Text Size

Solidarity in the Face of the Country's Social Crisis

 

Solidarity in the Face of the Country's Social Crisis
 
Pastoral Statement of the Zambia Episcopal Conference
 
10 June 2000
 
 

"The Lord hears the cry of the poor" is a refrain from a popular religious song. But it is also an echo of a fundamental message in the Bible. Christians are challenged to hear the cry of the poor, the cry of those who suffer social problems in our midst today.

The Catholic Bishops have reminded their Church members – the wider Zambian public – of this challenge in a powerful ‘pastoral statement’ released on 16th June 2000. The release of the Statement coincided with a National day of prayer and fasting, a day called by the bishops to encourage Christians to be in solidarity with the suffering people around us and to beg God’s help to effectively respond to that suffering.

The pastoral statement might be considered by some to be too ‘political’ But it is certainly not partisan in the sense of endorsing any particular party or candidate. It rather emphasises the responsibilities of all parties, politicians, Government and non-Governmental groups and the Church itself to recognise the serious nature of the social crisis in the Country and how necessary is an ordering of priorities that puts a response to the socials crisis first.

The Church is promising a follow-up to this pastoral statement. Without such a well-planned and well supported follow-up, the Statement faces the tragedy of only offering more words to the great majority of Zambians (close to 80%) who need deeds, actions, and commitments.

Introduction

"Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me: to break the unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break all yokes? Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor; if you see someone lacking clothes, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own relatives?" (Isaiah 58:6-7)

  1. In the context of a day of prayer and fasting to show solidarity in the face of our people’s suffering, we share some reflections with you to ask you to consider how we can respond to the serious social crisis currently experienced in Zambia. While we thank God greatly that our beloved Country is not in the wars and social conflicts of our immediate neighbours, we also know that all is not well in the lives of the majority of our people.
  1. Our Statement is a follow-up to the communiqué that the members of the Zambia Episcopal Conference released on 20 January 2000. We want to strongly express again our deep concern for the situation in our Country today and add our profound worry that nothing significant has happened to improve the situation. As you all know so very well, the greater majority of our sisters and brothers throughout the Country face very serious difficulties meeting the basic needs of daily survival in conditions unacceptable to human dignity.
  2. It is for this reason that we have called for this day of prayer and fasting, to humbly beg from our loving Creator the wisdom and the courage for all of us to respond more energetically and more effectively to the very serious problems affecting our Country at this moment.
    1. The health system continues in a State of crisis. Anyone visiting a Government hospital or clinic today cannot be shocked to find the absence of basis essentials. The strike of junior doctors continues unresolved into the fifth month, a strike whose primary purpose has been to call attention to this shocking situation. We are sure that we are not alone in finding it extremely difficult to understand that Government’s major response to this situation appears to be two-fold: bring into the Country for medical service foreign doctors at great expense, and take out of the Country for medical care high officials at great expense.
    1. Our education system is similarly in a State of crisis. Recent assessments of Government primary and secondary educational systems, assessments undertaken by the Government itself, reveal the extremely disappointing level of quality and the very disturbing decline in quantity of education being offered to Zambian children. Moreover, both of our major universities move from day to day in circumstances of uncertainty regarding their future. Technical institutions face closure or curtailment of needed services for staff and students.
  3. We know that there is no future development without healthy and educated citizens. Fancy shopping malls, expensive vehicles, extravagant social events, and high levels of consumption among a very small number of people, are by no means signs of economic or social progress in Zambia. In the face of increasing levels of poverty, no one can ignore the fact that the Country is in a severe social crisis.
  4. What can we as Christians and citizens do? Our religious sisters have demonstrated and drawn attention to the suffering that they see and minister to every day around the Country. The Bishops have met with the President and top Government officials to discuss these issues. Doctors and other citizens have peacefully demonstrated and then been arrested.
  5. But nothing seems to be happening that would measure up to the severity of the crisis. Surely more serious responses are called for by all Zambians, whatever their positions or political persuasion. We know that we cannot enter peacefully and hopefully into the coming election year of 2001 with the Country in a state of social crisis.
  6. We are frequently told that there are insufficient resources to meet the pressing needs of the people. But we repeat the analysis made by our Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and many other groups, that the primary challenge facing Zambia today is not resources but priorities. Is the perception of ordinary Zambians wrong when we ask again and again why money cannot be found for drugs in hospitals and books in schools, for rural feeder roads and provision of clean water and sanitation, but can easily be found for extensive foreign travel of high Government officials, importation of fancy vehicles, improvement of roads in low-density urban neighbourhoods, purchase of unnecessary materials, and many other expenditures that do not meet the pressing social needs of the people?
  7. It is regrettable that even the meagre resources that are available for the common good and for the benefit of the most vulnerable members of our society are not directed towards priorities that answer essential needs; in other words essential needs are not provided. So what can we do to move forward in a peaceful and creative way? This is precisely why we have called for this day of prayer and fasting. We must beg God for the wisdom to know what actions must be taken to face the social crisis, to discern what is the best set of priorities, and to understand how we can work together. And we must beg God for the courage to take action even in the face of criticisms, slanders and threats. To be in solidarity in the face of our people’s sufferings, we make the following calls:
    1. We call upon our Church to continue in a true spirit of prayer and fasting that is guided by the words of Isaiah 58, demanding that we clearly act for charity and justice. Church priorities must be examined in the light of the suffering of the people, and strong pressures for justice must be exercised.
    1. We call upon our President to publicly acknowledge the extreme social crisis facing the Nation. Indeed, we believe that the threat from this social crisis to our National well being is as great as the threats from the situations in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola. The high level of commitment by the Head of State to respond to these external threats must be matched by an even higher level of commitment to domestic threats.
    2. We call upon Government to recognise and appreciate the commitment and dedication of Church Management agencies serving in our Educational and Health institutions. This should be concretely demonstrated by ensuring that Church social institutions get their fair share of all resources necessary for their operations.
    3. We call upon all our political parties, the party in power and the parties in opposition, to exercise maturity and good sense to stop bickering among themselves and to face cooperatively the extreme suffering of the people. How can citizens be expected to respect politicians who spend more of their time fighting with each other than dealing with the real problems of the Nations?
    4. We call upon all Zambians to get involved in a political process that communicates to the President and the Members of Parliament their very strong concerns for the current social situation. We should be asking for meetings, writing letters and publicly expressing our demands for social responsibility on the part of the Government. Our democracy in Zambia requires that citizens exercise not only their right but also their duty to get involved.
    5. We call upon those who are directly engaged in serving the people in health and educational institutions to know that we are aware of their problems and that we are committed to moving beyond words, words in prayer or in statements like this, to actions in solidarity with their efforts.
    6. Finally, we call upon our sisters and brothers who are indeed bearing the great burden of the social crisis, those who suffer because of violation of their rights to good medical care and education, to know that we are sensitive to their needs and are determined to move our Country in the direction of dignity and development for all.
    What we have spoken about in this Statement may sound foreign to true religious concerns to some people. But we ask anyone with such a feeling to read again Isaiah 58 and to discern what the meaning of the Prophet’s strong words is for us today. And for anyone who might feel that we are unrealistic in expecting real change to come in the midst of this social crisis, we ask them to reflect on the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:26: ‘By human resources, these things are impossible. But with God, all things are possible.’ Let us spend this day of prayer and fasting asking for the wisdom to discern how God calls us and the courage to trust in God’s power as we respond.