In the classic example of King Saul, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is the ultimate example of a good pastor gone bad. Once hailed as a conquering hero liberating his people from their oppressors, Mugabe has become a corrupt, brutal dictator who retains power by murder and intimidation while the world—and the black church—does nothing.
Recently, a church here tried to get rid of its
pastor. Actually, the church had been trying to get rid of the pastor
for years, this was just their latest attempt. And, like so many
other pastors whose flock no longer wanted him, this pastor
fought the church’s decision, insisting on staying where he was
apparently not wanted and, worse, where he was obviously not
effective. Pastors should never put the will of the people above
the will of God, but when the clear majority of the church is
trying to show you the door, there’s obviously a problem. I was
told this pastor or his supporters changed the church’s locks,
barring the deacons and trustees from the building. The police
had to be summoned to resolve the issue, and ultimately the
local news media became involved. Regardless of who might have
been right or wrong in this particular situation, I believe it
is fair to suspect not much of it had anything whatsoever to do
The biblical model for the bad pastor is Saul. A good and noble man, Saul looked like a king, sounded like a king, led like a king, and was politically attractive to the people of Israel to be appointed as their king. Never mind that, if Israel needed a king, God would have sent them one (theretofore, God had sent a series of judges and prophets). Where pastors and churches go wrong is when they begin substituting their own judgment for the will of God. When they either attempt to help God out or steer God through the slalom of their own foolishness. The people of Israel chose Saul. This local church chose this pastor. Both seemed like reasonable ideas, and both were made by the shot callers of the moment—who are usually the least spiritual among us.
Pastors clinging to power just seem pathetic. God never called a pastor to cling to power. To barricade himself inside the building or split the church by filing lawsuits or crippling the ministry by demanding a big payout in order to leave. None of that has anything whatsoever to do with God, and we, as God’s people, need to grow up. To stop leaning to our own understanding, resolving conflicts with fists or even guns and lawsuits. In fact, the behavior of those attempting to oust the pastor is, in and of itself, testimony to the pastor’s failure to connect his flock to Jesus Christ. The pastor was behaving like a child, the ousters were behaving like morons. This is why the black church isn’t growing: the lawsuits, the fistfights, the fussing and finger-pointing like sixth graders on a lunch period.
The Holy Spirit does not stay where He is not welcome [Gen 6:3]. If we offend, or “grieve,” the Holy Spirit, we put distance between God and ourselves. We find ourselves led less and less by the mind of Christ [Phil 2:5] and, increasingly, by our own flawed humanity [Rom 1:28].
Like Saul, too many of our pastors begin with the very best of intentions, only to descend into self and, ultimately, sin. Usually, it’s women and money, the major failing of black pastors being to connect us—all of us, sisters and brothers—to the love and personal example of Jesus Christ. An example that included a disciplined flesh, and a quiet, sober spirit. Our loud brassiness, hair-trigger tempers and the ghastly spectacle of church ladies making themselves sexually available to the pastor—the *pastor*—is glaring evidence of the emptiness of the pastor’s calling. He is an empty suit, a guy just cashing checks. If there’s all manner of hell going on in your church, chances are your pastor is a fraud. If your pastor allows you to put on a week of services in his honor and hand him a bag full of cash at the end of it—the guy is completely lost.
What’s our biblical model? Jesus had compassion even for the soldiers who tortured Him [Luke 23:34]. The Holy Spirit would not lead a pastor to lock the doors of his church to anyone—even his enemies. The Holy Spirit would not lead a group of church folk to form a lynch mob and corner the guy. This is all foolishness, the impotent and un-anointed pastor’s chicken coming home to roost.
Which, of course, brings us to Zimbabwe.
I couldn't help but notice that nearly every minibus in Zimbabwe's capital has a poster of Robert Mugabe, often bordered in red, with the candidate dressed in bright red from head to foot. I asked around and there's a very simple reason for this. These privately owned conveyances, which carry most people to and from work, can rarely find fuel at official prices and so must normally revert to the black market, at some U.S. $8-$10 a gallon. But if they have a Mugabe poster, they're allowed to refuel at government depots at subsidized prices of only 60,000 Zimbabwean dollars per gallon. That's essentially free, since the Zim dollar is trading at 18 billion for each U.S. dollar; it has doubled in a week's time and is going up nearly 20 percent a day, for an inflation rate in excess of 2 million percent a year—some say it may even be 20 million percent by now.
We’ve spent a trillion dollars deposing Saddam. We won’t spend a nickel to get rid of this guy. Won’t lift a finger. As with most things African, the United States—and, by extension, the black church—has blithely ignored what’s been going on in places like Zimbabwe. Having apparently learned our lesson in Mogadishu (the tragic events depicted in the film Blackhawk Down), America is quite skittish about getting involved in Africa, the scope of that continent’s misery seeming overwhelming. Africa is, in fact, a continent which has been pillaged and exploited for centuries. Sadly, the fractious squabbling of petty despots now models the very colonial oppression the continent has struggled to overcome. It is, in fact, a tragic byproduct of that exploitation.
Zimbabwe held a runoff election Friday where there was only one candidate listed on the ballot—President Robert Mugabe. Once a noble liberator admired by all Africans and knighted by Queen Elizabeth, Mugabe has fought hard against his own political decline since the late 90’s.
The prosperous model of economic growth, Zimbabwe, once described as “Africa’s Breadbasket,” has devolved into just another struggling petty dictatorship on a continent burgeoning with them. A thriving and prosperous farming nation which fed its neighbors, Zimbabwe has, over the past two decades of President Robert Mugabe’s rule, spiraled into misery and chaos. It has the highest inflation rate in recorded history (a staggering 133,000%. Yes, *thousand*) and has an 85% unemployment rate. The desperately poor and starving citizenry are also ravaged by HIV-AIDS, their productivity stalled to daily struggles to feed their children and survive Mugabe’s thuggery.
In the classic example of King Saul, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is the ultimate example of a good pastor gone bad. Fearful of a loss to political rival Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who came in first in an election held in March, Mugabe has since pulled out all the stops to ensure his victory in the constitutionally-mandated runoff election (Tsvangirai did not win by a wide enough margin to avoid a runoff vote).
Mugabe has used threats and intimidation, beatings, even burning homes and entire villages to frighten and coerce Zimbabweans into voting for him. Tsvangirai himself was jailed and beaten several times before he ultimately dropped out of the race, fearing for the safety of his supporters.
And, so, Mugabe—this bad pastor—is now crowing about how he “won” Friday’s “election,” an election which has been discredited by most every world and African organization. No less a figure than Nelson Mandela himself denounced Mugabe, and the Queen of England rescinded his knighthood. Even President Bush—who never seems too engaged about Africa or anything else—is pressing for sanctions. The problem with sanctions, though, is they tend to only harm the very population Mugabe has tortured and killed. I promise you, nothing Bush or anybody else does will have an effect on Mugabe, who will continue to live in the lap of luxury and enjoy his grip on power.
I’ll admit, giving up power is difficult. It’s why boxers don’t retire until they’re humiliated by some kid who used to be a fan of theirs. It’s why most people will leave a church if they’re forced to step down from a position. It’s childish and immature—the fact being many if not most of us aspire to positions we’re actually not suited for. And, rather than seek God for our true calling and a place where our gifts can find expression, we lash out. We fuss. We change locks and cling to power. Like Robert Mugabe.
Would retirement really have been so bad? I’m sure this guy has a lot of cash tucked safely away somewhere. And, had he chosen to step down peacefully, he’d also have had a lot of friends. Instead, he’s now terribly isolated and looking like a fool. Looking like every other two-bit clown murdering his way to power on the African continent, a place in the world suffering as a result of its own exploitation. Centuries of colonial oppression conditioned those colonized, imbuing a feudal mind among people grown accustomed to repression. Such much so that, to many if not most Africans, the language of oppression is all they have generationally known: their leaders being the men who have slaughtered and maimed and raped the most people. It’s a sad, go-along, enabler’s Stockholm Syndrome, these cheering morons around Mugabe. Most of them cheer out of fear. The rest out of ignorance.
Which is precisely the same dynamic a church suffers under a bad pastor. Mist Church Folk will not openly criticize even a bad pastor. Because his title is “pastor,” we’re intimidated by him. We misread God’s warning to do His prophets no harm [1 Chr 16:22]. A Pastor is not called to have a free pass. A pastor should, first and foremost, have a pastor’s heart. He should exude the love of Christ and live a life well beyond reproach. Yet we cheer this guy, grinning at him, even though he is nothing at all like Christ. Even though he has taught us nothing of Christ. Even though he oppresses us, sleeps around, take money, there’s always a certain number of folk who’ll be applauding him. This is what we get when we allow unspiritual people to chair hiring committees: a guy who comes in like Nelson Mandela, but who ends up like Robert Mugabe.
I don’t pretend to know what Mugabe’s story is, beyond the fact that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most U.S. presidents, had they the legal ability, would seek a third or even fourth term in office. Stepping down is tough to do, waking up in the morning as just another schmuck mowing his lawn. From my chair, Mugabe seems all about Mugabe. His country is in ruins, with nations now finding justification for doing what they’ve essentially been doing all along—nothing. It’s easy to forget places like Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has no oil to sell us. It’s location is of no strategic value to anyone. They have precious little to bring to the table to attract our attention. Oh, and they’re black. In fact, they’re worse than black: they’re African, whom a great many white Americans assume are of no measurable value to us. While I am indeed grateful our president has bothered to notice the mess over in Zimbabwe, his notice comes at least eight years too late. Mugabe’s despotic campaign is old news. He has been up to no good since the millennium, when earnest efforts began to vote him out of office. It’s nice our president has noticed, but my question is, where’ve you been? President Bush acts like he just discovered Zimbabwe on a map. Like this stuff just started happening yesterday.
Pan African affairs are rarely if ever mentioned from black pulpits in my city. Ironically, the plight of Africans—whether it is civil war in the Sudan and the Congo, genocide in Darfur, famine in Ethiopia or diamond wars in Sierra Leone—gets far more attention and sympathy from Catholic charities and white evangelicals. To my observation, the black church is shamefully and perhaps deliberately unaware or unconcerned about the world beyond its doors. Ours is a very insular religious experience, Kabuki theater in the round, a pleasant aerobic Sunday morning distraction that makes us feel good about ourselves, but an experience which dissipates the moment we roll up the tinted glass on our air-conditioned luxury cars.
Additionally, there’s an odd disconnect between Africans and African Americans, many of whom feel no connection to African peoples, whom many of us tend to look down our noses at. When we think of Africa, we think of poor, illiterate, half-dressed people dancing in the dust. Our connection to “those people” appears only skin-deep, and our interest in what goes on on the continent is subsequently nonexistent.
Most church folk I know, well, here at least, watch mainly local news—cows tipped over by punks and team coverage of a house fire over on Bradley road. The local stations frequently run weather alert crawls across the bottom of the screen during the half-hour of network news we get, along with piercing sound effects that obscure the network news audio. A continent’s suffering is just not as important as the narrowing of Tejon Street from two lanes to one. Most of my church folk friends don’t watch any news at all, don’t read any newspaper, are completely unconcerned about what’s going on in the world.
The second-largest and most populous continent on the planet, Africa covers 20% of the Earth’s land area. 20%. And, much as politicians tend to push Saudi Arabia and Egypt and, yes, Israel into something called the “Middle East,” these countries—the lands of the Bible—are, in fact, part of the African continent. Moses led the Hebrews out of Africa. This place is our homeland—as both black people and Christians. But most mention of it is regularly excised from our Sunday morning gatherings.
The Republic of Zimbabwe held a presidential election along with a parliamentary election on March 29, 2008. The three major candidates were incumbent President Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and Simba Makoni, an independent. Because of Zimbabwe's dire economic situation the election was expected to provide President Mugabe with his toughest electoral challenge to date. Mugabe's opponents have been critical of the handling of the electoral process, and the government has been accused of planning to rig the election; Human Rights Watch said that the election was likely to be “deeply flawed”. However, after the election took place, Jose Marcos Barrica, the head of the Southern African Development Community observer mission, described the election as "a peaceful and credible expression of the will of the people of Zimbabwe."
No official results were announced for more than a month after the election. The failure to release results was strongly criticized by the MDC, which unsuccessfully sought an order from the High Court that would force their release. An independent projection placed Tsvangirai in the lead, but without the majority needed to avoid a second round. The MDC declared that Tsvangirai won a narrow majority in the first round and initially refused to participate in any second round. ZANU-PF has said that Mugabe will participate in a second round; the party alleged that some electoral officials, in connection with the MDC, fraudulently reduced Mugabe's score, and as a result a recount was conducted.
After the recount and the verification of the results, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced on May 2 that Tsvangirai won 47.9% and Mugabe won 43.2%, thereby necessitating a run-off, which was to be held on 27 June 2008. Despite Tsvangirai's continuing claims to have won a first round majority, he initially decided to participate in the second round. The period following the first round has been marked by serious political violence. ZANU-PF and the MDC each blame the other's supporters for perpetrating this violence; Western governments and prominent Western organizations have blamed ZANU-PF for the violence. On June 22, 2008, Tsvangirai announced that he was withdrawing from the run-off, describing it as a "violent sham" and saying that his supporters risked being killed if they voted for him. The government has said that the second round will nevertheless be held.
MSNBC News Services:
Outraged at the turmoil in Zimbabwe, the U.N. Security Council declared that a fair presidential vote is impossible because of the “campaign of violence” waged by President Robert Mugabe’s government.
The 15-nation council Monday unanimously said it “condemns the campaign of violence against the political opposition ahead of the second round of presidential elections,” which has resulted in the killing of scores of opposition activists and other Zimbabweans.
The move came after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the vote — reportedly fearing for his safety — and police raided his Harare headquarters, hustling away dozens of his supporters. Tsvangirai took refuge in the Dutch embassy.
As Christians, as African-Americans, what should our response be? Sending money over there is most certainly a complete waste, as Mugabe’s strongmen would just stuff their pockets with it. Foreign aid, in fact, only enables this misery to continue. Military intervention in Zimbabwe is just as bad an idea as military intervention in Iraq or the Balkans: it seems like the right thing to do, go police your neighbor’s yard. But unless you’re prepared to stay for the rest of your life, things will only go back to the way they were the minute you leave. Freedom is a unique commodity in the world, one we routinely take for granted. This truth is most compellingly obvious in developing nations, which are only “developing” because European powers exploited them for centuries. Had modern nations worked cooperatively with Africa instead of plundering it, the continent would certainly have taken on a different destiny. Instead, the enslavers came not to teach, not to empower, but to rape—in every sense and evil of its meaning. The most tragic consequences of that selfishness have yet to be fully realized, but the proliferation of Robert Mugabes shows no sign of abating.
Personally, I’d like to see the same European nations who enriched themselves from the generational torture and destruction of entire peoples—a fraternity which includes this nation as well—go in there and clean up the mess they’ve made. Which, sadly, will only make a bigger mess. Such are the important lessons of history our president slept through while struggling to maintain his D-average at Harvard. Going in to feed them, to supply medicine and human services, only validates these petty dictators who will regulate and find a way to profit from basic humanitarian aid. *That*’s how evil these men are. Selling relief supplies for profit, feeding their friends, starving their enemies, cash in their pockets. Throwing money at the problem to appease our conscience accomplishes nothing. Going in to change things would require a commitment of money and human lives—at minimum, the Million Man March in Kevlar and tanks—and more time than any developed nation would be willing to invest in a country that offers nothing in terms of economic or strategic consequence: a nation whose currency is now measured exclusively in human misery.
Which leaves only God, Who, ironically, should have been the first place we turn. It amazes me that governments turn to God only after they’ve ruled out money and missiles. Education can be the greatest and most pernicious weapon of all, a viral infection of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. Investing in educating the children of Zimbabwe, of the Congo, of the Sudan, is the only feasible long-term solution to any of this. For it is only by conquering the crippling ignorance and eliminating the generational, inbred acceptance of petty despots that any lasting change can be made in the region.
Christian missionaries in Africa face daunting challenges from Islamic extremists and military juntas, but they are doing God’s work. A pastor friend once scoffed at the usefulness of African missions, speculating those conversions won’t last, that simple-minded folk are easy to convert, which goes both ways. They’ll accept any religious teaching from missionaries who run over there with a bunch of sandwiches. I understand his skepticism about those conversions, but many, many of them stick—even if the people themselves have no bibles and no religious structure to support them. Knowing Christ is a transformative experience, one I believe will live within us and assert itself even when we ourselves wander astray. And nothing we do for Christ will ever be in vain.
If the United States of America spent even one ten-thousandth of the money educating people that we spend on killing them, we could indeed change the world. If Christian—or Muslim or Jewish—missionaries could earn what civilian contractors in Iraq earn, we could raise up the most powerful, most terrible army any foe has ever faced. One armed not the rifles and tanks but with something far deadlier to people like Mugabe: Truth. And for those of us who know God’s truth, who know its transformative power, we know the crushing tyranny of men like Mugabe cannot stand before it.
Such change won’t come easy, won’t happen, likely, in our lifetime. But it *will* happen, if we chose to educate people out of ignorance and change the way they see themselves and their leaders. But, before we can do that, we must first: (a) care enough to invest in that change, and, (b) practice that change here in our own churches, too many of which are led by our own version of Mugabe. While the choir sings, and we cheer him on.
Christopher J. Priest
29 June 2008
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