A response to President Mugabe’s rebuke of activist church leaders
You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone
– St Ambrose (AD 340 – AD 397)
The president of Zimbabwe recently characterized church pastors who engage in social activism and protest as “men of religion” who do not “speak Biblical truth.”
“1 Corinthians what does it say? Love one another,” the president said during his address to thousands of mourners at the funeral of Charles Utete, the country’s first black cabinet secretary.
But President Mugabe is wrong theologically. The church and its leaders do have a very clear mandate to be socially active.
Part of their calling is to expose and resist oppressive social realities, and in non-violent ways push for socio-economic reform.
This is because at the core of the Christian faith is a resolute rejection of injustice, inhumanity and every form of moral and social evil.
The subject of justice is not at the periphery of Christian theology and praxis. Neither is it a mere appendage the body of Christian doctrine, to be chopped off and discarded whenever a government officials feels offended by it.
No, the notion or virtue of justice is much more intrinsic to the Gospel than that. Justice flows from the very nature of God Himself, who cannot but be just.
Unlike us humans, there is absolutely no injustice in God, just as there is absolutely no sinfulness or unholiness in Him. God can no more be unjust than He can be unholy.
And it is this same God who has expressly commanded the Christian believer thus:
“Open your mouth . . . for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov 31:8-9).
In other words it’s not enough to just feed the hungry or clothe the naked. Christians must also open their mouth and speak out or advocate for the ones Jesus calls “the least of these” i.e. the vulnerable in our communities.
And beyond advocacy, the Church must critically reflect on, and expose/address systems, structures and strictures that keep poor people poor.
And there’s the rub.
How does the Church advocate for the vulnerable and address government misrule, corruption and injustice without being accused of being traitors and incurring therefore the wrath of Caesar?
Which pastor wants to be beaten with the now infamous ZRP “buttock” stick and end up eating sadza in jail?
No wonder why most Christian leaders have made the choice to simply shut up and act like the three little monkeys named Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, who “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.”
But is that a valid option for the Church of Jesus Christ and its earthly leadership?
Do children of God not have a clear Biblical mandate to act like their heavenly Father who has historically taken sides with the dispossessed, disadvantaged, disenfranchised and dislocated?
Do our sacred scriptures not reveal to us a Deity who routinely exercises a preferential option for the wretched, the marginalized and the voiceless?
To insist, then, on seeing, saying and doing nothing is not only a tragic vote for the status quo.
More importantly it is a shameful act of disobedience to a God who calls us to “seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Is 1:17).
Threats of violence or incarceration have never, and should never, cause the church to shut up. There is no crime in non-violent social activism.
Rather, and just like the Apostles of old, the Church “ must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
God limits the power and reach of civil authority
In talking about obedience to men let’s be very clear: scripture does indeed command us to obey civil authorities:
Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil . . . For he is the minister of God to you for good. . . he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil (Romans 13:1-4)
However, there is nothing in this oft-cited passage that gives civil government unlimited power over the individual lives of its citizens or their loved ones.
A King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel cannot, for instance, simply appropriate for themselves Naboth’s vineyard against the latter’s will (1 Kings 21).
Naboth is perfectly within his divine and legal rights to refuse to handover or sell his property to his king who himself lives under the petticoat government of his drama queen. And refuse he does.
By the same token, Uriah, if he had chosen so to act, would have been perfectly within his Covenantal and legal rights to confront with fists doubled up, adulterous King David, for deflowering his beautiful wife Bathsheba.
No monarch, potentate or government has unlimited power, reach and access over and into the lives and properties of individual citizens or their loved ones.
The authority of a civil leader is limited only to the authority delegated to them by God. When a leader exceeds his delegated authority, they become a tyrant and they are ripe for divine judgement.
It then becomes only a matter of time before God removes them from the position and privilege that God Himself placed and entrusted them with.
The Church, in the meantime, must not be expected to endorse any government overreach. It can only submit to civil authorities as long as they are executing God’s justice, not their own.
When they cease executing God’s justice and begin to require the Church to violate its God-given mandate to address injustice and corruption, then the tipping point is reached and the Church has no other choice but to “obey God rather than men.”
That doesn’t mean the Church takes the path of violence or that it becomes disrespectful of political leadership.
The Church, by all means, continues to “honor the King” (1 Pet 2:17), but we can honor and protest at the same time. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.
And whatever else the Church does, one thing is abundantly clear: there is no Biblical requirement for the Church to passively submit to those who pervert justice and take advantage of the powerless.
African demagoguery and fifty-room mansions
Government functionaries who habitually lie, steal, kill, take bribes and generally abuse their God-given power to rule are acting outside their God-ordained jurisdictional limitation and must be called to account.
The church must fearlessly hold their feet to the fire.
This is the lesson that has been hard for Africa to accept. African leaders by and large do not like to be held accountable.
Which is precisely why most African governments are predatory and tyrannical, with frightening human rights records.
It’s hard for many African governments to accept, for instance, that the citizenry have a God-given right to form, join and participate in the activities of organizations of their choice.
In Africa ordinary people cannot freely participate individually or collectively
“in peaceful activities to influence, challenge or support the policies of the Government or any political or whatever cause” (Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment [No.20] 67d).
The authorities must control everything. They are control freaks and people are terrified.
But we don’t elect political representatives so that they become “a terror to good works, but to evil” (Rom 13:2).
Neither should they be a terror to good people who are lawfully going about their constitutional right to protest corruption, patronage, misrule and injustice.
Yes Christians are called upon to love everyone including unlovable, crooked politicians. However, the same unjust politicians must also understand, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr, that “anger at injustice is the political expression of love.”
And so the next time you see a pastor fume and rage about injustice, understand that it’s not because their heart is full of hate.
It’s because they love that special category of humans who have a very special place in God’s heart i.e. the downtrodden whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
And to the government functionaries who are busy building 50 bedroom mansions even as the general populace wallows and languishes in squalor, poverty and penury, hear ye the prophetic word:
“You trample the poor . . . therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them” (Amos 5:11).