Opinion: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

PAUL, a Jew from Tarsus in Asia Minor (today Turkey) who was first known as Saul, was one of the greatest thinkers and writers in the world of religion and spirituality. He never wrote a book.
But his letters to the early Christian communities roundabout the Mediterranean Sea constitute a large part of the New Testament (major part of the Bible).

This did not make him rich. He was not only a preacher and teacher, the intellectual leader of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, he was also a skilled craftsman, he had to be, in order to earn his livelihood and pay for his countless journeys by boat, crisscrossing the Mediterranean.

Wherever he landed he looked for work as a tentmaker. This earned him enough to support his distinguished career in the early church. “Making money” was a necessity for him, not a passion for self-enrichment. In fact, he warned his pupil and successor in the church, Timothy, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6: 10). Mind you, the love of money is the root of all evil, not money as such. Some pastors today have great “love of money”, and people love them for it, in the hope they will get a share of it.

Paul was a fundraiser, but not for himself, not even for the church community. The early Christians in Palestine and Jerusalem were poor and destitute, widows and orphans. They needed support. Paul appealed to the Christians in Corinth (Greece). He had much time for widows. They were his co-workers. Without their help his work stalled. Paul wrote to people in Galatia: “You want me to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2: 10).

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There are people in Zimbabwe today who have compassion with the “poor”, mainly themselves. Their corrupt practices need to be wiped out. There are plenty of widows in our country. They can’t pay the school fees for their children, since their breadwinners are no longer with them. Selling tomatoes at street corners does not feed their little ones.

There are widows without a pension; it has been stolen. Medical people demand adequate payment. Nurses and midwives are rarely without expecting mothers who want to bring healthy babies home.
But instead of coming home with strong infants, they have ruined their health; often their children end up without mothers.

Is Government ignoring the complaints of medical staff about better salaries and working conditions? That is a right, it is not “love of money”. “The State must take all practical measures to ensure the provision of basic, accessible and adequate health services throughout Zimbabwe” (Constitution of Zimbabwe, 2013, 29 [1]). Medical professionals must remember that their skills are not just for their own material gain. Whatever skills and knowledge they have acquired, they must share with members of the public. That is their moral duty. Government officials, responsible for public health, must not delay life-saving measures. The health of mothers must be their special concern. Mothers have a right to be taken care of by Government. Maternal health is the health of the nation.

This is the time when mothers knock at the door of their priests and pastors. They do not even know what today’s money looks like. What is legal tender? What is the difference between money you can touch, keep in your purse, push across the counter to pay a bill — and invisible money, that becomes real only when you push the right buttons on your smart phone? Do we stick to “real” money or do we manage with “funny” money that pays bills, but we do not really know how to get hold of it and use it properly?

In some countries there is no longer money you can handle. There is no business unless an automatic machine likes you and gives you what you need. If you do not know how to handle it, you had better get used to new invisible currencies.

I remember standing in front of such a machine on a trip to Europe, trying to get a ticket, but nothing happened. A friendly fellow traveller came up to me, smiling, “What’s wrong?”

“This automatic machine does not want to serve me. I can’t get the ticket I need.” He pressed a couple of buttons, pushed in a coin I had never seen before, the machine rattled, and disgorged what I wanted. What impressed me more, the friendly and helpful travelling companion, or the “friendly” machine? Are we just dependent now on “friendly” machines”? I think “friendly and helpful” people are still indispensable. However friendly automats may be, I hope I will always find a kind human being, a person with an open purse.

Which brings me back to that mother of five school-going children. She used to be my neighbour. But now she lives at her rural home of yesterday. Her husband was killed in a political fracas, her father-in-law perished on a bush-track, run over by a government vehicle. Maybe they were all of them unpopular as voting “wrongly”. Life is dangerous, a risky business, especially for people considered “politically unreliable”. And on top of that, without a steady income. “Love of money?” I do not think so. Love of life, love of her children was more likely to have exposed her to poverty and other such enemies .

I had no job for her, nothing to boost her income. I was just happy to meet her again, after years of little contact with her and her children.

I remember several catastrophic inflations. One was a matter of hearsay. My mother, working in her father’s law office, had to take the money customers had brought in the morning, and run to the next bakery to buy bread for the family. It had to be done as fast as possible, or else the money was just for the rubbish bin.

After World War II there was another inflation. A new currency in 1948 saved us from more fake money and useless banknotes. That was in East Germany. But we were about to emigrate to the West.

Mother had managed to find some “genuine” western money. Before we boarded a train to take us to the border which we wanted to cross illegally, she sewed the few banknotes she had into the lining of my little coat in the hope that the Russian border guards would not find them. With that money we bought the first oranges and bananas we had ever seen and eaten.

This prepared me for the multi-currency regime of Zimbabwe. Living in Mbare, near Stoddard Hall, one morning I found a long line of “bearer cheques” scattered along the street. Someone with a bit of “black humour” had left them there. US $ notes were to take their place soon after.

Money, especially banknotes, are a matter of trust. What can you do with paper currencies? In the days of my parents’ parents they were supposed to stand for the gold standard. Grandpa’s money which Mama took to the bakery was useless, unless it stood for something of economic substance and value. Zimbabwe was once a gold producing country.

The Portuguese and then the British came here precisely because they expected to find something of value when they were digging deep down into gold and silver mines. Even copper was very desirable and wanted by the arms of industry, for instance during the Vietnam War.

The Central Bank keeps promising that they will print new money. But what for? If the economy produces nothing, new crisp bank notes do not buy even fresh tomatoes from Domboshava. Mama’s new money will not be accepted even by the headmaster of her children’s school.

Let them print new money. But can we trust them? What will the new “bearer cheques” stand for?
For gold? That is not very likely. Can we trust the banks that the new money will buy us mealie meal and put sadza on the table? We hope the new currency will at least be accepted in “kombis” to take us to work, our children to school, and all of us back home.

We must be able to trust the money printers at least that far.

 Father Oskar Wermter writes here in his person capacity