“When there is not a clear theological basis for political engagement, there is a problem”

Unity, integrity, and long-term commitment is what Africa needs from evangelical Christians, says Goodwill Shana from Zimbabwe.

Wissam al-Saliby , Evangelical Focus

Didomi podcast, WEA · ABUJA · 16 JANUARY 2023 · 15:13 CET

Goodwill Shana (left) and Wissam al-Saliby, during the interview, in Abuja, Nigeria. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="https://worldea.org/">WEA</a>. ,
Goodwill Shana (left) and Wissam al-Saliby, during the interview, in Abuja, Nigeria. / Photo: WEA.

The multiple identities, including the growing Muslim-Christian tensions, make collaboration and progress difficult in the African continent, but evangelicals could make a difference for good if they worked together.

This is what Goodwill Shana, an experienced pastor and lawyer in Zimbabwe who chairs the Association of African Evangelicals. Formerly the chair of Transparency International in his home country, he also chairs the International Council of the World Evangelical Alliance.

Dr Shana spoke to Wissam al-Saliby, WEA representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in a gathering in Abuja (Nigeria).

Listen to the original podcast published by Didomi. Transcript provided by the WEA.


Question. In your work what are the main challenges in Africa to peace and the enjoyment of human rights?

Answer. Across the board there seem to be general themes that are emerging as a threat to peace and security in many African nations. Some of those are internal. The inherent divisions in a nation for instance, whether they are tribal or cultural. I think it is Samora Machel who said: “Division and tribalism are the Commanders in Chief of Africa’s problems”. If you add some other issues on top of that you have a serious problem.

We are here in Abuja for instance. Nigeria has 251 languages or tribes. That in itself can be a cause for conflict, instability and competition. One of the things that Africa across the continent needs to deal with is a sense of unity at that level. I think that is a very important consideration.

Another internal one is the need for leadership. Most of the political community leaders are often facilitators of insecurity and conflict. For their own reasons: for political gain, political control, manipulation. So, we do have a serious leadership deficit, good leaders in Africa. And I think it is one of those things we need to look at.

“There is an increasing conflict based on whether one is a Muslim or Christian and you can see that across Africa right now”

A third one is an external one. Sometimes our conflicts are fuelled by external international interests. For instance, in places where there is mineral wealth, there is competition, global competition for that wealth. It may serve some international interest to destabilize a region in order to get very cheap commodities. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the war is going on for 40 years, there is no end in sight. And yet billions of dollars are gained from commodities that are used for phones and other devices.

The last one that I can mention at this time may be religious conflict, like what we have seen in the Sahel region in Nigeria. There is an increasing conflict based on whether one is a Muslim or Christian and you can see that across Africa right now. An increasing tension on the frontier line of Christianity and Islam.

Those are some of things that we are facing that are compromising peace and security. One other one which is the elephant in the room, is the economic situation, the poverty. We can see migration of people running away from poverty, crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. But they are running away to Europe from a situation of economic insecurity, this is happening across the board. 

Question. It must we very overwhelming to live in this situation. I am wondering about churches, are there any good practices? What can we learn from the churches in Africa as they address these challenges?

Question. That is a very good question. I will speak about my national experiences in Zimbabwe and from there extrapolate it to elsewhere. In Zimbabwe, one of the big lessons we learned is that we could  not do much without a strong sense of unity and solidarity. Most of these challenges are much bigger that a denomination or leader, no matter how charismatic. There needs to be a solid platform of unity and united voice. And advocacy that can engage at any of these levels. In Zimbabwe, we went through a serious, multi layered crisis. I told you about the hyper inflation. It affected everyone, whether you are a Catholic, a Pentecostal, or other. It drove us into coming together. It was the coming together that helped us to find answers. I can see this being replicated across Africa.

Today we had an opportunity, you and I and the president of the Nigerian evangelicals to meet with the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Those platforms are very important. They help to leverage the church at a better level, because at a lower level there is very little you can do in certain areas. These are some of the lessons we have seen more and more clear is that the church must be able to articulate its issues.

What are the issues that are facing the church? Many times people that feel the pain are not able to articulate the issues and this is the problem. We are learning more and more to articulate what is the problem, for instance in Zimbabwe we came together as Catholics, Evangelicals, the council of churches and indigenous groups, and drafted a document called “The Zimbabwe We Want”. The document was an articulation of what the church thought the problem in Zimbabwe were and what the solutions are. We are seeing that across Africa of the church articulating what the problems are and what needs to be done.

The church is engaging more and more beyond itself and engaging the powers that be. Those are some of things that I see with Evangelical Alliances that make a difference. 

Q. You mentioned examples of socio-political engagement of churches and church associations including the evangelicals. In order to address the issues that many nations are facing, economic, human rights, corruption, is the church able to walk the difficult line of politics?

A. I suppose that the church in politics is a bit schizophrenic. The church comes together when there is a problem and then abandons its responsibility to maintain a healthy relationship between state and church. I think it was Charles Weston who said the response of the church is often only when there is a crisis.

But the evangelical world in particular has very little thought out theological and philosophical basis for engagement and that is part of the problem. When the church engages it can be momentarily, it can produce some profound traction on the ground.  But because it has no clear, succinct theological basis for political engagement, there is a problem.

“Often, people that feel the pain are not able to articulate the issues. We are learning to do it more and more”

Normally the church is split into four or five segments of engagement. First is: ‘this is not our world, we are in this world but not of this world’. Spiritual aloofness. People don’t even want to get involved in politics. Politics is dirty. Then you get what you can call the good Samaritan attitude: ‘we help our neighbours but we don’t get into politics. We will bring relief to the suffering but we are not get to question the cause of the suffering’. Then, there are those who want to provide social services, hospitals. Help people with what the state actually should be doing. Then, there are those who want to engage with widows and children, but they don’t get involved with politics of what causes their poverty. And then we have the prophetic voices. The prophetic voices are usually the radicals at the extreme left or right.

So, the position of the church is often spread across all of these positions. It’s not exactly clear how to manage these positions that are by themselves good positions. But they need to be managed well. Sometimes the church can get sucked into purely political position, what we can call Christian nationalism which can be very dangerous. Or sometimes it can be sucked into being a servant to the state. In other words, it gets coopted after Romans 13 that Kings are ordained by the Lord. So, trying to balance that can be very challenging.

I think it will be good for the church to have a ‘think tank’, not necessarily made of pastors or theologians. Just people who come together and think through how the church can strike a good balance. 

Q. Earlier you said you are very much involved in addressing Zimbabwe. You were part of Transparency International in Zimbabwe and part of government anti-corruption commission. Can you share more about that?

A. When I began to pastor people, one of the issues I bumped into is that people need services. They needed places to live. But the consistent factor they had to deal with is corruption. And this corruption was there no matter what you did.

You checked people into hospital and there is no medicine. You asked what happened to the medicine. Somebody took the money. Or there are no beds or ambulance. One particular problem I discovered that in one particular part of our city Bulawayo there was a very high rate of mortality of women who were pregnant and the only reason was that there was no ambulance. What happened to the ambulance? Some government official had taken the money for the ambulance and spent it for himself. The one question that kept coming was: ‘as a good shepherd, what do you do for your sheep? These are your sheep. And so I was given a challenge to engage the problem. And in Zimbabwe the biggest problem is corruption.

“Corruption is a very tough monster to deal with”

And then you have another problem. The problem is: where is the church? In Zimbabwe 60% of the church is evangelical. How can that be that there are so many evangelicals and there is such a low level of integrity? As a pastor I had to engage. We made some progress but it is very tough. Corruption is a very tough monster to deal with. 

Q. One of the cases you shared was a theft of diamonds.

A. Yes, Zimbabwe is a very rich country. We discovered diamonds and gold. There was 15 billion USD worth of diamonds that went missing. As part of the anti-corruption commission we had to find out what happened.

I was naïve. I was a pastor. I was angry. I did not understand the networks of corruption that keep countries impoverished. So here we are with our good intentions to go after these people and actually there is a saying in Transparency International that ‘corruption strikes back’. While we were doing it two of my colleagues were actually arrested and they started a blemish campaign against me, spreading a rumour that I made a woman pregnant.

Unfortunately, at that time the church did not consider it a worthwhile cause to engage with. But the church anywhere in the global south cannot engage with their communities without engaging in corruption. It would be great that the evangelical leadership became more focused on this issue of integrity. 

Q. I have the same experience in my home country Lebanon and at the same time I can sometimes rejoice in the small initiatives of churches and ministries to question how can we not be involved in this corrupt system. I remember in Lebanon of one of the ministries I was involved in had to dig a well and they had to put on the table all the possible scenarios and to say how they can navigate these scenarios. And to say as faithful to those in power: we are not corrupt. It is not easy because at the end of the day we also need water. I wish we had more examples of local churches to share the difficulties of navigating these scenarios of corruption. Thank you Dr. Shana. What prayer request do you have?

A. At a continental level I have very concerned about our engagement with the Islamic agenda. We need wisdom, we need people on the ground to engage at that level. People who can take practical steps forward. People like yourself who are involved in advocacy. We need advocacy as a skill, that I want to pray for.

The second one is: we see a rise of Christian politicians. For instance, in Kenya, Malawi, in Ethiopia we see Christian presidents. Prayer for leadership that exemplify and model these values we are talking about of integrity and help develop their nations in these models of integrity.

For Zimbabwe: we have economic problems and as churches we are united. We need prayers to retain that strength. We are going towards elections, so prayers are very important. 

Published in: Evangelical Focus - world - “When there is not a clear theological basis for political engagement, there is a problem”

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