Shadows and echoes of John Chilembwe’s voice

“For us Church, sometimes we are told…not to interfere with politics. We as Church leaders are told to concentrate on preaching and on spiritual things. The Church is therefore seen as an intruder and not part of the society…”

These words from the Catholic bishop, Joseph Zuza, Chairman of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), giving a sermon at the National Day of Prayer at Comesa Hall, in such a tone of liberation though worrisome reminds us of the past.

This is the past of 1915, when the Rev. John Chilembwe, rose up against the oppressive colonial government. This was time, when the colonial regime did not expect any opposition especially one from the black clergy like Chilembwe who was trained by their relations, far away in British zones. They expected Chilembwe to stay on their side and stand and watch his fellow black people toiling in the unpaid Thangata.

John Chilembwe

The British knew before that at their home, some church leaders like Chilembwe, had pioneered for the fighting of human rights. They must have remembered some history of the Blackman’s struggle somewhere in Europe or America.

But they did not want the same to happen with the primitive African clergy. The white men had created clear boundaries between the State and the Church. The Church’s duty and responsibility was to care for the souls of people seeking God; to console the poor or sick souls. To tell them not to lose hope in time of trouble and oppression; to provide them with the Bible and probably education and medication.

The churches in Chilembwe’s time were limited to these obligations and were not to extend beyond that. But Chilembwe intruded so well in the State boundaries. He defied the odds.

Now and the past, Malawians clergy have played larger roles in various ways through supplementing government’s efforts on development like providing health and education services to people. It also plays a role of speaking for the voiceless by giving advice or criticisms on the government’s poor approach to issues that affect people.

We have seen it in the past; the Livingstonia church as early as 1940s helping in the formation of native associations that later led to the formation of Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) that later refigured into Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Our independence came through that.

Come 1993, the Catholic bishops through their pastoral letter, Living our Faith opened doors to the advent of democratic government in 1994.

The 2010 Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter, Reading the Signs of the Time, contained messages that could change system of governance if welcomed positively. Whatever, the bishops said in the letter, later manifested in the July 20 protests. This kind of letters does not contain messages of war but the carry the truth.

The Church all along, is taken as a partner in development but when it comes to its other roles of criticizing government poor policies, it becomes an enemy. It becomes a pain to the government. Sometimes, government even threatens the men of God that they can be arrested if the do not behave well in face of government.

But this is an old tradition of the Church. The voices of the present clergy are shadows and echoes of the Rev. John Chilembwe. So they are not a danger and are not enemies of the government. They only wish the government well.

Man of God Chilembwe spoke with the sound of a gun. And the present clergy are only doing it with mere voices. And the gun now can be blunt and radical voices of criticism.

An echo of Chilembwe’s voices:  “I will not stop my human rights activism. I will not be intimidated. Even if they kill me,” said Rev. Macdonald Sembereka, the man of God who like Chilembwe vows to die for people.

And Rev. Mezuwa Banda, Moderator of the Livingstonia Synod, commenting on the arrest of Rev. Levi Nyondo, General Secretary of the Livingstonia Synod, on charges of sedition, repeats the same sentiments: “We are here so that they can arrest us all as well”.

When these men of God speak like that, it doesn’t mean they want government fall. They are ready to die because they know, they speak on behalf of God who does not like see his people suffer. Their voices are a voice of God.

DDP’s (Democratic Progressive Party) Wakuda Kamanga, sometime, after the Bishop Zuza’s moving sermon at the Comesa Hall, told people that the church leaders serve as agents of the opposition. In a way, Bishop Zuza was in the view of some political leaders seen as an agent of the Malawi opposition parties.

But President Mutharika, sometime, admitted that the Church’s and government objectives are the same, “In fact our objectives are similar and we serve the same people. The difference might be how we do it…”

Then it should not surprise the government when the clergy speak for the welfare of the people they all serve. Any government should receive those criticisms with a positive mind and not with negativity.  It should not associate the criticisms with politics that tend to dislodge them from power.

So leaders in government should not utter any kind of these words:

“Just a few days ago, I was in that house over there (Comesa Hall). A man of the collar said Bingu you are the most stupid person akuti ndiwe chitsiru ndiwenso chindere… would they have come out alive in that house in the past? I want you to know that…if I am to respond, you would regret.” These are the real words of President Bingu wa Mutharika reacting to his critics, Bishop Joseph Zuza inclusive.

But should leaders respond like that as if that the clergy have a destructive agenda against the government? Bishop Zuza answered this question very well in his sermon at the National Day of Prayer held 16 August, 2011, under the theme “a Nation Seeking God’s Intervention in Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Peace”.

“Do we want to be called “chitsiru” or “chindere” because we think and believe we are perfect and therefore we have all the best solutions for the storm that is passing through our country? Fellow Malawians, let us not become stupid people.”

As church leaders, we do not tell you what you should do, rather we suggest possibilities so that you may make well-informed decisions. To you our leaders, you are free to accept it or not. But remember, always, we are closer to people since we live and we work with them and many times they tell us what they feel.

This is exactly what Rev. John Chilembwe, thought about the Church’s roles in politics. And the likes of reverends Joseph Zuza, Levi Nyondo, Macdonald Sembereka, Mezuwa Banda, James Tengatenga and many others’ voices of criticisms, are only shadows and echoes of the Chilembwe’s voice. They tell the government what people feel. This is what any good church leader today ought to do.

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