The raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-145) has always inspired faith actors in advocacy. Still, it has become more meaningful for me recently to go with the Massai in their struggle against forced eviction from their ancestral home by the Tanzanian government. This Bible text turns upside down the unspoken narrative that appears to have limited the ministry of the Church primarily to the ritual celebration of mysteries of Christianity and mission caritative as against action for social justice. Indeed, a social justice reading of the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead shows in a very graphic form that advocacy should be central to the mission of the Church, especially in Africa.

To bring about the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus issues three commands.  First, “Jesus said, ‘Roll away the stone.’ … so, they rolled away the stone” (verses 39-41). Surprisingly, Jesus, who spends all night praying, did not ask them to resort to prayer in this human situation. Prayer occupies a prominent place in the life of the Christian community. Still, it must not be to the detriment of taking practical and concrete actions for justice when the situation demands it. The prayer originates the effort for justice, without which the activities remain sterile. Therefore, the standard recommendation to resort to prayer in a situation that demands a concrete action reveals a disconnect from the source of the social action. It massages the human ego for being unable to respond to the demand of faith.  It is also noteworthy that Jesus did not command the stone to roll away all by itself, which he could have done. Indeed, that singular action would have violated the principle of subsidiarity that the Church holds dearly in its modus operandi. Shall we, by this, attribute the silence of the universal to the cry of the Maasai to the indifference of the local Church in Tanzania? But it is an indifference that portends a keg of dangerous gunpowder for the Church in Tanzania.

Jesus’ second command is directed to the dead man: “‘Lazarus, come out!’ and the dead man came out” (verses 43-44). This command recognises people’s inherent power and right to do things themselves. The poor do not need handouts from anybody to live with dignity. They have the inherent ability to do things for themselves. They need equal opportunity, symbolised by removing the stone that kept them in the grave so that they stand up for themselves. The reason the government of Tanzania gives for the forced eviction is the increase in the population of the Maasai in Ngorongoro and the challenges of food interventions for them. But if the government has taken their land to promote tourism and prevent them from cultivating the available space, natural law demands that the government take responsibility for its actions. We can thrive as human families and nations worldwide if we remove the unjust policies that keep Africa and her children impoverished.

The third command again is addressed to the people, “Unbind him, and let him go” (verse 44). Even though Lazarus could pull himself out of the tomb, there was no way he could unbind himself. He needs the community to do that for him too. At this point, the strata of unjust structures that have kept the poor continually in poverty and the task of the community become more obvious.

It seems that the raising of Jesus from the dead is a way that Jesus has chosen to directly put the task of giving people back their humanity to the human community, especially the community of faith. In this vein, we find the silence of the Church in the forceful eviction of the Massai of Tanzania from their ancestral land to make way for the tourism industry and conservation devoid of human interaction very worrisome.  While the government of Tanzania is evicting the Massai from their ancestral land to make way for nature conservation without any human interference, the same Government is promoting hotels to be built in the parks for tourists. Obviously, the eviction of the Maasai is not to conserve nature as claimed but to make way for the tourist industry to the detriment of the Maasai.

However, the silence of the Church in Tanzania on the travails of the Maasai suggests grave complicity for three reasons:

First, the Government of Tanzania used force to evict the Maasai from the Loliondo section of their land in June 2022 to expand the Serengeti game reserve led by then-Tanzanian military Chief General Venance Salvatory Mabeyo. Many Maasai lost their lives in the process, some fled to Kenya as refugees, and neither the local ordinary nor the Bishops’ Conference nor the Conference of Major Superiors of Tanzania stood up for the Maasai.

Second, the Government of Tanzania embarked on the suppression of social services in Ngorongoro, including the systematic disabling of the Church’s supported health services by the famous Endulen hospital and schools, the Church in Tanzania did not raise its voice to express its disapproval of the action of the Government of Tanzania.

Third, the bishops of Tanzania chose General Mabeyo (now retired) to represent the Laity during their ad limina visit in May 2023. As background information, General Mabeyo was appointed Chairperson of the Conservation Area Board of Directors after his retirement in July 2022. The board has continuously targeted social services to forcefully evict the Maasai out of Ngorongoro.

It can be argued that the appointment of General Mabeyo to Chair the Conservation board was to continue his eviction strategy against the Maasai. The presence of General Mabeyo in the Bishops’ ad limina visit raises questions begging for urgent answers. What qualified General Mabeyo to be the representative of the laity in the bishops’ ad limina visit? Or is there a government capture of the Church in Tanzania? Until these questions are answered, the Church’s behaviour suggests their complicity in the travail of the Maasai community in Tanzania. Recently, religious leaders in Tanzania held a meeting and summoned the courage to question the government of Tanzania about the situation of the Maasai. Could this now serve as a wake-up call to the Church in Tanzania? Time will tell!

Chika Onyejiuwa