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The Catholic Church Can Save Zimbabwe

Filed under: Africa

"The structures of sin [are] rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behaviour."

Pope John Paul II wrote the above in 1987 on the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western leaders of liberty Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were driving home a campaign to hasten the evil empire's demise from abroad, but the Pope had something unique that they couldn't have hoped to match: a direct connection with the more than 90% of people who were professed Catholics. Besides the fact that he himself was Polish, the church itself could connect with people in a way that even the ideas of freedom coming from Western leaders never could. Religiosity can transcend borders, fear, and even death itself.

What matters most is that by the 1980s, Catholicism and the church's organizational structure had completely permeated Polish civil society. The Pope's message of resistance -- his identification of the inherent evil in the totalitarianism of the Soviet-sponsored state -- passed through the ears of the cardinals, from their mouths to the ears of the archbishops, and so on to the ears of the laity. For example, significant support had been given to the Solidarity movement, which was crucial to filling its ranks.

The Church was also instrumental in preaching non-violent struggle; using its organizational structure to ensure compliance with this tenet. Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the unofficial spiritual adviser to Solidarity who became a martyr following his murder by state security officers, constantly urged millions of believers not to be goaded into violence. Doing so would only recreate the same structures of inhumanity that they currently lived under, whereas mass non-violence would ensure a peaceful transition from oppression.

Do not struggle with violence. Violence is a sign of weakness. All those who cannot win through the heart try to conquer through violence. The most wonderful and durable struggles in history have been carried on by human thought. The most ignoble fights and most ephemeral successes are those of violence. An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord. An idea which is imposed by violence collapses under it. An idea capable of life wins without effort and is then followed by millions of people.

The fight against foreign communist occupation was one such wonderful and durable struggle, and it succeeded in transposing that regime with new, democratic one based on respect for human rights and dignity. This was able to occur precisely because of the doctrine of non-violence. Its adherence by both the leaders and people of the new Poland created a new structure from which opportunity and freedom could flow rather than corruption and destruction. An idea capable of life grew out of the people who had created the new structure.

Even the security services, whose very nature was based on the violent protection of the previous regime, would not fight the millions of countrymen, neighbors, and families who stood in their way. The price of participation had become too high, and it dissolved away.

In Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe has ruthlessly oppressed his own people, religiosity has begun to take on an increasing light in the social sphere. Whatever is left of civil society takes place very often in the sanctuary of the country's churches. With nearly a quarter of the population identifying with Roman Catholicism, and many more clamoring for spiritual leadership against oppression, the church is in a significant position to lead the people of Zimbabwe in their quest for freedom.

Church involvement in Zimbabwe has been going on for quite some time already. But as the country reaches the height of its crisis, its organizational outreach has also sought new levels.

Over the Easter holiday, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, which includes the nine archbishops and bishops of the country, released perhaps the most condemning pastoral letter since the struggle for independence. Titled, "God Hears The Cry Of The Oppressed", it was posted to congregation bulletin boards, distributed roundly, and read aloud all over Zimbabwe, with people scrambling to know its content. In the letter, the bishops call Mugabe's regime exactly what it is, using the same quote by Pope John Paul II above. Additionally, it relates the current struggle to another that all Zimbabweans know dearly: the one for independence.

Black Zimbabweans today fight for the same basic rights they fought for during the liberation struggle. It is the same conflict between those who possess power and wealth in abundance, and those who do not; between those who are determined to maintain their privileges of power and wealth at any cost, even at the cost of bloodshed, and those who demand their democratic rights and a share in the fruits of independence; between those who continue to benefit from the present system of inequality and injustice, because it favours them and enables them to maintain an exceptionally high standard of living, and those who go to bed hungry at night and wake up in the morning to another day without work and without income; between those who only know the language of violence and intimidation, and those who feel they have nothing more to lose because their Constitutional rights have been abrogated and their votes rigged. Many people in Zimbabwe are angry, and their anger is now erupting into open revolt in one township after another.

The people are growing in their revolt. Even the security forces, loyal to Mugabe only because of the paychecks, are torn in their actions. Underneath the oppressive regime is the development of an alternative structure to supersede it. This structure must continue to be nurtured and led, with a focus on mass non-violence, so that Mugabe's replacement does not follow his lead.

For this reason, the Catholic Church at the highest levels should become involved. Generally, it has yielded to protecting its flock, which at times has meant forgoing resistance under the threat of a severe crackdown. At other times, such as in Poland, it has resisted when its flock comes under the great pressure of totalitarian or atheistic ideas.

The time for that resistance is now. In his "Urbi et Orbi" Easter address, Pope Benedict XVI spoke all too briefly of the impending crisis: "Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis and for this reason the Bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward."

More can be done. The mantle of Pope John Paul II needs to be taken up. Pope Benedict is in the position to endorse the bishops of Zimbabwe, aid them, and speak to them and their congregation directly. He can fly in, preach resistance to a huge crowd in the middle of Harare, and even Mugabe wouldn't be able to touch him. (If he did, he'd really be in trouble).

The international community cannot be relied on, or trusted, to pressure Mugabe to leave power and dismantle his regime. Many countries driven by the ideology of freedom, such as the United States, simply do not have enough influence and organizational structure with the people of Zimbabwe. Other governments that are much closer and influential, such as South Africa, have proven that they do not feel the moral imperative to act on the behalf of simple human dignity alone; only proving that its leadership is of a similar kinship. Denying him would be denying themselves.

The considerable influence, not to mention moral and spiritual authority, of the Catholic Church and its leaders may be the only thing standing in the way of Mugabe. At this critical point in the country's history, these brave souls who are already in the thick of this struggle for freedom need all of the support and guidance that they can get. It is only right, indeed only moral, that the church's doctrine of resistance to oppression not lay solely on the square of the shoulders of the laity, but on those of pontiff as well.

There need not be martyrs, just the belief in the eternal righteousness of human liberty and the desire to see it made. In this, the church can help Zimbabwe save itself.

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