Some of the most courageous Christian nonviolent direct action in recent history is happening in relationship to the escalating crisis in Zimbabwe. To protest how President Robert Mugabe’s “brutal” political oppression and economic mismanagement has “taken people’s identity and literally cut it to pieces,” Archbishop of York John Sentamu, a Ugandan and the Church of England’s second most senior clergy, recently cut up his clerical collar on live television, refusing to wear it until Mugabe is out of office.
In Zimbabwe, the “wail of suffering and the stench of death are evidence enough of the failures of a corrupt and brutal regime, bent on staying in power at all costs,” according to Sentamu. “Zimbabwe has the highest proportion of orphans in the world (1.3 million), largely due to the devastation caused by HIV and AIDS and their related illnesses, which kill 3,200 people each week. Then there are the needless deaths that occur because most of the doctors have fled a health system in ruins. Most have no transport to get to hospital, or, in the unlikely event that they reach one, money to pay bills. Added to all of this is hunger and malnutrition. It is no accident that the average life expectancy of Zimbabweans hovers around 35, lower than any war zone.”
The situation in Zimbabwe is nothing less than a civil war of a government against its own people. While President Mugabe has often been perceived as a hero in the story of Zimbabwe’s decolonization and has billed his attempts to redistribute white-owned farms as post-colonial justice, it has become clear to many African observers that the redistribution of Zimbabwe’s resources has all been directed toward Mugabe’s well-armed elite. Sentamu reports that, in Zimbabwe, “people don’t know where their next meals are going to come from. But of course, Mugabe and his clique are living wonderfully.”
Mugabe has announced that presidential and legislative elections will be held on March 29, but few believe they will be free and fair; opposition members have been regularly beaten and imprisoned for trying to hold rallies for their supporters. As Sentamu put it last December in an interview with the BBC, “those re-elections, whatever happens, are going to be rigged like they’ve been since Mugabe came to power.” However, recently Mugabe’s former Finance Minister Simba Makoni has announced his presidential candidacy, introducing some hope that there is the possibility of change.
After Sentamu's protest, 50 members of the Zimbabwe National Pastors’ Conference declared that there was need for local pastors to, as a Zimbabwe Standard article put it, “do a ‘Sentamu.’” One of the pastors, Lawrence Berejena, said, “God has chosen us to be the voice of the voiceless.” The pastors have vowed to take part in “nonviolent prophetic action,” consisting of marches and prayer meetings, to protest against the continued deterioration of the political and economic situation in the country.
In Zimbabwe, where gatherings have been made illegal, this is an act almost assuring arrest, imprisonment, even the risk of martyrdom. The pastors know the risks well; there have been thousands of arrests in Zimbabwe this past year alone.
Christians understand themselves to be part of the body of Christ—God’s ongoing incarnation in the world. Although Christian leaders in Zimbabwe bear much bad news, their testimony of faith and lives of faithfulness have embodied the good news of the gospel for us like much-needed oxygen. The leaders of the Zimbabwe Pastors’ Conference are encouraging Christians from around the world to join them in nonviolent marches in Zimbabwe as a witness of the transnational church. Even more, the pastors are inviting Christians to join them in a dream—the dream proclaimed by Christ when he read from Isaiah’s scroll: a dream of life, not death; food, not famine; dignity, not abuse; freedom, not oppression.
To join the preachers’ protest or otherwise help Zimbabwe, visit www.freedomfromfear.net or www.forgottenvoices.org. Joy Kauffman worked with her husband in wind energy development through Stewardship Energy LLC and lived in Illinois when this article appeared.