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.
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