Posted by: Titus Presler | May 11, 2011

Mission journeys 2: Religion & power

Here I continue to reflect on similarities and differences between this current mission experience in Peshawar and Pakistan and the experience Jane and I had as missionaries in Zimbabwe in the 1980s.

Religion and Power: In the first reflection I highlighted the contrast between ministry in the primarily Christian setting of Zimbabwe and the primarily Muslim setting of Pakistan.  Related to those reflections is the issue of power – how a religious majority uses power and how a religious minority experiences the majority’s power and tries to make good use of whatever power it has.

In the Zimbabwean situation, Christianity was effectively the establishment religion.  The fact that the white settlers of Zimbabwe were Christian is actually not the dominant factor in that situation.  As Lamin Sanneh has emphasized, the explosion of Christianity in Africa was primarily a post-colonial phenomenon: colonialism shackled the gospel, and Christian profession grew exponentially after political independence.  Zimbabwe is an anomaly in that schema, for independence did not come until 1980, but the disabilities imposed by the liberation struggle actually served to gestate what turned out to be a vast return to the churches after 1980.

There were counter-currents as well.  Leaders of the liberation struggle sought to dislodge Christian profession and replace it with loyalty to the ancestral spirits, including those thought to be liberation heroes in Zimbabweans’ late-19th-century struggles against Rhodesian settlers.  This effort had some success, especially among young male fighters, the vakomana, some of whom continued to stay away from church in the independence period.  By and large, though, Chivanhu, the religion of the ancestors, was and continues to be an underground phenomenon relative to a kind of cultural consensus that real faith is Christian faith, real religion is the religion of the church.

As a missionary I had limited exposure to Chivanhu, and people would bring it up in conversation mainly to mock it or to shake their heads in regret about someone who in their view was backsliding into it.  As a researcher later I had a good deal more exposure to it and was able to verify more directly what I earlier had known, that it continued as a current, albeit an undercurrent, of struggle in the lives of many.  One spirit medium recounted with outrage how Christian clergy might inveigh against Chivanhu by day but then visit her by night to ascertain the cause of someone’s death or even seek to have a curse placed on someone.  Entire traditions of prayer, liturgy and theology, especially in the African-initiated churches but not limited to them, were based on a cosmic struggle against very specific elements of Chivanhu.  So the struggle for power was and is ever present.  Yet Christianity in the Zimbabwean situation has the clout of education and literature, the caché of respectability and acceptability.

In Pakistan it is quite otherwise.  Islam is dominant.  Islam has the not only the political clout, but also the caché of respectability and acceptability.  As I’ve observed before in these columns, the unmodified terms “minority” and “minorities” in Pakistan refer not to ethnic, racial, linguistic, national or sexual-orientation minorities but to religious minorities – Christian, Hindu, Sikh and other groups that are truly tiny.  Christians are not only a minority, but a disempowered minority that experiences discrimination at best and persecution at worst.  As a result, over the last decades the Christian community has become more markedly poor, the result of both discrimination and the emigration of those with the resources to resettle in other countries, mostly in the West.  As Munawar Rumalshah, bishop emeritus of Peshawar has said, “We are not so much the church for the poor as the church of the poor.”

Personally, being part of a minority is not new to me, for Christians are obviously a minority in India as well.  Despite the upsurge of Hindutva in India over the past 20 years, which has issued in a good deal of violence against Christians as well as against Muslims, India continues to have an official and, indeed, widely accepted commitment to being a secular society in the sense of all religions having, at least theoretically, an equal place in the sun.  Equally obviously, that is not going to be the case in a nation that calls itself an “Islamic republic.”

At the same time, the extensive network of educational and medical facilities established by churches in what is now Pakistan as part of their mission outreach and that now continue under the aegis of indigenous churches elicit a respect that is similar to the respect that similar institutions elicit in both India and in sub-Saharan Africa.  Here, as there, church hospitals are honored as offering superior care.  Here, as there, many who are not Christian seek entrance to church schools and colleges because of the values and integrity they are thought to cherish and imbue.

Offering Christian leadership in such an institution – a college in this instance – is delicate and interesting in Pakistan.  As a Christian foundation, the college has responsibility for Christian witness.  At the same time, the majority of faculty and students are Muslim – and this is not a new situation: before Partition, Edwardes had many Hindus and Sikhs alongside many Muslims, but Christians were always a small minority, and several decades ago their proportion was much smaller (1-2%) than it is today (10%).  Further, we are committed to mutual appreciation and learning across religious lines.  I, for one, am confident that in the midst of my evangelical and missional commitments I will learn something more about God through living and working in a mostly Muslim environment.

In terms of power, I am always conscious of the power of the religious establishment in Pakistan.  Not only respect but a certain deference is called for in my interactions with the public and with the authorities.  That is good lifestyle stance, a good catechesis in Christian humility.



  1. I was delighted to read on the Anglican Communion website this morning of your exciting new ministry to the Church of Pakistan. All the best to you and Jane, and let me know if there are ways I can help further your ministry! Ted

  2. Power and Religion in the Zimbabwean context happens to be my interest as I do my doctoral research. Thanks to Dr Presler because I will be analysing some of your reflections. To be honest, I want to look at what missionaries bequeathed to the indigenous and how they are dealing with that heritage today. Of course we have a very sad story as I write this comment

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