REGAINING OUR SALTINESS: THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN POST ELECTION KENYA
*ADDRESS TO THE REUNION AND ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF THE KENYA CHURCH ASSOCIATION BY NJONJO MUE, ST. ANDREW’S CHURCH, SHORT STREET, LONDON SE1, 10th MAY 2008
“The need today is for Christians who are active and critical, who don’t accept situations without analyzing them inwardly and deeply. We no longer want masses of people like those who have been trifled with for so long. We want persons like fruitful fig trees, who can say yes to justice and no to injustice and can make use of the precious gift of life, regardless of the circumstances.”
Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, The Violence of Love
I am delighted to be able to join you for this annual reunion of the Kenya Church Association. I am a grandchild of the East African revival and grew up in the Anglican Church before moving to the Nairobi Chapel where I currently fellowship more out of convenience than out of any fundamental differences with the Anglicans. I need to say upfront that I am a Christian and any criticism I might make of the Church here or elsewhere is based on my deep love for the church, my recognition that the Church has done so much to improve the lot of the African people, and my desire to see it achieve its fullest potential in lifting up the people spiritually and socially.
To understand the role the Kenyan Church played in the lead up to the 2007 General Election and what role it can play in the healing and reconstruction of the country after the widespread violence that followed the announcement of the presidential election results, it is necessary to briefly go back in time and examine the way the church has faced the challenges of each new political era. This will in turn help us in determining the way forward for the Church in post-election Kenya.
The Church and colonialism
The missionary church made a huge contribution to Kenyan society, especially in the areas of education and health. I for one am a result of a missionary education having attended The Alliance High School, which was the first high school founded to educate African boys in 1926 and the brainchild of the Alliance of Protestant Missions.
But if the Church did well in helping to lift the living standards of the colonial populations, it is also an inescapable fact that that it did little to openly challenge the social injustices of the colonial era, preferring instead to engage in quiet diplomacy with the colonial powers rather than seeming to rock the boat. It thus acquired the image of a collaborator in the evils of colonialism.
This image of the Church in the colonial era can be gleaned from an article I stumbled upon in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (Friday, 9th May 2008). Reacting to calls for disestablishment of the Church of England, George Pitcher wrote, “The Christendom paradigm…withered with the British Empire. The idea that the Church and the State co-existed is long gone, a dim historical memory of missionaries converting the noble savage, Bible in one hand, Union flag in the other. Furthermore… the Church should never have got itself into its unholy alliance with the State; the Church’s ministry is at its most authentic when it is not at the State’s heart, but a thorn in its side, a national conscience rather than a national Church.”
The Church in Independent Kenya
The perception of the Church working to civilize natives in order to pave way for colonization and therefore not questioning the status quo survived the end of colonial rule. In the early years of independence, the Church tended to concentrate on saving souls and to mind its own business, turning a blind eye to glaring social, political and economic injustices of the new order.
During the Moi era (1978 – 2002), however, when there were very few spaces for political expression, the Church rose to the challenge of filling the political vacuum by providing a social and political space for resistance to one-party dictatorship. A few courageous church leaders such as Bishops Henry Okullu, Alexander Muge and David Gitari of the Anglican Church and Reverend Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church became vocal critics of the political establishment.
But the Church was not united in its approach. While Moi came to regard the mainstream denominations as “the enemy”, he closely aligned himself to the evangelical churches and was a staunch member of the African Inland Church and never missed Sunday service even as his repressive regime assassinated rival politicians, detained others without trial and tortured those who threatened his power base.
The Church was instrumental in pushing for constitutional reform through the Ufungamano Initiative that forced Moi to make certain important concessions and agree to a people-driven constitutional reform process.
The Kibaki Years (2002 – 2007 )
When Mwai Kibaki took over as President in 2002, the Church became largely silent on matters of social justice. Perhaps like the rest of civil society, it make the mistake of giving the new government the benefit of the doubt in the expectation that it would deliver on the various promises it had made in its manifesto when it fought the 2002 election. The then General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, an erstwhile critic of the Moi regime, became a close ally of President Kibaki and served as a presidential appointee on an anti-corruption body. (He went on to contest a parliamentary seat on the President’s party soon after stepping down from the Council and is now an MP. The recently appointed Cardinal of the Catholic Church is also a close ally of the President and has on several occasions issued statement that could be interpreted as being supportive of the establishment.)
Meanwhile, the Church remained silent as the new ruling coalition crumbled under the weight of a pre-election memorandum of understanding that the President refused to honour following the 2002 General Election, allegations of grand corruption and other signs that the new government was not really committed to a new way of managing the country.
In the run-up to the referendum on the new draft constitution for the country in 2005, the Church seemed to find its political voice once again, but its agenda was narrowly focused on resisting the inclusion of Islamic courts in the new constitution. This was hardly the prophetic voice that the Church had come to be associated with.
While not denying the Church the right to articulate its views on issues of concern to it, the expectation that it would rise and speak more forcefully on broader issues of justice in the constitutional debate largely went unmet. Instead its own forceful and largely insensitive articulation of its opposition to Islamic courts alienated the Muslim community, its erstwhile partner in fighting for constitutional reform in the last years of the Moi regime.
The referendum became the new frontline for forces aligned to President Kibaki and those coalescing around his former ally turned political foe, Raila Odinga, who was then leading a group of renegade ministers in opposing the draft. The campaign for and against the new constitution assumed the character of a campaign for and against the status quo with opponents of the draft arguing that it was meant to consolidate power in the hands of a few (read Kikuyu) elite.
At the beginning of the referendum campaigns, a vocal segment of the Church mobilized to reject the draft and publicly and forcefully stated their positions. However, with time, many key Kikuyu church leaders backtracked and counseled their followers to ‘vote with their conscience’. This was interpreted by the “No” camp to indicate that the Kikuyu church leaders’ change of heart was ethnically motivated.
The Church was thus seen as divided and serving narrow political interests depending on the ethnic group to which its leaders belonged. The prophetic voice of the Church to act as the conscience of society was lost, and the Church did nothing to evaluate its own role even after the people voted to soundly reject the draft constitution.
Approaching the 2007 General Election
In the run up to the 2007 General Election, the Church was seen as being openly partisan, along ethnic lines. Christian believers were clearly confused by conflicting “prophesies” of prominent Christian leaders which predicted victory for various candidates and prayed and anointed them as God’s choice for President. The uncertainty generated by these conflicting views fuelled the divisions in the Church.
Reports from the Rift Valley indicate the church leaders used civic education, prayer meetings and other occasions to openly campaign for their preferred parties and candidates. It is no wonder that at the height of the violence in January, when asked to comment on the role of the Church, a political analyst famously quipped, “We have seen the Church of PNU and we have seen the Church of ODM but, pray tell, where is the Church of Jesus Christ?”
Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that when the political crisis erupted leading to widespread violence in the wake of the disputed presidential election results, the Church struggled to find its voice. Church leaders could not rise above their partisanship and give the country a clear moral direction and the church was reduced to a helpless spectator to the emerging tragic drama.
The burning of over 400 churches during the violence was a sad reminder that many had come to regard churches not as sacred and neutral places of worship and sanctuary, but as part of the contested terrain of partisan politics. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, the overwhelming impression was that Christians had been betrayed by their own brothers and sisters and their own leaders.
Where do we go from here?
In March, the National Council of Churches of Kenya formally apologized to the nation for having taken sides during the 2007 General Election. This is an important step in the long road to the Church recovering its credibility and playing its role of being the conscience of society.
Several churches also joined forces in an initiative dubbed Msafara – The Wheels of Hope in which over 500 believers joined a caravan from Mombasa through Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret to Kisumu praying to cleanse the nation from demonic influences and taking humanitarian relief to internally displaced persons. But the Church needs to do more to recover its leading role in raising a strong civil society to hold the government to account.
As Kenya grapples to come to terms with what happened in the first three months of this year and the way forward, the Church needs to prepare to take the lead in the following respects:
1. Discipling the nation. – There is need to ask ourselves how is it that Christians so easily turned on each other. The Church needs to be at the forefront of fighting tribalism and forging an abiding spirit of nationhood. There is need to seriously address issues such as the gospel and culture, which go to the ethnic divisions that have plagued Kenya for many years. There is also need to connect spiritual warfare with rigorous socio-political analysis and engagement. In this regard, the words of Archbishop Romero on Christians needing to be active and critical and not accepting situations without analyzing them inwardly and deeply are very timely for Kenya.
The post-election violence exploded the myth that Kenya is one united nation. The sad fact is that Kenya as a nation has never really been born. What exists currently is a collection of 42 disparate ethnic groups with very little binding us together. Politicians have made it very clear that if left to their own devises, they shall continue to mobilize for support along ethnic lines and therefore continue to fracture this fragile country. The Church therefore needs to urgently step into the void by defining the spirituality of our nationhood and helping us to define and own our Kenyanness.
2. Constitutional, administrative and legal reforms. – The protagonists in Kenya’s crisis have pledged to embark on constitutional reforms. As stated earlier, the Church in Kenya has in the past played an important role in pushing for constitutional reform. It must strive to recover its foothold in this important area. As Kyril, the Archbishop of Smolensk and Kalinigrand reminds us, “It is not acceptable for the Church to refrain from participation in law-making and from the opportunity to influence the political process, where not only the Church’s own future but the future of the entire country is dependent upon laws and political decisions”
3. Land reform – the unequal distribution of land lies at the heart of Kenya’s political problems. The Church needs to push for more equitable land policies to ensure that this perpetual threat to national stability is dealt with once and for all. However, it has to be said that the Church has been reluctant to challenge the status quo in land distribution because mainstream churches are among the biggest land owners while some of the mushrooming evangelical churches have been mentioned in the Ndungu report as having been irregularly or illegally allocated public land during the Moi regime. Many churches are built on grabbed land.
4. Peace building, reconciliation and restoration process. – The government and the political players have committed themselves to setting up a truth and reconciliation process, but this cannot be left in the hands of the politicians alone. The Church has been called to a ministry of reconciliation and must exercise this spiritual mandate in the wake of the election crisis. The Church shall have to closely monitor the process to ensure that it is genuinely aimed at achieving national healing and not merely a whitewash aimed at sweeping past injustices under the carpet for political expediency.
The Church should also use the pulpit to teach and preach genuine forgiveness and reconciliation and encourage people to participate in dealing with the past justly and comprehensively so that the nation can truly be healed of its multiple wounds. The Church also has an ongoing responsibility of healing of the trauma of the violence among its own members.
Finally, the Church should live as much as possible as a reconciled community and thereby become a model to the rest of society of what can be accomplished if people live together in harmony.
As part of a society struggling to come out of a deeply traumatic experience, the Church in Kenya has been left deeply wounded, disoriented and almost without voice. Fortunately, the Church can learn from the experiences of churches in other countries and other ages such as Germany after the 2nd World War or South Africa after apartheid. To do so, the Church must quickly move to recover its voice, restore its credibility and play its prophetic role in advancing the cause of justice, healing and reconciliation in the wake of the Kenyan crisis. As South African theologian, Charles Villa-Vicencio reminds us in his book, A Theology of Social Reconstruction: Nation Building and Human Rights,
“Unless the Church is able in these situations (of reconstruction) to translate the values of the gospel into practice and proclaim its beliefs in a language that makes sense even to those who are no longer interested in its views, it may well have no significant role at all to play in the period of reconstruction. This means that unless the church’s theological values make sense to those beyond its own membership, and are given expression through secular debate in a language understandable to a broad constituency of people… it may not be heard at all.”
In January, when Kenya was falling apart and looking for moral leadership, the Church stumbled and could not give a clear direction. The peace agreement signed between the politicians in February has given us some breathing space, but the root causes that led to the crisis are far from resolved. The Church must take advantage of the ceasefire to get its own house in order so that in the event of a future flare-up, it shall be there to speak with authority and to continue leading the country along the treacherous path to healing and true reconciliation.
I thank you.
*The Kenya Church Association is a UK-based fellowship of Kenyans and UK friends of Kenya of all denominations, committed to support and encourage Christian work and development in Kenya. The KCA was formed in 1920 in order to keep in touch people who have a special interest in Kenya, and particularly the work of the Church there. In the past many members have themselves lived and worked in Kenya as missionaries. Today there are many Kenyans who live in Britain, and many are Christians. So most of the KCA’s potential members are Kenyans who are resident in Britain. KCA is building a fellowship that includes former long or short term missionaries and Christian expatriates to Kenya, Kenyan Christians living or working in the UK and current missionaries in Kenya.
** Njonjo Mue is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a human rights campaigner. He currently works with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. The views expressed in this speech are his own and do not reflect the position of the Commission.
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