Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe: Reviews of Joram Tarusarira’s Book

JorambookcoverThe ‘Religion Factor’ blog has published two reviews of a new book by Joram Tarusarira, Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe (Routledge, 2016). Tarusarira is Assistant Professor in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

I am the author of one of the reviews, ‘Can Religion Promote Reconciliation in Zimbabwe?’ As some readers of my blog will know, I have researched religion in Zimbabwe and collaborated with Tarusarira on some publications. I think the book makes an excellent contribution to knowledge about the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe, as well as developing useful theoretical frameworks.

The second review is by Vladimir Kmec, who works on religion, migration, conflict and peacebuilding in Cambridge and UCD. Kmec also highlights Tarusarira’s key contributions and emphasizes the potential for future research.

Below are excerpts from both reviews – although I encourage you to read the full reviews on The Religion Factor.

Ganiel Review: Can Religion Promote Reconciliation in Zimbabwe?

In April this year, a Zimbabwean Christian pastor called Evan Mawarire posted a video of himself online draped in his country’s flag, lamenting the state of the nation. He exhorted Zimbabweans that when they saw ‘this flag,’ it should be a summons not to stand on the sidelines, but to agitate for change. Mawarire’s film resonated amongst his fellow citizens – at least those engaged on social media – and sparked a digital activism campaign with the hashtag #thisflag.[1]

Mawarire’s video was not explicitly religious. He didn’t quote from the bible or justify himself using Christian language. But the reaction the pastor’s campaign drew not only from supporters but also from powerful opponents in President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party highlighted the continued need for democratic reform and reconciliation.

Democratic reform and reconciliation are themes taken up in a new book by Joram Tarusarira, Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe.[2] Tarusarira argues that Christian organizations are particularly well-placed to advocate for changes that could contribute to democratization and reconciliation – even if they are in constant jeopardy of being supressed or co-opted by the state.

Tarusarira’s analysis of the transformative role of religion in contemporary Zimbabwe is cautiously hopeful. He dismisses the largest ‘mainstream’ denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist) and most African Initiated Churches (AICs) as having been co-opted by the state. But his field work among ‘religio-political non-conformists’ provides evidence that those working outside traditional ‘church’ structures are striving for change, and in some instances achieving at least a degree of healing, forgiveness, and justice.

But this book is not simply a descriptive portrait of Christian activism in Zimbabwe. It also makes a theoretical contribution by introducing the concept of ‘religio-political non-conformism’. This concept helps explain what types of religious organizations are best-equipped to contribute to social, political, and religious change.

Tarusarira’s most succinct definition of religio-political non-conformism is ‘forms of behaviour and faith that differ from the type of religion predominant in a society with respect to broader political objectives’ (p. 2). In other words, religio-political non-conformists disagree with the way that mainstream religious actors have allowed their religion to be used politically. They see the mainstream form of religion as at worst having contributed to political injustices, and at best, failing to speak out against political injustices. Finally, non-conformists see it as their religious duty to make a difference politically, helping to achieve justice for those who have been disadvantaged or oppressed.

Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe is well worth reading. Its value for readers specializing on Zimbabwe is obvious. But its concept of religio-political non-conformism is relevant for scholars working across a wide range of contexts and on religions other than Christianity. Indeed, it was perhaps a missed opportunity that Tarusarira did not reflect more extensively on how the concept might be relevant beyond Africa and beyond Christianity.

In his research methodology appendix, Tarusarira explains that he is a native Zimbabwean who sympathizes with the religio-political non-conformists whose work he documents. There may be a tendency for sympathetic scholars to overplay the significance of the work of their research subjects – to see the evidence of small grassroots changes as inevitably leading to society-wide, transformative change.

To some extent Tarusarira is aware of this potential pitfall: while non-conformists’ place on the margins gives them the advantage of freedom and flexibility, it may also consign them to irrelevance. Accordingly, Tarusarira writes with the practitioner in mind, hoping that the examples of effectiveness he describes might empower other activists. But in a context as challenging as Zimbabwe, it is possible that non-conformists’ efforts will not achieve their theoretical potential.

Kmec: Review – Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe

The relationship between politics, society and religion has never been an unproblematic one. Yet, the three elements have coexisted in different formations in different political and societal systems. Scholars in various disciplines have been intrigued by the impact of religion on politics and society and vice versa. By looking at the interlinkages between religion, society and politics in Zimbabwe, Joram Tarusarira has undertaken a difficult, yet important, task of exploring the role that religion plays in democratisation and reconciliation in post-colonial Zimbabwe.According to the author, reconciliation and democracy are the two key elements crucial for the stability of the country, which, in spite of being regarded as a modern nation-state committed to liberal democracy, has an awful record of political violence, conflicts, authoritarian rule, and human rights violations. Nevertheless, the author observes that the mainline churches are not at the centre of the social and political change in Zimbabwe. In contrast, the change is driven by civil society organisations which are best positioned to advocate democracy and reconciliation. Among these organisations, religio-political actors play their valuable role. Tarusarira’s book looks at these new kind of actors who carry characteristics of both civil society organisations and religious groups. Religio-political actors develop a symbiosis of political, religious and social patterns that empower them to challenge the oppressive regime and promote reconciliation. They find a plausible rapport with people in the country that the author describes as a secularised state with sacralised society.

… his insightful and elaborative book senses further critical questions, thus opening avenues for new research. The author makes an important observation about the absence of women in the three studied organisations. It is important to further study the gender aspects of religio-political non-conformism to understand the role of women in such groups. Such an analysis should also look at internal hierarchical relations. Although the absence of hierarchical structures is one of the defining features of religio-political non-conformism, non-conformist groups may gradually develop informal, invisible hierarchies, as observed by researchers in other contexts.[3] Furthermore, the question remains why especially Christian actors, as emphasised in this book, are best equipped to develop religio-political non-conformism, and thus most effective in facilitating social and political change. Is the concept of religio-political non-conformism exclusively a Christian phenomenon, or can it be found in other religious and cultural contexts? Do other religions have a potential to develop capabilities for democratisation and reconciliation? Similarities with nonconformist movements in other religions – with regard to the modes of the development of religio-political activism to pursue societal change – are striking.[4] Finally, the question of sustainability of the transformative effect of religio-political non-conformism is crucial in determining the future development of religio-political actors. As the author notes, several mainline churches, some of which started as non-conformist movements, were also once drivers of political change – for example when they opposed the colonial oppression. Nevertheless, they became comfortable with the authoritarian practices of the new regime. Similarly, in another context, Catholic movements in Eastern Europe were a decisive force that challenged the authoritarian communist regime. After the fall of communism, churches and religious actors in some countries have gained significant powers that they utilised to control important ethical and political spheres of their society. We need to further study the reasons and circumstances under which nonconformist movements change their tactics, norms and ethics after achieving their primary goals.

One thought on “Reconciliation and Religio-Political Non-Conformism in Zimbabwe: Reviews of Joram Tarusarira’s Book”

  1. Thanks a lot for the reviews. The failure by the mainstream churches to adapt and side with the people in the face of evident political persecution is reason why the churches are loosing out on followers, and as Joram correctly observes, the new outfits are pragmatically filling the space…

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