Part of my experience includes 3+ years as a lay missionary in Kenya. It was an amazing and eye-opening experience. One of the pivotal experiences was seeing one’s home country through the eyes of another people. I remember one discussion with a chief of the Kikuyu people (one of the 50+ tribes of Kenya) who asked me if it was true that in the United States 51% of the people voted for something that was they way it would be. I responded that was accurate in our democracy. He sadly shook his head and noted that no Kikuyu chief would ever want 49% of the people to be unhappy. He would direct the people and leaders to continue to talk until at least 75% of the people agreed – the others would then understand that it was their communal duty to support such a decision. There are lots of other stories of people seeing us from afar and having some interesting insights.
Later during my seminary days, one of my ministries was working with an advocacy group. My assignment was to follow the events of East Africa and prepare briefing summaries that were used to bring a Catholic perspective to events unfolding in other countries. During the that moment of history, one of the focal points was the nation of Zimbabwe and its longtime ruler Robert Mugabe. Mugabe was a popular figure – in the beginning – due to his role in the resistance and overthrow of white-only rule in Rhodesia (the name before the land came to be called Zimbabwe). He came to power in 1980 and remained as President until 2017.
How did he remain in power so long? In the beginning he was a hero who promised and secured independence and freedom for the people. Then he used his political acumen to win re-election. He certainly became adept at using the halls of power, tribal patronage and was able to reward his followers and exclude those who opposed him. He passed laws through the Zimbabwe Parliament that economically devastated regions that did not vote for him. Then he used political power to suppress the opposition vote (among other actions). Along the way there were accusations that he rigged the elections (which was pretty much true). In the end, he decried the election process, brought law suits, cried foul – refusing to concede defeat he began to attempt to use the power of the government to forestall the transition of rule. He was eventually forced from office by his own political party. He was many things, but not a dictator. Adept at power politics, certainly, but Zimbabwe had a Parliament and a Court system. He was perhaps living proof of Lord Acton’s comment about power and its ability to corrupt a person.
At this point one might conclude that I am drawing a comparison between Mugabe and President Trump. I am not. While I would hope he would follow the example of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George W.H. Bush (one term presidents who did not win re-election) and gracefully help the country transition to a newly elected President, that does not seem to be the direction President Trump has elected to go. He is the President and is not bound by the choices of other presidents.
I wonder what all of this looks like to the people of East Africa. While the Kikuyu chief might offer a better path to community consensus, he always admired the ebb and flow of political power as a reflection of the sense of the people – and especially the transition of power. Kenya was ruled by the strong man leader of Daniel arap Moi from 1978 until 2002 who maintained power by a variety of means legal and criminal. The Kikuyu people often felt the brunt of his power politics.
The chief was right to admire the transition of presidential power in our country. He asked me if I could name the modern African leaders who had gracefully left office. At the time, the answer was only the leader of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere. Later he was joined by Nelson Mandela. Slowly the nations of East and Southern Africa are moving in that direction. Not all, but hopefully one day.
This morning, I am imagining a conversation with the chief (long since passed into God’s bright glory) about this election just past. I wonder if he would see a strange, faint and distant echo of the power politics from his experience and wonder – “what is happening in America?” I would assure him that this is not the norm and would not be – but these things can happen. Two hundred years ago the Federalist Party considered depriving Thomas Jefferson of the presidency in 1800 and used the courts to weaken him – but otherwise, we figure it out and our better angles prevail.
But I also try to imagine if I was in Zimbabwe or Kenya, working at an advocacy group with a focus on the United States – what would I see? What briefing paper would I write to bring a Christian perspective to the events unfolding in the United States? This morning, it I is beyond me to think through that hypothetical question. But I imagine I would call friends here in the States, Catholic friends and ask them. See what they have to say.
Politics are always potentially heated. This year is certainly up there for “heat.” We each hold strong views about the election, the candidates, the positions, the policies, and more – but if a call came from overseas, would they be able to discern that you are a Christian by your response and your words?
For those afar, I wonder what they see. For those here at home, I wonder what they hear.