Prophets or allies?

Prophets or allies?

Continued from last week

The Post-colonial Church’s Intervention Strategies in Political Conflicts in Lesotho

Church leaders in Lesotho have used a variety of intervention strategies as they sought to address issues of a critical nature in the political life of the nation. The strategies have ranged from the most common pastoral statements by the CCL (Heads of Churches), to individual denominations, to shuttle diplomacy and mediation, and, lately, to prayer breakfasts by Heads of Churches.

Prayers

Between 2006 and 2016, the Christian Council of Lesotho organised a series of prayer sessions with various stakeholders around the themes of peace, elections, tolerance, God’s guidance and justice, among others. On 22 August, 2006, the Christian Council of Lesotho organised a prayer service for peace and reconciliation among various churches within the context of the impending general elections of 2007 (Leselinyana, 2006).

This prayer service re-ignited the spirit of the statement of reconciliation of 1975, and extended the olive branch beyond the confines of the CCL to other denominations. Its acknowledgement of the divisions and confusion caused within, and among, churches as well as the need for repentance and reconciliation amongst them, echoed, clearly, the outlook of the 1975 statement of reconciliation. In it, the leaders of different churches called for repentance for the divisions caused within, and among, the churches.

Following the political turmoil of 2007 and the subsequent years, and the precariousness of peace in the impending 2012 elections, the CCL, in conjunction with civil society organisations, organised prayer breakfast sessions with politicians (February 2012; April 2012); the Independent Electoral Commission (2012 and 2014); the Lesotho Telecommunications Authority; the Lesotho Correctional Services; the Lesotho Mounted Police Service and the National Security Services (February, 2015). Given the violence that characterised the period between 2014 and 2015, a series of prayers in that period culminated in the national prayer for peace at the national stadium.

Mediation and Shuttle Diplomacy

Though the church representatives had participated as key stakeholders in the mediation efforts by President Masire, their direct involvement was prompted by his formal retirement from the mediation in Lesotho, in the winter of 2009.  Civil society organisations together with the CCL Heads of Churches, through shuttle diplomacy between government and opposition, played an important role by setting in motion dialogue between the aggrieved parties. This had the effect of averting the potential violence that might have easily led to a full-blown civil war.

Mediation efforts took different shapes and forms. Letsie (2015) cites one form in which church leaders had to talk, one to one, with political party leaders, who were also members of their respective congregations, in an effort to urge them to give peace a chance.  Church leaders were, in what was quite uncommon of them, called in to mediate between two feuding factions of the LCD in 2012; needless to say that the mediation was unsuccessful as evidenced by the formation of DC. In 2015, church leaders were called in again to mediate between government and exiled leaders, following the 2015 elections, a matter that is still hopefully, in progress.

Prophetic Statements and Letters

In 2014 the church had to be equal to the tension and violence that engulfed the country. Over and above prayers and mediation efforts church leaders collectively and individually issued a series of pastoral statements appealing for calm, upholding of human rights and giving peace a chance through home-grown negotiations (Litsoakotleng, April-June 2014; LCBC, 2014).

In its statement of April 22nd-25th, 2014, LECSA positions itself within the prophetic corpus by citing Ezekiel 33:6-7. By the same token, and in keeping with that prophetic mandate, the leaders admonish all those who are resolved to undermine the hard-earned peaceful co-existence by both Moshoeshoe I, the founder of the nation, and the missionaries.

The statement further appeals to leaders in all forms to strive towards peaceful coexistence and to do so within the confines of the law and in the interest of the people.

Equally strong, were the statements (2nd September; 5th November, 2014) issued by the Lesotho Catholic Bishops’ Conference following the events of August, 30th 2014. They make an appeal to political leaders, government, the army, the nation and the International and local organisations to play their part in ensuring restoration of stability in Lesotho. They stress enormity of the obligation on the part of the political leaders to desist from putting their self-serving and uncaring interests before those of the people they represent and serve.

The number of statements released in 2015 (12th February, 18th March, 29th May, 13th July) matched the intensity of the sad developments in the country at the time. On 12th February 2015, the Catholic Bishops issued a statement praying for peaceful elections.  In it, they entreat all sections of society to strive for peace through peaceful means. The statement of 18th March is an acknowledgement of magnanimity with which the Basotho conducted themselves during the February 2015 elections. It goes further to make an appeal for responsible and accountable governance as well as eagle eyed opposition who should have nothing else but national interest at heart.

The statement of May 29th, 2015, was an indictment against the arms of state, particularly the army for its obstinacy in perpetrating acts of violence with utter impunity against particular leaders and members of opposition parties as well as those suspected of supporting Lieutenant General Mahao’s appointment as army commander. The long term economic, relational, emotional and social effects of these sad developments are highlighted and clearly spelled out in the statement. Unfortunately, and despite all these words of wise counsel Lieutenant Maaparankoe Mahao was brutally murdered by his colleagues in the army, on June 25th, 2015 (Phumaphi Report, 2016).

Despite these voices of reason and appeals to government to rein in on the military, the country has gradually descended into lawlessness, patent in callous murders of civilians, terrorizing of journalists, business people and those who do not subscribe to the political cant of those in power.  Sejanamane (2016) in his column of Lesotho analysis entitled, “When State kills and fails to protect citizens: Emergence of a Predator State in Lesotho,” suggests that, the culture of impunity which is peddled with the sole purpose of instilling fear in the populace serves the bigger project of silencing and/or eliminating all dissenting voices in Lesotho.

In another attempt to prophesy once again to this unfortunate situation, the CCL and Heads of Churches issued another Pastoral Letter on 3rd July 2016 responding to escalating cases of murder in the country. The Pastoral letter bemoans the paralysis that violence and fear has generated among the populace and reminds government of its responsibility and mandate as a modern state to protect lives.

As Storey posits, in modern and democratic dispensations, governments, like all democratic institutions, “are designed to rein in the powerful, to subject them to public scrutiny and to hold them accountable to the people and the rule of law” (Storey 2012:6).

Other Voices

Other voices within and outside the traditional membership of the Christian Council of Lesotho have also lamented the turn of events in Lesotho and have in various ways addressed themselves to the issues and their consequences.  Pastor Phakiso Moleko in his programmes covering a host of issues at People’s Choice Radio, never ceased to counsel and prophesy to the nation and to the leaders appealing for sanity and discernment in dealing with national issues.

Fr Tlali Phohlo, on Catholic Radio, persistently addressed issues of political and state corruption and capture of Christianity and its mission by dehumanised politics which has succeeded to silence the church and rendered blunt its prophetic sting. The Council of Pentecostal Churches of Lesotho (CPCL) also issued a pastoral statement in 2015, addressing the deteriorating political situation in Lesotho and appealing to government to protect the citizens. Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) as well as Lesotho Law Society (LLS) joined forces to address human rights violations associated with the arrest of the twenty three soldiers charged with mutiny by the Lesotho Defence Force (TRC-CCJP-LLS, 2014).

They also established a fund aimed to assist, legally, emotionally and economically, the families of the imprisoned, exiled and slain soldiers (TRC-CCJP, 2015). Noteworthy, too, was a gesture by Religious congregations in Lesotho who visited and assisted the exiled Basotho with some provisions.
All the above are consistent with a long standing tradition within the church which is articulated so well in the World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Paper 198 #112:

Christians encounter not only situations of harmony and prosperity, of progress and hope; but also problems and tragedies — sometimes of almost unspeakable magnitude — which demand from them a response as disciples of the One who healed the blind, the lame and the leper, who welcomed the poor and the outcast, and who challenged authorities who showed little regard for human dignity or the will of God.

Successes of the Interventions Prayer meetings

Lesotho went into the 2012 general elections with a cloud of uncertainty hovering over it. The possibility of a split within the ruling party (LCD) had at this stage caused a lot of excitement and anxiety among both supporters and detractors. This did not deter the CCL (Heads of Churches) from inviting political players to a series of prayer-breakfast meetings in an effort to mollify the potentially explosive situation. The invitation of retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to help facilitate the dialogue was indicative of the determination of the church leaders to have peace and common sense, prevail.

Despite the precariousness of the situation, Rev. Masemene, in an interview, testified to the usefulness of these prayer meetings: “they created an atmosphere where pleasantries and humor could be shared between the would-be enemies.”

It was in one of these breakfast prayer meetings that the novel concept of a pre-election pledge for Lesotho was contemplated and endorsed. In it, political leaders pledged to accept the outcome of the general election. Result of these efforts was uncontested elections which were further followed by a signing of a post-election acceptance memo by the political parties (Masemene, 2016; Lerotholi, 2016).

One interviewee intimated that prayers served to remind the political leaders of their need to account not only to the people but also to the higher authority who has shared His power in stewardship. According to Volf (1993:10) the first need of the church as a prophetic community is to pray.

Mediation and Shuttle diplomacy

A negotiation, or a meeting, is often viewed as more of a means to an end rather than as a process that creates space for both shared and divergent values (Van Staden, 2011:16). Shale (2016), in an interview, concurred that one of the benefits of the 2009 mediation, despite its protracted nature, was the shared space that created a closeness between the parties even in the midst of irreconcilable positions. Indeed the churches and civil society should be credited for creating, once again, a platform for the exchange of views, cultivating a culture of negotiating and thereby averting what could have easily led to bloodshed.

Prophetic and Pastoral Statements

Throughout history, the church has assumed Christ’s threefold ministry of Prophet, King, and Priest. By its being configured to Christ, the entire church has embraced the above trilogy with emphasis differing from one denominational tradition to the other (Volf, 1993). It is in the context of this trilogy that the different roles and ministries within the church to which belongs the entire ministry, as imparted by Christ, have to be understood.
The church is understood as a sign, or what, in Catholic tradition, is known as a sacrament, and an instrument of salvation and hope to the world. In the exercise of that ministerial vocation the church shepherds and prophesies by relating the gospel to the critical events and issues of the day, especially those relating to the context of oppression and suffering (Nolan, 1994:213).

The pastoral letters or statements of the church have to be understood in that context where the people of God are asking critical questions about their faith and the presence of God in the face of oppression, injustice and suffering. Pastoral statements or letters are issued by church leaders to speak out, to witness and speak to the signs of the times as they provide answers to those critical questions about their faith. Such speaking out has to challenge the status quo not only by “bandaging the wounds of the victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but to drive a spoke into the wheel itself” (Bonhoeffer, 1943-1945).

Through statements and letters issued at most critical times in the lives of the people of Lesotho groaning under the yoke of oppression, the church leaders were calling the leaders of the people to account for the responsibility given in stewardship. The pastoral statements also functioned to admonish and to speak out against the injustices and the human rights violations perpetrated against the powerless. Worship and justice are inseparable (Volf, 1993:10).

Through issuing the statements, church leaders provide instructions to the people about the prophetic role that the church — to which they are members — should play in bearing witness to Jesus “precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all his human creatures.” (Croft & Roxburgh, 2011). In a manner that fuses national and religious interests, churches in Lesotho, under the auspices of CCL, assumed their role as moral authorities, prophets, counsellors but also as guarantors of social peace (Grzymala-Busse, 2015:12).

Evoking that very same authority at various times, church leaders appealed for calm, patience, peaceful means of conflict resolution in the interest of national stability and peace. Their ability to have, throughout the years, represented national interests, served as moral agents in quasi-principled and non-partisan ways (not as perfectly as one would have hoped) accorded them the moral authority and the latitude therefore to intervene in political conflicts.

Challenges

These commendable efforts by churches to resolve political conflicts in Lesotho notwithstanding, there are a number of challenges that limit the church’s effective and sustainable engagement with political players in Lesotho. Firstly, given the depth of the polarisation as well as the belligerence of Lesotho politicians, mediating between political parties in Lesotho has never been an easy undertaking. This is what one of the interviewees had to say about the politicians:

The love-hate attitude and political opportunism has always been a characteristic feature of all politicians. When they are in power they are unavailable, mysterious, intractable and hard to pin down. When they are not in power they are acquiescent, available and yielding. Issues are always defined relative to the position of power that one holds at the time. Though the purpose for which the churches were roped in — to facilitate negotiations on the agreed upon points — could have been achieved, it would seem that, the root cause of the perennial conflict is yet to be diagnosed, acknowledged and honestly dealt with.

In keeping with its call, the church cannot be deterred by the enormity of the work that confronts it, but it will strive to carry it out “welcome or unwelcome.” Closely related to the above challenge is that mediating in political conflicts is complicated by the fact that politicians and church leaders are working with and within different value systems. This has been aptly captured in the local jargon “Lipolotiking ha se kerekeng” (in politics there is no place for saintly, or churchly, conduct).

A pastor, or a religious leader, who is mediating in a political conflict has to do so with the knowledge and realisation that religion and its claims continually come up against politics, and vice versa (Grzymala-Busse, 2015:422). In essence, a politician does not aspire to become a saint but to have power. If that power can only be obtained through unsaintly means, so be it. In fact in Machiavelli’s doctrine, power should be separated from morals. He was not interested in how the Bible prescribed ways in which power could be acquired, but in what one must do given the true nature of circumstances (Machiavelli, 1945).

The circumstances in Lesotho have not been any different. Quite often politicians have worked in ways that use churches for their political ends and to subvert their claim to mediate in political conflicts. Hincks (2009:586, 740) cites examples of how politicians in Lesotho used churches to achieve their political ends. While they have found it expedient to ride on the back of the churches to pluck the political fruits, they have also found the leverage of churches on the social and moral plains quite disconcerting. For the latter reason, they have found it necessary to apply, in very subtle ways, tactics to reduce churches’ influence, sometimes by playing one against the other (Hincks 2009:659).

Secondly, the relationship between prophecy and power goes back to the Biblical times. There were court prophets who served kings and whose voices were, therefore, stifled as a result of their proximity to power (Gundani, 2008).

Storey (2012:16) believes there is some seductiveness about proximity to power, and that church leaders are not exempt from its clutches.
Like the court prophets of the Old Testament, whose voices were smothered and compromised as a result of their proximity to power, church officials continue to fall prey to carrot dangling politicians at different levels of leadership.

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