Friar Chris writes to us from Zimbabwe, where he has been teaching. Thank you Chris, you have certainly had a fruitful time back in Africa! We are grateful for your sharing it with us and for inviting us to reflect on these issues. Agnellus’ Mirror is here for all manner of reflections!
When I was a teenager, I recall sanctions being imposed against the illegal continuation of a British colonial regime in Rhodesia. Struggles were taking place to replace that outdated structure and form a new nation, Zimbabwe, and by 1980 that had taken place. I also remember wondering how ordinary citizens can cope when many items which we consider to be essential are made unobtainable. When do sanctions become a big hammer used to crack a nut? How can anyone prevent them from becoming one more version of bullying?
This is a relevant question when the churches pass through a repeated catechetical exercise for newcomers to Christianity, which we call Lent. The danger is always the practice of frowning intensely about all the wrongdoings of the human race, but not seeing the changes of heart which need to be the true ‘penitence’ of a change of heart in ourselves. Letting go of our approval of strong arm tactics must often be an aspect of welcoming God’s peace and grace into our lives. Sanctions still exist in the southern African country of Zimbabwe, imposed not only by the United States, but also by the European Union. They seem to be a mode of coercion, not against a right-wing white-domination system, but against a mild version of socialism which happens to question the neo-conservative consumerist programmes favoured by the large market monopolies achieved by commercialist manufacturers. These are generally manufacturers who have done least to extricate the cultures of the world from environmentally-destructive practices.
I do not intend to compose an argument in favour of every governmental alliance built up technologically by the government of Zimbabwe. Geopolitics is an aspect of human circumstances which pervades news broadcasts but which mostly cannot be turned around by churches, even in their most valid calls for charity. Nevertheless, the current school student-led world-wide protests concerning the destruction of environments, which lament that we ignore paths that consider climate change, are genuine appeals for understanding grace and peace. Greater sensitivity to what makes sustainable community, not just sustainable industries, is a challenging and valid concern to introduce to our prayer lives.
In Zimbabwe at the beginning of 2019, a large increase in fuel prices was imposed, leading to rioting, six hundred arrests and a combination of woundings and deaths. With 90% unemployment, this added to an already existing awareness of shared vulnerability for great numbers of the country’s inhabitants. The effects of the sanctions only worsened the realities experienced by the most vulnerable. The cyclone which hit Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique in the middle of March brought flooding, with hundreds made homeless and a possible two hundred deaths. Lack of fuel has its further impact on limits to emergency services. I think for English readers, one factor which might capture the character of the problem is this: when there are raids or beatings, a call made to the police is likely to be met with a question, ‘when can you drive to the police station and pick up the police and bring them to the scene?’ That is an effect of crudely introduced sanctions, which seem to be an illegal measure for the sake of Western domination.
There are areas which feel these effects most, and others, especially for those with some kind of job, where an unimpressive but vaguely ‘normal’ level of daily existence continues to operate. Good numbers of Catholics continue to get to their nearest churches and celebrate the Eucharist as a community gift of solidarity. The teaching and training of young men to help the celebrations to be vibrant, kind, and compassionate continues to be taken on by a seminary and by a college in Harare which is nurturing members of several religious congregations. It takes time to acquire the kinds of perceptive insight and concern which make a genuine pastoral charism deepen and become evident. I have been spending three months teaching this group of young men, at Holy Trinity College.
The parish of the Nazareth House sisters next to the college has a strong lay commitment to developing genuine community gifts and relationships. The students are also involved in running prayer services and giving talks at a number of parishes, forming a network of Christians with shared convictions and sympathies. I try to explore connections between church history and theological developments, especially Vatican II, with them. One student asked me what the reasons are for the well-known decline of European Christianity. I explained it in terms of a lack of real understanding of community bonding and its qualities of transforming awareness. I said that those single diocesan priests who do have a sense of community are moved around with no respect for the needs and wishes of a local congregation. At the same time, where religious orders have been able, with slightly larger numbers, to create a good presence as a communal empowerment focus, they may not be known by believers living twenty miles away, so helping their good charism to spread to other areas will often not take place at all easily.
I have been staying with one of these student groups, the Franciscans, who are present now in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia as well as Zimbabwe. This group struggles to win new members, and has increased its ties of Franciscan commitment across the region since the late 1950s. I lived with the friars in the Zimbabwe custody residence, half an hour’s walk from the College.
The image of a carving of the crucified Christ that accompanies this article is in the small chapel of the friars’ residence. It comes from a centre for sculptures at Driefontein, some way outside Harare. We don’t know the name of the carver. I like the restrained honesty of the image. It speaks to me of the gift of Christ’s understanding of human hardship, of the human need for better interactions and interdependency. This is a thoughtful Christ, one who has clearly spent his life perceiving the pains and heartfelt longing of those to whom he brought forgiveness and hope. Although it seemed as though the hope was rejected by those who wanted to see him killed, I see in the face a possible mind, one which looked in love beyond the knee-jerk rejections and sanctions, which grew up like a wall to prevent his message. In his death he was open to the empowerment of his divine Father, the living God of all human aspirations for peace. There is no barrier to risen reality in this face, and no barrier to our risen realities in the gifts which come to us from the God, who heard his prayers, and who brings our prayers too into their realisation.
Chris Dyczek, OFM
Harare, March 2019.