Minutes of the Methodist Conference of 2003 relating to Zimbabwe read: “Conference has heard of the difficult situation in Zimbabwe”.
That pathetic response to a
major international crisis causing intense suffering to millions of Zimbabweans provoked at least four districts around the Connexion to take a closer look at the tragedy in Zimbabwe and to move strongly to persuade the Conference this time around to adopt a stance both more realistic and prophetic. Alas, their efforts proved futile against a determined staff who contrived to prevent the Conference from listening (for just three and a half minutes!) to the sound track of a recording of one who truly speaks for the voiceless in Zimbabwe – Archbishop Pius Ncube.
The resolution acknowledging a commitment to speak out prophetically against the oppression being visited upon the suffering people of Zimbabwe was “not put” and in the end the Conference settled for a meaningless resolution to set up a talk shop called the Zimbabwe Reference Group.
My concern is with the intense suffering of the people of Zimbabwe under a fascist dictatorship which is in effect waging an undeclared war on its own people. My concern is that the Methodist Church should listen to the cries of a suffering people, and let their response be shaped by what those suffering people are saying rather than paying heed to others who have shown themselves to be compliant with a godless regime and even benefit materially through their complicity.
Two things strike me about the reports I have received of the carefully choreographed proceedings, the all-too limited debate which took place and the hopelessly inept resolution to which the Conference was led.
First there was little sense of the ferocious evil that Zimbabweans are now facing on a daily basis. And, closely related, there was no real sense of urgency about the matter.
Was the Conference aware when it refused to do anything more than set up a talk shop:
-That opposition forces in Zimbabwe are being terrorised and that politically-motivated torture, rape and murder are now touching the lives of thousands?;
-That President Mugabe had just rammed through parliament a Bill which introduces preventative and punitive detention provisions reminiscent of the worst of the South African apartheid era?;
– That at the same time as the Conference was deliberating, Amnesty International (South Africa) published an open letter to the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, expressing the urgent need “to intensify efforts to publicly signal to the Zimbabwean government that the violation of human rights is unacceptable”?;
– That a few days later an African Union report surfaced at the AU summit in Addis Ababa, in which the Mugabe regime was lambasted for flagrant human rights abuses?;
– That the United Nations estimates that nine out of 10 Zimbabweans are living below the poverty datum line and that international aid agencies reckon that at least three million people will need food aid before the year is out?;
Little wonder then that last month James Morris, the UN’s special envoy for humanitarian needs, remarked: “What is happening in southern Africa represents the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today. The crisis dwarfs even that in the conflict-ridden Sudanese region of Darfur.”
I cannot believe that if the Conference had been aware of these realities it would have been satisfied with the response put forward. But as the South African government has hitherto attempted to shield President Mugabe from international censure through the now-threadbare policy of “quiet diplomacy”, so the leaders of our Methodist Church have taken it upon themselves to exercise their own form of quiet diplomacy to protect from criticism those in the church in Zimbabwe who are compliant with a tyrannical regime. And this form of ecclesiastical diplomacy has tended to shape their whole policy towards the sister church, preventing them from exercising an objective judgement or offering that form of constructive criticism which “speaking the truth in love” would surely require of them.
Make no mistake, this is not a matter of emphasis leadership style or even party allegiance as some have suggested. It is a matter of the truth against a lie, goodness against evil, light against darkness – in stark terms, the life or death of a nation.
It is a question of finding the courage to confront an evil so monstrous that, if unchecked, will create a human catastrophe of major proportions and make a spiritual wilderness of what Julius Nyerere once called “the jewel of Africa”.
I can only record my own profound dismay at the Conference’s conspicuous silence. In such a situation, is not a silent church a contradiction in terms? Those courageous Zimbabweans who are daily risking life and liberty for the sake of the values of truth and justice, did not ask you to remain silent, and frankly they deserved better of you.
Just a few months ago Desmond Tutu said of the situation in this country: “The silence of those who will not speak out makes them complicity in the evil.” That judgement applies as much to a silent church in Britain as to a silent church in Zimbabwe.