As Christians mark the Easter festivities – and in a year that marks 180 years since German missionary Ludwig Krapf sailed to East Africa for the pioneer evangelical mission – one of the questions that many people ask is whether the Church has lost its mettle.
When Krapf died – he was found kneeling lifeless by his bed in 1881 – the Church Missionary Society that had sent him eulogised him as having died with “the burden of the dark continent still in his heart”.
By then, the burden was to conquer new frontiers and assist the State in its colonisation project. The Bible and the gun arrived at the same time – and worked in tandem – and as it was often said, “the flag followed the cross”.
Over the years, the Church has undergone a transformation. In the post-colonial period, it became the voice of the voiceless, earning a reputation as the beacon of hope in pinpointing societal wrongs. Critics of the Church are now asking whether the institution has dropped society as its burden and become society’s new burden.
After Independence, President Jomo Kenyatta asked the Church to help in nation-building as he struggled to build schools and health institutions. But as excesses in the regime emerged, the Church broke its silence, with the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) using its publications, The Target, with a Swahili version titled Lengo, Beyond, and Rock to point out the ills within society. The Target, edited by Henry Okullu, was the most radical. The NCCK had given Bishop Okullu editorial independence, and that detachment gave the magazine authority to tackle issues critical of the State.
Thus, when founding President Jomo Kenyatta fell out with his Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, leading to the registration of the Kenya People’s Union, and as the Church kept off the political drama, The Target published several articles with the title: “Politics: Who cares?” as an invitation to church leaders to begin caring about politics.
At the end of the 1960s, the Kenyatta State went through its first major political test following the assassination of trade unionist and Minister for Economic Planning and Development Tom Mboya and the advent of oathing in central Kenya.
As the mainstream media opted for silence, the NCCK publications criticised the oaths, which also targeted members of the clergy. Okullu and Bishop Obadiah Kariuki were particularly vocal about the issue. In his book, Church and Politics in East Africa, Okullu would later lament the fact that the Church was having “too comfortable relations with the State” and that by doing so, its voice as “the nation’s conscience [went] unheard”.
Politicians wanted the Church out of politics, but the radical clergymen believed their flock was in danger as the divisive oaths continued. The clergy was forced to seek an appointment with President Kenyatta, asking him to stop the oathing. When that avenue failed, they wrote a letter dated July 22, 1969, signed by Bishop Kariuki and Rt Rev Crispus Kiongo.
The then “strictly confidential” letter told Kenyatta that “many Christians, ordained ministers included, have been compelled to take the oath, which is contrary to their religion and belief.”
They then warned him: “There will be no Kenya unless Kenyatta acts now… Kenyatta is the one man who can change the present trend for better or for worse.”
In 1975, the assassination of outspoken Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki saw the Church rally together to condemn the excesses of the Kenyatta government. The State would react by banning Christian songs in central Kenya deemed to be critical of it. The most notable were songs by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa’s Gathaithi choir, including the song Maaĩ nĩ Marũrũ (The water is bitter). Operating within a single-party state, and as alternative voices were muzzled in Parliament, the NCCK declared itself a “forum for alternative political viewpoints”. It criticised detention without trial and called for a ceiling on land holdings as land grabbing continued.
The Moi rule book
Kenyatta’s death in 1978 saw Daniel arap Moi, an active member of the African Inland Church, take up the mantle and legitimise his power by bringing church leaders close to him. Moi, unlike Kenyatta, used the church platform to popularise himself. Every Sunday, television broadcasts covered his attendance of services in various churches.
But after 1982, as Moi reintroduced detention without trial and human rights abuses continued, the Church began criticising his regime. For instance, the introduction of queue-voting in 1988 caused a rift between Church and State, and Moi reacted by banning the NCCK’s Beyond magazine for asking: “Who Really Won?” The magazine’s editor, Bedan Mbugua, was jailed “for failing to submit annual sales returns”.
Anglican Archbishop Manasses Kuria termed the queue-voting system “un-Christian, undemocratic and embarrassing”. While Catholic Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki called for a referendum on the issue, Okullu said the controversial voting system had “produced some of the most blatant and cruel vote-rigging and cheating that has ever been practised in Kenya”.
During the NCCK’s national conference of 1988, church leaders defended the secret ballot in a letter signed by Anglican Bishops David Gitari, Henry Okullu, Alexander Muge and Rev Timothy Njoya of the PCEA. But Kanu refused to back down and instead termed the defenders of the secret ballot tribalists and subversives “in the pay of foreign masters”.
Moi asked the churchmen to keep out of politics, which split the Church into pro-regime and anti-government sides. Some of the radical voices that had emerged included Njoya and Bishop Muge, whose eloquence on famine in Pokot and Turkana embarrassed the State.
Police would be deployed to prevent Muge from entering some parts of his diocese, and at one point, MPs threatened him with detention without trial. With the collapse of dictatorships in Eastern Europe, Njoya, on January 1, 1990, declared that similar changes would soon be witnessed in Kenya and suggested that the one-party regime would fall. Njoya was supported by Okullu, who argued that only multi-party politics would guarantee accountability and transparency. But they were criticised by Kanu diehards, who said those events had no parallels in Kenya.
The death of Bishop Muge in August 1990 in a car crash after he had been threatened by Cabinet Minister Peter Okondo (that he would not leave Busia alive if he visited) saw the Church’s criticism of the Moi regime increase.
The mainstream churches were now closer to radicals, calling for an overhaul of the Independence constitution and clean-up of the statute laws. The Church would be crucial in returning the country to multi-party politics and advocating minimum reforms necessary for free and fair elections – including an independent electoral commission, repealing many old laws and ending political detentions.
But it was in the shaping of a new constitution that the Church would play a particularly significant role. When the Kanu regime was reluctant, the Church offered the pro-democracy activists space in Ufungamano House to start writing a new constitution – with or without Kanu’s support. The Church was also vocal in drafting the 2010 Constitution – though it mobilised its supporters to vote ‘No’ over a clause that allowed Kadhi Courts to be retained in the Constitution.
During the ‘No’ campaign, the Church would identify with William Ruto, who also rallied his followers to vote ‘No’.
Interestingly, Ruto used the same church platform to win the presidency last year, and thus the Church has found itself in an awkward position in which it appears unable to criticise the government.
Last week, 27 Catholic bishops challenged President Ruto to sit with veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga and other leaders to address national concerns, including the high cost of living.
“We also invite Raila to accept dialogue for the good of the country. We believe that a sitting and dialogue can resolve this dangerous standoff. The two need to establish a common ground to address the ills facing the country and restore sanity in our country,” said Archbishop Martin Kivuva, chairperson of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bishops said the fact that demonstrations are legal shouldn’t be exploited to paralyse the country or degenerate to a forceful takeover of a legitimate government. “The only way to avoid chaos and anarchy is always to follow the Constitution and the laws of the land. We, therefore, appeal to all leaders to pursue the path of peace and dialogue and create an enabling environment where all Kenyans can work and increase productivity,” said Bishop Maurice Muhatia.
Whether it will find its old voice remains to be seen – but so far, only a few clergymen are vocal about State excesses. Is the church at a crossroads? Only time will tell.
[email protected]; @johnkamau1
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