Church and politics in 2018. . . the church brand tainted in 2017 . . . will new year be a new beginning?

Fatima Bulla
THE Church in Zimbabwe has been left wounded by the negative elements within the institution which hogged the spotlight for the wrong reasons in a 2017 roller coaster year.

Instead of focusing on preaching the word of God, these negative elements concentrated on brandishing images of political bias, self-aggrandisement and immoral acts. For example, one can justifiably ask whether Pastor Evan Mawarire preached the word of God or he preached too much politics in 2017?

Already some church bodies are calling on the church to work extra hard to envision a focused 2018 which will safeguard the respect and integrity identified with the church. While lots of good work was done by the religious institution, an almost equal measure was being dished by religious figures who drew the ire and condemnation of various sections of the society.

Apostolic sect members  attend “Super Sunday” which was addressed by former First Lady Grace Mugabe at Rufaro Stadium at the beginning of November
Apostolic sect members attend “Super Sunday” which was addressed by former First Lady Grace Mugabe at Rufaro Stadium at the beginning of November

Fresh in the memory of people were fake predictions made by Apostolic Sect leaders at Rufaro Stadium back in November stating that former First Lady Grace Mugabe would be one of the country’s leaders in the Presidium.

Another prominent story was that of United Family International Church leader Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa and his wife, Ruth, who were sued for US$6,5 million over alleged “fake prophecies, fraud and defamation” by Harare-based businessman Mr Upenyu Mashangwa and his spouse, Blessing.

Not be left out was Victory World International Ministries Church leader Paul Sanyangore who fell by the wayside after being exposed by his cousin that his outrageous miracles were fake. Adding to the list was Talent Madungwe, who spoke of having gone to heaven and coming back while self-styled pastor Phillip Mugadza’s prophecy that former President Mugabe would die in October became one big lie.

It is because of such outrageous acts by purported men of God that Dr Goodwill Shana, who is the vice-president of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, believes the church has to work extra hard in 2018 to retain regain its respect as an institution.

Dr Shana, however, stated that the real church remained stable pursuing the same priorities and principles while some religious figures, on which the media zoomed its lenses, pursued personal motives.

“There is no doubt that in 2016 and 2017 the brand of the church in terms of those elements has been hurt in a lot of ways. We have seen a lot of people who have not always acted in the best interest of the members. We have seen people who have taken advantage of members, being charged with rape and other indecent or immoral activities.

“Yes, that hurts the brand of the church especially with these (dubious)a churches rising up – prophetic and so on. I think unfortunately the church has this corporate brand of honesty, purity, integrity and so on.

“So anyone who purports to be acting on behalf of the church and does not do so will hurt that brand. It hurts the integrity of the leadership of the church because people eventually don’t really know who is false, true and honest.

“But that has also been a result of the prevailing circumstances in our country. Many of the people have gone into the church for the wrong reasons, basically because of economic pressures.

“It was easier to be a pastor than to find a job, it was easier to be a prophet than to be a producer. So I think to a certain extent the economic environment had a bearing on the story of people who became church leaders and that became unfortunate. So the church cannot be entirely divorced from its socio-political environment and that is one thing we need to know in the future,” Dr Shana, who is also the co-founder of World of Life International Ministries, added.

“What is interesting is the real church has always known where it’s going: the EFZ (Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe), ZCBC (Zimbabwe Catholic Bishop’s Conference) and ZCC (Zimbabwe Council of Churches) those are the people that have always maintained a certain stance, that stance has not changed,” Dr Shana said.

Having witnessed the church being drawn into factional party politics, Dr Shana said there was always pressure for the institution to be compliant to the prevailing political thought.

“Should the church totally divorce itself from engaging the people that are in power? I think it should take a non-political position but I don’t think it’s possible for the church in its range to avoid people appearing to be on oneside or the other. But the main institutional churches have maintained a neutral position to the opposition and to ruling party agendas.”

Biblical examples of prophets like Elijah, Nathan, Jeremiah, Isaiah, etcetera, however, point to men of God who were ready to die for the truth. Dr Shana praised the church’s role following the military intervention in November.

“I think we have taken a proactive step forward in terms of engaging the dynamics of where Zimbabwe is going forward. I am a member of the Christian Economic Forum and issues of the economy of the country are being discussed and looked at . . .

“I wish the church would have taken a more engaged role especially when things appeared to be taking a fragmented and fractured approach. I think that’s one role that the church still needs to play going forward in ensuring that there is reconciliation.

“There are fragmentations and fractures we have gone through not only in the ruling party but in other aspects of our national discourse. Those will need the church to put together to help us think together, to help us focus together, to build a sense of unity together and the Zimbabwe we all want,” Dr Shana said.

Other sectors in which the man of cloth highlighted that they needed attention was addressing outstanding issues in the Constitution of Zimbabwe, building a peaceful environment for the upcoming general elections in 2018, holding leaders accountable to building reputable institutions which uphold values of transparency and integrity while also engaging the international community for a better Zimbabwe.

The church viewed Catholic Father Fidelis Mukonori’s role in the mediation process that saw the resignation of President Mugabe as an endorsement of the role the church plays on the political scene. Zimbabwe Council of Churches secretary-general Dr Kenneth Mtata said the performance of the church was encouraging for him as it contributed to national unity and social cohesion.

“There are weaknesses I also saw because it was on the 5th of November that some churches filled Rufaro Stadium. And instead of the churches providing spaces for reconciliation it looked as if the churches had been sucked into party political conflicts and fragmentation.

“And for me it was a sad day to have church platforms being used to fan divisions and to use church space to denigrate each other in politics. So, for me, this is an issue we must highlight in 2017.

“Not to mention all the stories we heard about religious figures who were found on the wrong side of the law, the prophets who were accused of abusing girls and women in their churches, many of them including the prominent ones with cases going to the courts, just disregard for women and abuse of people who are vulnerable I found it very difficult to be identified with such a church in 2017.

“We had a sad side of the church but if you try to aggregate I think we see a very positive contribution of the church in 2017,”Dr Mtata said. On November 24, ZCC organised a people’s convention to engage the civic society in trying to understand the transition that had taken place in the political discourse while mapping a vision for the future.

It also played a part in mobilising society to register for the 2018 elections with pastors serving as commissioners to help people who would come to register and also to use churches as platforms to encourage citizens to register to vote.

Under the banner of the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations, different political parties were brought under one roof to talk about the future of Zimbabwe.

Said Dr Mtata: “But there are key learning moments for us. No one will remain the same because of what happened on the 4th of November (Rufaro Stadium) because the churches that participated there will never be the same.

“Anyone who will leave that moment without any sense of reflection I don’t know what kind of a person they will be because what transpired after that required that one would sit and reflect on what will be the role of the church. And I think we have already started to see new ways of rethinking identities even in those churches that participated.

‘‘We also know of other church leaders who stood out sometimes at the expense of their personal reputation to defend the cause of justice.

“We have already realised the church has two main responsibilities – to warn and encourage at the same time. We encourage the present Government when it is doing well and to warn it when it is not doing well. This is what we must do as a church, a church must see itself as a companion of the State and therefore to warn and encourage is one responsibility.”

Highlighting the influential role of religious leaders in Zimbabwe, Dr Mtata said the church had to lead by example.

“You can imagine in this church, statistics say 80 percent of the population sit before a religious figure at least one hour a week. If this is true it means that eight out of 10 Zimbabweans for 52 hours go through religious instruction.

‘‘This is a lot of influence. The question is what do we fill in those 52 hours of the year? That’s why for us we take these three strategic priorities to make sure that we contribute to the unity of the nation, active citizenship and economic justice and we think if we play this role in 2018 we will have been successful.”

Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference general secretary Father Frederick Chiromba said the church leadership’s mandate was not to claim trophies of the work done in 2017.

“The Church, understood as the People of God, will continue to be seized with similar issues in 2018. Ecclesiastes 1:10 questions if there is anything new under the sun and answers that there is nothing new. It has already been, only that no one remembers it.

The same book ends in Chapter 12:13 with the statement that after all has been heard, the end of the matter is: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the duty of everyone.”

“As Church leadership we could boast of having played different roles in politics, economics and the social lives of the people but we do not look for trophies!

“As in the ending of the book of Ecclesiastes, our only joy is in keeping the faith and insisting in creating an environment which makes it easy to believe in God. So as we move in 2018 our job is very much already cut out for us.

‘‘We will bring the ancient truths of faith to bear on whatever the new year brings, truths that come from a God who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” Fr Chiromba said.

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