It was well past lunchtime and no one had eaten a thing, but hunger didn’t seem to damper the crowd’s enthusiasm. The bright dry-season sun shone through the modern stained glass windows of Lusaka’s Anglican cathedral, where I had joined hundreds of church leaders to learn about the Zambian government’s “prophetic agenda for national transformation.”
We listened to presentations about the new Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs, about prophecies that oil would soon be discovered in Zambia, and about the surprising Christian meaning behind the national anthem. Near the end of the gathering we were shown video animation depicting an architect’s rendering of the Zambian government’s flagship public works project, the National House of Prayer. The towering structure was designed to look like a Sunday school representation of King Solomon’s temple. Heavy columns lined an impressive front entrance, and tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments hung on either side of the massive double doors. The video explained that the House of Prayer was both a national symbol and a gathering place “for all nations,” as the prophet Isaiah puts it – bringing people from around the world to Zambia and literally cementing the country’s position as a nation chosen by God, just as biblical Israel was in Isaiah’s day.
By the time the presentation was finished everyone was on their feet, cheering and applauding. In front of me women dressed in citenge material frocks pulled plastic shofars from their handbags and began to blow, adding to the din of the crowd and marking the significance of Zambia’s promised “national altar.”
As Hillary Kaell will explore in a forthcoming installation to this project, Christian nationalist projects regularly make use of Hebraic imagery. In the case of the House of Prayer, shofars and Solomonic architecture point to what Christian nation activists in Zambia believe to be their country’s unique place in global geography and history.
In an interview shared on the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs’ Facebook page, national Pentecostal leader Apostle Derek Mutungu declared that the House of Prayer would be the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Isaiah 19:19 promises that there will one day be an “altar” in the midst Egypt, Apostle Mutungu explained, and in the geography of the prophet’s time “Egypt” represented the whole of Africa. “It’s amazing to see that that prophecy of 3000 years ago being fulfilled in Zambia right now!” he concluded.
Other Christian nation activists refer to Zambia as Africa’s “tithe,” a special gift to the continent set apart by God, much as they understand biblical Israel to have been. Zambia is taking up this role, they emphasize, just as the historically Christian nations of the West have abandoned their position as guardians of the faith. Were Zambians to follow a similar path to Europe or even the United States – say, by opting for a secular government and a legal separation of church and state – many activists believe that they would lose God’s favour, and with it any hope of national development for their impoverished nation.
What is at stake in the National House of Prayer is therefore not simply the public expenditure, which will be massive, or the oppressive politics of the ruling party that commissioned the project. Critics have pointed out both of these problems, and most people are aware of them. As far as many Zambian Christians are concerned, however, the bigger issue by far is fulfilling Zambia’s destiny as “the Israel of Africa” by, among other things, building a National House of Prayer that will, like it’s biblical counterpart, be a gathering place “for all nations.”