Rev Dr Mtata On The Dilemma The Church Faces When It Pursues To Engage Or Disengage In National Politics

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Secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches Reverend Dr Kenneth Mtata took to Twitter to underscore the enigma that confronts the Church when it endeavours to engage in national politics.

It is not only faced with a dilemma when it engages, he continued, but can likewise be chastised if it prefers not to engage at all, which leaves it stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In a statement issued after he undertook a stormy panel with MDC-T’s Obert Gutu, MDC’s Jacob Mafume and Zanu-PF’s Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana live on ZTN, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe cleric tweeted:

“Dilemmas of churches’ public engagement 1. Raise justice issues you are labeled opposition sympathizer 2. Call for dialogue you are labeled ruling party sympathizer 3. Engage political actors, you are labeled too political 4. Avoid public engagement, you become irrelevant church”

Rev Mtata’s observations come when the Zimbabwe Council of Churches has repeatedly sought to broker a dialogue between President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Movement for Democratic Change leader Nelson Chamisa amid unresolved national pasts and the country’s worsening socio-political and economic situation.

Apparently, reading at his recent testimony, the job has not been as expedient as one would want to envision it, and that has harkened us back to re-imagine how well can Church engage the public in its crusade to attain ecumenism as it so claims to do.

It is a well-founded truth that God loves the world and never ceases to engage with it. This deep faith conviction motivates the churches to engage in the public space.

God created the world through the Word and brought it to life through the Spirit. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God entered into the world in the most profound way, coming with deep compassion into the joys and sufferings and hopes and pains of the world.

In Jesus Christ, God celebrated the joy of the wedding at Cana, ensuring that there would be enough wine for all. In Jesus Christ, God endured torture and the humiliating death on the cross, thus ensuring that every dimension of human life, even the cruellest and painful experience, carries the promise of God’s presence.

God chose the incarnation of Jesus Christ as the way in which to reveal to humanity and the entire creation of what He is all about. His engagement with the world moves the church’s theology and praxis into the world—into public spaces.

Churches and Christians are shaped by the gospel message, the liberating power that transforms people to live a life that reflects the gospel.

The rediscovery of justification by grace through faith during the Reformation entailed a renewed vision of justice in society and transformed individuals, the church and other institutions. The spiritual clarity that stemmed from the deepened understanding of the gospel message set free amazing energy to contribute to the transformation of society.

One concrete example was the church’s strategic approach to addressing poverty through the institution of the common chest and thus to realise the community’s responsibility to care for the poor. The reformers called on the political decision-makers and economic centres of power not only to alleviate people’s immediate needs but also the cause of poverty, economic marginalisation and ignorance.

Education for all, one of the main concerns during the Reformation, has continued to be at the heart of the church’s presence in the world. The goal is to empower people to be mature agents who can manage their own lives and meaningfully contribute to the common good. Education was seen as a holistic process that involves the liberation and development of mind and heart, body and soul, thus empowering all people fully to realise their vocation as citizens.

In Zimbabwe, church unions like the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Evangelical Fellowship Of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Divine Destiny and the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance have been carrying out robust workshops and seminars that seek to educate the masses on many facets of life.

And, for many churches — particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe, Grace Ablaze Ministries International led by Bishop Ancelimo Magaya and the Apostle T.F. Chiwenga led-Jesus Revelation Ministries — just and accountable governance in church and society have always been a key concern.

Whereas in former centuries Protestant churches have focused their attention on state authorities, in today’s democratic and plural societies many churches have shifted toward affirming the key role of civil society and citizens who actively participate in the public space. They are active in the public space, not only in their individual capacity but also as a community of believers.

Historically, Churches have always been active in the wider society through word and deed. Their active presence in the public space includes religious communication, such as preaching and praying as well as communication in secular genres such as public statements and diverse forms of advocacy. The church’s actions range from diaconal intervention and community-based action for peace and justice at the local level to working for institutional change at the local and global levels.

In all this, it should be accentuated that the Church is politically neutral — it has to be, by law — but its members decidedly aren’t. Therefore, it is worth putting across that each church has its own historical trajectory regarding how it has engaged in public space.

There are several external factors that influence the ways in which churches are active in the public space: the constitution and legal regulations provide a framework for how religious communities can organise themselves and interact with others in the public space.

Furthermore, majority/minority situations influence the scope of action of religious communities.

Another factor with regard to the churches’ agency in the public space is the proximity to or the distance from actors in other spheres of society, such as for culture, economics, politics, media, academia.

Globally, as The Lutheran World Federation put it, this discussion is influenced by at least five significant discourses:

Religion and politics: How should religious communities, political actors and institutions relate to one another? What is the constitutional and legal framework for religious life in society and how do people of faith live out their citizenship in their respective societies? How do religious actors affirm or undermine international human rights standards?

Religion and economics: How do people of faith articulate how they envision social justice? How do people of faith act as producers, consumers and traders in the neoliberal’s context market economy? How do religious communities respond to the fact that market rationality has become the dominant logic in almost all spheres of life?

Religion and culture: How do religious communities respond to the way in which culture influences how people perceive, interpret and analyse reality? How do religious communities use cultural expressions, such as the media, and how do these use religion? Is there a critical and self-critical reflection on the use and misuse of the media? How do different media and other cultural expressions help or hinder the creation of public space in society?

Religion and violence: How do religious communities respond to violence in homes, in institutions, on the street? How do religious teachings and religious practices condone or invite to acts of violence, and how do they overcome violence and facilitate reconciliation? How do religious communities bring their vision of peace to bear on the public space in credible and tangible ways?

In times when in many countries the political debate has become polarised, it is crucial that religious communities involve women, men and youth in addressing these questions—both within and outside their communities— in diverse settings such as leadership meetings and reflection in theological seminaries, meetings in religious communities and at places of worship. All five discourses impact the breadth and depth of the public space in society.

Religious communities articulate how their distinct faith narrative envisages a shared public space while listening to and being fully aware of the perspectives of other religious and non-religious convictions. In this process, communities look for and affirm common ground and through their interaction come to respect differences.

Lucky for Rev Dr Mtata; he seems to have figured out how he will engage the public space.

In yet another tweet, presumably after reflecting on the feedback he got from his initial post, the Reverend wrote:

“Ways the Christian can engage with the government of the day 1. Legitimate and uncritically endorse status quo 2. Totally and unreasonably opposed 3. Totally disinterested, passive and disengaged 4. Critically, objectively and constructively engaged”


The Church in the Public Space

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ImChris Charamba

ImChris Charamba

Head Storyteller at Enthuse Afrika. Balances literary writing with pop culture experience. Captivates raw, authentic sights, moments, feelings and conversations. Follow me on Twitter @ImChrisCharamba

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