The most recent letter of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops in Jan. 2011, is entitled Let us Work for the Common Good. It is not the first time that the bishops have addressed this topic. A previous letter was written in 1998. The recent letter set this writer wondering about a series of Bishops’ letters written in recent times and about  the impact of these letters on a troubled society.

The current crisis in Zimbabwe is now in its eleventh year. It began with the rejection of the draft national constitution, promoted by ZANU PF, in March 2000. Within months of that date all hell broke loose on the farms where the greatest losers, often forgotten, were the 320,000 registered farm workers and their families. (Where are they now?) The social, economic and political disintegration has continued ever since.

After failing to grasp the nettle in the early years of the decade, the Catholic Bishops came on board by 2003, and have been consistent ever since in their critique of the events and in their progressive stance.  A 2003 letter, for example, stated

We call upon all those Catholics, who hold special responsibilities in society, be it government, the business community, or other spheres of influence, to exercise your duties according to the social teaching of the church. It is your right and also your duty to participate in public life. We fully support your positive contribution to nation building, as long as you follow gospel teachings and values.

We cannot lead a double way of life, one for Sunday services in church and another for our public tasks, be they political, economic, social or other kind. We are always called to be guided by our conscience and to live our Christian faith as an integral part of our lives’. (Lenten Pastoral Letter, March 2003,  par. 7:3)

Since  then the Bishop have written many letters:

  • 2003                A Call to Metanoia
  • 2003                Peace in a Divided Zimbabwe
  • 2004                A Credible Electoral Process
  • 2005                A Call to Conscience
  • 2005                The Cry of the Poor
  • 2005                Public Associations
  • 2007                God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed
  • 2008                Harmonised Elections
  • 2008                Be Compassionate
  • 2009                National Healing
  • 2011                Let us Work for the Common Good

The titles of the letters indicate their subject matter. (The full letters can be found on the CCJP Mutare site, under “Pastoral Statements’.)

The pertinent question has been raised: ‘who listens to them (the bishops)?’  Certainly not the status quo – some of whom claim to be Catholic! But the status quo does not really listen to anyone who does not agree with their agenda. Their most recent abject failure to listen concerned the harmonised elections (presidential, house of assembly, senate and local government), held on March 29th., 2008. Quite clearly the incumbent president lost this election but the national cry for change was not heard. Between the end of March and the presidential run-off on June 27th., ‘sources in Zimbabwe documented over 180 violence related deaths and more than 9000 people tortured and beaten’ (Amnesty International Report, Oct. 2008). The level of violence led to the opposition candidate withdrawing from the run-off in order to avoid further bloodshed.

IDEOLOGY

When a political system is dominated by ideological principles, the party good rather than the common good takes priority. Thus the party – whether by fair means or foul – must not cede political power. Instead of one’s vote being a political weapon promoting change, the voter becomes a threatened species, liable to be physically violated. Democracy no longer exists. The ‘demos’ (people) no longer have ‘kratos’ (power). Instead, raw, naked power is assumed by militia gangs and belligerent thugs.

Movement outside ideological boundaries and adaption of a wider perspective requires both enlightenment, honesty and courage. It is much easier to bunker oneself behind the ideological barriers  where a  system of secular beliefs and values emanating from traditions and historical experiences is exalted. The shedding of ancestral blood for the sake of national liberation is viewed as a sanctifying and cleansing sacrifice by the status quo,  and  becomes an ideology that must be handed on to subsequent generations involved in the ongoing revolutionary task. This is exemplified by members of the revolutionary party who proclaim in the Shona song: ‘Zimbabwe ndeyeropa’ (‘Zimbabwe is born out of blood’). The belief system based on the revolutionary ideology guides national aspirations. It affects public policy decisions and has been used to justify violent actions and events.

The promoters of ideologies do not accept criticism. ‘Our political history is characterized by the use of state institutions as partisan tools to support the ruling party. Those who have opposed the ruling party have been marginalised and sometimes criminalised’ (National Healing, ZCBC,  2009). The ideology is the value to be defended. The value in Zimbabwe is the sacred blood of the ancestors, the revolutionary struggle and the land. ‘The land is the economy and the economy is the land’ became an  ideological slogan, even when the economy was collapsing in the years of the first decade of the new millennium, and the process of land distribution had become a one-sided, haphazard and violent affair.  ‘Corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, arrogance, and economic greed led to the collapse of our economy.’ (National Healing, ZCBC, 2009)

Ideological slogans and viewpoints are tactical, emotional reactions by those on the defensive. They are characterised by confused and partisan thinking as they fail to relate to the complexity of contested issues in a balanced, rational way. The ideology becomes a shield with which to ward off critical views, a statement that one side is right and all opposing views are wrong. Those who hold ideologies rarely listen to the views of others, and thus are not open to change since their positions are fixed and immovable. They are locked into a narrow vision of life. Their definition of what is good  inspires much that is divisive, wrong and harmful.

‘Over the last ten years divisions have really plunged our country into an unprecedented abyss characterised by economic, social, and political woes and unimaginable forms of political intimidation and violence. … We have prevented each other from attaining human fulfillment by depriving each other of life, education, shelter, health, information, freedom of speech and association, freedom of conscience, justice and peace’. (National Healing, ZCBC, 2009)

Holders of ideologies tend to use ends to justify means. They argue that the good end justifies whatever means, fair or foul, which are required to achieve it.

A good end cannot justify a bad means. The good end in Zimbabwe of land reform and equitable land redistribution cannot justify partisan and often violent actions. The end desired must be reflected at every step of the way. Otherwise, it becomes subjected to the most cruel distortion.

SPIRITUAL AND MORAL CRISIS

The Zimbabwe Bishops in their most recent letter state, once again, that the crisis in Zimbabwe is not only political and economic, but primarily spiritual and moral. Failure by politicians in Zimbabwe to recognise the spiritual and moral dimensions of the crisis has led, and will lead, to ongoing societal stagnation and suffering. The Bishops are asking politicians to see the deep-down things. Nelson Mandela once famously referred to the need in South Africa for ‘the reconstruction and development programme (RDP) of the soul’. Zimbabwe’s soul too has been tarnished and needs to be reconstructed.

While party hard-liners fail to listen to the balanced, holistic perspective of pastoral letters, it would be wrong to target all the ZANU PF faithful with the same brush. There are moderate elements in their ranks who see the wood for the trees. It would be equally wrong to see the MDC as paragons of virtue. The temptation for their elected members is to embrace the fleshpots of relative power and material advantage, and to abandon a principled stance.

In their January 2011 letter, the Zimbabwe bishops state that ‘a better society is not for the benefit of an elite but for all. The way in which we organise our society directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow together in community and contribute to the common good’. The common good is ultimately about creating social and economic conditions within society which enable the flourishing of life for all. The promotion of the common good should be the primary aim of public policy.

Within political ranks and civil society (including the churches) in Zimbabwe, there are those – even if a small minority – who hear the Bishops’ messages, take them to heart and work for a better society. In this context, the messages need to be continually articulated and proclaimed. They give heart to the weary and hope to the afflicted. They indicate the road to be followed by Zimbabwean society and that road  ultimately leads to a better place.