Lord Have Mercy On the Church in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Standard, Feb. 24, 2003 (Opinion)
Chido Makunike

If Zimbabwe suffers from pathetic political leadership under President Mugabe, the religious establishment is not much better. At a time of crisis, one would have hoped for bold moral leadership from the church.

In times of upheaval, many people have been moved to be the moral conscience of their societies at great personal cost, often driven by their religious faith.

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu are just three examples of people who used their faith to influence the search for social and political justice.

They inspired people all over the world, including those who did not share their religious views, because the struggle for justice is universal.

Despite being as fallible as any of us, with their courage and selflessness, they emboldened others to seek to change their societies for the better.

There are many signs of moral degeneration in all spheres of life in Zimbabwe, despite the outward appearances of being a very religious society.

How does one reconcile the strongly expressed religiosity with the increasing dysfunctionality of the society?

We are so religious on the outside, and yet increasingly corrupt.

If we truly believe there is a power that will guarantee the victory of good over evil if we play our part, why are we so afraid to speak out against and confront the increasing oppression of the Mugabe regime?

Why are those of us who claim to be such good religionists dropping like flies because Aids, a condition we certainly have some measure of behavioural control over, to the same extent as people whose lives are not guided by any sort of religious faith?

Why are incidences of members of the clergy stealing from their churches, sexually abusing members of their congregations and indulging in other worldly behaviour now almost daily fare in the newspapers?

Is religion, as we practice it in Zimbabwe, relevant to daily life, or is it just an opiate we take to avoid the hard choice of taking the risks to improve our situation individually and collectively?

Archbishop Pius Ncube of the Catholic church has gotten into a great deal of trouble for saying the truth about those in power.

Except for a few pockets of tentative support from his politically compromised church, he has almost been ostracised by the church establishment. No other prominent religious figure has taken it upon himself to simply utter in public the sentiments their flock express every day about the sad state of our country.

The Methodists, Pentecostals, Salvation Army and others are all missing in action, cowering in ungodly fear.

Some sects of the Apostolic church have become the virtual praetorian guard of Mr Mugabe’s regime, helping to beat up and intimidate people on its behalf. A few religious types, like Bishop Nolbert Kunonga of the Anglican church, have intimated that there is really no crisis in Zimbabwe, and that Mugabe is actually a good Christian doing God’s work in the way he reigns over this country!

I am presuming most of the clergy agree with the majority of Zimbabweans that things are far from how they should be, with shortages, hyper inflation, hunger, unemployment, fear of official violence and general decline the realities people are contending with.

Where is the moral authority of our religious leaders to passionately speak out against the malaise?

They must be as afraid of the brutal Mugabe regime as the rest of us, but courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of it. If they cannot overcome their fear sufficiently to defend what is right and attack the wrong, how deep and genuine is their own faith? Should they not perhaps be in another line of work?

It is easy to memorise whole sections of the Bible or any other holy book, be steeped in sectarian rituals or a particular theology. All this can be done from a detached, academic level, and is not necessarily an indicator of one’s spirituality. The challenge for people of faith is to make their spirituality a living entity, and that sometimes means saying and doing the unpopular, and being out of favour with the powerful.

We have great preachers who can move you to tears with their oratory, and powerful gospel singers. But we have very few people who are willing to take the risks to try to actually put into effect the things they preach and sing about to make our society better. Is a safe, shallow, feel-good religiosity all that is required of us, or does practising one’s faith go much deeper?

In addition to much of religion having been reduced to mere song and dance, emotional rhetoric, fund-raising and empire building, Christianity as the dominant religion in Zimbabwe has failed to put Jesus Christ in his proper political context.

The image of Jesus that we are sold by the religious establishment is of a wimp best known for avoiding confrontation and turning the other cheek, volunteering for more abuse. We like this conception of Jesus because it gives us an excuse to wallow in our fear of the abusive authorities. We like the idea of a pie-in-the sky salvation, spiritual and political, in which liberation drops on us like manna from heaven, with very little required of us to bring it about, except perhaps to mouth some sweet religious platitudes.

While Jesus may have been meek and mild when the occasion required it, he did not hesitate to “raise hell” and kick butt when necessary, and damn the consequences!

He didn’t cozy up to the politicians and the powerful, nor seek shallow popularity by only telling people what they wanted to hear. He was not compromised by the promise of material comforts, he defended the oppressed and marginalised. No wonder the real Jesus makes us so uncomfortable!

The religious establishment de-emphasises the radical, revolutionary Jesus because they are either fearful of, or in awe of politicians. The mismanagement, lack of transparency, greed, abuse and power lust of Mugabe’s regime applies almost equally to much of the religious establishment.

So if we followed the rebellious, questioning example of Jesus, all hell would break loose for them as well as the politicians.

They are therefore quite happy when all we do is simply fill their churches, quietly sit through their sermons, and most importantly, obediently fill the collection plates. They are not all that interested in whether we try to be bolder, more principled people in our personal as well as public lives.

This religious shallowness and hypocrisy is why we have made such a mess of our country despite lying to ourselves that we are “devout” Christians, when we are little more than so-called Christians, ma Kristu eku nyepera.

Lest I have judged the religious establishment too harshly, let me end with a prayer: Lord have mercy on the church in Zimbabwe, and give it courage, for it appears to be too lacking in faith, too misdirected, and too chicken-hearted to do it’s most important work. Amen.

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