I defended my doctoral dissertation in Political Theology: this was my experience

[By Elias Munshya, PhD]

The thing with life sometimes is that there are several episodes to it. And interruptions in between. I started my working career as a theologian, pastor and lecturer at the Grace Theological College in Lusaka, Zambia. I had just completed my first bachelor’s degree when I joined Grace Ministries. When I left for Canada for studies, I had a career interruption or career addition, so to speak. I completed my law degree and became a lawyer of sorts. And so, to become a lawyer, I kind of interrupted my career in theological studies. But not so fast as last week Tuesday, I defended my doctoral dissertation before a stellar team of professors at the South African Theological Seminary (SATS).

My dissertation was on Church and State Relations in Zambia: an evangelical perspective. My methodology involved what we call in theology as practical theology or, to be specific, public and political theology. This is a branch of theology that tries to explain the relationships of faith to public life. In the context of my study, I conducted a non-empirical qualitative study focusing on the history of church and state relations in Zambia from the pre-colonial period to the Edgar Lungu presidency. The practical theology methodology adapted from Osmer (2008) involves four steps asking four questions – what is going on, why is this going on, what ought to go on, and what should we do about it?

After years of reflection and study, it was my day to defend. I had never been to any defence before, which should not be a good reflection on a doctoral student. I had prepared my slides and my hundreds of pages of the dissertation. With me was my supervisor, Professor Yusufu Turaki – a monumental figure in evangelical theology. My examiners were Dr Modisa Mzondi and Dr Shaun Joynt. There were several other members of the panel. My study revealed several things. Remarkably, I found that what we call as evangelical theology in our time is deeply steeped within African Traditional Religious worldviews. In fact, Zambian evangelicals have taken a posture towards public life that is consistent with the African traditional religious worldview that creates no distinction between the sacred and the secular – or between the holy and temporal. Under this ATR mindset, it is easier then to conceptualise the Declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation, not as an unusual intrusion of faith on public life – but as one of the expressions of Zambians’ worldview that does not create the distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.

In this vein then, my study did not try to argue whether there is merit to the Declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation, but rather how the church, as a part of civil society, can bring its resources to bear in a nation that has declared itself to be Christian. How can the evangelical church live out its evangelical mission in a nation that has self-declared to be Christian? That was the gist of my study, and the findings were quite exhilarating.

After my presentation – the examiners asked me various questions. I tried my best to answer. But one question that I think registered in my mind was what other recommendations I could come up with. Then and there, I thought about theological education and the need for Zambian theological schools to teach their students courses in law, civics, and political theology. If theological institutions in Zambia are teaching various aspects of theology, it would be necessary for political or public theology to be one of the classes. In a nation like Zambia, which has declared itself to be a Christian nation, Christians need to be taught, quite deliberately, on topics such as the constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the structures of government. After these essential civic lessons are taught, we can have a church that is well informed about the integration of faith, theology, and public life.

My dissertation is available for free download at eliasmunshya.org, and I hope that those who read it can find it helpful in carrying this important conversation to the next level. For now, Zambia has an Adventist for a President, and we are all watching to see how that faith will influence the politics of the new President. My study was focused on the evangelicals and Pentecostals who have had a tremendous influence on the past Presidents. The question now is will the Adventist church and its theology be influential on the new President? For sure, my dissertation has opened one channel for reflection, and I hope several channels will be opened.

The author, Dr Elias Munshya, can be reached at elias@munshyalaw.com

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