Are you looking for the perfect Christmas gift for your loved one? How about buying a U.S. Senate seat? Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested last week and charged with scheming to profit on his appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, asking for money from people doing state business and pressuring the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers who criticized him.
Now I’ve been around the block long enough to never say, “Never.” Just when I’ve think I’ve seen it all in the church: fighting, politicking, inappropriate comments or unethical behavior, I become involved in yet another mind-boggling situation. It reminds me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s comment in his book, Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
We are a fallen people, each one of us, and no where is that fallenness more evident than in government. Governments have been corrupt forever. We’ve long associated Illinois with shady politics, particularly Chicago. In fact, Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, is in prison right now serving time for 18 corruption counts. However, based on public corruption convictions over the past decade per 100,000 residents, North Dakota, Louisiana and Alaska lead the way.
Why do you suppose God sent Jesus into our world as a tiny, vulnerable baby, born into a poor family? Why was the Messiah a servant leader, not a king? A thousand years before Jesus was born, the Israelites begged Samuel for a king, someone to govern them and fight their battles so they could be like the other nations. The problem was that the Israelites rejected God from being their king. Human kings didn’t work. Oh, a few of them were good, but most “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
Governments will not ultimately solve our problems. Most of us are familiar with the famous quote of 19th century historian and moralist Lord Acton, who wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
In our democratic government, we like to think that we have enough checks and balances to rein in politicians whose power tempts them toward corruption. In many parts of the world, however, Lord Acton’s quote could probably be phrased in another way, “It is the corrupt who get power, and the absolutely corrupt who get absolute power.” When good, honest and ethical people do not even have the opportunity to receive an education and become leaders, governments are often controlled by the corrupt.
Which leads me to share with you one of the greatest signs of hope we have in The United Methodist Church today: Africa University in Zimbabwe. In 1984 United Methodists were challenged to build a premier educational institution on the African continent. This would be a university where young women and men could receive an African education in a Christian environment, realize their dreams, become leaders and use their power not to corrupt but to change, empower and improve the lives of their people.
Taking seriously John Wesley’s words that “the world is our parish,” Africa University (AU) opened its doors in 1992 in Mutare, Zimbabwe, which at that time was one of the most stable countries in Africa. From it humble beginning with 40 students, today AU has 1,300 students from 24 African countries, 135 faculty and 32 modern buildings.
2,700 students have graduated from Africa University since 1992. 89% of those graduates have remained in Africa and are making a difference by leading corporations, banks, and educational and religion institutions. AU is supported by The United Methodist Church through a separate apportionment, so every time you put a check in the offering plate, you are making a difference by shaping individual lives as well as the entire continent of Africa.
Unfortunately, the country of Zimbabwe is now faced with incredible challenges because of instability and corruption. Many Americans were surprised to learn that our inflation rate rose to 5.6% last July; it has since gone down. Imagine, however, an inflation rate of 2 million percent, the highest inflation rate in the world!
Dr. James Salley, Associate Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Advancement for Africa University, spoke to members of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in October. He said that because of the unrest in Zimbabwe, AU is the only one of the 13 universities in the country to remain open right now. This is in large part because apportionment and investment income is held in the United States. Salley related how he bought a Coke this past summer at the Mutare airport for 250 billion Zimbabwe dollars. In early September the government dropped ten zeroes from its currency.
In addition to keeping Africa University open, UMCOR has launched a major initiative to combat a devastating food shortage and cholera epidemic. They are also providing insect shield blankets for 5,000 orphans, the majority of whom lost both parents to AIDS. We cannot turn our backs on this part of the world. Not only must we pay our Africa University ministry share in full, but we must continue to believe that education is the ultimate empowerment. Check out www.Support-AfricaUniversity.org.
The only way to escape the cycle of political corruption and consequent unrest, violence, disease and poverty is education. Things change one person at a time when we teach Christian values of peace, grace, and respect for all people. The most hopeful program that Africa University offers is its Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance. Imagine what can happen when students are equipped to use power responsibly by learning about Christian servant leadership, peace-building and good governance. Maybe we ought to open an Africa University branch in Chicago!
There is one more sentence at the end of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s quote. “This line (between good and evil) shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
Africa University is that bridgehead. You are that bridgehead as well.
I am pleased to let you know that Dr. James Salley from Africa University will be the speaker at our Grand Rapids District Conference on Sunday, February 15, at Northlawn UMC in Grand Rapids. Not only will you be inspired, but you will want to be a part of a district project to build a staff house at AU. Jim will speak at 4 p.m.
By the way, I’ve decided to withdraw my bid for the Senate seat and am sending my check to AU instead.