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Incarnational Politics: Saving the World from "Democracy"
by John Kaoma and Elizabeth Parsons

Zimbabwe’s recent election and its simmering aftermath continue occasionally to attract the international media’s attention. And when other African countries hold elections–as have Sierra Leone, Mali, and Cameroon, among recent others–talk briefly focuses upon Africa’s 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 continent’s future.

While Western political and economic leaders stress good governance and democracy as prerequisites for future aid and involvement, they do so with an apparently superficial understanding of how democracy is applied or acted out in most African contexts.

While Western political and economic leaders stress good governance and democracy as prerequisites for future aid and involvement, they do so with an apparently superficial understanding of how democracy is applied or acted out in most African contexts. This unfortunate situation presents North American and African churches with a marvelous teaching moment. Just as the values surrounding Western theological involvement with this continent are being re-examined, so re-examining Western political and economic involvement in Africa could be of great benefit.

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 church’s 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 don’t make sense, they simply aren’t applicable. So heavy intellectual theologizing usually doesn’t 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.

But the West continues trying to impose its style of competitive governance upon African societies, even making it a condition for debt relief and development aid… Consequently, periodic electoral pantomimes take place here that Western analysts worriedly examine for signs of freeness and fairness.

But the West continues trying to impose its style of competitive governance upon African societies, even making it a condition for debt relief and development aid. Yet most Africans do not even know what this sort of democracy is all about. Consequently, periodic electoral pantomimes take place here that Western analysts worriedly examine for signs of freeness and fairness. When these events fail to produce results helpful to the people, Western retribution sets in through government sanctions and Breton Woods institution threats. African analysts spend their time before and after the failures articulating the many reasons why they were doomed from the beginning. Unfortunately, not much of anyone is listening carefully and the poor people continue to suffer.

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 America’s 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 Chiluba’s 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 Zimbabwe’s more recent poll, even according to the state’s 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.

…the ruling party’s bestowal of blankets and chickens on illiterate, barefoot citizens may be the most concrete association they ever have with government. While the West condemns this as vote buying, such a gesture is actually what most people on this impoverished continent expect in an election.

Creating incarnational politics involves more than appreciating the role that churches play in society. It involves understanding how societies make meaning and how that meaning-making affects conceptions of their churches and their governments. Western-based prayer books and liturgies seem anomalous amidst ululating, drumming, and dancing worshippers. So, too, verbal debates about parliamentary procedure and the common welfare seem almost ludicrous, especially when the ruling party’s bestowal of blankets and chickens on illiterate, barefoot citizens may be the most concrete association they ever have with government. While the West condemns this as vote buying, such a gesture is actually what most people on this impoverished continent expect in an election. Even if a candidate has good ideas, Africans will argue that they do not live on ideas but food.

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 don’t know or aren’t allowed to look beyond the event cannot question those who instigated it. Outsiders who don’t know or won’t 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 societies–with the vigorous involvement of their churches–can 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 eparsons@post.harvard.edu and John at kaomaj@excite.com