Last week, the organizing committee for Zambia’s National Day of Prayer declared three days of prayer and fasting under the theme, “Actualizing peace and unity in the nation, before, during and after elections.” Unity has been a watchword ahead of tomorrow’s elections, particularly among Christian leaders. To take another example, in response to a viral video in which the late first president Kenneth Kaunda suggested that opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema’s victory would “destroy One Zambia, One Nation,” Nevers Mumba (a minor candidate for president and Zambia’s first televangelist) urged the nation not to cultivate “seeds of division.”
As Rogers Mwanza demonstrated yesterday in an excellent piece for Democracy in Africa, appeals to unity have a long history in Zambian politics, exemplified in Kaunda’s motto, “One Zambia, One Nation.” This motto has been revived during Lungu’s tenure. Rather than connect a vision for national unity to humanism as Kaunda did, however, Lungu’s government has drawn heavily on Christian language here. It is not difficult to see why. Demographically, Zambia is overwhelmingly Christian, with roughly 95% of the population identifying as Christians in the most recent census. Zambia is also Christian by political decree, the only African country to make a state-sponsored declaration that it is a “Christian nation.”
Viewed charitably, the attempt to connect national unity to Christianity could be seen as an effort to cultivate Zambian belonging on the basis of a comparatively safe source of identity, perhaps especially in view of the looming spectre of “tribalism” over tomorrow’s election. There are, however, very good reasons to be wary of this mobilization of Christian faith on the part of the Zambian state. As critics have pointed out, government appeals to the country’s Christian status have historically been a means of whitewashing corruption. There is also the vital question of what declaring Zambia a Christian nation means for its non-Christian citizens, as well as for sexual minorities. These are important issues to address, but I want to leave them aside here in order to focus on something else, namely how state appeals to a common Christian identity depend on a depoliticizing definition of unity.
Understanding how this is the case requires us to look briefly at Zambia’s newest public holiday, the National Day of Prayer, Fasting, Repentance, and Reconciliation. The Day of Prayer is a key contribution to a broader set of policy initiatives through which Lungu’s government has sought to “actualize” the declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation, most notably through plans for a National House of Prayer and the establishment of the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs. Looking at the themes for the Day of Prayer over the last few years, the language of unity is again prominent:
2017: “Repentance: Promoting Peace and Reconciliation: Consolidating National Unity in Diversity.”
2018: “Facing the future as a reconciled, united, and prosperous nation under God’s guidance”
2019: “Receiving times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord through reconciliation with one another and the environment for a prosperous Zambia.”
2020: “Zambia seeks God’s intervention for sustained national unity, peace and prosperity”
Alongside this official framing of the Day of Prayer as a unifying event come regular calls from church leaders for Zambians to avoid “politicize” it. “Politicizing” here might mean treating the Day of Prayer as an attempt by the government to avoid taking responsibility for serious problems, whether cholera outbreaks or inflation. It might also mean staying away from the event because one is not a supporter of the ruling party. In contrast to such politicizing efforts, church leaders again call for unity, just as they are doing ahead of tomorrow’s election.
The problem with this view is that it opposes politics to unity, suggesting that unity and difference are incompatible. From a Christian perspective, this is simply not true. Since the birth of the church in a cacophony of languages at Pentecost, Christianity has been about working with and through difference. The Christian God is a model of unity and diversity, and the Trinity is the perfect example of oneness among three distinct persons. The Bible makes it clear that human difference is even preserved in eternity, as the Book of Revelation describes a heavenly multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”
The vision of unity-in-diversity evident in scripture is not easily realized. There have been many points at which Christians have not been able to reconcile their differences, as the schismatic history of the church makes it clear. But even the best of circumstances, when consensus can be reached, this does not necessarily result in an elimination of difference. Rather, for Christians, resolution in these situations entails laying differences down for the good of others, not checking them at the door or papering them over and pretending they do not exist.
The experience of Christians from the first century through today has been marked by the hard work of figuring out how to work and live together, dividing resources, navigating sexual ethics, and engaging those outside the faith. In other words, to be a Christian is to be engaged in politics, not just as we approach the world beyond our religion, but also and more importantly in our dealings with one another.
As Zambia goes to the polls tomorrow, the country’s overwhelmingly Christian electorate should not allow the language of unity to be weaponized by church or state leaders, nor be drawn in by calls to unity that preclude politics. Opposing politics to unity does not make politics disappear. It is only in the hard work of difference – that is, the work of politics – that we learn what unity really means.
Dr. Naomi Haynes is Senior Lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh