Polarity: Kenya’s 2017 Elections, Identity Politics & The Fidelity of the Kenyan Church.

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(Photo Courtesy of The Standard Media Group)

On the 8th of August, Kenya went to the polls and voted. Three days later on Friday evening, the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta was officially declared the victor. The opposition coalition N.A.S.A refused to be a part of the final process and its candidate Raila Odinga refused to concede defeat seeking instead to fight the ruling at the Supreme Court and finding a historically unprecedented victory there on the 1st of September. The country seems to be putting much on hold and waiting for the outcome of the new election to be held on October 17th. This is the context we are living in; in a state of angst and as the Waswahili say, “Fahali wawili wakizozana, nyasi ndizo huumia,” [Translation: When two bulls fight, it is the grass that hurts]

Throughout our history as a country, we have been fixated on an ongoing drama between the Kenyatta and Odinga family dynasties despite alternative voices in the political sphere seeking equal attention; a drama that has become imbued since independence in 1963 with a litany of shifting ideologies: socialism, democracy, liberation theology, Marxism, Rogue Capitalism, negative ethnicity…the list could go on and on. After all, our literacy rate for Kenyans over the age of 15 lies at 78% and with access to an innumerable number of ideologies for the literate populace to pick from and absorb in an attempt to understand itself, the drama goes on.

In this ideological environment, Kenya’s greatest asset; an eclectic population (40+ tribes as well as Caucasian and South Asian ethnicities) has not been fully brought to bear in attempts to mitigate the negative effects of this ongoing drama and has instead been perverted. This is often seen in the subsuming of ethnic identities into either side of the Kenyatta/Odinga narrative and the subsequent sociopolitical outlooks either side adopts on the day whilst seeking to negate its ideological opposition. One such example of this is the GEMA outfit. Unlike the sort of harmony expected of relations that begin from a position of mutuality e.g. inter-ethnic marriage or enterprise that includes ethnicities across the Kenyan spectrum, this particular melding eventually harms. The harm is further fostered by historical revisionism, unsubstantiated claims as well as the “requisite” denials, assertions and deliberate instances of silence when speaking is preferred. The August 8th elections were no different. However, the brazenness with which new lines were drawn by both sides of the Kenyan election especially on social media was uniquely startling:

  • The assertions that 9 year old Stephanie Moraa shot on her balcony was in fact protesting; thus a subconscious attempt to cut the flow of empathy towards her grieving family.
  • That the police was not at all acting recklessly; a denial easily refuted by the instance of tear gas canisters lobbed inside an SDA church.
  • The deliberate silence that was a response in several circles to the clubbing to death of 6-month old Baby Pendo.
  • Unsubstantiated claims from opposition supporters that the election was rigged through a collusion between the IEBC, Electoral Observers and Multi-National Corporations with ghoulish intentions.
  • The initial boycott from the opposition to take their issue to the mandated governing authorities for election disputes where objectivity rather than sentiment is to be the rule i.e. the courts despite some of its players having played a part in the past in the fight for stronger public institutions. (The question may very well be asked, should we only support our governance institutions when we think it will go our way?)

The Kenyan church in its overall ethos of social and ethical transformation, has more often than not assumed that it could neatly excise itself from this context it inhabits while in practice rather than in doctrine, denying that our fight remains against the world, the flesh and the devil. The pervasiveness of this error runs so deeply that within the theological systems of some sects and African Christian theologians, can be sensed the unchallenged assumption that within our “Africanness” lies an immunity from particular ravages of the devil as far as our perception of reality as God has decreed it to be is concerned.

With these standpoints, implicitly yet firmly in place, it now surprises the church in Kenya that the same denials, assertions and deliberate instances of silence when speaking is appropriate are also to be found within its walls and not simply from all sides outside of it. As Christians, we often speak of the importance of our worldview being shaped by the word of God. What we really say in another way is that, our reality is always being reshaped, modified if you will and that it is to be appropriately modified by the word of God. The question then is, are we aware of this and the standards by which our reality is modified throughout our lives or will we be surprised as we are now when we realize we have been modifying our reality on false assumptions? On this point, Carl Trueman’s lecture below at Westminster Theological Seminary on Martin Luther is strikingly relevant. Here he describes Luther’s commentary on Genesis 3:1 in which Luther considers the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent and his conclusion from that passage that in speaking an untruth, the serpent essentially presents to our first parents a “false reality”.

Carl Trueman: “…With a word, it attacks “The Word” – The word which the Lord had spoken to Adam was do not eat from the true of the knowledge of good and evil. For Adam, this word was Gospel and law. It was his worship, it was his service and the obedience he could offer God in this state of innocence. These Satan attacks and tries to destroy. Nor is it only his intention as those who lack knowledge think to point out the tree and issue an invitation to pick its fruit. He points it out indeed but then he adds another new statement as he still does in the church.”

What Luther is saying there is that sin involves an alternative reality. But what Satan does, he doesn’t just point to the tree and say ‘Go on, have a go. Eat it.’ Satan re-describes reality. And because Satan re-describes reality in a way that is false, ultimately you can never make sense. The world is a certain way because God has decreed it to be that way. When Satan sets up an alternative reality, it is inevitable, it is inevitable that the world no longer makes sense. Death invades. Death is senseless for Luther. The world no longer makes sense because it no longer runs along the lines of reality that God has established in his word.

As lovers of truth which the Christian is to be we should furthermore recognize without partiality, the thoroughly inappropriate hijacking of religious themes by both sides i.e. the naming of the current government as the Jubilee Coalition in 2013 with reference to the Biblical concept of “Jubilee” as well as the self-identification of Raila Odinga as “Joshua” attempting to lead Kenya into a “land of prosperity” as it were. It should not come as a surprise that this hijacking would occur; as a matter of fact the people of Kenya themselves often eagerly ascribe these Biblical themes and messianic identities to politicians. These abuses and the deliberate silence from many Christian clergy in response to them clearly shows that much of the Kenyan church has no clue whatsoever when it comes to rightly dividing the word of God. The Bible for many in the Kenyan church is not immediately understood as a book containing significant, historic, at times unrepeatable events but is rather overall, a collection of aphorisms that can be appropriated for selfish gain in whichever way the reader of the Bible deems appropriate. As for the history in it, that kind of Kenyan reader might very well say albeit implicitly, “That is neither here nor there,”

In this way, the Biblical narrative is re-shaped. Uhuru Kenyatta becomes the kingly Christ-figure whose sinlessness is attested to by several of his supporters denying any allegation of corruption or other wrongdoing on the part of the Jubilee government in the last few years. They then term them all (the allegations) as mere propaganda and attempts at “economic sabotage” whilst denouncing those who would call for this “sinlessness” to be critiqued i.e. civil society. In this narrative, Raila Odinga and his followers with his frequent “scandal revelations” becomes the accusatory anti-Christ figure in need of final vanquishing.

On the other side, a similar plot plays out this time with Raila Odinga appropriating the identity of Biblical Joshua; another Christ figure whose task is to lead Israel i.e. his followers, into “Canaan”; a corruption free, virtue-laden prosperous Kenya for all ethnicities, whose eyes are trained on the lawless residents of Canaan due for judgment on account of their evil deeds as well as a siege and subsequent transformation of that land from a Kenya where privileged tribal elites play carrot and stick games with their own tribesman whilst recruiting more into the ranks of their corrupt cabal. This quest apparently ends in creating a utopia on earth worthy of the world’s admiration.

With the Kenyan church – except for a few faithful Christians and churches, clearly incapable or unwilling to address these pertinent issues outlined above, it ought to be clear to any right-thinking Christian that the fidelity of the church to Christ on this issue is not really a matter of defense i.e. prevention, but rather a matter of offense and retrieval. Which is to say, we must modify our reality in accordance with the word of God, arrive at the proper judgment that we are overall compromised and then proceed to do what needs to be done to rectify the problem. What the political elite have done in appropriating Biblical themes and messianic narratives is that they have entered the house of Christianity under false pretenses. They have then proceeded to demand that we re-arrange the furniture in accordance to their whims and are now insisting as all Kenyan squatters tend to do, that their ancestors were buried somewhere on our property and they are now laying claim to our history for their own purposes.

May I suggest that by tolerating the false realities presented to the Kenyan church and resorting to silence for too long when speaking was preferred, that what we as Kenyan Christians were really preferring and seeking out was the comfort of pretended social cohesion over the peace that God himself supplies? In doing so we have opened ourselves to at least these two specific challenges to Gospel witness in Kenya:

  1. The silence of numerous Christians and churches in appropriately talking about historical injustices as well as the two currently prominent false realities; the socially destructive doctrine of Uthamaki and the nascent, inevitably inadequate “Luo Messiah Narrative” for lack of a better term – the attempt to weaponize the Luo tribal identity into a social justice vehicle and its subsequent appropriation by all and sundry, says loudly to non-Christians that for some reason, the church is inherently incapable of speaking to these things. Thus, the logic on the ground may flow in this way – the church is silent therefore it has nothing to say. It has nothing to say because it’s scriptures do not speak on these things and therefore the (supposed) insufficiency of scripture to speak on all of life here in Kenya is evidence of its total bankruptcy. And because the Christian scriptures cannot be trusted, either its God is false or does not exist. In this way, we who know that scripture really does speak to these things cede ground to competing worldviews who claim to extensively address these issues that the church is too bashful to acknowledge. It would not be a surprise to me to hear that the conversion of many in Kenya to Islam is due to the Sharia system’s claims to extensively address justice issues. These “alternatives” are further emboldened in their assertions when we limit our strategy for addressing issues in the civic sphere not immediately from the Bible but rather to ministry blueprints from other countries e.g. America and as a result address only the issues that for example American churches address. Hence perpetuating false assertions that Christianity is alien to the African continent and that its appropriation in African countries serves only as a power game for the goal of moral policing.
  2. The constant revisionism of objective historical facts trickles down into a lack of objectivity in general as far as the relationship between history and logic is concerned. As J. Gresham Machen taught in his seminal work, “History and Faith”, the student of the New Testament is primarily a student of history. Without the objectivity of historical facts, we will eventually find it incredibly difficult to proclaim the giving of the son of God as a substitute for our sins and the subsequent giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as objective historical facts. In its toleration via silence concerning revisionism and subjectivism, the church becomes complicit in aiding the enemy to destroy the context for our Christian witness throughout the ages. In this context we are unwittingly complicit in destroying, The Law of Non-Contradiction is made obsolete.

Even more chilling is the future of our present Kenyan youth who we expect to pass on the faith to in this context we are creating. The Aga Khan University in its recently conducted research on Kenyan youth culture has arrived at the conclusion that Kenya is headed for an economically prosperous yet morally dubious future thus complicating further the Kenyan Gospel witness for the future. Having painted such a bleak picture what is the Christian to do, what is the church to do when the foundations are broken?

Well, it ought to be categorically stated that having realized the present precarious nature of our foundations, the necessary process of retrieval in the Kenyan church is in fact nothing short of the retrieval of Biblical redemptive history and its implications within the Kenyan context. Primarily at a corporate level through Redemptive-Historical preaching from the pulpit and Holy-Spirit empowered ‘love of neighbour’ at the individual Christian’s level across all ethnic lines. This retrieval of redemptive history in our churches would proclaim our common anthropology and that our need and solution as a human race regardless of your ethnicity is one and the same as that of anyone from another ethnicity.

Such a statement of our common anthropology through Adam; humanity’s representative, the fall of humanity in him, and consequently all of humanity’s need for Jesus Christ; the second Adam, entails in practicality, rejecting the Judaizing walls reminiscent of the Galatian heresy such as those implicitly embodied within the Uthamaki doctrine and the Luo Messiah Narrative. Adam not Uhuru Kenyatta or Raila Odinga is the representative of every Kenyan all of whom are born into sin. Jesus Christ and not Uhuru Kenyatta nor Raila Odinga is the head of the church; a church in which Kenyans from every ethnic community are found. We are as Christians to modify our view of the world not on the social-political claims of either Uhuru Kenyatta or Raila Odinga but on the timeless and trustworthy word of God.

Furthermore, it entails celebrating our ethnicities rather than being bashful of them or deliberately and destructively subsuming our ethnicities into the socio-political constructs of the players on each side. As Revelations teaches us, we need to arrive at an understanding that at the end of human history as we currently know it and long past the time when the names Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta have faded into memory, we should expect to hear in heaven the languages of the Kikuyu, Luo, Abagusii, Kamba, Pokot, Ogiek, Mijikenda, Arabic, Indian, Pakistani communities as well as the tongues of every other community under the sky. Though we should strive for social cohesion as much as is possible, we also need to have a reasonable end view of things and understand that ultimate peace will not be eternally secured without the prince of peace at the end of human history as we now know it. Like Abraham our patriarch, we are not as Christians to seek out an earthly abode and become “kingdom financiers” or anything of the sort rather, we are to look for that city whose architect and builder is God as we love our neighbours at an individual level no matter the cost to ourselves.

In this appropriate modification, we are to in all situations to set apart Christ as Lord in our first act and from that act, appropriately and within our relevant spheres and degrees of influence see to it that we live in a manner that honours God and appropriately loves our neighbours and in doing so, bear witness to the fact that as a church we are a tapestry of many ethnicities brought out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

In ensuring that this is portrayed, the manner of preaching in our churches must also drastically change to reflect the reality of the working of the word of God throughout human history in the hearts of all mankind. The sort of heart-changing and world-turning preaching necessary for this task at hand is expository preaching in the Lectio-Continua tradition that proclaims in its methodology the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ in scripture and history whilst accompanied by much prayer. To ensure that the word of God is unhindered in its work, we shall also need healthy churches governed by elders as well as ordained deacons who see to it that the material needs of its parishioners are not committed to the realm of theory but instead proclaim in action, that the Christian faith is a tangible faith rather than a Gnostic faith.

There is much else that could be said and that needs to be said, but at the end of the day, Christian faithfulness in a polarized Kenya can only be achieved by a process of retrieval at an individual Christian level as well as at the institutional church level. May God help us to realize the sheer magnitude of this necessary task at hand and our dire need for the work of the Holy Spirit whose strength is the only sure help towards the accomplishment of this crucial work.

Further Resources

 

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