Benjamin Freeth is a Zimbabwean farmer and human rights activist from the district of Chegutu (ca 120 km southwest of Harare). Together with his father-in-law, Mike Campbell, he rose to international prominence after 2008 for suing the government for violating rule of law and human rights in Zimbabwe. This process was documented in the 2009 film Mugabe and the White African.
I was at a church in Bulawayo some time ago where the film, Mugabe and the White African was being shown. We had a discussion afterwards and Dr. Peter Mundy – the world renowned ornithologist piped up: “The trouble with you Christians” he said “is that you pray and you sing but you do not act.”
I saw it as a challenge to all of us who call ourselves Christians – and to the church.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he writes of our battle being against the “rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” In this battle how should we oppose evil without either creating new evils, and becoming evil ourselves; or being impotent?
The New Testament insists that demons are only able to have an effect if they embody themselves in people [Mark 1: 21-28; Mat: 12: 43-45; Luke 11:24-26] or animals [Mark 5: 1-20] or political systems [Rev.12-13]. I do not believe it is unfair to say that the church has not confronted the crushing structural evils in Zimbabwe – which I believe are of a spiritual and demonic nature – the evils of violent oppression, greed, lawlessness, corruption, nationalism, racism etc.
Ezekiel cries by the rivers of Babylon with the voice of God about the authorities: “There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing their prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows within her. Her priests do violence to my law….her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey…for unjust gain…They mistreat the alien denying them justice…I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it…” Ezekiel 22: 25
But that man wasn’t around and so God destroyed the Promised Land: the temple; the wall around Jerusalem; the vineyards; the flocks and the herds; the people; their homes. For God is a God of justice. In the Psalms it says: “a scepter of justice will be the scepter of Gods kingdom;” Psalm 45: 6 and justice is essentially the way that we exercise power over others. Injustice is the abuse of that power. Unjust acts involve taking: taking life, taking liberty, taking dignity, taking the fruits of our labor, taking the fruits of our love. Injustice stems from greed and selfishness and pride and a brutal urge to dominate and control others at all costs.
After being abducted and tortured I was in hospital in 2008. There were many other people there too – some in a much worse state than we were. My wife, Laura, visited a man who had had his hands tied behind his back with barbed wire and then had his hands smashed into fragments by people hurling rocks down onto them. His knee caps had been similarly smashed. He didn’t know if his family was alive or dead. At that time he was just one of tens of thousands of examples of the severe abuse of power by the authorities.
In the chaos now there is a huge move towards God. No politician can pull the crowds to meetings as can the various church leaders. Within the church there are people trying to control and manipulate and negate the message regarding justice, and promote the political agenda.
At the Easter service at the national sports stadium, a service at which the biggest stadium in the land was not big enough, the Minister of Information tried to join the band that was leading the worship. Not too long ago the Minister of Defense, Emmerson Munangagwa, publicly declared that he had become a born-again Christian. Augistine Chihuri, the Commissioner of police has declared likewise. President Mugabe has dressed himself up in the white robes of the apostles like Border Gezi. The Reserve Bank Governor laces his statements with Biblical quotes. The Prime Minister has been to see the “prophet,” T.B. Joshua, in Nigeria. The church is seen as an important constituency and is being infiltrated and used in what Zimbabwe has become well known for: the political agenda of racism, covetousness and theft.
“Bishop” Kunonga said earlier this month: “Whites like other aliens should not be allowed to own land and other properties in the country as they are strangers…..“I took 3, 800 church properties in the region since their title deeds were in my name. There was no way the properties could remain under charge of the church controlled by whites and their black puppets. Bishops such as Julius Makoni, Chad Gandiya and others are MDC-T and only want western interests furthered,”
“Those who participate in the land grab and future seizure of mines and other properties in the hands of aliens, will definitely enter the kingdom of God.”
“The Prime Minister is good for nothing… Elections will give Zimbabweans the opportunity to choose between good (Mugabe) and death (Tsvangirai). Vote wisely. I am a professor in my own right and would rate Mugabe’s governance as ‘very good’.”
Isaiah warns “woe to those who call evil good.” Should we as the church remain silent in the face of such blasphemy about the kingdom of God? What are we as the wider church doing to stand by the persecuted Anglican Church in Zimbabwe in love? What are we saying and doing regarding the wider injustices in Zimbabwe?
In the townships now, people are being forced to nighttime rallies where fear is being instilled into them. An election is brewing. We know from history that evil things will happen – probably on a massive scale. Do we in the church just remain silent? Do we have a plan to do anything at all?
A Just kingdom is a kingdom ruled with the right exercise of power. That is why Israel was initially led by Judges and not by kings. When we go through the Bible we see justice and injustice rising and falling like waves on the sea; and as the administration of justice collapses and the abuse of power becomes prevalent, terrible things happen to the nation of Israel. As the administration of justice rises up and we see the right exercise of power, Gods blessings are poured out. Through the Bible God’s hatred of injustice is only rivaled by his hatred of idolatry.
Administering justice is a command. In the book of Jeremiah it is commanded: “Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done – burn with no one to quench it.” Jer 21:12. Are we as the church actively rescuing people from the hand of the oppressor?
Jesus castigates his people: “woe to you Pharisees…you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” Luke 11:42.
The failure of the wider church to stand against the NAZI injustice and evil was utterly tragic. The NAZI’s used the 2 tools of the unjust to great effect: deceit and great fear through brutality. There is the story of the church on the railway line to Auschwitz. Whenever the train came past with its cargo of Jews going to their deaths the people in the church just sang a little bit louder.
What should those Christians, and those Christian leaders, have been actioning in the face of what was going on in NAZI Europe? Were brave church leaders like Dietrich Bonhoffer wrong?
James wrote: “suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him: ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it. In the same way faith if not accompanied by action is dead.” James 2:15.
Jesus calls us to action: to preach the gospel, to respond to hunger with food, to nakedness with clothes, to imprisonment with visitation, to the sick with medicine, to the beaten with bandages and to injustice with justice.
We pray in the prayer that Jesus taught us: “thine kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” but what are we doing to bring God’s kingdom ruled by His “scepter of justice” here in Zimbabwe? Two truths apply to everything that God wants to do on this earth:
1. He could accomplish everything through his own supernatural power.
2. He rather chooses to accomplish it through the obedience of his people – and that means us being called to action.
In the story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus tells us, the Good Samaritan does not walk on the other side of the road like the priest and the lawyer; rather he overcomes the fear of having the same beating happen to him and readjusts his plans to find time to go to the beaten up man and assess the problem. After seeing the problem he does what he can for the injured fellow and bandages him up. Then he gets him to a professional who can help – and he pays the professional to look after him properly and help the man.
We as the church community are not here to merely accommodate ourselves to the prevailing culture of injustice and indifference in Zimbabwe! We as the church must be involved in learning how to rescue the oppressed; how to set prisoners free; how to break the yoke of injustice and ensure perpetrators can not continue in their ways! God intends us as the church to penetrate the world like salt and light and so to change it – stopping bacterial decay! Dispersing the darkness! He calls us to action!
Isaiah commands: “seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.”
Some people say “it is not my thing” or “I’m a white person so I can’t get involved” or “I’m a black person and I will get hammered” or “this is Africa and we merely have to survive the African way.”
And Isaiah says: “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty can not enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no-one to intervene.” Isaiah 59:14-16
God declared in Isaiah 58: “Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Isaiah 58: 6. And what happened when they were not acting to do what God commanded? God stopped listening to their prayers. He didn’t hear them – and so their prayers were not answered. We can’t wait for God. God is waiting for us.
Gary Haugen, who set up the International Justice Mission shortly after witnessing the atrocities of the injustices in Ruanda in 1994 where nearly a million people were hacked to death with machetes in 100 days, wrote: “Evil and injustice thrives on moral ambiguity, equivocation, confusion and the failure to commit. Remembering that injustice is about power, and the abuse of it, we must be aware that injustice is powerful, strong and committed and in every case it will prevail when we are uncertain, unsure and uncommitted.”
All of us to some extent have experienced or seen a bit of the forceful power of injustice in our nation.
But in the Psalms the question is asked: “who will rise up for me against the wicked; who will take a stand for me against evil doers?” Psalm 94:16. We are commanded to: “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 83:3-4.
God calls us to action; but the church has been mostly not acting. I believe that there are 4 main reasons why injustice can roll on:
The first, the most gigantic and the over riding reason why Christians and others do not act against injustice is because of the goliath of fear. In Zimbabwe fear broods as a vast malevolent spirit over us and around us and within us. Fear paralyses. Fear warps our actions. Fear has us say: “If I get involved what will happen to me or my family?” In Zimbabwe we have been living with fear for so long that we do not acknowledge what a massive part it is playing in our creeping acceptance of structural evil.
Fear is not spoken about in our churches even though the word of God commands us regarding fear of man time and time again. When we search scripture we find the command not to fear comes up more times than all the other commands put to together – apart from the command to love. Throughout history fear and love have hung in a tension of a see saw balance. As fear overcomes us, our will to act in love diminishes. As loves blossoms, fear is driven back. As the knowledge of the love of God overwhelms us, fear is driven to the dustbin. God did not give us a spirit of fear when we became Christians because “perfect love drives out fear.”
The second reason we do not act is because of a theological deceit. We deem action against injustice to be “political” and “the church mustn’t get involved in politics.” Some of us deceive ourselves that Zimbabwe is in a Nebuchadnezzar moment of chastisement – and we must somehow take the evil submissively, and not disturb it. Were Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, Idi Amin and the rest who committed murders of the innocents on a massive scale, merely Nebuchadnezzar’s who should have been allowed to continue in their actions? We need to ask ourselves sincerely “were the Christians through history that have stood against the evil that was being done, wrong?”
The third reason we do not act against injustice is because we are discouraged. “How can I – little me- make a difference? The problem is so big! This is Africa where so much injustice takes place and the rule of law is so little known!” We become discouraged because we see injustice continuing to advance and courts becoming more corrupt and police men becoming more partisan and militia camps continuing to spring up and diamonds coming into fund more injustice and international courts being forced to close their doors and we lose hope that our efforts to seek justice will succeed in anyway. Eventually that terrible thing called cynicism creeps in to our hearts. C.S Lewis said “despair is a greater sin than the sins that provoke it” – because in Gods Kingdom there is no room for despair. Our hearts must always have hope because we serve the God of all hope.
The forth reason we do not act against injustice is that we have become complacent and are too busy and we lack resources and we have gone in to survival mode. We feel we do not have time because acts of injustice almost always catch us off guard. I am sure the lawyer and the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan both had important business to attend to when they passed the beaten up man on the road.
There was a lack of conviction in their hearts that they were commanded by God to drop everything and act. I remember in 2008 the bodies of 2 activists who were shot dead being seen on the way to our school sports day. The people that saw them had done nothing about those bodies: “This is Zimbabwe” they had said. “This is what happens in Zimbabwe.” And in the back of our minds there is this thing about submitting to authorities; but we mustn’t submit to authorities who have turned things on their heads. Authorities are supposed to: “punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right,” 1 Peter 2:14. When the authorities do the exact opposite of their Godly duty and commend those who do wrong – those who kill and steal and destroy – those authorities are plainly evil, far away from God’s word, and they need to be made accountable for what they are doing to the poor and the weak and the innocent.
Isaiah says: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send? And whom will go for us?” Isaiah 59:15-16
In the book of Esther God worked through one woman, Esther, to save the entire Jewish people from an evil Persian Prime Minister.
In the book of Samuel we read how Nathan confronted the king of the most powerful empire of the day, publicly with the truth: “Why did you despise the Word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.” And King David repented.
In the book of Jonah we read how Jonah refused to confront the Ninevites and their leaders with their sin and it was counted by God as an open act of rebellion; but then when he finally did rush off to Nineveh to confront them with their sin, they repented and Nineveh was saved.
So we in the church in Zimbabwe can do the same today!
The evangelical theologian Carl Henry wrote of the evangelicals of the 18th and 19th centuries when the great awakening happened: “their evangelical movement was spiritually and morally vital because it strove for justice and also invited humanity for regeneration, forgiveness and power for righteousness. If the church preaches only divine forgiveness and does not affirm justice she implies that God treats immorality and sin lightly…we should be equally troubled that we lag in championing justice and fulfilling our evangelical mandate.”
We live in a Zimbabwe similar to the land of the prophet Micah: “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands the gifts, the judge accepts the bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire – they all conspire together.” Micah 7:3. But Micah doesn’t accept that status quo. He gets involved. He gets active. He gets fired up and he says: “as for me I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.” Micah 3:8.
That’s what it is all about. The wicked say: “he won’t call me to account.” Psalm 10:13. But we can! Jesus says: “you are the light of the world let your light shine before men.” Mat 5:14-16. So we need to be the light exposing the darkness. We need to be Christians with a mission. We need to run with the truth and when we see injustice we need to say: “Who is the victim? What is the injury? How can I help? How can I expose the perpetrators so that they do not do this to the next person and the one after that? Who can help me?” The suffering in Zimbabwe due to injustice can be massively reduced by the obedience and faith of God’s people, the church, who see that they must have a mission and that they must be active.
If the church is to take its place in the nation of Zimbabwe today every church needs to have a group involved in a justice mission: people praying and asking Gods wisdom – not mans wisdom- to act for justice in our communities and in the nation. Of course, any attempt to transform a system of injustice without understanding the Spirit behind these structural evils and without trusting that the power of God is more powerful than those evils, will fail. But if Godly people fail to take responsibility in taking their places in transforming society, the scourge of corruption and evil will continue to grow like a cancer in our land.
Martin Niemoller, the German theologian and the former President of the World Council of Churches after WW2, said about his incarceration in NAZI Germany: “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Jesus says: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me… to release the oppressed.” Luke 4:18. Our prayer must be: “Here am I, Lord. Send me.” Until that is all of our prayers – until we overcome fear and discouragement and wrestle with theological deceit and complacency, I am afraid the killing and the stealing and the destruction will continue in our land.
Isaiah says “the work of justice shall be peace and the effect of justice, quietness and assurance forever.” Isaiah 32:17. But if we do not work for justice, the scepter of justice will continue to be dashed to the ground and the whirlwind of destruction will continue to blow through the land, on and on and on.
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