Friday, April 13, 2007

Lessons from Malawi

As the bishops in Zimbabwe take a stand against Robert Mugabe's entrenched thugocracy, dubbing it "racist, corrupt and lawless", John Allen brings our attention to the role of the Catholic bishops in promoting change in Malawi, something he refers to as the "most remarkable, if largely untold, political interventions of the Catholic church in the 20th century." Malawi under Hastings Banda was a rather unpleasant place. A megalomaniac, Banda claimed personal ownership of the whole economy, and decreed that pictures of himself be placed in every office (and, even more bizarrely, insisted his image be broadcast before all movies). Critics were arrested, and often tortured and killed. Censorship was the norm, and the intelligence service was feared. And while millions lived in dire poverty, Banda secreted away his own millions. But Banda also maintained warm relations with apartheid-era South Africa, which led Reagan and Thatcher to turn a blind eye to his mis-rule.

In 1992, the Catholic bishops issued a stinging pastoral letter that was read in every single church. In it, they denounced income inequality, injustice, human rights abuse, corruption, nepotism, and the lack of free speech. In the words of the letter:
"We cannot turn a blind eye to our people's experiences of unfairness or injustice.. These are our brothers and sisters who are in prison without knowing what they are charged with, or when their case will be heard.. No one person can claim to have a monopoly on truth or wisdom... Nobody should have to suffer for living up to their convictions. We can only regret that this has not always been the case in our country."
The result was electrifying. People went crazy at Mass, and church attendance soared. The government attempted to crack down, and the cabinet even debated murdering the bishops. But the tidal wave could not be stopped. People started standing up to the security forces. Students began protesting. By 1994, Banda was gone. An inspiring story!

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