A couple of days ago, my friend Ben said to me, “The way God chooses leaders is by giving the people the power to choose by voting.” He made this comment right after I expressed my frustration with the narrative of our new president being “chosen by God.” His is by far my favourite explanation of the role that God has to play in the election of leaders. It is a simple answer to this age-old question: “Is it God who appoints leaders? And if yes, does that invalidate our choices? If no, does that mean we have all the power and a sovereign God who is uninvolved?”
“My President is a Pastor”
When your country elects a president with a long history of a career as a reverend in an evangelical church, you are bound to have conversations around the relationship between the church and the state. Many of my Christian friends support Chakwera not only because of his leadership qualities but specifically because of his profession of faith. “My president is a pastor” is the tagline most people are using to express their joy over having a Christian leader. And to be candid, a quick social media search will take you to some of my posts and blogs where I share the same sentiment. Or rather, where I shared the same sentiment.
Besides holding the title of President and Doctor, Lazarus Chakwera also holds the title of Reverend. In one of the most popular videos of him, Chakwera talks about his journey to running for President and he believes that God has called him to now “pastor the nation.” As a person of faith, I completely respect his conviction and commitment to making a faith-led decision. After all, this is what made him not give up fighting for the cause he had contested for president twice before winning this fresh re-election.
Is there a problem with that?
I am someone who loves God and the church and someone who is fully supportive and hopeful for the Chakwera-Chilima government. So know this: I’m writing as someone who loves both church and government enough to critique them. Any critique of the church and religious systems that I am very much an active participant in does not come from a place of malice, but rather from seeking to hold us accountable. I have witnessed many of my siblings in Christ turn a blind eye, dismiss, or even mock the valid concerns of others who do not share the same excitement over having a president with such a strong religious background. This reminds me of what Richard Rohr in his book Contemplation for Action calls the basic sin of conservatism: “Conservatism’s basic sin is lack of courage, but also lack of exposure or education. It usually does not “know” about the dark side, the other side, the view from the bottom, or even from the top. It confuses loyalty to systems with loyalty to God. Conservatives, in general, are so enamoured with presidents and popes and precedents that there is never any room for prophecy or honest self-criticism.”
I find Christians’ obsessions with holding political power and influence quite ironic considering the kind of relationship that Jesus had with political power in his days on earth. One of the greatest expectations that Jesus’ early followers had of him was to be a Messiah in the political sense. These followers, who were mostly poor Jews seeking freedom from the oppression of the Roman Empire, thought that Jesus was to be their political liberator. But Jesus often made it a point to manage these expectations. He reminded those who followed him that he had come not to establish an earthly kingdom acquired through political power and influence, but rather to establish a heavenly kingdom and draw people closer to God. We are often like Jesus’ early followers: we want to change the world and make an impact through being in proximity to power and influence. Oftentimes we confuse our priorities and we miss the point when we make Jesus and his Gospel our political mascot.
Jesus and power on earth
But Jesus never said salvation comes through nations converting to Christianity or through having political leaders who profess Jesus. In fact, during his time on earth, he often called out and even dismantled religious-political systems. A clear example of this is found in Matthew 21 and Mark 11, when Jesus flipped tables in the temple. From his riding a humble donkey during the triumphal entry to washing his disciple’s feet, Jesus’s actions were all to establish a kingdom with a different value system than that of worldly power. This Kingdom is one that not only calls its followers to love others the same way in which they love themselves but to go further than that and even rate others higher than yourself. It is everything most of our political institutions are not. All this to say, we need to be careful not to do the same to our president. Right now he holds the position of President not pastor.
The kingdom and present politics
This is not to say Christians should not be involved in politics; that is the farthest thing from what I believe and I am trying to say. The creation mandate (Genesis 1:28) is for us to be involved in the work of the world. Although we are not of the world, we are in it. We are not passive pilgrims. We ought to participate in all realms of society: politics, justice, business, social work, medical work and every other line of work. Not only should we participate, but we may indeed also seek to rise to whatever high office we aspire to, such as the office of the President.
However, how we participate in our work in the world should be to reflect our value systems of loving others as we do ourselves and serving people as we would God. As I think about our President, I hope that these are the values he brings to the table when he serves the country. I hope that the fact that many have trusted him with various leadership roles in the church for years means that he is trustworthy and faithful.
Will a Christian leader love even his non-christian neighbours?
Many people are worried about what having a religious leader as a president will mean for the fight for equal rights for marginalized and oppressed people in our country. I hope that the President will love these various groups of people as he loves himself, with the kind of radical love that moves him to act in a way where they may have the same opportunities as he or any privileged member of society would. I hope that he will not turn a blind eye to any injustice. I hope that he will seek to not only act in ways that benefit us as Christians but also everyone else who does not believe the same way. After all, good news should be good news for everyone if it is not, then it’s not good news.
There is so much good that President Chakwera has said that makes me hopeful that he will not put his interests before those of the people, but history causes me to doubt. Like many Malawians, my trust has been scared by political sweet talks but this year we have proven that we can hold leaders accountable. To those who are rightfully suspicious of President Reverend, let us remember that we won this election because we exercised our democratic rights to get what we want. The President should work for us and it is our role as citizens to make the changes that we want and fight for the laws and policies we would like to see change. As the President himself puts it: “With your help, we will restore a new generation’s faith in the possibility of having a government that serves, not a government that rules; a government that inspires, not a government that infuriates; a government that listens, not a government that shouts; a government that fights for you, not against you.”
“The overarching belief of the MCP is that the vision of sustainable development can only be achieved by equitable and meaningful participation of all gender, sexuality, social class, tribe and ethnicity in the country’s political, economic and social life. When men, women, people with disabilities and representatives from disadvantaged groups participate in policy formulation and decision making it leads to more responsive policies and decisions and improved distribution of services. The bottom line is that gender inequality and social exclusion have very damaging consequences for human capital development which lies at the heart of any efforts geared toward fundamental structural transformation and sustainable development.” According to the 2019-2024 MCP Manifesto, this is the kind of Malawi they promise us, it is up to us to not only hold them accountable but contribute towards making this a reality.
Reflections on leadership
As I have thought more of the role of a pastor; which to my understanding provides leadership, direction and guidance for the church and its members. A key component of pastoral leadership that makes it different from all other forms of leadership is the aspect of Spiritual leadership both personal and distant that the Pastor provides to their congregants. The pastor’s role is to lead their flock as close to God as is possible in their power because they are ultimately accountable to God. With this distinction being made, I personally struggle to see how it would be theologically and practically possible to pastor a nation. I say this not because of what Chakwera said about God’s call to lead the nation but more so for us as Christians to manage our expectations of our new president. To believe that the president will be the pastor of the nation is to set oneself up for disappointment when he does not make decisions in a way we believe to be consistent with how a Pastor should. Perhaps we should shift our focus towards what our country actually needs.
What Malawi needs is not necessarily specifically a pastor, but a plain good leader. A good leader is full of integrity, accountability and service among many other qualities. As we talk about the man’s career path as a pastor, we must not ignore that those are some of the qualities that one properly needs to have to be a pastor. I do not personally know much about his pastoral leadership, but his long years of service make me want to believe there is something about him that might just be trustworthy. I will give him a chance to earn my trust.
More than anything, I hope Rev. Dr Chakwera can see that leading a state and pastoring a church are different things. As the President, he is now the leader of both Christians and non-Christians alike and the expectation is that he acts in favour of all. Or as he and his alliance put it themselves: “Malawi wokomela tonse”, tonse means everyone and everyone means everyone. I can only imagine what kind of challenges he will have as a political leader of faith since politics is not the cleanest of games, that is his cross to bear I guess.
In the spirit of the Apostle Paul, some final greetings
To my fellow Christians, I hope that we continue to be challenged by the command that our Lord Jesus left us: “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Our desire should be for human flourishing and for people to experience the love and abundance that Jesus came to give us. Let us hold our president accountable for making this country one where ALL people flourish as humans, not only a country for Christian flourishing but for flourishing for all.
After all, what is good news if it is only good for a few?
Photo Cred: Tawanda Mpando @AudioRockSwisha (Twitter).