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Header image The Religion Factor

Can Religion Promote Reconciliation in Zimbabwe?

Date:21 December 2016
Author:Roos Feringa

Zimbabwe still struggles to cope in the aftermath of the economic and political violence of the early to mid-2000s. To many observers, Zimbabwe remains a divided and undemocratic ‘failed state’. In today’s post, Gladys Ganiel reviews a new book by Joram Tarusarira, which explores how religion might promote democratization and reconciliation in Zimbabwe.

Gladys Ganiel is Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Her main areas of research are the Northern Ireland conflict, evangelicalism, Christianity in Ireland, the emerging church, and charismatic Christianity in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In April this year, a Zimbabwean Christian pastor called Evan Mawarire posted a video of himself online draped in his country’s flag, lamenting the state of the nation. He exhorted Zimbabweans that when they saw ‘this flag,’ it should be a summons not to stand on the sidelines, but to agitate for change. Mawarire’s film resonated amongst his fellow citizens – at least those engaged on social media – and sparked a digital activism campaign with the hashtag #thisflag.[1]

Mawarire’s video was not explicitly religious. He didn’t quote from the bible or justify himself using Christian language. But the reaction the pastor’s campaign drew not only from supporters but also from powerful opponents in President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party highlighted the continued need for democratic reform and reconciliation.

Democratic reform and reconciliation are themes taken up in a new book by Joram Tarusarira, Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe.[2] Tarusarira argues that Christian organizations are particularly well-placed to advocate for changes that could contribute to democratization and reconciliation – even if they are in constant jeopardy of being supressed or co-opted by the state.

Tarusarira’s analysis of the transformative role of religion in contemporary Zimbabwe is cautiously hopeful. He dismisses the largest ‘mainstream’ denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist) and most African Initiated Churches (AICs) as having been co-opted by the state. But his field work among ‘religio-political non-conformists’ provides evidence that those working outside traditional ‘church’ structures are striving for change, and in some instances achieving at least a degree of healing, forgiveness, and justice.

The heart of the book is Tarusarira’s case studies of three Christian organizations: The Zimbabwe Christian Alliance (ZCA), Churches in Manicaland (CiM), and Grace to Heal (GtH). Among these groups he uncovers courageous grassroots activism. His poignant account of how GtH facilitates the reburial and reconstruction of the graves of people who were murdered during Gukurahundi (1983-1987) provides an example of healing that draws on both Christian and traditional [African] religious practices:

The refurbishing and identifying of mass graves by GtH therefore gives families the opportunity to relieve themselves of a sense of guilt for not having done enough for their dead, who might rise in anger against them as avenging spirits. The religiously biased activities of GtH facilitate a spiritual cleansing for those who have committed acts of arson and participated in killing innocent souls. Perpetrators of atrocities come to seek help from mental sickness in the belief that prayer may have an exorcising effect.[3]

Tarusarira’s interview-based fieldwork also explores the explicitly religious motivation that drove activists to create these organizations. He demonstrates how they use resources from Christianity to justify their activism, such as applying the bible to contemporary situations. The words of this ZCA activist illustrate this by drawing on Jesus’ example:

ZCA was formed to coordinate work around justice and advocacy. We are of the opinion that Jesus on earth responded to issues of his time in a manner that was holistic. He did not just over spiritualise issues and he really was relevant and he ridiculed and made a parade of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He was quite keen to deal with issues regarding justice, rebuking them for selective application of the law.[4]

Tarusarira argues convincingly that the explicitly Christian discourses and practices of these organizations are an advantage in a country like Zimbabwe that has a diffuse Christian culture and a high number of practising Christians. By drawing on the resources and practices of Christian traditions, these organizations can appeal to a wide range of people.

But this book is not simply a descriptive portrait of Christian activism in Zimbabwe. It also makes a theoretical contribution by introducing the concept of ‘religio-political non-conformism’. This concept helps explain what types of religious organizations are best-equipped to contribute to social, political, and religious change.

Tarusarira’s most succinct definition of religio-political non-conformism is ‘forms of behaviour and faith that differ from the type of religion predominant in a society with respect to broader political objectives’ (p. 2). In other words, religio-political non-conformists disagree with the way that mainstream religious actors have allowed their religion to be used politically. They see the mainstream form of religion as at worst having contributed to political injustices, and at best, failing to speak out against political injustices. Finally, non-conformists see it as their religious duty to make a difference politically, helping to achieve justice for those who have been disadvantaged or oppressed.

The concept of religio-political non-conformism builds on the literature on religion and peacebuilding. This literature has tended to argue that individual religious ‘mavericks’ or special-interest organizations have been best at contributing to peace, due to their more flexible operational structures and their freedom to advocate radical ideas.

Accordingly, Tarusarira devotes a chapter, ‘Understanding Religious Non-Conformism,’ to locating religio-political non-conformism in literatures on Max Weber’s ‘sectlike society,’ religious ‘mavericks’, and social movements. He demonstrates how non-conformists benefit from being able to create flexible operational structures. They can react quickly and take more risks than organizations like Christian denominations or inter-faith bodies, whose workings are slowed by bureaucratic committees and an obsessive concern not to offend diverse parties within their constituencies.

Tarusarira’s concept of religio-political non-conformism also furthers understanding of at what ‘levels’ of politics and society religious activists can contribute to change. To that end, Tarusarira distinguishes between ‘varieties’ of religious non-conformism: radical, moderate, passive and latent. Radical non-conformists publicly challenge political leaders, moderate non-conformists carefully address political and grassroots leaders (often behind the scenes), passive non-conformists focus on the grassroots and try not to draw the attention of political leaders, and latent non-conformists are inactive.

Targeting different ‘levels’ of political and social actors allows non-conformists to contribute to change at all levels of society. In Tarusarira’s examples a particular organization focuses on a particular level: he characterizes ZCA as radical, CiM as moderate, and GtH as passive. But all non-conformists have the potential to contribute at all of these levels.

There is also a useful chapter that contributes to debates on democratization, reconciliation and civil society, exploring the links between these concepts and their relevance on the African continent. Tarusarira invests a great deal in advocating the usefulness of the hotly-contested concept of ‘reconciliation.’ As a term used in the public sphere, reconciliation has been accused of being ‘too Christian’, ‘too religious’, or as encouraging marginalized people to acquiesce to their fate.

But Tarusarira sees value in the term – not least because reconciliation is a word that Zimbabwe’s non-conformist Christian activists use themselves. He also argues that democratization and reconciliation are intertwined, because both depend on trust. As such, trust-building is needed to lay the foundations for democratization and reconciliation.

Reflections on ‘reconciliation’ are especially timely, as Zimbabwe’s promised ‘National Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Commission’ has not yet been delivered by the state.[5] Tarusarira asked his interviewees about truth and reconciliation commissions and found that most linked the prospects of reconciliation to uncovering truth (pp. 140-144). Unsurprisingly, these Christian activists thought that Christians (not politicians) should take the lead in establishing political structures to pursue truth and reconciliation.

Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe is well worth reading. Its value for readers specializing on Zimbabwe is obvious. But its concept of religio-political non-conformism is relevant for scholars working across a wide range of contexts and on religions other than Christianity. Indeed, it was perhaps a missed opportunity that Tarusarira did not reflect more extensively on how the concept might be relevant beyond Africa and beyond Christianity.

In his research methodology appendix, Tarusarira explains that he is a native Zimbabwean who sympathizes with the religio-political non-conformists whose work he documents. There may be a tendency for sympathetic scholars to overplay the significance of the work of their research subjects – to see the evidence of small grassroots changes as inevitably leading to society-wide, transformative change.

To some extent Tarusarira is aware of this potential pitfall: while non-conformists’ place on the margins gives them the advantage of freedom and flexibility, it may also consign them to irrelevance. Accordingly, Tarusarira writes with the practitioner in mind, hoping that the examples of effectiveness he describes might empower other activists. But in a context as challenging as Zimbabwe, it is possible that non-conformists’ efforts will not achieve their theoretical potential.

[1] Allison, Simon.

[2] Tarusarira, Joram. 2016. Reconciliation and Religio-political Non-conformism. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.

[3] Idem, 159.

[4] Idem, 147.

[5] Heal Zimbabwe.