KENYA: GIVE US BACK OUR CHURCH!

Rev David Gitari speaking during the LImuru 2B meeting. Photo/Monicah Mwangi
Rev David Gitari speaking during the LImuru 2B meeting. Photo/Monicah Mwangi

In May 2009, the charismatic Kenyan Engineer turned preacher and Prophet, Dr.David Owour publicly baptised Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The baptism itself wasn’t what caught my attention but rather the heavy media coverage that accompanied it. In fact Raila had been baptised an Anglican in his youth.

That wasn’t the point, however. The truth is that since the late 1990s, Kenya’s politicians have also realised more than ever before that religion wins votes.

The Church distinguished from personal faith – as in organised religion, the institutions and organisations of religion – has returned to a place where it has been before - enjoying a close relationship with politics.

Kenya has always been described as a ‘very religious’ nation. Since the late 1990s in particular it has become accepted practice among many Kenyans, and increasingly some politicians too, to wear your faith on your sleeve.

Politicians make some of their most important pronouncements at events officiated by the Church – weddings, funerals or even just simple church services, where church leaders have allowed a tradition many Christians find utterly appalling of letting politicians address congregations. Indeed, there is no record of any Kenyan politician seeking or holding public office while admitting publicly to being agnostic let alone an atheist.

This is despite the fact that politicians are among the least trusted sections of our society so some cynicism understandably attends to their very public affectations of an affinity to the Almighty and all his earthly representatives in organised religion.

The Church is a major institution in and of itself. It is one of the country’s largest landowners. Its development work across much of our region rivals that of government, in health and in education especially. It has played an important role in the evolution of Kenya, from the colonial era when its missionaries created our first elites. Its influence cannot be discounted given the large percentage of the population who identify with it, and its evolution in terms of political influence in the last quarter century.

MANAGING TROUBLSOME PRIESTS

At the height of President Moi’s corrupt authoritarian rule from around 1988 it was courageous religious leaders, particularly from the Church, such as the still indefatigable Archbishop David Gitari, the late Henry Okullu and the late Bishop Alexander Muge and the Catholic Bishop Ndingi Mwana ‘a Nzeki who spoke for the marginalised and oppressed with a clarity and empathy that captured the mood of the nation.

This was especially the case after the head of state and his acolytes introduced ethnic cleansing as a political tool around the 1992 elections.

Reverend Mutava Musyimi, meanwhile, had revolutionised the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) from a faith-based service delivery agency for development to the poor into probably most effective advocacy machine in the history of the Christian Church in Kenya.

President Moi, the “Professor of Politics”, fully understood the critical stage offered by the church. Throughout his tenure, he was consistently portrayed as a God-fearing leader, who prioritised church attendance, even if not at what he called “the political” churches; Sunday media bulletins more often led with a report as to where the president had attended service than not, and his presence at the wedding services of the offspring of political elite raised the social prestige of what ought to have been purely family events.

Then, in October 1994, he conjured up for the national religious leadership of the Church a brilliant distraction. He set up the Presidential Commission on Devil Worship in Kenya that actually went around the country investigating this ‘scourge’ and emerged with a report paid for by taxpayers without the slightest hint of irony.

This profoundly bizarre episode in a country with a long history of often-hollow commissions and tribunals was no laughing matter to believers.

Corruption was at its height, and, as mentioned above, ethnic cleansing had swept through the Rift Valley, Western, Nyanza and other areas. Subsequent commissions of inquiry into these events adversely named many in Moi’s own administration. None of them has ever stepped forward to argue that ‘the devil made me do it’.

Among Moi’s most ardent supporters the point was always made that the most vocal and articulate of the church leaders who challenged him hailed from the Gikuyu and Luo communities who were also in opposition to him politically.

And amongst those who stood up for him and welcomed him to church functions were their counterparts mainly drawn from those communities where he drew his staunchest political support.

INTO LIVING CONTRADICTIONS

When President Moi vacated office in 2002, and his former vice president, Mwai Kibaki, stepped into his shoes, relations between Church and State altered dramatically.

The visceral antagonisms of the prior era melted away. A number of church leaders including, significantly, the NCCK’s Mutava Musyimi, were even eventually elected to parliament.

Some “retired” from the church, but it increasingly became the norm for many to not only use their pulpits as election campaign platforms, but also, when elected into parliament – and even appointed to public office - to juggle their church and state responsibilities.

While on the ground the Church continued to work for the poor, at the national level it largely lost the voice it had had on their behalf save the occasional column in the papers by Irish missionary, Fr. Gabriel Dolan. President Kibaki, never one for direct confrontation, cultivated a close relationship particularly with the Catholic Church whose national leadership seemed to share his conservative instincts especially with regard to property and its acquisition.

For a while it seemed as if the Kibaki administration had adopted a strategy that was a little like that of the socially and fiscally conservative Republican Party in the US which had become a formidable political force riding on the support of mainly conservative churches from Southern states.

This rosy relationship was interrupted when contradictions arose out of the campaign to approve and implement a new constitution during referendums in 2005 and 2010.

The Church opposed provisions it believed legalised abortion and also rejected acknowledgment in the new constitution of the already existing Muslim Kadhi Courts.

Those in the political cold seized the opportunity to woo the religious Christian right. Indeed, our current Deputy President William Ruto, having then fallen from political grace, shrewdly led the political wing of the ‘No’ campaign in opposing the new constitution in the run-up to the 2010 referendum. In doing this the most unlikely alliance was forged, however apparently uncomfortable then, with the church.

That alliance would only grow stronger with time. Despite – or perhaps because of - the promulgation of the new constitution in August 2010, the Jubilee Alliance that won the election in 2013 contained within it all the primary constituencies that had comprised the 2010 ‘No’ campaign.

Never has the need for spiritual affirmation via the Church by our political leaders played out more in the public domain than over the last decade. And some Churches have been obliging.

This is doubtlessly in part due to the uncertainties thrown up by the post-2007 election violence and its consequences, significantly the unfolding of the ICC indictments; and then, a searing and quietly divisive election this year. Each would cause anyone to seek divine provenance. And the prayers of Kenyans for peace in particular have been legion and sincere.

Some church leaders took a highly proactive stance during the campaign especially in regard to the charges faced by the President and Deputy President at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Indeed, for a while Messrs. Kenyatta and Ruto did not ‘campaign’, they held a series of brilliantly orchestrated ‘prayer rallies’.

The enemy was professionally conjured up as godless, malevolent, foreign, evil, dark forces, alien to Kenya, her people, traditions and aspirations.

This playing of the religious card caught most ordinary citizens flatfooted. Never before had there been a political campaign in Kenya in which religion, politics and tribe were so inextricably and openly intertwined.

A powerful and essential subtext was developed: that the Gikuyu and Kalenjin who had been ‘enemies’ in the political battlefield in previous elections - causing much bloodshed literally, including within actual church premises - had united in part to deliver upon the Nation a desperately sought after divine public good – peace. This, for so many, could only be the result of divine intervention.

It therefore made sense that when William Ruto had found himself at the Hague in September 2011, that an influential Kalenjin church leader, Bishop Kosgey accompanied him, and even testified on his behalf before the Court.

This narrative also explains away the apparent contradictions thrown up by church leaders – such as retired Bishops Lawi Imathiu and Peter Njenga - taking up formal and informal leadership roles in the controversial GEMA ethnic political association. It accounts for the apparent amnesia of the clergy who presided over the prayer rallies when it came to the victims and trauma of the violence.

And so it has come to pass that our politicians spend a lot of time in Church these days and take every opportunity to profess their faith publicly.

Public conversions, baptisms and anointings, such as that of the former Prime Minister, especially when orchestrated by the more charismatic Christian leaders became the norm.

Political leaders took to the influential international Prayer Breakfast movement in droves, adding spiritual advertisement to the many other associational activities for politicians that have mushroomed to tend to the particular needs of this important section of society.

CHURCH AND POLITICS, A CAUTIONARY TALE

The most robust cynicism does not lead me to question anyone’s faith - only to pray that the commitments are real. Still it does pay to be cautious about the mixing of organised religion with business and politics especially when it is the ambitions of the latter fraternities that are in the driving seat.

And they are very much ‘fraternities’, men’s shops, with only Bishop Margaret Wanjiru breaking the mould as both a bishop of the Church and an elected member of the last parliament. History teaches a harsh lesson to Africans and all people of African descent in this regard.

The slave trade, and many of the worst excesses of colonialism and apartheid were driven by good ‘God-fearing’ folk; entire communities ceased to exist after bumping into the sword carried by characters claiming to be doing God’s work. It also pays to remember that many of the most vicious wars, such as the American civil war, have been fuelled by a conviction on the part of both parties that God was on their side.

But perhaps the most immediate cautionary tale is derived out of our very own recent history. The toxic mixture of church and politics in the run up to the 2007 poll saw an unprecedented level of perceived partisanship by many churches. This had the net effect of undermining the Church’s moral credibility and therefore its voice, its capacity to speak truth to power.

In 2008 hundreds of churches were razed to the ground in the Rift Valley because they were identified with particular ethnic groups or in some cases simply because a careless Pastor had made partisan or bigoted sermons in the heat of the campaigns. We are yet to fully recover from that…

There is a desperate need for the Church as an institution to, as it were, regain its standing in our society. Its loss of credibility has been a tremendous loss to the moderation of our public affairs. In a divided nation where Christianity is as powerful as it apparently is, a Church with leaders who have a strong voice on behalf of its adherents would come to comprise a powerful anchor in our society.

Had religious leaders led, or at least been more visibly involved with the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) as has been the practice in countries where that particular model of dealing with past injustices has been used, it would most likely have a hugely more profound impact.

The need to mitigate the political fallout from the ICC process would, and can, still be handled by our religious leaders if they spoke with a single voice with moral authority. This needs to be regained.

Today major components of the Church appear to have been ‘captured’ by elements of the political elite. What is worse is that their voice and indeed their very language has been appropriated by politicians who stand up at political rallies and make every effort to sound like preachers, quoting from the Bible and reminding their supporters endlessly that God is on “their” side.

Reactions to this spread from approval, to discomfort and even nausea, to a rising sense of anger and betrayal. For many, especially those below 30 for whom the Church as a voice of the powerless and helpless is history not reality, there is the worst of all outcomes – a sense of irrelevance.