Happy John Chilembwe Day!
Today (January 15, 2015) is national John Chilembwe Day in Malawi. A national hero since its genesis as a nation in 1964, Chilembwe is celebrated as an early anti-colonial figure who opposed mistreatment of African workers on European-owned plantations and the lack of social, political, and economic promotion of Africans.
On January 23, 1915, Chilembwe, an American trained Baptist minister and educator, led what was to be an unsuccessful uprising against the colonial rulers of Nyasaland (Malawi). Now, he is honored as a hero of African independence and 100 years after his failed armed rebellion he is remembered as a paragon of anti-hegemonic struggle.
But Chilembwe's story begs a few questions: 1) how could an evangelical pastor be led to organize an armed uprising? 2) what can be learned from his example in this way? 3) what does his sentiment, action, and death have to teach us today?
First, a little more about Chilembwe. He was born in Nyasaland around 1871 to a Yao father and a Mang'anja slave. In the economic system of the day the Yao (originally from Mozambique) were middlemen between the enslaving Arab traders and the Mang'anja slaves (the local tribal ethnicity). In 1891 the British colonized Nyasaland and took over where the Arab traders began, institutionalizing the system of indigenous control and establishing a system of governance and missions through which to do so.
As a young man Chilembwe met the missionary John Booth. By all accounts Booth was an outcast in colonial circles, described as "an eccentric, apocalyptic British fundamentalist missionary in Baptist persuasion" by historian Robert Rotberg. Booth advanced criticisms of the established Scottish Presbyterian mission and in launching the Zambezi Industrial Mission he formalized a system that promoted more egalitarian formulations for British, Yao, and Mang'anja alike. This message of equality, self-denial, and freedom caught the attention of colonial authorities and riled other missionaries.
Chilembwe became friends with Booth, even caring for his daughter, and was baptized by the progressive pastor on July 17, 1893. When Booth traveled to the U.S. in 1897 to raise funds for the mission, Chilembwe departed with him. Booth and Chilembwe parted on friendly terms and the latter attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College -- a small Baptist institution in Lynchburg, VA. Here, Chilembwe encountered not only the prejudice against "negroes" in the American south, but also witnessed radical American "Negro" ideas and the works of such luminaries as John Brown, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and John L. Dube -- a radical Zulu missionary from South Africa. It was in the U.S. where Chilembwe acquired a global perspective on the struggle of people of African descent and the need to confront injustice and white hegemony. After his vocational training was complete, Chilembwe was ordained a Baptist minister in 1899.
In 1900 he returned to Nyasaland and worked for the American National Baptist Convention. He established a network of independent African schools and planted a church built of brick (no small expense in those days) at the center of his own Providence Industrial Mission (PIM). During this time, Chilembwe became close with leaders of several independent African churches (AICs), including some Seventh Day Baptist orders and Church of Christ congregations. Chilembwe dreamed of a united African Christian front with his own mission at the center. While he also had some contact with Jehovah's Witnesses during this time, it is debatable how much the Watchtower's millennial orientation influenced Chilembwe's own theology.
Chilembwe also developed plantations of cotton, coffee, and tea. Through all of these endeavors his aim was to establish a system of justice, equality, and African agency. This contrasted with the established views of British colonial society, advanced by the likes of Alexander Livingstone Bruce, who held that educated Africans (such as Chilembwe) had no place in colonial society. Bruce viewed AICs as "centers for agitation" and fought for the prohibition of their expansion. Bruce and Chilembwe came into direct confrontation with Bruce openly criticizing the missionary pastor and the latter advocating for the tenants on the Bruce estate, even going so far as to build a PIM church on Bruce's land.
It was in this crucible that Chilembwe's anti-colonial sentiments began to take shape. Angered by Bruce's mistreatment of the African people and frustrated by the lack of political voice afforded to African men, Chilembwe vocally criticized the colonial racist system. Then, a series of unfortunate events led to an eventual armed uprising founded on this critique. First, Chilembwe's area was hit by a hard famine. Second, immigrants from Mozambique caused a rush on land that pushed out Africans and afforded white settlers an opportunity seize what prime land was left. Third, a tax was imposed on African huts, which forced many African men to leave home to find work in urban centers. Finally, and more personally, Chilembwe began to incur several debts that his fundraising efforts with American backers could not cover. Fourth, a personal struggle with asthma, the death of his own daughter, and a general decline in health led Chilembwe to become a frustrated and agitated man.
Chilembwe broke when the British conscripted Mang'anjas to fight Germany in World War I. Rotberg wrote that Chilembwe penned a letter that captured his sentiments at the time. He wrote, "We understand that we have been invited to shed our innocent blood in this world's war....[But] will there be any good prospects for the natives after...the war? We are imposed upon more than any other nationality under the sun...." The remainder of the letter, signed "on behalf of my countrymen" was an open protest against the neglect of African agency and freedom. The combination of this generally unjust system and the mistreatment of famine refugees and immigrants, Chilembwe was inspired to revolt. Calling on the legacy of staunch abolitionist John Brown, who organized the attack on Harper's Ferry in 1859, Chilembwe organized and sparked an open, armed, rebellion against the British in order "to make our blood count at last."
Drawing on his contacts in multiple AICs and as an advocate for the people, Chilembwe was able to gather around 200 armed men. The uprising began on January 23, 1915 with the goal of killing all white, male, Europeans. The revolutionaries murdered three British colonists, including the widely hated William J. Livingston, whom they beheaded in front of his family. Following the raiding of a local ammunitions store the rebels retreated to pray. The rebellion did not gain popular support and most were shocked by the level of violence that Chilembwe and his followers unleashed on the British. Without widespread backing, the Chilembwe rebels fled to Mozambique where he was killed by African soldiers on February 3, 1915.
Even though his rebellion was unsuccessful and bloody the people of Malawi celebrate Chilembwe as the pioneer of Malawi independence and the initial spark that led to Malawi's own nationhood in 1964.
Chilembwe's life and struggle are worth contemplating and celebrating here in the U.S. as well. For three reasons:
1) In the line of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, Chilembwe physically, emotionally, and theologically embodied the need for the subaltern voice to speak out against oppression, injustice, systemic racism, and white privilege. Racism and injustice still oppress our world, our cultures, our nations. It is not enough to pass laws and pretend the issue is settled. Instead, the subaltern voice needs to be able to continually critique, and call into question, a system that persistently marginalizes, disenfranchises, and supports a continually racist duplicity in the U.S. In America, and elsewhere, there need to be Chilembwes to speak out against the system that oppresses them.
2) Simultaneously, Chilembwe's story is a testament to the limits of violent struggle. While Chilembwe's passion and voice are commendable, his brutal response is not. While a rationale for armed rebellion could be explicated in certain contexts, now is not the time for an armed conflict. As we saw in the wake of the protests in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown, a necessary and critical conversation about race and privilege in the U.S. was robbed of its power by violent radicals who looted the neighborhood, destroyed buildings, and fought back violently at police. While not equal to the bloodshed of Chilembwe's revolt, it is a telltale lesson that peaceful protest and non-violent resistance must be the way forward in fighting injustice.
3) Significantly, Chilembwe's influence speaks to the vibrant contribution that African evangelical theology and practice brings to contemporary movements and debates over freedom, quality, justice, and the fact that #BlackLivesMatter. A peaceful protest against privilege must involve a theological voice. This was exemplified in the life and civil theology of Martin Luther King Jr., whose celebration occurs shortly after Chilembwe's (January 19, 2015). His good news of freedom, equality, and non-violent struggle not only inspired a generation, but entire nations.
Presently, I am in awe of the many progressive, conservative, and undefinable evangelical voices who are speaking out about racism, oppression, and injustice in the U.S. right now. Immediately, the names of Andy Gill, the people of the Theology of Ferguson blog, and Rev. Dr. Andre E. Johnson spring to mind, but there are certainly many, many others. Just as Chilembwe's independent, evangelical, apostolic, and millennial vision inspired him to speak out, so too must Christians today give scriptural voice to the struggle for justice. Principally, their message should be one that inspires peace, not violence.
As Andy Gill tweeted today, "The answer is not guns or violence, it's intellect and patience. #justice"
In that spirit, Happy John Chilembwe Day indeed.
*Like this blog? Read "Black Jesus & Religion and Race on the Margins"