Updated: Jan 21
“Heroes act courageously because they believe that their course of action is the best one. To stand for truth and fairness demands courage on the part of us all. But that is the only way to usher in a new era for Malawi.” ~ Pastoral Letter, 28 April 2019, Episcopal Conference of Malawi.
The first Episcopal Conference Pastoral Letter appeared in Malawi in 1961. Twenty-four have followed it since. In later years, governments have not just seen successive bombardments from ‘the Conference’ alone. More major faith denominations have joined up to amplify the various appeals for better democracy through their own Pastoral Letters. As the Conference released its twenty-fifth Pastoral Letter on the 28th of April 2019, CCAP Nkhoma Synod reverends were also screaming their own to their congregations across the Central Region. To this, the government has responded. According to this website, there are merits in the communication from the government’s mouthpiece, Hon. Henry Mussa. But there are also some serious flaws in his argument.
It’s expected that when a church, or any other religious institution for that matter, is the one that assigns the sorts of virtues to characterize a leader, the candidate must embody purity in many ways than one. And despite our Constitution's glaring secularism, Nkhoma Synod’s ideal candidate must unequivocally be "filled with the Holy Spirit". In a boundless sea of Bible verses and spiritual quotes, the Episcopal Conference’s invokes courage dipped in divine soup. In the face of all the Letters' correct insinuations, it’s naïve for us to think that a government whose many characteristics coincide with the vices admonished would take it lying down. So, Mr. Mussa was only doing his natural duty to defend his boss and Party, albeit really badly.
But fortunately for Mr. Mussa (a rare occurrence), there were a few things of credibility to his name in his response this time. He correctly enlightened us how the church is free to guide its followers the best way it knows how. This nicely intertwines with the government’s effective non-interference in matters located at the intersection between the church and the State. To a great degree, he’s right as much of the negative rhetoric by the DPP government towards the church has been more of rants made on a podium than action. We believe the DPP machinery can get some credit for that. He also makes an important point that the church must join forces with government in rooting out corruption than limit their grievances to Pastoral Letters and pulpit microphones. The one thing he has been unable to say – and we would support the poor fellow on this one – is that many of the corruption culprits in Malawi, caught and uncaught alike, sputter the name of God and show up at places of worship rumbling malilime like God Himself had sanctioned them. There’s thus a clear role for the church to play in imparting moral values and a sense of collective responsibility towards corruption that could move the country forward. Again, Mr. Mussa is right to bring this right to the face of the church because the failures to triumph on corruption should be a collective failure. Not just government’s.
In fact, we would confidently add that, because of the church’s failures to effectively address this moral issue among its congregants, it has also wound up enjoying the generosity of the same people by conveniently ignoring the filter on what money it will receive and the dirty money it must reject.
Alas! The rest of Mr. Mussa’s rumblings were more symbolic of desperate attempts for exoneration than a demonstration of a government quite wanting of public trust. However, among the many arguments the poor fellow presented, the most troubling is that of ‘moral high ground’. Mr. Mussa, on behalf of his boss and government, told the nation that the church is in no position to take the moral high ground because of its own unscrupulousness. Although the facts as far as the Nkhoma Synod’s example may be right, his remarks justify the DPP government’s wrongdoing because others – like the Synod – are equally guilty of their own ills. This raises a really disconcerting feeling because of its promise to perpetuate the cyclical nature of corruption on the grounds that everyone is engaging in one loot or the other. It says nothing different from the People’s Party government that alleged “It’s our time to rule…titakate!”
But for this website, Mr. Mussa's challenge opens up an avenue to ponder on how the church could play a more effective role in the future of governance in Malawi. In a nutshell, the church must somewhat change its mentality itself.
Our lens on the church.
The history of Pastoral Letters in Malawi demonstrates the kind contribution that the church has made in shaping the country’s political landscape. However, our allusion to the church’s failings (together with Mr. Mussa) as we highlight above, the swathes of Pastoral Letters seem to struggle with the rest of Malawi’s people in identifying a leader who will satisfy the list of virtues they call for. A painful reality for the part of Malawi that’s religious, then, is that a candidate that satisfies all the nine attributes (pages 12-13) of the Episcopal Conference’s Letter for Malawi remains an unattainable ideal. And like in all past democratic elections, this year’s doesn’t look like it will be the exception.
We suggest that while seeking that unattainable ideal in their appeal to their congregants, it is important for the church to bear in mind that perhaps most important for Malawi is to have a leader that represents all Malawians with a dedication that is undivided. The compromise on this may very well be that such a person may not necessarily be a Christian, nor God-fearing, nor filled with the Holy Ghost, although these are helpful attributes indeed. The right candidate then must demonstrate a technical know-how that is less dependent on the stack of degrees they have in their closets, and the church must help in addressing this illusion (even as it calls for a change of mindset of Malawians). For evidence has shown us that the enormity of degrees and titles heaped on one man has not always translated into positive change. As we published on 11 June 2018 (read The Flipside of Malawi’s Educated Elites), those who brandish the mightiest degrees have placed themselves at the center of mismanagement and damage of a country so full of potential.
The other aspect this website wishes to address in reaction to the two Pastoral Letters referenced in this article is the church’s own analysis of whether the country is maturing in its democracy at all. Debatable as it may sound, every electoral cycle has brought both new and repeated lessons for Malawians. It shows that the approach of the church too must learn and change with the times if it will lead the masses – all masses, Christian or not – into making better choices.
So, while the Episcopal Conference seems mum on whether it sees a single candidate that is worthy of the nation’s support (and perhaps it is right to take this position), it also leaves the people confused on how such a choice will materialize. This is because there seems none among the list of presidential candidates we have in 2019 that will fulfill the laundry list of leadership qualities they display on pages 12-13. As a matter of fact, others on social media have indicated how the Nkhoma Synod Letter indirectly leans toward ‘a particular candidate’ (we think the murmurs actually point at Dr. Lazarus Chakwera). Such clarity would have proven helpful in a year whose election promises to be more contentious than usual, if only the ‘holy’ man were not closely flanked by two heavyweights that led the People’s Party (PP) government - former President Joyce Banda and former PP Minister Sidik Mia - when the Cashgate scandal broke out.
Needless to say that the PP must still explain to Malawians some critical details behind Cashgate, but the corruption scandal has been a frequent campaign utterance from the lips of Mr. Chakwera.
It's thus important that the church must keep itself clean of positions that are easy prey for public scrutiny as Malawi's social media or Mr. Mussa, despite the man's shortcomings, have done. All of the challenges the country faces, which the Pastoral Letters address, are quite as obvious as they are felt by all Malawians of sensible reckoning. Therefore, the sting of Pastoral Letters must be grounded in a solution set that is not a one-off during an election year. But the church must groom aspiring leaders, without discrimination based on religious affiliation, by equipping them with the stronger moral values their Pastoral Letters want to see in the years leading up to elections.