Throughout my time in Malawi, I have noticed the prominent role of religion, especially Christianity, in both the public and private life.
Even though the US is often times viewed as a Christian nation, I was shocked to see how deep Christian culture has permeated Malawian society.
Here, government meetings always start with solicitations for someone to open the meeting with prayer and are ended with the same.
In the US, our concept of separation of church and State would never allow that to occur in the halls of our secular democracy.
In addition, Malawians from across all socio-economic and educational backgrounds can be found in church pews come Sunday morning. In America, Christian communities, especially the evangelical ones like those found in Malawi, tend to be disproportionally socially and economically marginalised segments of the population.
The educational and economic elite in my country will generally not be found at church on a Sunday morning.
Despite the deep hold of Christianity on Malawian culture, I have not witnessed it being used as a fuel for social change and reform. Instead, I have seen it co-opted by a culture of passivity that is endemic in the country.
Karl Marx wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
In other words, religion is a false narrative constructed by those in power to uphold inequality and keep the oppressed masses content and distracted by wishful thinking of a blissful afterlife.
As a Christian, I find this quote to be problematic and false. However, I have noticed situations in Malawi that vindicate this quote.
Although scores of Malawians attend church every Sunday, the principles of integrity and empathy found in the scriptures do not lead to behavioural change in the leadership of the country or to crafting policies that care for the poor, the widows or the orphan.
Government meetings are opened and closed with prayers invoking the name of Jesus, yet politicians and policy-makers continue to exploit and take advantage of God’s children after those meetings.
There is disconnection between the faith and actions of the nation. Jesus has turned into the opium of the masses, a way to justify inaction through prayer and belief in a hereafter where justice will prevail.
However, that is not the Christianity I know. Jesus through his resurrection defeated man’s greatest enemy, death. I Peter 1:3 states, “in his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
If death is defeated, what else is invincible?
Yet, when I talk to many in this God-fearing nation, they express feelings of hopelessness when looking at the problems of corruption, income disparity, health outcomes, etc.
Yet, our sacred text states that we should have a living hope that is big enough to encompass all of the issues confronting this nation. Christianity is a faith that has produced martyrs like Martin Luther King Jr who died believing that justice would be found in the land of the living.
He believed in the power of a Resurrected King who could empower His people to tackle any injustice no matter how big.
In a Christian culture like Malawi, religion has been used to justify passivity and inaction. But that does not have to be the case.
Faith does not mean that our hopes have to be deferred until some far-off afterlife. We can partner with the spirit of resurrection and challenge the powers that be in the here and now.
The Christianity of Malawi may be the key to raising up a generation of leaders with the justice of God in their hearts who will not succumb to the seduction of corruption and greed.
Religion can be the powder keg that sparks change.