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Politics: Saving the World from "Democracy"
Zimbabwes recent election and its simmering aftermath continue occasionally to attract the international medias attention. And when other African countries hold electionsas have Sierra Leone, Mali, and Cameroon, among recent otherstalk briefly focuses upon Africas faltering journey towards "democracy." Good governance and democracy are fashionable political topics here, particularly during these days of NEPAD (New Economic Partnership for African Development) negotiations and G8 summits, as African and Western leaders discuss the continents future.
Over the past decade or so, many Western mission agencies have started working through a colonialist legacy of guilt in part by making their witness to the Gospel more incarnational, taking as their model Jesus practice of being with people in everyday situations. As a Bemba nun recently put it, "They are much more willing to eat nshima [Zambian staple food] with us now." One major reason for this change is that many Western and African churches have begun to consider seriously that culture profoundly moulds the message. For Western Christianity, this has meant acknowledging how much of what was previously taken for granted as the essence of the faith is really the early churchs grappling to comprehend what "God with us" meant in the context of Greco-Roman society. Expressing that meaning in verbal terms, in terms of the Word, was a way of making the incarnation comprehensible to a society enamored of knowledge and the latest new ideas. But in societies oriented towards events and what can been seen or felt, thoughts argued and written out in ponderous volumes not only dont make sense, they simply arent applicable. So heavy intellectual theologizing usually doesnt work here, but actions, discussions, and sensations do.
Incarnational theological mission can be instrumental in helping create incarnational politics: not established church politics, but politics that truly work for the people. And who better can assist societies in doing this than those communities charged with keeping alive the legacy of God incarnate? Western and African churches working for incarnational politics could help educate and encourage societies on both sides of the globe. They could do so by scrutinizing values concerning what makes good governance the same way they scrutinize values concerning what makes good church. Such values, however, must be examined within their given cultural and historical backgrounds. Because of their particular backgrounds, most African churches still work from a Western perspective, so re-incarnational politics must start with the churches themselves on both sides of the Atlantic.
To begin, this will mean North American churches comprehending and teaching that democracy is not a logical outgrowth of Christianity. That it probably owes more to Aristotle than to Jesus means that Western democracy is as much a product of a particular historical and cultural background than anything else. While the West has been organizing itself according to its evolving version of democracy for more than 2,000 years, Africa has been organizing its societies around cooperative extended family and village loyalties and chieftanships for as much as 1,000 years longer. Neither organizational method is perfect. Both, however, are entrenched in the psyches of the people and must be respected.
North American churches educating the American public on this point could do a great service to the world. They could help American citizens, as members of the most militarily and economically powerful democracy in the world, come to a clearer understanding of the particularities of the Western worldview and Americas concomitant interdependence with the rest of the world. This might help avoid the nightmarish debacle that Samuel Huntington envisions in the mounting "clash of civilizations" and that the world seems stumbling towards even now.
North American churches encouraging African churches on this point could help them do a great service for this continent. In general, African churches are more credible and exercise greater influence within their societies than do churches in the United States. While many American churches seem to be casting about for ways to make themselves relevant to the present age, African churches often offer the only semblance of a communications infrastructure, social safety net, and source of self-esteem that millions of people on this primarily rural continent have.
Consequently, they can and do take powerfully influential positions in civil society for good and ill. Former Zambian president Frederick Chilubas attempt to amend the constitution to give him a third term in office was peacefully defeated last year in large part because of the churches active dialogue and discussion about the matter. In Zimbabwes more recent poll, even according to the states manufactured numbers, the western Matabeleland region maintained its historic stance as a region of ZANU-PF opposition in part because of strong ecumenical church leadership; while the eastern Manicaland region, also historically an opposition area, saw significant Mugabe government gains in part because of tragically weak church leadership.
Additionally, when the most visible, comprehensible sign of democratic process is the election event and that event takes place, democracy can appear to be instituted. Those in rural areas who dont know or arent allowed to look beyond the event cannot question those who instigated it. Outsiders who dont know or wont take the time to look behind the event may not question those who then chiefly benefit from its outcome.
Good politics, like good theology, incorporates a range of experience, agreement and disagreement, and the constant knowledge of its ultimate imperfections. Just as North American churches are beginning to understand that African churches must determine what makes good church for them, so American churches can help Westerners in general understand that African societieswith the vigorous involvement of their churchescan determine what good governance means for them. The basic models and patterns are there in traditional African decision-making processes involving conversation and consensus building. Though these models and patterns are no longer in use, they need to be revisited and expanded according to what is truly meaningful and applicable within various contexts. The result may not be democracy as the West knows it, but it has the potential of being far better with and for the people.
Elizabeth Parsons, an appointed missioner with the Episcopal Church, USA, teaches at Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation, Kitwe, Zambia. The Rev. John Kaoma, Dean of Studies at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Seminary in Kitwe, will enter Episcopal Divinity School in Boston this fall. Both authors previously lived and worked in Zimbabwe. Liz may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and John at email@example.com