Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Cry of the Oppressed, Abroad

Last week, the row between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the nation's bishops was noted here in the wake of the hierarchy's pastoral letter excoriating Mugabe's leadership.

In the days since, a senior aide to Mugabe bashed the pastoral as "hateful, unfair, inaccurate, too general, malicious, insidious and, to some extent, diabolic." And, for his part, the president called the letter "nonsense" and that he plans to "deal with [the bishops] accordingly," and Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo -- the lead prelate speaking on the matter -- told BBC that Mugabe "must go." Mugabe has already been confirmed as the candidate of his ZANU-PF party in presidential elections to be held next year.

The text of the Easter pastoral is online:
The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. More and more people are getting angry, even from among those who had seemed to be doing reasonably well under the circumstances. The reasons for the anger are many, among them, bad governance and corruption. A tiny minority of the people have become very rich overnight, while the majority are languishing in poverty, creating a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Our Country is in deep crisis. A crisis is an unstable situation of extreme danger and difficulty. Yet, it can also be turned into a moment of grace and of a new beginning, if those responsible for causing the crisis repent, heed the cry of the people and foster a change of heart and mind especially during the imminent Easter Season, so our Nation can rise to new life with the Risen Lord.
In Zimbabwe today, there are Christians on all sides of the conflict; and there are many Christians sitting on the fence. Active members of our Parish and Pastoral Councils are prominent officials at all levels of the ruling party. Equally distinguished and committed office-bearers of the opposition parties actively support church activities in every parish and diocese. They all profess their loyalty to the same Church. They are all baptised, sit and pray and sing together in the same church, take part in the same celebration of the Eucharist and partake of the same Body and Blood of Christ. While the next day, outside the church, a few steps away, Christian State Agents, policemen and soldiers assault and beat peaceful, unarmed demonstrators and torture detainees. This is the unacceptable reality on the ground, which shows much disrespect for human life and falls far below the dignity of both the perpetrator and the victim.

In our prayer and reflection during this Lent, we have tried to understand the reasons why this is so. We have concluded that the crisis of our Country is, in essence, a crisis of governance and a crisis of leadership apart from being a spiritual and moral crisis....

The crisis of our Country is, secondly, a crisis of leadership. The burden of that crisis is borne by all Zimbabweans, but especially the young who grow up in search of role models. The youth are influenced and formed as much by what they see their elders doing as by what they hear and learn at school or from their peers.

If our young people see their leaders habitually engaging in acts and words which are hateful, disrespectful, racist, corrupt, lawless, unjust, greedy, dishonest and violent in order to cling to the privileges of power and wealth, it is highly likely that many of them will behave in exactly the same manner. The consequences of such overtly corrupt leadership as we are witnessing in Zimbabwe today will be with us for many years, perhaps decades, to come. Evil habits and attitudes take much longer to rehabilitate than to acquire. Being elected to a position of leadership should not be misconstrued as a licence to do as one pleases at the expense of the will and trust of the electorate....

The Bible has much to say about situations of confrontation. The conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed is a central theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. Biblical scholars have discovered that there are no less than twenty different root words in Hebrew to describe oppression.

One example is the Creed of the chosen people, which we read on the First Sunday of Lent: "My Father was a homeless Aramaean. He went down to Egypt to find refuge there, few in numbers; but there he became a nation, great, mighty and strong. The Egyptians ill-treated us, they gave us no peace and inflicted harsh slavery on us. But we called on the Lord, the God of our fathers. The Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, our toil and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror, and with signs and wonders . ... " (Deut 26:5b-8).

The Bible describes oppression in concrete and vivid terms: Oppression is the experience of being crushed, degraded, humiliated, exploited, impoverished, defrauded, deceived and enslaved. And the oppressors are described as cruel, ruthless, arrogant, greedy, violent and tyrannical; they are called 'the enemy'. Such words could only have been used by people who in their own lives and history had an immediate and personal experience of being oppressed. To them Yahweh revealed himself as the God of compassion who hears the cry of the oppressed and who liberates them from their oppressors. The God of the Bible is always on the side of the oppressed. He does not reconcile Moses and Pharaoh, or the Hebrew slaves with their Egyptian oppressors. Oppression is sin and cannot be compromised with. It must be overcome. God takes sides with the oppressed. As we read in Psalm 103:6: "God who does what is right, is always on the side of the oppressed".

When confronted with the politically powerful, Jesus speaks the language of the boldest among Israel's prophets. He calls Herod 'that fox' (Lk13:32) and courageously exposes the greed for money, power and adulation of the political elite. And he warns his disciples never to do likewise: "Among the gentiles it is the kings who lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are given the title Benefactor. With you this must not happen. No, the greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves" (Lk 22:25-27). And he warns Pilate in no uncertain terms that he will be held to account by God for his use of power over life and death (John 19:11).

Throughout the history of the Church, persecuted Christians have remembered, prayed and sung the prophetic words of Mary: "[The Lord] has used the power of his arm, he has routed the arrogant of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly. He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty" (Lk1:50-53).

Generations of Zimbabweans, too, throughout their own long history of oppression and their struggle for liberation, have remembered, prayed and sung these texts from the Old and New Testaments and found strength, courage and perseverance in their faith that Jesus is on their side. That is the message of hope we want to convey in this Pastoral Letter: God is on your side. He always hears the cry of the poor and oppressed and saves them.