Diagnosing the Diseased Silence of the Kenyan Church in these Turbulent times

Diagnosing the Diseased Silence of the Kenyan Church in these Turbulent times
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Kenya is going through political turmoil that has seen the credibility of the electoral management body questioned over and over.

October 26 elections were a sham, lending the recently concluded elections a legitimacy crisis that refuses to go away.  While courts can give legal direction on aspects of law and process, the law is but a tool of politics, subject to and vulnerable to political whims and machinations.  Thus, it can only help us so far given that this is a moral rather than legal problem.

The opposition has called for civil disobedience, relabelling itself a resistance movement, (perfectly legal by the way).  Which is why the law can only go so much to save us from this political crisis.

Many Kenyans nostalgically recall when the church fearlessly spoke with one voice, calling out the moral and legal inconsistencies that characterised the excesses of the Moi regime in the 80s and early 90s.  Some paid up with their lives, such as Bishop Alexander Muge and Father Anthony Kaiser. Some were beaten up by the police like Rev Timothy Njoya.

That’s why when the current Kenyan clergy acts like the biblical church of Laodicea, going all lukewarm on us, confusing the congregation. This shepherd just showed his flock the middle finger and we need to understand why.  

As the world marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is a good time as any to reflect on the present schism in the Kenyan Church, between its clergy and the congregation.  If the clergy is the proverbial shepherd and the congregation is the flock, then this shepherd has passively abdicated his duty and we need to discuss this.

First off, if you are those dogmatic Christians who cannot stomach any criticism levelled on the church, you may want to stop reading now, lest your delicate sensibilities are needlessly offended. This is not a conversion exercise, it is a shameless sermon to the choir.  Conversions while appreciated are purely incidental.

With the ownership of land, a key, scarce and hotly contested resource the church in Kenya adopted multiple identities. While it serves the role of spiritual shepherd, by owning land, it is also an economic actor which makes it an interest group with great political influence.  

Religion matters are always sensitive and, in a country where Christianity is the dominant faith, calling out the church is asking for a double dose of trouble.  

500 years.

Fast backward 500 years: In the Middle Ages, a young Jesuit priest faced a similar moral dilemma under worse circumstances.  At the end of October, in 1517, he called out the Catholic Church on its misdemeanours, effective changing the course of Christianity. The Ninety-Five Theses or if you prefer, Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, was the religious Pandora’s Box of the Middle Ages.   

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion argues that religion is rarely criticised because it is held as a sensitive and personal issue; hence shielded from overt demystification and criticism.  Certainly, we can’t deny that religious arguments hold great sway in the normative and even legal arguments that guide behaviour in our societies. For example, debates on issues of access to birth control, arguments on abortion and arguments on euthanasia are so passionate and intense, because religious arguments heavily influence these conversations that are always at variance with science.

Questioning religious dogma has its ramifications. Jesus Christ questioned Judaism religious practices, establishing his ministry with societal outcasts whom he sought “to seek and save”.  His disciples, the Pharisees (teachers of the existing dogma) and other followers interrogated his ideas, posing all sorts of tricky questions, which he skilfully and relentlessly deconstructed.  The Pharisees weren’t too pleased with this. For being such a pain the posterior, they put out a contract on Jesus and Judas Iscariot took bait.   He was crucified, and his death became the martyrdom that made way for Christianity a new and more inclusive faith than Judaism, accepting of previously excluded people and practises. And Jews were punished for killing Jesus, as they were persecuted through history (even Luther had anti-Semitic views) till they found reprieve in 1948.

In the same grain, Martin Luther’s move to call out the Catholic’s Church’s moral excesses set off a series of domino waves that affect us to date.   Two key things stand out.  First, Luther’s actions ignited the movement that eventually resulted in Protestantism, reducing the influence of the Catholic church.  Luther’s second influence was more profound.  By translating the bible into different languages, he removed the monopoly of knowledge of scriptural teachings from the priesthood, diffusing it to the people.  In a move reminiscent of the temple curtain tearing at Christ’s death, Luther brought the people closer to God by bringing his word closer to them.  Of course, there is an element of serendipity here that we must acknowledge; the Gutenberg press and the Renaissance. 

This changed the relationship between man and God, spawned the protestant movement with its many off-shoots. Luther put paid to the existing doctrine that man had sinned and fallen short of glory of God. He brought the doctrine of Justification by faith alone, and anything contrary had to anchored in the bible.

The renaissance, science and innovation marked the end of the dark ages, and there was a dogmatic shift in how man perceived himself and his relationship with God. The technological invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press was the perfect medium to allow Luther to disseminate his pamphlets that contained teachings as well as translations. No author at the time wrote more than Luther. Next time you are not reading your bible in Latin, which is every time, thank Luther for it, and buy your local Jesuit priest a drink in Luther’s honour.

500 years later

We need to have a conversation about the church in Kenya.  First things first, this is not about the spiritual relevance of the congregants.

Dawkins will call me cowardly, but I will not avoid that, God knows my views on the church as an actor in public spaces will offend enough sensibilities as it is.  What I want us to reflect on is the role and influence of the church in our public spaces.

The Kenyan state is going through turbulent political times on which the church has barely weighed in.  Where it has made its voice heard, it has made statements that are largely ineffectual, offering very few solutions that are in themselves escapist.

Genesis: Church in Bed with Government

When one can’t make sense of the present, one goes back to the history of the problem. To what extent is the church separated from the state?  When the church becomes an actor in affairs of the state, then it must be called to accountability and scrutiny just like other institutions.  While St. Paul drew the church and state boundary, asking or their separation, he contradicts himself when he asks slaves to respect masters and declaring all leaders are God-inspired and commanding unquestionable obedience. And since then the church has exploited this loophole deliberately contradicting itself into relevance and for its own advantage.  

The Kenyan story with the church begins with colonialism.  The missionaries came to spread the gospel and change our lives for the better.  Yes.  They built schools, hospitals, and churches, and it’s in these churches where they taught us that we must be obedient to out masters aka the colonialist as per bible dictates. (anecdote, depending on who you believe, they also instructed natives in Polynesia on how to have sex in acceptable civilised positions, hence the missionary position, but I digress).

So rather than alienate their money maker, the shepherd aka the church is sitting this one out, sorry flock.

 The church, being in bed with the colonial government had access to large tracts of land, where they could do their missionary work.  It’s instructive to note that the early church in Kenya never called out the colonial government for its forced displacement of  Kenyans from fertile highland areas,  neither did it call out the use of forced labour, introduction of taxation (hut tax) or the kipande system.  Why bite the hand that feeds you?  With the ownership of land, a key, scarce and hotly contested resource the church in Kenya adopted multiple identities. While it serves the role of spiritual shepherd, by owning land, it is also an economic actor which makes it an interest group with great political influence.  

Now to the fight for pluralism. The church spoke with one voice for the cause for pluralism.  One of the reasons the clergy was so united about this was because the fight for pluralism did not compromise the economic interests of the church.   Thus, the shepherds rose to the occasion and guided their flock, using captive audiences every Sunday, issuing pastoral letters, using their spiritual influence to influence the political decisions of their flock. As the clergy spoke with one voice against the Moi regime, we the congregation saw that it was good and were immensely pleased with our shepherds. 

With political pluralism came the freedom of expression, creating space for many voices hitherto unheard.  Naturally, the land question, a question as original as colonialism came to the fore.  Calls for constitution reform wanted to contain an all-powerful executive in Kenya as well as resolving the land question.  From issues of displacement to land tenure to taxation on land, all this touched a nerve of owners of large tracts of land in Kenya, including the church. As such, while the church was united in opposing Moi as a powerful executive, they were less singular in supporting a new constitution whose reform was based on revising and checking executive powers to avoid a repeat of Moi 2.0 in the future.

Kenyan Church – A very Jumbled Poem

 Why the inconsistency?  Because the land question affected the church as landowners.  In an ironical twist, an unholy alliance even, the mainstream churches teamed up with largescale land owners in opposition the draft constitution of 2010.

 While the landholding elite were obvious about their reservations including issues around community land and lease tenures, the church cloaked their opposition in congregation friendly positions such as half-baked arguments on abortion and Islamic courts as well as gay rights.   Cheap and dirty propaganda tactics were not beneath the moral etiquette of the church, it was survival time after all. From leaflets with outrageous bible interpretations to parading prepubescent girls in front of congregations alleging the draft constitution would allow them access to contraceptives, the church employed every weapon in its bag of tricks.  Never has the moral compass of the church faced south as it did then.     

Which brings us to the present, the church cannot speak with one voice on political issues which threaten their status quo in society. And it has nothing to do with our souls, the stairway to heaven hasn’t changed, it’s still all about fat camels and tiny eye needles.  It’s not even about remorse for the diminished moral authority after the church ‘position in the 2010 constitutional referendum.

It’s the congregation numbers, silly

When the politics is about issues that are a live wire, threatening church power dynamics, and loyalty of their congregations, then making political statements is hara-kiri, yes, a damn seppuku. Being no brave samurais, the church avoids this scenario by simply not taking a side. Hence the feeble and mostly ineffectual statements we have been subjected to, in the face of this political crisis.

And the polite flock that fills the parking spaces of these churches with cars bought on oppressing car loans nod to ‘no taking sides’ before they go home to spew filth on politics Facebook pages.

To pick a side in the current political debate, even a moral and ethical one would mean take a position and risk alienating half of the flock. The flock and its spiritual dependence on the church is what keeps the church relevant.  The flock’s loyalty to the church is what provides a modicum of decency to the economic interests of the church especially where they concern land. It is not in the church interest to take a political position that will see them lose sections of their congregation So rather than alienate their money maker, the shepherd aka the church is sitting this one out, sorry flock.

For the Catholic church it is particularly illuminating.  It is not outrageous to imagine it that the Catholic Church wants a president from within their congregation.  Especially if the president come from a family that is the largest landowner in the country.  Why would you chide this bloke?  You are taking care of his spiritual needs now (and his soul in death) and he is safeguarding your material possessions on earth, quid pro quo, neat. This is but a possibility.   Sounds sordid? Maybe, then again, most realpolitik is that; sordid, dirty, self-serving, amoral, inward looking, screw Bentham and his utilitarianism. Besides the shepherd needs to be well fed and rested and comfortable to take care of his flock, right?

Which brings us to our current dilemma, what do we do with the shepherd who has absconded his duty? That is the question the congregation must deal with.  What must be made clear is that to the extent that the church has a political voice which it exploits through action (and inaction), it must be held accountable for it political positions.  In the same light, the church must come clean about its economic grip on the country, if nothing else for purposes of disclosure.

The church and state are far from separate, they are joined at the hip. In the meantime, the church has failed the country by failing to speak up, take a position and provide direction in this time of crisis.  the church has failed the country by putting itself and its interests before those of its congregation.

In the divine comedy, Inferno, Dante Alighieri famously said, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”.  Feel free to take a moment to ruminate on the irony of the Kenyan clergy having a special place in hell, if Dante is to be believed. Meanwhile dear flock, the shepherd is not reporting for duty.  The flock can choose to wait all rudderless till the shepherd resumes duty or like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, the flock can revisit its relationship with the shepherd.

For what good is the church as a leader when it offers us promises of spiritual riches while watching from afar as the vices of the flesh consume us here on earth? Not to put a fine point to it, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves, what would Martin Luther do?

 Laureen Akoa Wesonga is a Chevening Scholar, pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at Warwick University, UK

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