Two years ago, Ethiopia was a basket case. The government seemed to be losing control. The majority Oromo people were restive under a rule that seemed to rob them of their place. The traditionally powerful Amhara rioted. A state of emergency brought silence on the surface, but underneath the nation seethed. Civil war threatened. A foreigner was killed. Tourism waned. Finally, the prime minister resigned.
The church prayed earnestly. Then, unexpectedly, eight months ago, the relatively unknown Abiy Ahmad was elected prime minister.
What followed was equally unanticipated.
In a bold, courageous acceptance speech, Ahmad announced a policy of peace, love and unity for the nation and its relationships with the rest of the world. He made sweeping promises and, to the surprise of a world cynical of political promises, kept them.
“We need friction but not hatred, argument but not insult,” he tells his people. “To give forgiveness to another, it is not always necessary that the offended one be there to receive it.”
Ahmad looks for ways to resolve conflict. The long-standing enmity between Eritrea and Ethiopia has broken. For the first time in decades, airplanes full of citizens of the two nations are flying back and forth in regular passenger service. Families are being reunited. The nation is amazed and hopeful.
He has embraced every political and people group, including the many Ethiopians who have sought political asylum in other countries. “There is no longer any reason that any Ethiopian cannot now return home in peace,” reports an Ethiopian Anabaptist church leader. “We are astounded.”
Ahmad has requested the release of Ethiopian prisoners in Saudi Arabia and Kenya, and the requests have been granted. When he visited Saudi Arabia, the king assumed he was coming for economic aid, but Ahmad asked only for the release of prisoners.
He went to South Sudan to help resolve conflict between warring factions there, and Sudanese leaders responded with gratitude.
Half his cabinet consists of women, and a woman occupies the ceremonial post of president.
When a group of officers came illegally with guns and demanded audience with him while he was meeting with a Turkish official, he invited them to put down their weapons and talk. He did pushups with them! He listened respectfully to their grievances. There was no retribution.
The son of a Muslim father and Orthodox mother, Ahmad is an evangelical Christian whose mother told him at age 7 that he would someday lead Ethiopia. He grew up believing his mother’s prophecy and preparing to lead. Much later, as an adult member of a prayer group, the same prophecy was given.
More than 50 years ago, the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder advocated a political stance of “duality without dualism” for Christians, rejecting both the Constantinianism of classical Protestantism and the two-kingdom theology of traditional Mennonites. He argued that though the state will never conform fully to the gospel — for that would be the kingdom of God! — we should call the state, wherever and however we can, to conform to the ethics of the kingdom of God. We do this out of love for our neighbors and loyalty to Jesus. Even, and especially, nonresistant Christians can do this.
Ahmad may get closer to this vision of kingdom engagement in the political order than anyone in my lifetime. “We’ve certainly never seen anything like it in Ethiopia,” says a prominent Ethiopian Anabaptist.
Let’s pray with our African brothers and sisters that this Jesus-centered, radical leader will keep following a peaceful path.
Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.