‘One cannot be a true Christian and a perpetrator of violence at the same time.’

That unequivocal statement comes on page six of a pastoral letter of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference, ‘Let us Work for the Common Good: Let us Save our Nation (pdf),’ issued on 14 January 2011.

There’s no beating around the bush with deliberations about just war theory or philosophical musings about when violence might be justified. This pastoral letter isn’t a treatise against violence per se (it is concerned with much more than that).

But I think that the statement above takes on added significance in the light of the proposed, upcoming elections, where politically-motivated violence seems likely to be encouraged by the powers-that-be.

But who listens to the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference? Who reads their letters? Do their ideas filter down to Catholics in the parishes and other people of goodwill?

As someone who conducts academic research on relationships between religion and politics, and the role of religion in social change, it can be easy to read a lot into what religious authorities say in pastoral letters or other pamphlets and publications. One might assume that the ‘people in the pews’ absorb and act on what their faith leaders say.

But my research also tells me that this isn’t always the case. In my work I’ve conducted interviews with people in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Northern Ireland and Ireland – and I’ve often been struck by how little people are aware of what’s being said and done at those higher levels of leadership.

For instance in Northern Ireland, there have been two denomination-wide initiatives designed to help Christians deal with the legacies of violence: the Church of Ireland’s (Anglican) Hard Gospel Project and the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking Programme. But in my research I’ve discovered that many people were simply unaware of or uninterested in these programmes.

I think that’s a pity, and I hope that this doesn’t happen with the pastoral letters of the ZCBC and the documents released by other denominations, parachurch bodies, etc.

‘Let us Work for the Common Good’ even seems to recognise the potential problem of inattention, concluding with a plea: A bare reading of this pastoral letter may have limited impact on the reader. Discussing with others will be beneficial…

And what’s in the pastoral that should be discussed?

The letter opens with a sense of urgency, stating in the very first paragraph that ‘… the evolving trends in our country are worrying and, if not corrected, can lead to our loss of nationhood, the disintegration of our society and to the forming of degenerate militias with opposing loyalties.’

The bishops outline their main concerns as:

  • all the tenets of the Global Political Agreement have not been implemented
  • the lack of serious public discussion about the common good, especially among political parties
  • the lack of serious media coverage of the quest for a people-driven constitution, as well as national healing, reconciliation and integration
  • politically motivated violence


There is an entire section where the bishops ‘urge our political leaders’ towards a number of worthy tasks, such as prioritizing the eradication of poverty, stamping out corruption, reflecting ‘on the timing of elections’ – although I question the likelihood that certain powerful parties will heed these pleas.

I think there’s more hope that this and other such letters will inspire the so-called ‘ordinary’ people in the pews towards perseverance and action in the face of nearly overwhelming odds.

I hope people in Zimbabwe have the chance to access this letter, and as the bishops recommend, to discuss it. In particular, I hope it inspires discussions about creative ways that Zimbabweans at the grassroots can facilitate processes to mitigate election violence.

Dr Gladys Ganiel is a lecturer in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast