of March 2007 fiasco where innocent citizens, civic society leaders and political leaders were scandalously beaten up by a partisan police force at the instigation of ZANU PF. On this day (11/03/2007), the World became aware of the nature of the brutal dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe was subsequently summoned to Southern Africa Development Community SADC and then to African Union AU to be instructed to negotiate with MDC with the help of Thabo Mbeki the then leader of South Africa.
Lessons for the Church
To be a Church means being defined by the mission of Christ in a hurting world. It involves being active on socio-political matters. This results in a Church that is incarnate in the real world of pain and suffering. Such action results in transformational and reconstruction theology – a theology of liberation and hope. Such a theology is central to the gospel message. A real Church cannot escape being a transforming and liberating agent in the search for peace and democracy. The political crises we face today is a direct challenge to the saving power of the Gospel hence the Church can not afford to remain silent when its membership is being brutalised by those who claim political authority.
Rev Sifiso Mpofu
Bishop Levee Kadenge