The church has a place in politics

By Chris Mhike


TOO often, too many politicians have declared that politics should be exclusive to politicians. The church has been specifically blacklisted as one of many societal institutions without a place in national politics.

President Robert Mugabe h

as been one of the most vociferous proponents of that fallacious theory.

Recently, as he met with prelates at State House, the president reminded the church that it should refrain from politics. He denounced church leaders “who wear political robes”. 

A few years ago, at the consecration of Harare’s Catholic Archbishop, the Rt Rev Robert Ndlovu, the president openly declared that politics was out-of-bounds for the church.

Politicians have also proclaimed that non-governmental organisations, diplomats, teachers and numerous other organisations and individuals should stay away from the politics of the nation. 

But why should politicians monopolise politics? Why should certain organisational and individual citizens be excluded from political activity? Why shouldn’t the church delve into political issues?

To date, politicians have not proffered any cogent answers to these questions.

Here, “the church” refers to all institutionalised forms of religion, or the collective body of all Christians. Most denominations in that collective body are, for instance, capable of suing or being sued, hence their legal personality. The church as a body is also, in a spiritual sense, a person.

Being a person in civic or legal terms, the church, as is the case with all other citizens, has, or should therefore have, as much right as any in-office or out-of-office politician, to be part of the political processes and political moments of the nation.

“Politics” is not an easy term to define. But on the basis of common observation, some of the basic features of politics include the formation, direction and administration of states and other societal units. The political decisions, policies and programmes designed by reigning politicians to this end affect all citizens, including the church.

Politics could also be defined to include any activity concerned with the acquisition of governmental or political power over citizens. The power so acquired is exercised over all, including the church.

The term also includes opinions, principles or sympathies with respect to politics.  It is therefore “politics” when one expresses his/her opinion about how the country should be governed.

Politicians who advocate the exclusion of the church from politics have not specified the part of politics that the church should shun. They have not justified their desire to monopolise politics and thereby exclude the church.

Of the numerous grounds that should justify the involvement of the church in national politics, three are worthy of accentuation. The first is judicial, the second theological, and the third dogmatic. That arrangement of the arguments is not necessarily in any order of importance.

Judicially, or at law, there are various legal instruments that grant citizens the right to participate in politics. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Constitution of Zimbabwe, among numerous instruments, citizens are entitled to take part in the politics of the nation.

As already proposed, the church should be considered as a citizen fit to take part in the politics that affect it.

Because it is also affected by national politics, the church is entitled to make reference to politics. It follows, under the principles of natural justice, that persons who are affected by particular decisions or processes should be allowed to have a say in the subject decisions or processes. 

Further, if the inhibition by politicians upon the church’s role in politics includes a bar to the church’s right to hold and express opinions, such inhibition becomes undemocratic and unconstitutional as far as it takes away the church’s freedom to hold opinions and its freedom of expression.

It is true that rights and freedoms ought to be accompanied by responsibilities. In their expression of opinions about the political situation, citizens and the church must remain truthful and sincere. Indeed, truth and sincerity are consistent with Christianity.

In the theological sense, it seems clear from scripture that the original source of politics and political power is divine.

At the genesis of the world, the Creator vested mankind with dominion, authority or power over the elements of earth. Dominance, authority, power, management, and governance, as they were instituted at creation, are all very closely related to politics. 

As human history progresses from creation towards the days of Christ, God develops the concept of governance. He goes as far as defining the parameters of appropriate governance. 

The book of Isaiah states that persons in government should “rule with integrity”. It says “national leaders (must) govern with justice . . . Their eyes and ears will be open to the needs of the people . . . they will act with understanding and will say what they mean.”  There is God Himself in politics.

Most ruling politicians in this country claim to be rooted in the politics of liberation and freedom. The cornerstone of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ himself, was, like his Father, political. Christ indubitably installed an agenda for liberation and freedom. He was revolutionary not just in spiritual respects, but also politically.

The redemptive process had commenced in the Old Testament days, with the liberation of Israel from a repressive government, or rogue regime of Egypt. Moses’ leadership in liberating Israel from Pharaoh’s political state was both spiritual and political.

Christ’s incarnation from the divine heavenly state into human form was part of the plan to bring about fullness to human life — so that mankind could realise “life in its fullness”. A full life must be full, complete with spiritual, political, economic and other existential ingredients.

Does it therefore not follow that if the impediment to the completeness of the life that God desires for the world is economic, then the church, politicians, and all other concerned citizens ought to attend to such economic maladies, in accordance with their respective abilities and capacities?

Is it not sensible that when the impediment is political, then the church, politicians and all other concerned citizens ought to attend to the political disorders! The church must be capable of coming up with such economic, political and other relevant solutions.

Indeed, religion, which is the church’s core business, is not inimical to economics, politics, or any other study or sphere of human existence.

As scripture and contemporary human experience reveal, God was, and is political.  The church may therefore as well be so. Indeed, should the church fail to be progressively political as Christ was, and fail to be part of the practical solution to the world’s woes, then it faces the danger of extinction, or non-relevance.

Allan Boesak once said:  “African churches all too often cling to a pietistic, other worldly religiosity which has no bearing on the present situation in the world, not only denying the Lordship of Christ, but forgetting that it is the kind of theology that justified slavery and oppression right through history to the present.”

Measure the validity of that statement against words of clergymen who, after a few hours at State House recently, said: “We found that we (the church and government) are just one. We know we have a government that we must support.”

Despite all the callousness of Operation Murambatsvina and the subsequent human suffering that was witnessed by all who cared to open their eyes; and despite the monumental waste of erstwhile productive farmland, the reverends still claim that “the church fully supports the government and its members are also in need of land”.

Scripture shows that when people are unnecessarily impoverished and oppressed, the church assumes the prophetic role of speaking out against the perpetrators of the misery.  Such prophetic action is almost invariably taken to be political conduct by politicians.

In such situations, the church is left with the choice of answering either the call to prophecy or the whims of politicians.

Dogma refers to the official teaching, doctrine or ideology of the church. As stated earlier, the president subscribes to the “no politics for the church” movement.  Because he worships in the Catholic Church, the dogmatic justification for the involvement of the church in politics is herein drawn from the teaching of that Catholic Church.

In its social teaching, the Catholic Church describes politics as an “honourable” or “noble” profession. Although its clergy are barred from active party politics so that they devote all their time to God’s work, and to avoid partisan divisions, individual members of the church may join and participate in political parties of their choice, subject to their Catholic principles.

While the clergy may not partake in party politics, they are not barred from making statements that may have a bearing on the politics of the day. The late Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by politicians in El Salvador because he spoke out for the poor and the down-trodden. Today the church honours him.

For judicial, theological and dogmatic reasons, therefore the church should continue to find its voice in politics.

Society and posterity will have a special place for that which challenges a blundering and unjust political system. Rise up church, rise up!

* Chris Mhike is a Harare-based lawyer.

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