These realities take on diverse and various forms in the different geopolitical regions of the world. Thus, Christianity in Africa takes on a characteristically unique shape and form, even though affiliations with denominations in other regions of the world remain.
The founding of African independent churches
A unique feature of Christianity in Africa, and in Zimbabwe, is the reality of African Independent Churches (AICs). Initially, AICs emerged as break-away sects from the so called Mainline, or Missionary, Churches of European provenance. They departed from the model of Church where leadership, power and control was legitimised, ordained, and sanctioned by the Mother Church of the denomination in Europe or America.
Founding leaders of AICs were indigenous African Christians, catechists or lay leaders, aspiring clergy and prelates, who, one way or another, the glass ceiling above ascendency ladder in the church leadership notwithstanding, fell out with, and parted ways with, the leadership of the Mainline Churches, to start a new branch, and brand, of Christianity.
Part of the AICs reaction to, and self-distinction from, the Mainline Churches, was a selective rejection of the European character of Christianity. A strong reliance on the Old Testament, especially those cultural aspects consonant with indigenous African traditions.
Religion versus African tradition
Where the Mainline Churches preferred the bio-medical model of health, AICs emphasised the African traditional model. Spiritual healing, therefore, became a hallmark of AICs, and proved attractive to Africans who felt that the Mainline Churches were failing to address, and were even antagonising, their deep felt spiritual needs.
While AICs are syncretistic, and blend Christian and African traditional wisdom, they developed a clear antagonism to African traditional practitioners. The irony of this antagonism lies in the almost one-is-to-one correspondence of belief and practice between AICs and African Traditional Religions (ATRs).
There are some AICs where the Bible is not read at all, or is read only by the leaders. Some AICs leaders claim total abstinence from the written scriptures and depend solely on direct divine inspiration. The role of the Holy Spirit is highly elevated and access to the Holy Spirit is the source of authority and legitimacy.
Until very recently, most AICs disavowed and shunned education. The common practice is to allow children to attend primary school only. The education of girls is especially curtailed or preempted by the ubiquitous practice of child marriages, and polygamy, in the AICs. Of course, there are exceptions, and some members of AICs have attained the highest levels of education.
“A civilisation is born stoic and dies epicurean,“ or so goes the adage. The high ideals and reformation tendencies attending the formative era of AICs waned and petered out, with every generation removed. After the death of their original founders, most AICs experienced serious internecine struggles which resulted in their fragmentation further into an exponential multiplicity of sects and sub-sects. Some major groupings with a centralising authority, usually based at the shrine of the burial of the founder emerged, with multifarious splinter groups related but not connected along the ever fragmenting fringes.
Why so many new Churches
Today there exist, in Zimbabwe, literally, uncountable AICs, some so small as to consist only the new prophet, his wife and children. With prodigious abandon, any member who gets dissatisfied with their church leader simply moves on to the next patch of ground, with whoever cares to follow, and establishes his, and I am sure nowadays her, own Church.
The sustainability of AICs, even the smallest sects that do not otherwise have the critical mass in terms of numeric membership, is the sheer force and attraction of spiritual healing. Zimbabwean Christians of all persuasions, and non-Christians, will at one time or other in their life consult a spiritual healer. Even the sect leader whose membership is below five souls, can have a huge clientele of seekers of miracles, healing, relief from physical and psychological sickness, success in love, fertility, marriage, work, politics, sport and any other human endeavour.
You see on the empty pieces of land, rocky patches, under trees, on the verges of towns and cities, along the main state highways, all over the country from Beitbridge to Chirundu, from Pandamatenga to Nyamapanda, the kirawa (kraal or makeshift enclosure), zvoto (fire places), sowe (cf John Masowe an early AIC founder), the shrine, sanctuary, place of worship, healing centre, of the prophetic and spiritual healer, established by at most, the minimum of a debarked stick floating a piece of white cloth. Here, the latest model of Mercedes Benz drivers, the highest government officials and corporate world executives, take off their shoes to join the mud-caked, cankered, and dusty pedestrian feet of the domestic worker, the peasant farmer, the gold panner….. in line to be served spiritually, in pursuit of the elusive elixir of life, wellness, happiness, success, and fame.
The collapse of the Zimbabwean economy in recent decades, together with the erosion of the formal health system, the increasing distress of living in a fallen state, under political repression, where most certitudes are eroded and no longer guaranteed, has made the business of spiritual healing lucrative in Zimbabwe today, as the population becomes more and more desperate, despondent, helpless, vulnerable and gullible. Spiritual healers advertise on make-shift boards, on commercial boards and on mass media, their offer of cures for diseases, and remedies for any conceivable social, economic and political problems.
Because of their rejection of education and modern medicine, AICs have been a thorn in the side of the government and other progressive forces of society. The irradication of both communicable and non communicable diseases requires the rolling out, mainstreaming, prioritising, of mass educational and preventative and curative programmes, to which AICs become pockets of resistance. Their lack of cohesion, and their characteristic spontaneity, make it difficult to include AICs as partners among stakeholders in national development programmes and projects. Their voice is often unheard, and they are often left out from benefits aimed at vulnerable and marginal communities.
Engaging African independent churches
Progress has been made moderately in starting dialogue with AICs, to encourage them to use hygienic sanitary facilities at their places of worship, to persuade them to educate their children especially girls, to encourage immunisation and primary health care use for mothers and children. A lot remains to be done in this area. Among the most poor and abandoned, least represented, disempowered, disenfranchised, marginalised and vulnerable Zimbabweans are members of AICs. The women of this community experience, additionally, the invisibility and helplessness fostered to maintain an unyielding patriarchy.
What makes it difficult for meaningful engagement with the leadership of AICs is partly the lack of cohesion among the groups. Lack of education among the leadership is another obstacle. Their lack of theological and biblical formation make it difficult for fellowship with the Mainline Churches, precluding their participation in the broad based coalition of Churches engaging the government in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, lack of trust among related but discordant groups is a stumbling block.
Christianity in Zimbabwe can roughly be characterised as comprising the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches, the Pentecostal Churches, the AICs, and the recent Prophetic Healing Ministries led by techno-savvy, urban, suave Men of God, purveyors of an unapologetic materialism. The Men of God in Zimbabwe have taken the gospel of prosperity and religious materialism and spiritual expediency to another level (they deserve a whole article on their own).
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC – the umbrella body for all Protestant Churches and a subsidiary of the World Council of Churches – WCC) and the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) are the main bodies representing Christianity in Zimbabwe today.
ZCBC, ZCC and EFZ have individually, and at times banded together to, engage the Zimbabwean government on issues of common interest such as education, health, food security, disaster and drought relief, and matters of concern such as civil rights, social justice, human rights, corruption, governance, etc, etc.
The Church’s role in sound governance
In joint pastoral letters, the Churches, represented by ZCBC, ZCC, and EFC, have challenged the government’s conduct of the electoral and constitutional processes, among other issues of governance where the rule of law, due process and common sense were trumped up by egregious intransigence, rampant corruption, unabashed patronage, and callous impunity.
This critical attitude of the Churches to government, their prophetic mission in the true biblical sense of the word, led to the later shunning the former. As an alternative, government turned to the pliant and gullible AICs, who became the “official Church” present at formal state functions like Independence Day celebrations, Heroes burials and commemorations, opening of parliament and such like.
Capture of the Church
The AICs proved an easy target, the proverbial low hanging fruit, for a regime whose conscionable character the Mainline Churches were incessantly picking on, and for good reason. The AICs leadership are adept sooth sayers and court jesters, their general membership can be easily bussed in their droves to fill stadia without any resistance. So we saw a new pattern emerging of the cementing of government relationships with the AICs. Government’s need for moral legitimacy and AICs’ need for social acceptability made the two parties willing bed fellows.
The good thing about this development may be that this marriage of convenience might open up some opportunities for government to provide education, health and other developmental services to the AICs, except, of course, that government is as financially bankrupt as it is morally bankrupt. Furthermore, the regime in government today, has neither a utilitarian nor a humanitarian agenda, but is clutching at any reachable swaying straw or floating plank, as it dithers on the threshold of self-destruction.
What is more worrisome, and indeed scary, is the cooption of these AICs into a political party, or as an ancillary thereof. Wittingly or unwittingly, the AICs are being coalesced into an organ of a political party. The Super Sunday that took place in Rufaro Stadium on 5 November 2017 is a watershed moment in the “Church Capture,” that is taking place in Zimbabwean Christianity before our eyes.
As a Roman Catholic and a Zimbabwean, I am deeply concerned. I am passionate about ecumenism and the integrity of the body of Christ, the Church.
I had a tremendously enriching and rewarding experience coordinating and working with pastors from all denominations in Mabvuku and Tafara to provide famine relief and HIV/AIDS care and support.
I organised and mobilised with the Ecumenical Support Services (ESS) and National Pastors’ Conference against the infamous Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and equally unacceptable Access to Information Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), draconian legislative tools aimed at curtailing human and civic liberties roundly.
In all the election cycles in Zimbabwe, I have stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow pastors and Christians from right across the denominational spectrum, cried and prayed together, as we watched and helplessly contemplated the wrath of the regime visited on the hapless populace, our congregants, for the simple reason of having voted as they should, in a purportedly democratic republic.
During the punitive Operation Murambatsvina, I experienced the brotherhood and sisterhood of all Christian leaders across the spectrum as we tried to raise our combined voices against a recalcitrant regime bent on consuming its own children.
I appreciate that Christianity did not come to our country in the best of ways, resulting in our inheriting denominational differences created in Europe. The bible in one hand and gun in another, is not only a manner of speech. We became Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc, almost in the same way, without consent, that we became Franchophone, Anglophone or Lusophone. But this is what it has come to: we are now African Christians, warts and all.
I care about Christianity in Africa, and in Zimbabwe. In spite of its many shortfalls, one of which is the failure to appreciate indigenous African spirituality which partly led to the formation of AICs, I believe Christianity is over-all a force for good, a human and spiritual good. Therefore, I am solicitous of all churches over and above my own denomination. That is why I have very strong visceral feelings against, and an equally strong cognitive aversion, and I condemn unreservedly, Church Capture by any regime. The Super Sunday event is unacceptable and must not be tolerated by any Christian worth the name.
State resources commandeered
What is worse, but the wanton use of taxpayers money, and time, the deployment of government resources, especially the police force, the police band, the ancillary parastatals; ZESA, ZINWA, POTRAZ, ZINARA, Harare Municipality, just to mention a few, to serve the interests of a beleaguered regime.
Worse still is the desecration of sacred space. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name (Matthew 18:20), there I am, says the Lord.’ Super Sunday was a mockery of sacred space, which we call sanctuary, and an adulteration of sacred worship, which we call liturgy. Super Sunday, on the contrary was a field day for hate, calumny, slander, back biting, intrigue, manipulation, egotistic gerrymandering, self aggrandisement, hero worship and absolute idolatry – worship of other gods!
My American friends are wont to quip: WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) Jesus would have improvised a whip and drive all those imposters and fake devotees our of the sacred sanctuary, his Father’s house (Matthew 21:12-17)
I use the term “Church Capture” because it is similar and analogous to “State Capture”, a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage. Just as much as the decision making processes of a state can be sabotaged, usurped and overtaken by private interests, so can the integrity of the Church. The Super Sunday of 5/11/17 in Harare, is for all purposes and intents a Church Capture, an intentional diversion and subvention of the lifeblood and energy of the Church, towards a personal, selfish, egoistic, self aggrandising, self serving agenda.
We from the Mainline Churches cannot rest on our laurels and laugh our lungs out at what is happening to the AICs. Whether we like it or not, AICs are members of the same body of Christ that we too are members. When one member hurts, we all hurt, when one member suffers, we all suffer. Super Sunday 2017 is a mortal would to the body of Christ in Zimbabwe, we are all bleeding and hurting.
I want to conclude this reflection with a lament of the prophet Jeremiah:
“Speak this word to them:
“‘Let my eyes overflow with tears
night and day without ceasing;
for the Virgin Daughter, my people,
has suffered a grievous wound,
a crushing blow.
If I go into the country,
I see those slain by the sword;
if I go into the city,
I see the ravages of famine.
Both prophet and priest
have gone to a land they know not.’”
Have you rejected Judah completely?
Do you despise Zion?
Why have you afflicted us
so that we cannot be healed?
We hoped for peace
but no good has come,
for a time of healing
but there is only terror.”
Father William Guri is a Roman Catholic priest, born and raised in Zimbabwe and living in Maryland, USA and studying in Maryland, USA for a PhD in Pastoral Care and CounsellingPost published in: Featured