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Murdock, Norman H.: Christian Warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe: The Salvation Army and African Liberation, 1891-1991.

Murdock, Norman H. Christian Warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe : The Salvation Army and African Liberation, 1891-1991. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015.

The story Norman Murdock tells in Christian Warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe describes a Christian church's painful search not only for its mission but also for its very soul in an African culture it was unprepared to understand, engage, or even value. The story is set in the context of British imperialism. This process involved displacing indigenous peoples into "native reserves" in order to bring in white settlers to exploit the land for the United Kingdom. It is no surprise that the territory was named after the guiding light of this large-scale desecration, Cecil Rhodes (whose will dictated that his fortune was to go to form a "secret society" to extend "British rule throughout the world"). The Christian missionaries from the West followed, part of a large worldwide movement to bring the Christian gospel to the two-thirds of the world believed to be inhabited by "uncivilized heathen people." As part of that movement, the Salvation Army sent its missionaries to Africa.

In Rhodesia, however, the Salvation Army had a prior program with a different agenda. William Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, had proposed a scheme to address abject poverty in the over-crowded industrial slums of the United Kingdom. The Salvation Army would begin rehabilitation in the slum setting, move families who made progress to domestic farm colonies to learn skills, and then have the opportunity for a new start in one of the proposed colonies overseas. Booth believed that the successful implementation of this program would enable the United Kingdom not only to better the lot of the poorest, but also to improve and bring some stability to its over-populated working-class neighborhoods.

Booth was not the only one interested in settling some of the United Kingdom's population in Rhodesia. The British government had a huge empire it wanted to strengthen and expand. Resettlement was seen as an important road to that end. Booth believed the Salvation Army could be an instrument of that imperial plan, while at the same time salvaging families trapped in the degrading circumstances of the hideous Victorian slums. However, repeated attempts to get funding for his resettlement plan from the British government, the British South Africa Company, and Cecil Rhodes yielded little material support. Booth had believed Rhodesia to be an ideal location for a group of his overseas colonies. In the end the Salvation Army had to abandon the Rhodesian farm colony scheme and turn its attention to mission churches (corps), schools, hospitals, and clinics, all primarily for Africans. Over the years the church membership grew steadily, with Africans comprising 98 percent of the membership by the mid-twentieth century.

Once the Salvation Army's mission focused primarily on the African population, history takes a different course. Increasingly African Salvationists were recruited to pastor African corps and teach in the schools, but Western officers (clergy) maintained administrative control at territorial (Rhodesian) headquarters. The establishment of Rhodesia's own white-controlled, independent government began the progression toward legalized racism. As the government took charge of the policies, curriculums, and funding of all the schools, of which 98 percent were still run by religious organizations by 1953, the nurture of a genuine African nationalism and aspirations of political equality became increasingly difficult. The nationalist movement was forced underground.

Murdoch provides a well-documented analysis of the ensuing tension that reached a boiling point in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the war of liberation that eventually imposed majority rule. His analysis frames a number of significant issues having to do with the church's relationship to the state and to the culture it was seeking to reach with a message of hope. It explores how political biases, cultural arrogance, and racism, both overt and covert, dictated important administrative decisions. In trying to take advantage of Rhodes' imperialist scheme for the purposes of Booth's own white settlement program, did the Salvation Army consciously or unconsciously endorse violence against an indigenous culture and its people? The international Salvation Army labeled the wartime deaths of one white missionary in the uprising in 1896 and two white missionaries in 1978 as "martyrdoms." As deserving as this label may have been in these three cases, does the failure to include the similar deaths of many more African Salvationists as "martyrdoms" indicate the devaluing of their lives and sacrifices on the part of those representing a religion that teaches the equal value of all people in God's eyes?

The failure of the white Salvationist leaders in Rhodesia and at international headquarters to discern the inevitable future of an African-led Zimbabwe Salvation Army left the Zimbabwe Salvation Army weakened because of ill-prepared African leadership, paralleling the same failure of the white-led national government. Did the discernment and courage of the white Salvation Army leaders largely fail? In the post-World War II period, the international Salvation Army leaned heavily on financial support from the North American Salvation Army. To what extent did the political leanings of its American leaders and paranoia over an international communist threat create a lack of empathy for the fight for African self-rule, largely funded by communist nations? And was the international headquarters' decision to withdraw membership in the World Council of Churches made without any real sense of what African Salvationists wanted and without concern for what best served their mission?

These and other questions raised by Murdoch in his well-researched study invite honest reflection that can inform the future and nurture better, fairer, and more courageous decision making by religious organizations. The Salvation Army has done so much good in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe in its spiritual, educational, and medical ministry. It can, however, learn and improve by facing up to its failures as well.

Phil Needham

Independent Scholar
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Author:Needham, Phil
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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