A nation on its knees: Lessons from Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag movement

Last Wednesday an estimated 5,000 citizens gathered outside the magistrate’s courts on Rotten Row in Harare, Zimbabwe. Inside Pastor Evan Mawarire - a man who leads a small congregation of less than 100 - was accused of stealing a police baton and helmet and inciting violence. The charge was changed mid-trial to treason, which carries a much heavier 20 year prison sentence.

In reality, the man known simply as Pastor E, was on trial for spearheading the peaceful #ThisFlag movement. The movement that started with a video about the meaning behind Zimbabwe’s flag, sought to hold the government to account on corruption, poverty and injustice. #ThisFlag captured the imagination of Zimbabweans, both at home and overseas, which is why so many gathered outside the courts demanding justice and an end to the old games of intimidation and fear.

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A phrase you often hear in Zimbabwe is that change will only come through the active engagement of the Church. Last Wednesday that notion came to life. There is a yearning for change to come through peaceful means and the Church is able to offer a model of what that might look like.

Pastor E has consistently called upon citizens to engage in peaceful protests, most significantly through a countrywide ‘stay away’ where the whole nation shut down. Among the 5,000 outside the magistrate’s court on Wednesday were a number of pastors and church leaders who led the assembled in prayers and hymns. Powerful pictures and videos show the crowd, draped in Zimbabwean flags, kneeling in prayer while surrounded by armed riot police.

In a country where political participation is far from straightforward, the Church is demonstrating a united desire to move beyond simply handing out charity, to challenging political structures and injustice itself. With church membership somewhere between 80-90 percent of the population, the impact that the Church can have is profound.

Added to this desire to stand up for the oppressed we’ve seen that the Church is also able to stand against state attempts to control through fear. The German theologian Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned by the Nazi state, claimed that “The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings.” As hymns erupted on Rotten Row, it was clear that the government’s attempts to quash the #ThisFlag movement through fear and intimidation was having the reverse effect.

Pastor E has always been quick to acknowledge the importance of his faith in compelling him to speak out as well as sustaining him in the face of state opposition. He also recognizes the need for the Church and citizens on the whole to take up this mantle of participation. Speaking after his release to Sky News, Pastor E reflected that the “The biggest miracle was not my release; the biggest miracle was the people of Zimbabwe.”

#Thisflag movement is not about party politics, and neither is it about one figurehead. It is about the people of Zimbabwe uniting in their desire to see an end to poverty, injustice and corruption, and being fueled by faith to confront the tactics of fear and intimidation that the government has consistently used against them. The Church is called to boldly stand up for the oppressed and is positioned to unite and inspire, casting vision and hope for the future. 

When there are so many reports of violence and fear in the world, we as Christians should find encouragement and a challenge from #Thisflag.