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Shaping the Church’s Prophetic Voice in Zimbabwe

Shaping the Church’s Prophetic Voice in Zimbabwe

Dr David Kaulemu

God of peace and justice, you give us the capacity to change, to bring about a world that mirrors your wisdom; create in us a desire to act in solidarity so that the pillars of injustice crumble and those now crushed are set free. Amen.1

I hope the Zimbabwean church can pray the above prophetic prayer which expresses confidence in God’s power to inspire us to break down the structures of sin. This prayer demonstrates the vision of a prophetic Christian and, ultimately, a prophetic church. It recognises that social transformation starts with God and must reflect God’s wisdom which aims for justice and peace in the world.

God’s plan acts as inspiration for Christians to transform the world. In order for God’s wisdom to be realised on earth, individuals need to be transformed so that they desire God’s wisdom. We cannot expect God to physically come down from heaven to transform the world. God’s work of transformation requires our full participation and is realised through our knowledge, emotional responses, skills and capabilities. As we and our relationships undergo transformation so will the world be transformed.

While personal conversion is demanded, social transformation does not occur through individualism. Transformed individuals, who have been given ‘a desire to act’, must do so ‘in solidarity’ with others for the sake of justice and peace for all of God’s creation. If we work in solidarity, the injustices which divide us in terms of race, ethnic group, class, gender, religion and political party will crumble and we will relate to each other as God desires, with dignity, justice and peace.

The opportunity for true human solidarity comes when structures of injustice, exploitation and oppression are broken down. God has given every human being and every product of His creation a piece of this jigsaw puzzle of salvation. Only when the ‘pillars of injustice crumble and those now crushed are set free’ to fully participate in a transformed world, will salvation be possible and the puzzle of salvation be solved. Without universal solidarity and participation, salvation cannot be realised, for as Paulo Freire says:

Transformation is only valid if it is carried out with the people, not for them… Liberation is like a childbirth, and a painful one. The person who emerges is a new person, no longer oppressor or oppressed, but a person in the process of achieving freedom… It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free the oppressors.2

The crumbling of the pillars of injustice will free both the oppressed and the oppressors to create further possibilities for reconciliation and solidarity.

Prophecy as Proclamation

The prophetic voice in Zimbabwe is in the making. It is inspired by what has happened in other African countries where the church has played a critical role in encouraging a more just and peaceful continent. Describing this development, Pope John Paul II writes that the winds of change:

are blowing strongly in many parts of Africa, and people are demanding even more insistently the recognition and promotion of human rights and freedoms. In this regard I note with satisfaction that the church in Africa, faithful to its vocation, stands resolutely on the side of the oppressed and of the voiceless and marginalised peoples. I strongly encourage it to continue to bear witness.3

The prophetic witness encouraged by Pope John Paul II involves concrete actions that dismantle the structures of sin. Thus the identification and naming of evils and injustices are part of the legitimate role of the church. This will sometimes mean the faithful, especially church leaders, must make comments about politics, economics and social arrangements. However, as Pope John Paul II makes clear, “proclamation is always more important than condemnation.”4 Proclamation points towards a better world of justice and peace.

To move beyond condemnation, the church must provide a vision of the kind of society which should be built for God’s people and the rest of creation. The long Catholic tradition of pursuing social justice in the world has developed into the social teaching of the church which points towards that vision. The values and principles of this social teaching can help the church ask critical questions and encourage people to develop visions of a more just and peaceful society.

Prophecy as Non-subordination

While we have good reason to be hopeful that the church in Zimbabwe is developing a truly prophetic voice, there is much work to be done. For the church to engage the state, it opens itself to the dangers of subordination and cooption which derail its prophetic mission. The fact that the church and, indeed, Christians in Zimbabwe are deeply divided is a sign that interests other than those consistent with God’s desires for this country are still very strong. Most of our leaders who claim to be Christians are preoccupied by struggles for power, wealth and influence. These interests are drowning the prophetic voice. The Zimbabwean Bishops in their 2007 pastoral letter, “God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed,” describe this situation in the following words:

In Zimbabwe today, there are Christians on all sides of the conflict; and there are many Christians sitting on the fence. ...They all profess their loyalty to the same church. They are all baptised, sit and pray and sing together in the same church, take part in the same celebration of the Eucharist and partake of the same Body and Blood of Christ. While the next day, outside the church, a few steps away, Christian State Agents, policemen and soldiers assault and beat peaceful, unarmed demonstrators and torture detainees.5

A prophetic church is one that is not subordinated. Neither is it led by subordinated Christians who use their Christianity to achieve other private and sometimes even selfish and evil goals. Subordinated Christianity is found in a country like ours where the majority of our political, social, economic and cultural leaders claim to be Christians and yet the country is dominated by corrupt, unjust and violent leadership. Many Christians in Zanu-PF have been subordinated by interests of power, control, wealth and the fear to lose these earthly things. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has not demonstrated immunity from such subordination as is shown by their recent split. And indeed there are a number of examples of churches, pastors, priests and Christians who sound like Zanu-PF cadres or government spokespersons when they speak or preach. Whether we have prophetic voices in this country will depend on whether we have non-subordinated Christians and whether we have a church that is not subordinated.

Prophecy as Solidarity

In the context of Zimbabwe, solidarity is an important virtue which we need to learn because we have either lost it or have never had it. Whether as Southern Rhodesia, Rhodesia, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia or Zimbabwe, our country has never experienced comprehensive or universal solidarity. Our national experience has been characterised by ‘laagers’ or forts from Fort Tuli to Fort Victoria to Fort Salisbury. The Rhodesian state itself was a fort protecting the few white settlers from the rest of the population. The current Zimbabwean state acts as a fort protecting a few rich black people from the rest of society. Describing these structures of injustice, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference states:

…soon after Independence, the power and wealth of the tiny white Rhodesian elite was appropriated by an equally exclusive black elite, some of whom have governed the country for the past 27 years through political patronage. Black Zimbabweans today fight for the same basic rights they fought for during the liberation struggle. It is the same conflict between those who possess power and wealth in abundance and those who do not: between those who are determined to maintain their privileges of power and wealth at any cost, even at the cost of bloodshed, and those who demand their democratic rights and a share in the fruits of independence…6

The challenge of the church in Zimbabwe is to find out how we, as a nation in solidarity, can go beyond our racist, tribalist, sexist and provincial forts to embrace God’s transformative prophecy. How can we, as Christians in solidarity with all other people of good will, go beyond our subordination to overcome our various superiority complexes, inferiority complexes and spiritual poverty to embrace the richness of God’s love embedded in our history?

The key is to recognise that salvation is God’s prophecy which He shares with all of us. It is not for personal or political privatisation because no one person, group or institution is identical to God. Salvation, which is offered to all humans by God, cannot be privatised for personal or political purposes.

Pope John XXIII offers the church as a suitable agent for helping society go beyond dehumanising social divisions:

We who are placed above international controversy have the same affection for people of all nations. We are led by no earthly advantages, no motives of political dominance, no desires for the things of this life. When we speak of this serious matter our thoughts can be given a fair hearing and judged impartially by the citizens of every nation.7

The crisis in Zimbabwe is essentially moral and spiritual. Therefore, the church must be at the centre of its solution. However, the church can only be part of the solution if it moves the nation beyond the social, economic, political and cultural forts and laagers that we have built for ourselves over the years. A prophetic church is capable of taking us beyond our comfort zones into a transformed world of justice, peace and solidarity. The church can help to transform the social, economic, political and cultural structures and practices by identifying the root causes of evil and uprooting them.

The Challenges of Prophecy in Zimbabwe

God speaks to us in Zimbabwe but not through one person or one group of people. The Good News comes in the form of a jig-saw-puzzle whose pieces are scattered in different parts of the Zimbabwean church and society. Unless we all cooperate, we can never build and achieve the whole picture. This is God’s way of teaching us the value of universal solidarity and the virtues of humility and respect for each other. For as long as we exclude some individuals and groups, we can never establish a just society and realise God’s plan on earth.

Our race, tribe, gender, class or party politics should not hinder us from cooperating. Rather, we should recognise the good in one another and appreciate our diversity. Unfortunately, we often operate like children, each group with its piece of the prophecy trying to prove that it has the whole and the others have nothing. We also want God’s prophecy to cater for our racism, tribalism and sexism.

The current ruling party, Zanu-PF, has been the biggest, though not sole, culprit in this regard. Armed with a rather narrow interpretation of the liberation struggle, along with skewed concepts of sovereignty and Zimbabwean identity, Zanu-PF has failed to listen and take seriously the views of fellow Zimbabweans. The government believes that Zanu-PF fought for independence and brought freedom to Zimbabwe; therefore, no other group can teach Zimbabweans the meaning of freedom and democracy. Operating in binary oppositions, the regime does not tolerate ambiguities and ambivalence. Individuals, organisations and institutions are seen as either in support of Zanu-PF or against it.

While in a healthy democracy opposition is part of the very process of strengthening government, national structures and cultures, in Zimbabwe it is seen by the Zanu-PF government as the evil enemy. Legitimately-constituted opposition parties are restricted from performing their legal role of being in opposition. They are demonised, described in war terms and portrayed as outside of the democratic process.

The church and civil society generally are keen to make contributions, but Zanu-PF believes that such contributions are valid only if accompanied by full support of the party. Non-governmental organisations and churches that have tried to help Zimbabweans without using Zanu-PF structures and personnel have been labelled as members of the opposition. In the context of Zimbabwe, this amounts to treason. Many Zimbabweans have given up trying to convince Zanu-PF that other groups with different views can contribute immensely to the development of Zimbabwe and the happiness of its people.

Building Solidarity in the Church

The three major Christian mother bodies, Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) and the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZCBC), have sometimes been accused of being too close to the state. Christians who felt that the official church hierarchy was doing very little about the crisis in Zimbabwe formed the Christian Alliance (CA) to fill this gap.

Since the formation of CA, the three mother bodies have proposed the writing of a Nation Vision Document. They have offered a discussion document, “The Zimbabwe We Want: Towards a National Vision for Zimbabwe,” to begin the process. However, some people are still skeptical, thinking that it is a mistake to include Zanu-PF and the government in this process. For them, Zanu-PF has lost its puzzle piece and, therefore, cannot contribute anything positive to the building of justice and peace in Zimbabwe.

CA, and all those in sympathy with CA, are right to assert that the church’s prophetic mandate does not come from or depend on the State House. The church’s mandate to teach justice, to encourage peace and to search for truth began long before Zimbabwe as a nation existed. However, CA would be wrong to suggest that the State House may never have a piece of the jig-saw-puzzle.

It is cowardice, if not irresponsibility, to say that we should not engage the state because Zanu-PF or the government has failed to listen in the past. What are we doing to make them listen? Disengagement may give us prophetic purity (i.e. freedom from being subordinated ) but it also isolates us from the cogs that could help transform our society. Fear of subordination, however legitimate, can marginalise us from the centers of power and influence both in the church and Zimbabwean society as a whole. The church and indeed Christians must engage the state. The question remains: How can we engage and still be true to our prophetic message of justice, truth and peace? If the church is too weak to make the government take her seriously, then this is a problem that must be addressed.

The process leading to the writing of the National Vision Document can be a good opportunity to develop the prophetic voice, complete with real strategic lessons and political scars. The church’s institutional independence, integrity, authenticity and capacity have been tested. They will continue to be tested. Mistakes have been made and they will continue to be made but the prophetic vision is not yet lost. Many are standing in the sidelines, waiting to see if the effort will succeed. By choosing to be spectators, people reduce this effort’s chance of success.

The church in Zimbabwe can engage Zanu-PF and the state without compromising its prophetic mission if it combines the prophetic idealism and boldness of the Christian Alliance with the insight, realism and caution of the three Christian mother bodies. The church hierarchies may not be comfortable with their members who are also members of CA; however, the work of CA is within the bounds of the church or at least, it should be. Their intention was neither to abandon nor replace the mother bodies. The church hierarchy has benefited, knowingly or unknowingly from CA’s activities. They must arrange to benefit more. This would demonstrate institutional maturity, for how can the church fight for democracy in the nation if it cannot handle different opinions and strategies within its own membership? The church must reflect the values for which it fights. As pieces of the puzzle join together Christians will shape a powerful, united prophetic voice.

Strengthening the Prophetic Church

A prophetic church must be a strong and capacitated church which develops and strengthens its leadership and personnel as well as its institutional structures and processes. We, as a nation, emerged from the liberation struggle with the skills to criticise, fight and dismantle the colonial state. Since independence in 1980, we have lived in a situation which demands new values, skills and virtues which we need to cultivate as a church and society. These virtues are learned through practice and engagement with reality.

The church must develop its capacity to express itself clearly and to consistently defend its position and space. These skills and virtues of ethical and prophetic action can only be developed in actual practice. Through prophetic action, the church will shape itself into an authentic, principled, prophetic voice that engages external forces but is not determined by them. To be prophetic, the church must stand for its values of justice, peace and respect for the dignity of every human person and the rest of creation.

A prophetic church must be partisan in the sense that it stands for very specific and clear values and principles. It denounces and has the mandate to denounce injustice, corruption, violence and all the practices, systems and cultures that go against Gospel values. The prophetic church prays for the pillars of injustice to crumble and for those now crushed to be set free. It prays and works to transform the world so that it mirrors God’s wisdom. It is clear and definite. It cannot afford to be wishy-washy.

The prophetic church in Zimbabwe belongs to all of us. We must not allow anybody or any group to play narrow politics with it. Christians look for alternative channels to express themselves when they no longer feel the church is prophetic. Those who seek alternative channels must remember that ZCBC, ZCC and EFZ are not private properties. Yes, critics of the institutional church structures have the right to demand that the church be prophetic, but they also have the obligation to help the church to achieve its prophetic mission.


1 Prayer included in the ‘Live Simply Action Pack’ of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD)

2 Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Herder and Herder, 1972.

3 Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in Africa, para 44.

4 Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in Africa,para 70.

5 Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed: Pastoral Letter on the Current Crisis in Zimbabwe,” 5 April 2007.

6 Ibid.

7 Pope John XXIII, “On Truth, Unity and Peace,” 1959.