Is there a Canaan for the the Urban African Church beyond the COVID-19 wilderness?

Posted in If I was... on June 5, 2020 by Kyama

COVID-19 has meant that for the first time in my lifetime Christians have had a mandatory break from weekly church services, in most major urban centres of the world. As I write this, church leaders here in Kenya, met today to consider cautiously opening their doors to resume meeting. The announcement has not been made yet – and many are waiting with bated breath. There are obvious health concerns associated with opening church gatherings to the general public. It is also true that the ravages of a pandemic should not outweigh the very important role that religion plays for the long term [spiritual] health of the society. After all this is not the first or the most serious pandemic humanity has faced since 32AD.

The question then is what the urban church in Africa will likely return to after the pandemic. Before I attempt to reflect on that, let me get some important things out of the way.

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One: There is much talk of the new normal. A useful way to reflect is to see the present situation as normative in a way that facilitates better anticipation for and integration with the future. It might help to think of what we have now and going forward as ‘normal,’ and the past as the “old normal.”

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Two: Technology has been hailed as the way of the future. Some assume that technology will change everything and replace current modes of physical relationship with virtual means. One analogy sometimes used to describe the technological shift has been the total replacement of camera film with digital photography. I am not yet convinced that virtual relationship and interactions will completely supplant the need for interpersonal interactions such as those in churches. I find it helpful to think of technology as a modifier or accelerator. The entry of mobile phones made phone booths obsolete, but mobile phones multiplied the number of conversations people could have with each other. People never stopped meeting – they still do, but they added mobile communication to the arsenal of relational tools at their disposal. Emails eclipsed hand written or typed personal letters, but people still crave physical meetings. In the same way, I do not expect that zoom will completely replace the need for physical community in church. I will get back to this in a moment.

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Honk (Or Zoom) If You Love Jesus: How Churches Are Adapting Amid ...Three: Of all the things that will change – the core tenets of Christian faith will not change. The message of reconciliation between a loving God and an obstinate humanity will remain relevant for all time. The at-times gripping, at-times in your face, at-times baffling, at-times winding story of that reconciliation recorded in the Bible will remain relevant for as long as the human race will struggle with its brokenness.

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So, if Christians in African urban centres have had a break from Church, will they go back to church? Will churches survive? Will there be a need for people to meet again in the communities we have come to know as the church? The short answer to all these questions is “Yes.” The long answer is “it will really depend,” and here is why –

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People will be yearning for the message of life: The average congregation member or potential church goer will be very exposed to a lot of information, trends and ideologies on the internet. Christianity will be one among many ‘ideologies.’ They will also be exposed to all kinds of ‘feel good’ spiritual experiences in the form of music, talks/sermons and even online experiences. The thing that will move them from the comfort of the screen to the church building, is a message that goes beyond attempting to produce a feeling [though that has its place]. People will go to church if what they find there is an authentic, life-giving experience of Christ and his people. It will go beyond intellectual engagement with the content, or some good old razzmatazz. They will want to see, and connect with people who are human, genuine about their humanity, but also bold and willing to stake their life on their message. I will not be surprised if people will flock to churches of pastors who are trolled or vilified for standing up for their faith in Christ online. I won’t be surprised if people seek out preachers with high personal integrity, and church members who care more about applying the message to their daily lives than trying to be suave or PC. I won’t be surprised to see churches emerging which meet in simple ways but put a premium on authenticity and fidelity to Christ. They will crave a meaningful faith not just a fleeting spirituality.

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People will be yearning for a holistic gospel: I expect people will leave the couch to attend churches that look beyond personal religion. They will find enough of that online – after all the online experience is very much like a supermarket [of global proportions] where people can pick whatever each wants without having to consume it with someone else. It is very individualistic in that sense. People will leave the screen if they find something that offers more – something that offers a community dimension of faith lived out for the benefit of society. The opposite is also true. People will want more than just ‘giving back to society.’ People might leave the couch to attend a church that isn’t just another NGO trying to solve societies’ issues without a bigger vision and motivation. There isn’t a shortage of causes to follow on the net. I think urban Africans might be moved to communities that tie their message of hope for the society with a bold, well-thought through, and authentically articulated commitment to Christ.

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People will be yearning for holistic supernatural encounters: Social media has done anScience and Religion - Debate On Religion excellent job of ridiculing charlatans who manufacture miracles for show. The pendulum has also swung on the opposite end where the same media has idolized a humanism that glorifies [even worships] science. Unfortunately, this humanism leaves more questions unanswered about bigger life issues than it answers about the mechanics of it. I suspect that the discerning public, church-going or not, are already suspicious of the two extremes and are looking for more. That ‘more’ may likely be found in communities that unashamedly offer the possibility of a God who isn’t bound by human constraints, is free to perform miraculous acts, not for show but as interventions revealing his sovereignty. These will not be limited to the spectacular. It seems to me people will be very much attracted to Acts 2 communities where God can be seen at work in big and small ways in people’s lives without the lights-camera-action mode we have seen recently. People might be willing to leave their laptop at home to go hear the Word of life preached boldly, thoughtfully and authentically, producing life change in people who previously had no hope.

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People will be yearning for simplicity without being taken for simpletons: Lets face it Advanced Biblical Theology and Christian Doctrine | Udemy, the online world is a highly complicated one with numerous twists and turns. Add to that the complexity of managing virtual relationships with multiple levels of very public interactions. Add to that the real-life friends. Add to that work. Add to that family. Add to that the nagging existential questions of life. An uncomplicated genuine encounter with Christ which touches the heart, the mind and probes the deepest of our emotions will likely inspire a person to make that trip to church. It is possible that, while there may likely be a number of large communities, there will be many more new small communities thriving in this simplicity. Cities are already highly complex places which are expensive to live in and costly to run large gatherings in.  This will inevitably make it hard to financially sustain large teams of full-time clergy. I would not be surprised if this dynamic of our growing African cities will contribute to the shift towards simpler church setups and services.  Teams might end up being smaller with mostly bi-vocational members. It will be simple but not simplistic. That generation will want to engage their faith with their minds as well as their hearts. They want to grapple with the hard personal and societal questions and probe deep for answers. They will hope for leaders [both clergy and lay] who won’t be afraid to reflect and probe with them. I can see people leaving that online perch and make the trip to sit under the teaching of such leaders. I can see some gathering around their bi-vocational pastors after service and talking till evening weaving theological issues, with life questions, with counselling matters, all with a measure of seriousness but peppered with some light-hearted fun.

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COVID-19 is not the end of the church. For a part of the world, things might continue as they did before. There is another part of the world for whom that will be the old normal. The normal will force them to grapple with the issues I raise. After the COVID-19 wilderness, it is very likely that a number of churches in African cities will be unable to adjust to this life in Canaan and may have to give up their existence to make way for a generation of churches that might be very different from what we know. These ‘new’ churches might have an uncanny similarity with New Testament communities. And that won’t be a bad thing for urban Africa. It actually could well be the answer to the fervent prayers of many in my generation and before.

On Pentecostalism Today

Posted in If I was... on May 23, 2020 by Kyama

This is an excerpt of a Facebook conversation about an insightful article calling for a Pentecostal response to COVID-19. You may find the article here Coronavus Calls for Revival of Pentecostalism. In my Facebook post I hailed the article as a reminder of who we are, and what should be normative. The following is a part of the dialogue that ensued with Kevin Muriithi, a youth pastor, apologist, and theologian.

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Kevin Ndebz Muriithi Kyama thanks for the read. It was helpful in articulating, at least in my reading, the place of being open to the Spirit’s leading. I like how Richard Foster looks at the various Christian traditions as "streams" that help us to flow to the same river. To that end I think Pentecostalism reminds us of the place of the Spirit. A few questions for clarity:

1. The writer talks about prayer and love as descriptive of healthy Pentecostalism. Isn’t this just descriptive of being a Christian in which case what does Pentecostalism offer as a distinctive Christian tradition?

2. Openness to the Spirit should be center in our Christian life. I think the danger however can be a leaning towards individualistic and subjective experience above what we see in God’s entire revelation in scripture. I think this is a major critique towards Pentecostalism in general, and "excessive Pentecostalism" in particular. So the question would be what balance does a healthy Pentecostalism offer and how does it differ from other Christian traditions on the same?

3. I guess these questions point to this underlying observation on my end – that either because Pentecostalism as a Christian tradition is relatively young or because there have not been distinctive "healthy" Pentecostal theology(ies), then that is why we see the aberrations in doctrine and practise? If it is my ignorance, especially on the last point on lack of a distinctive healthy Pentecostal theology, what would you say are the basic pillars of Pentecostal theology that make it distinctive?

4. Although I see the biblical and practical emphasis on the Spirit and gifts, my major critique is that in most cases these seem to be emphasized outside the guidelines of Scripture. This remains my major critique on the movement and on it’s rather concentrated scope on the biblical revelation i.e Pneumatology. Is there more to Pentecostal theology beyond this?

These will greatly aid in my understanding my dear brother.

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Alex Shianda Kevin Ndebz Muriithi streams of living water by Richard Foster is a fantastic book.

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Kevin Ndebz Muriithi Alex Shianda it really is. Very helpful in learning from one another.

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Kyama Mugambi Kevin Ndebz Muriithi most popular (and scholarly) discourse on Pentecostalism starts from critique. There are many angles this launches from, eg critiques against American Fundamentist pentecostalim (and its related televangelist variants), excesses of African charismatcism (in independent and historic mission churches) etc. Every Christian tradition (even evangelicalism that is fierily scathing towards most other traditions) has areas where it needs Christ, and where it can learn from other traditions. This particular article is set within that context where Pentecostalism is said to have nothing to offer. (A narrative that is fast growing here). Even the site where it is published has in the past been impatient with Pentecostals/Charismatics. This article offers a corrective for Pentecostal/Chrismatic insiders (of whom I am one) and (hopefully) observers.

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Kyama Mugambi All theology is in some way contextual. Post enlightenment Euro-Christian thought has tended to promote theological discourse (learning) by (often fractious) critique. Simply put, find the fault in others, then present your considered opinion. This is …See More

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Kevin Ndebz Muriithi Kyama Mugambi I hear you and wholly agree, all theology is contextual. In total agreement especially on the idea that the various traditions have something to offer the global church – and that all traditions are imperfect. Agreed. I think this answers most questions but I’d like to hear from an insider’s perspective on this:

What would an insider say are some foundational pillars of healthy Pentecostalism? Or what would an insider say is Pentecostalism’s unique contribution to the global church?

Let me emphasize that I am asking for my own understanding and that I ask with a desire to learn from an insider’s perspective.

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Kyama Mugambi That’s the subject of whole books [see Alan Anderson, Walter
Hollenweger]. I would say Pentecostalism is but one expression of Christianity. It is found both in independent churches, and in historic mission Christianity [where it is sometimes called
Charismatic Christianity…] It’s key emphases [which would be its
pillars, or contribution if you like] are – a recognition of the prominent place of the Holy Spirit in the lived-out Christian experience, a profound appreciation of the power of God at work in the miraculous, an appreciation for New Testament experiences in the life of the Christian today, a vibrant orality that makes a place for experience as a valid expression of Gospel truth. There are others but I think those are the key ones. Let me also add here that there is a whole spectrum of Pentecostal expression and even nuances to Pentecostal theology. But I would summarize the key points that way.

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Kevin Ndebz Muriithi Kyama Mugambi thanks for these. Very helpful.

Two Passovers plus One

Posted in If I was... on April 12, 2020 by Kyama

Traditional Jewish MatzoThe first Easter happened during the Passover, a celebration commemorating how God’s people depended on Him for life and deliverance from slavery. Knowing the end of the story from the beginning, God instituted that Holy day for Israel before the last plague in Egypt. He instructed His people to remember how He cared for their plight as slaves and rescued them at a great cost to Egypt (Exodus 12). On that fateful night and going forward He told his people to slaughter a lamb, smear its blood on their front doors, then roast the meat and eat it quickly with unleavened bread, as a memorial. God didn’t need the festival – it really was meant to be a lasting reminder for people through the generations of their indebtedness to God.

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This first Passover was also a prophetic event pointing us to another Lamb sacrificed to save humankind, God’s people. God responded to our tendency to sin by sending Jesus, His Son to die a cruel, shameful death on the Cross. On the Passover week on that first Easter, Jesus was slain and His blood poured out to avert the plague of eternal spiritual death. (Matthew 26-27, Mark 13-14, Luke 22-23, John 18-19) This deliverance event is the most important Christian Holy day (holiday if you like). Each year Christians celebrate it, usually with family, food and fun memories. Each year I look forward to the Easter church service, my highlight – the communion and hearing again those powerful words about Christ’s Body broken and His blood poured out for us.

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Photo Of The Inside Of A ChurchWithout conventional church services to attend, Easter 2020 is one of the most unusual Holy seasons in recent history; certainly different from anything I have ever had. It may well be different from any Easter many of us will ever have. This year’s Pesach finds us in the middle of a struggle to come to terms with the pain, grief, loss and confusion of the moment caused by Covid-19. We are confronted with a historical moment which, if I am to be honest, I have no other means to make meaning of except through faith. It is a season when an entire community (humanity in this case) comes face to face with illness and mortality. Israel faced this community-wide cross-roads at least twice in Biblical times, each time depending on God for deliverance, and instituting a Holy day of remembrance. (The Passover in Exodus and Purim in Esther)

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One month into the crisis, the small number cases in Africa at this moment confounds the science of it all. On the continent we now live with the grim anticipation of a deluge of confirmed infections waiting to happen. This may well be the case, but it may not. There may be no tsunami of illnesses after all. The possibility exists that the cup may pass by with less destruction than projected. What will a Christian response be?

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Silhouette of Person Holding Glass Mason JarThe Passover message contains a potent, pertinent lesson. It teaches us that our health, indeed our existence, depends on God. An appropriate practical response may be to set aside moments of reflection (as Dr Sahaya Selvam wisely pointed out) to remember how much we owe God for our lives. But what if the angel of death strikes, as he has elsewhere, and the storm beats worse than what is predicted? Even here, the Passover message still applies. The Easter Passover is about our indebtedness to God for all that we are. When that storm blows over, there will be a place to retreat and remember God in solemn praise, and resolute dependence, as Hosea (6:1-3) and Habbakuk (3:17-19) remind us. It remains a Passover after all, should we live to remember the days.

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Brown Wooden CrossGod prescribed the Passover ‘feast’ to Israel during the last and greatest Plague in Egypt. As we grapple with these circumstances around us, I think it is fitting to set aside our own moment of remembrance. It may be well worth the spiritual exercise to reflect on what we will do to remind us about our indebtedness to God when Covid-19 is over. Here are some thoughts I have turned over in my mind. On the day of remembrance next year (whenever that will be), perhaps I should plan to eat dinner with only my family ensuring that on the menu are immunity boosting lemons, ginger and garlic (that have been a part of our diet now); to do a zoom call with other friends and loved ones with facemasks on to remind us how precious we are to each other – and that we owe our lives to God. Have you thought about what you will do when God delivers you from Covid-19?

Facts, Faith and Covid-19

Posted in If I was... on April 9, 2020 by Kyama

Covid 19 confronts us with a barrage of fear inducing facts. How are we as Christians to come to terms with the impact of these numerous pieces of frightful information? This has been the subject of much discussion with some decrying the failure of “Christians” to acknowledge the facts of science. Some Christians clap back with comments ranging from references to God’s sovereignty to Apocalyptic prophecies. This article isn’t about the details of who is right or wrong in these arguments. It is a [rather lengthy] piece for Christians who want to figure out what role their faith plays in relation to alarming facts in crisis such as this one.

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Concept Of Covid-19 In Red BackgroundFacts within a specific context are what constitutes one’s reality. Some facts will only apply within a given context while others do not. For example mangoes in our village fall on the ground under the pull of gravity. That might be true all over the earth but it is a different matter on the NASA space station four hundred kilometers above the earth. The behaviour of a mango on the space station does not necessarily negate the laws of gravity but it just means the facts apply differently in that different context. The fact of gravity is the same but these are two different realities as experienced by the people in those places.

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It follows, therefore, that someone else’s fact, in a different context may not constitute our reality. For example, a person without previous an infection of chickenpox will likely respond differently to exposure than one who has had it. One important point, however, and this is the point of this post, is that different people process the same fact differently based on the resources they have to process their reality. In other words, the same reality, with the same facts and the same context, will evoke different responses. The range of responses is wide. Some responses are more informed by faith while others are less informed by faith. Other factors such as fear, pain, and so on also influence people’s response. How then are we as Christians to address the information we have about covid-19?

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Person Holding Laboratory FlaskFact, scientific or otherwise, helps us know with some certainty what the measurable, verifiable elements of our reality are. Religion, however, is what should guide us in coming to terms with this reality. My faith as a Christian helps me make sense of what we know so far about our situation. Should the situation change, my faith will also help me find understanding and purpose. I return to this shortly. From a Christian perspective, it is possible to be aware of particular facts about a reality but miss the mark in making sense of them. I illustrate this with a well known Biblical account in Numbers 13 and 14.

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Israel came out of Egypt with a promise for a bright future. Their long and winding journey in the wilderness brought them to the promised land. When they arrived at its threshold, Moses, their trusted leader sent spies to bring back a report. Twelve men went out with specific instructions to gather information – facts, about the land. At the end of six weeks brought back the same facts. The land was productive, but unlike Israel, the people lived in large fortified cities and had considerable military might. This where the commonality of perspective among the spies ended.

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Ten spies looked at the facts and concluded, according to their interpretation, that the promised land was a no-go zone. In their words, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” In the same way many of us with potentially useful morsels of info share [on social media], the spies took it upon themselves to present the facts, and their assessment to the people. The result of their introspection was a riot and possibly mass hysteria among a travel-weary, poor, fearful and anxious Israel. “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder,” Israel complained to Moses.

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Photo of Person Peeking through the HoleJoshua and Caleb, the remaining two spies, encountered the same facts, acknowledged them but saw greater purpose. They did not dismiss the negative, potentially overwhelming downsides of Canaan. They instead chose to see the whole picture. Their assessment of the facts led them to conclude that the land presented an opportunity for Israel. They accepted that Canaanites had great military might but this was no match for God’s promise to Israel. It was not lost on them that there would be a struggle, but they gave meaning and context to the facts by putting God in the picture.

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Similarly, Covid 19 presents us with the opportunity to assess the facts of post-corona-virus life. Our Christian assessment should be honest about what the situation on the ground is. We should also be aware of who God is and what he intends for us.

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Let us be clear here that hope does not mean dishonesty about the truth. A harsh indictment is given for those who deny the truth about a dire situation. Such unwise people (the prophet uses stronger words) put themselves on a collision course with God when they “whitewash” the truth with false claims. (Ezekiel 13:3-12) While the temptation is great to bend the facts to give hope to a desperate people, such hope must be rooted in the actual situation. Covid-19 is a serious disease that has caused widespread suffering, and death. Every presentation of hope needs to make sure it is not “whitewashing” this fact.

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We also must understand that a message of hope in Christ that does not acknowledge God’s sovereignty over human frailty also attracts God’s displeasure, as we have seen in the Numbers narrative. Our Christian faith response cannot be despondent and despairing, even with harsh facts – this is not the vision we see of our God in scripture. Our faith furnishes us with the resources to accept both the severity of our situation, and appreciate God’s sovereignty over it.

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Man Holding His FaceI can see three responses that we can adopt as we process meaning behind the facts of our Covid-19 situation. The first is a retreat into lament. (See N.T.Wright’s reflection on this Here.) Christian faith teaches us that there is a place for a quiet weeping over our state. A solemn, soul-searching moment that invites us to grieve over our weak physical and spiritual condition, as God would, and does. Jeremiah in his eponymous book, and the book he wrote of Lamentations gives us excellent lessons on this. Many Psalms also do a great job modelling this, and giving us the vocabulary for lament. In our lives lament involves prayer, meditative readings and even music that puts us in touch with the feelings of grief, loss and sense of utter dependence on God in our lamentable circumstances.

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This grief cannot be perpetual but must give way to a resolute dependence on God. Such a dependence recognizes the seriousness of the situation but also acknowledges that God can bring deliverance in any form to the afflicted. It challenges our one-track view of modern medicine, and causes us to consider other avenues of God’s miraculous intervention, whether by medical or other means. This dependence is so fervent that even if God did not heal in the way we desire, we still remain devoted to him. (See Habbakuk 3:17) This dependence prioritizes seeking after God in His Word. (See Hosea 6:1-4) It also highlights spiritual disciplines such as community worship [in whichever form available], prayer and fasting.

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Brown Concrete Cross Near a Palm TreeFinally, a third Christian response to our difficult realities should inspire an outward orientation. The alarming facts of Covid-19 must re-sensitize us to the most vulnerable in our midst and how severely they are affected. It should drive us to care for them by considering their livelihoods as well as their health. It will require those with means to give generously to safeguard the well-being of the vulnerable. Christian employers, landlords and other people of means – must think outside the box to find humane solutions to the difficult dilemmas of life, especially in cities and towns. A Christian response to Covid-19 realities is a call to reach deep into our Christian experience, to cultivate a sense of purpose and hope at a time when the facts tempt us to fear. In the face of the hopelessness of skepticism towards God, our Christian faith invites us back to the Cross, to cling on to God with even more devotion.

Leviticus 25, Covid 19 and the triumph of Hope

Posted in If I was... on March 25, 2020 by Kyama

Covid19 shook most assumptions we have held about the proper functioning of our world. It affected how we relate with our loved ones, when and how we travel, how we do business, what is important in business, whether politics is a crucial media topic in times of crisis, how nations relate, what is the first world or the third world in terms of a pandemic, and so on. We return to this shortly but first let me talk a little about another occurrence that was intentionally designed to periodically rattle the fundamentals of a nation.
Jubilee was an extraordinary economic, social and political phenomenon (See Leviticus 25). Image result for virgin forestGod instituted it to occur every fifty years, as a kind of sabbath after seven seasons of seven years each. Farmed land was put on furlough. Even the soil, trees and vines were given a rest. Economically speaking, land previously sold was returned to its God-instituted custodians. Creditors had to forgive the debts of those who sold themselves to servitude on account of poverty. (That is if their kin did not ‘redeem’ them before the day.) Slaves by reason of money were freed, and relationships potentially are given a new lease of life.
At face value, this seems like a wonderful time of favour, celebration and good cheer. One must read the text more carefully to see that the Jubilee was an institutionalized periodic knock on the head for anyone who missed God’s directives about justice in society. Jubilee was a difficult time. The resulting societal changes affected the dynamics of power, leadership and governance. In other words, the sabbath of sabbaths had a politico-economic dimension. It was also a moment of reckoning where the society, especially its leaders, should have taken a long hard look and addressed the issues.
Look closer and see that Moses instituted a total upset of the systems of ‘good economic practice.’ Such ‘good practice’ required that the owners of the means of production paid for labour. Money loaned to a person ‘did its work’ to bring in interest, both to recover the time value of money and to generate value for the lender. Means of production, ie land, was to be worked to generate maximum value for its owner, working it at every open opportunity. Jubilee tossed all that on its head. Image result for upside down graph
Workers giving value in exchange for money loaned in the past (but still unpaid), were released. The remaining amount of money owed – was pardoned. The land lay unfarmed. It is easy to see how this was a moment of jubilation for slaves freed, and for workers who didn’t have to go to the fields. Jubilee was a season of uncertainty where the well-to-do were plunged into the unknown. The society pushed the reset button.
There are many dimensions of this reset. Fundamentally though, the haves and have-nots had to name, then come to terms with the inequalities of society. “What do you owe?” “It is now pardoned.” I can imagine how a person who had completed only 3 out of 6 years of servitude happily left their implements on the farm as soon as the Jubilee year started. I can also imagine land owners determinedly working their bond-servants to the bone in the few days remaining before the Jubilee year began just to try and get that last unit of value before the reset. There was little recourse when someone owed you, and did not pay, and had to be released -all that because the Jubilee had come. The pardon of the season protected the debtor but instituted a kind of preference against the person of means. (Remember Fr Gutierrez’s preferential option for the poor?)
More could be said, but suffice it to say that Jubilee was such a difficult manoeuvre to execute properly that some say it likely was never observed as instructed. It remained an unfulfilled longing awaiting a Messiah. (Isaiah 61, Luke 4) It is not hard to imagine why it was the substance of wistful dreams. Anyone with the power and societal wherewithal to effect it would have had to endure immense uncertainty, angst, and pain for the reset to happen properly. It is easy to see political reasons why Jubilee might not have seen the light of day. Hope for the poor came at a cost. Jubilee challenged everything and everyone – Leveling the playing field in an unequal society, in an uncomfortable disruption for one group, which simultaneously projected rays of hope for another group. Jubilee was the reminder that before God, all humanity is equal and vulnerable.
Despite its unclear origin, obscure trajectory, and unprecedented consequences so far, Covid19, like Jubilee, gives us a glimpse of what it looks like when all humanity is equalized and vulnerable.Image result for covid 19 It has forced a rest, in some places, of all but the essential means of production. The proverbial soil, trees and vines have to rest, along with those who tend them.

It exposes us to the angst and fear in a person [people, society, societies] when money, health care cover, one’s government, can do little to offer assurances against a reality that shakes the very foundations of what makes us secure. It also exposes us to the seeming recklessness of those who, having nothing more to lose in the humanly induced inequalities of society, choose actions to try to secure their daily subsistence. It exposes our vulnerabilities as humans. It brings out the dangerous human potential for pain, fear and indifference in all levels of humanity. It flips the table on what we normally see. The indifference of the privileged towards the poor, and the systems that make society so unequal, is exchanged with the fear the privileged have when the systems threaten their own existence. The fear that the poor have of the worsening of their plight, is exchanged with an indifference towards the dire context, as they try to make ends meet.
Covid 19, like Jubilee, can also present for us hope. Covid19, like Jubilee, is a moment in time that will change everything. In changing everything it gives a fresh start, just like unfarmed the fields. Society may never really be equal, but Covid19 shows ‘the least of these’ this one thing. It shows them that the privileged are also human, they fear, they ache, they cry, and their lives are fragile. Perhaps this moment is even more important for the privileged because it shows us that our humanity is real and finite. It shows us that we can no longer hide in money, systems, and policies. These things can fail us, as they have failed those we have been indifferent towards.

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Hopefully, covid19 will challenge us to be more human, and humane. I pray it will change the way we behave towards others, from different social strata, and different races – calling us to challenge systems and hold leaders accountable. Hopefully, it will push a reset button that gives us a fresh start to rediscover our humanity as God intended it – making us call, talk to and appreciate those who are not like us. It will remind us why it is so important to be mutually respectful, to be interdependent, even with those we think little about- helping us to guard our language and thoughts whenever we talk or refer to others who are not like us. It will also show us why we need God in our broken world, brokenness for which we do not really have all the answers. These are the reminders that point us back to the Cross of the Christ who promised the real Jubilee. (Luke 4) It is a call to put our Hope in Him who knows our human condition, and Who recommended that every now and then we need a fresh start a reset.

ps. While this in one sense has nothing to do with Jubilee politics in Kenya, in another sense, it has everything to do with it!

Scorpions, Debt and Rehoboam

Posted in If I was... on November 2, 2019 by Kyama

The story is told of how a son of a great king ascended to the seat of rulership after the death of his father. At the initial meeting, the gathered nation spoke their hearts out to the new ruler, pleading a different future from the heavy burden his father had saddled them with. They cried out for relief from the previous regime’s oppressive environment. The young ruler retreated for some days to consult with wise elders seeking a way forward. The wise men suggested a compassionate response, full of empathy and justice for the groaning nation.

Having listened to the elders, the young ruler sought a second opinion. He went to the inner circle of his handlers for their thoughts. They had a radically different approach. The men the young ruler had grown up with advised him to be tough, and unrelenting if he was going to accomplish what they wanted during his tenure. They trashed the elders’ divinely inspired wisdom. So, coached by his confidantes, young ruler came back to the groaning nation with these words, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”

Scorpion

2019 Kenya is struggling under a heavy debt burden. Numerous calls have gone out to the leadership for caution against an oppressive debt regime. The words returning to the groaning nation are that if the big agenda is to be fulfilled then the public must be content with a heavier debt burden. Those opposed to the back-breaking load are, therefore, enemies of progress, often contemptuously scorned. It is not clear at this point if Kenya is too far gone to beat an about turn away from the fast-approaching onslaught of debt-induced turbulence. What is clear is that the pain of slow business will only be multiplied on the public through higher interest rates, to ostensibly stimulate economic growth in the flailing banking sector. The scourge of whips will turn to the scourge of scorpions. To paraphrase the respected, most senior banker, I also ask, what use is this growth if it does not translate into the lives of the ordinary citizen?

Debt trap

The story of the young ruler has a dramatic ending. The nation couldn’t take it any more. The people refused the young ruler’s leadership. They essentially denied the ruler a kingdom, ripping away from him what he had desired to have. His courage and audacity were met with the consequences of harsh political realities. Despite the big vision and smooth words, Jubilee has consistently met the groanings of economic duress with promises of more of the same economic activities that cause the pain. More debt, less action against systemic and individual corruption, and apathetic responses to the plight of the common man. Could it be that Jubilee is inviting upon itself Rehoboam’s fate? Is it possible that the Kibra election will be a prophecy of whether the young ruler will have a kingdom or not in 2022? Could it be that 2022 portends a multitude of rulers who will be stripped of their kingdoms for their lack of wisdom in times such as these? If I was Jubilee, I would study the story in 1 Kings 12 thoroughly and see what I can learn from it, because the issues are the same, the key characters in the story are the same, and the same frightening end might be their lot.

What on Earth is the Church here for?

Posted in African et Religio on October 15, 2019 by Kyama

“Churches have a right to expose evil, to reject and to speak openly…But not to say they join politics and such. If he wants to be a politician, join politics.” President Daniel Arap Moi cNov 1984

“The issue is courage to do their calling. Hospitals is not the call of the church. Justice is.” Dr. Wandia Njoya October 2019.

These statements prescribe what the church shouldn’t or should do in a society that remains broken and in need of urgent attention. Though separated by vastly different contexts, time, and stature of the speakers, in essence both statements by self-professed Christians [church people?] point to at least two things. The first is obviously the importance of the Christian organization in dealing with particular maladies in society. These include things like, in the words of the speakers, justice, the exposition of evil and so on. The second is the poignant frustration at this organization’s propensity to overstep its [real or imagined] mandate in pursuit of matters for which it has no business engaging in. The arguments embodied in both statements speak into our post-independence context and require some engagement. My point is that the inherent problem with these statements in today’s discourse about the church is a lack of clarity about what the church is, and what it exists to do. Such fuzziness may misdirect some, and bring confusion of intent in others. It is such confusion of intent that, quite unfortunately, places these two statements next to each other.

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What is our context? I state the obvious when I say we live in a Kenya driven by greed that fuels the violent and epic-proportioned theft that we seem to have sanitized through what we glibly call corruption. It runs from the ground up, from the little bribes we “ordinary people” give to parking attendants to avoid county fees; right up to the mega-deals brokered by politicians and business people that turn up on our newspapers every day.

As one politician put it “siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” – bad politics, bad life. The perpetual farce that is our politics remains the fertile breeding ground for these vermin that ruin our economy and destroy the very fabric of our society. We see this dysfunctionality everywhere, in education institutions, healthcare, the exposure of our vulnerable members of society, and the inadequacies of our infrastructure. I will grant that we have made much progress since say 1984, but in the same breath I will say that we should have been so much further as a nation were it not for these systemic injustices.

Few institutions, if any have the sheer raw power to challenge this status quo. Civil society, the knight in shining armour of yesteryear has struggled to sustain the pressure with the turn of Kenya’s political tide, at the turn of the century. Perhaps the diverse perspectives within this group, coupled with existential concerns of its members have sapped their energies. Or perhaps the very same issues the nation struggles with are also the substance of their localized experiences. I don’t know for sure.

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The voting public is the other bloc with the power. The power of the numbers is in their hands to be exercised every few years at the election. Working together, they can outvote anyone or anything they choose to reject. If that fails, no government organ can contain a resolute public tired of the state of affairs. But alas, the public cannot at this point rely on itself to act in unison towards its best interests. Confused by constant shifts in political winds, disillusioned by ethnic visions of the future, and oppressed by the economic context, the voters seem paralysed, unable to act. They yearn for leadership which at best comes in fits and starts. The media is the other major player. It however, has been a mixed bag. Sometimes we see flashes of brilliance, rallying all who will listen as it challenges, highlights or amplifies the voices of reason and justice. Most of the time, the public is treated to the profiteering racket that is sensationalism. Thoughtful representations of our truth are few and far between.

That leaves us with the church. I speak of it in very general terms here recognizing that “the church” is a nebulous term which can mean something, someone, people, places, ideas, faith, faiths all at the same time, while at the same time meaning nothing. I will return to that in a moment. The church, whose message is to bring liberation and justice, is meant rise up and call evil for what it is. To use the now-popular phrase, the church is all we have left to “speak truth to power.”

That is where the problems begin. This thing we call the church, is riddled with scandals. Its selfish egoistic leaders continually erode the church’s credibility in the public eye. Together with the corruption scandals, the other news we find with appalling frequency in the outlets is the latest of a seemingly endless series of shenanigans of my fellow people of the cloth. Some of what we see is not only unbiblical but outright criminal. This is further compounded by the demands of audacious, legitimate but often costly expansion projects which likely take a toll many who want to participate meaningfully but can feel the squeeze of an ailing economy.

Faith Politics SignProbably even worse is the silence, or seeming silence of many church leaders in the face of such matters, and its slackness in the work of restoring justice and freedom to the people. Thankfully, the silence is broken in some few places. I have argued elsewhere that if one is diligent, careful and honest enough to look, they will find the timeless message of justice and truth courageously spoken in pulpits scattered all over the country. There is the proverbial remnant for the worried Elijahs out there.

Church leaders from various places get together more often these days than they did 40 years ago, to deliberate and speak “truth to power.” In the neo-liberal scheme of things however, the fourth estate often neglects to report these important messages, in favour of what offers more commercial value – scandal! (I have often wondered who or what is responsible for the training and formation of the younger media practitioners in that important constituency of our society. But that is beside the point.) What I am saying however is that church leaders have done something. I am also stating that they could and should do much more in not just condemning the failure of leadership in our society, but also in holding the leaders accountable and actively discouraging the vice.

church harambeeThis is where I couldn’t agree more with those who argue that the church is not doing enough to speak and rally its constituency towards justice, freedom, righteousness and moral uprightness, not just for the individual but for the society. I am also on record as being critical of a prevalent, narrow, deficient and partially heretical theology that attributes a faulty logic of salvation to the individual only. Redemption is for the individual and for society. We cannot condone the virus that makes the entire society sick while hoping that the individual therein will find full spiritual healing. That is why I applaud the efforts of those bold leaders, mostly in the mainline denominations, who have taken a position on donations by politicians in churches. The driving of a personal, partisan political agenda in a church through money is flat out wrong. This dance with mammon and political intents not what the church exists to do. The politicians’ “thirty pieces of silver” should be literally and metaphorically thrown back at them, building projects notwithstanding. Better an unfinished building, than a sick Body of Christ with an angry Jesus to boot.

We need church community leaders with the discernment and courage of St. Peter in Acts 8 to purge these repugnant attempts to appropriate the gift of God’s community for personal gain. The politicians, the whole lot of them, from the President, his deputy, their political partners by handshake and others need to heed Peter’s warning to “have no part or share in this ministry, because [their] heart[s are] not right before God.”[v.21] At the risk of losing leaders’ favor and financial support, the pastors should direct them to “repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive [them] for having such a thought in [their] heart[s].”

Your-Place-in-the-Body-of-ChristSo, if the church does not exist to receive donations from politicians what does it exist to do. This is where my understanding is at odds with both Moi and Wandia. To avoid ambiguity we need to define two issues here. The first is what constitutes the church. The second is what the specific mandate of the church is. For purposes of this discussion, I will define the church as that group of people that self identify as followers of Jesus. I use that definition because it is evident the terms he uses to describe his relationship with them, calling them his “body,” or his “bride.” Conversely, this “church” acknowledges Jesus as “her” head, and as her groom. It is a flawed group, always painfully limping from the wounds of its own making. But still, strangely, for God’s own glory, this is the group Jesus left to represent him. That in itself is a testament to Jesus grace for the deserving [ie God’s people], and also a continual reminder of our perpetual need to depend on Him.

The purpose of this church, with its victories and vicissitudes, is to advance Jesus’ agenda. Discerning this agenda is not rocket science. We find multiple summaries of it throughout the Bible. The purpose of the church is to align our lives and our human experience with God’s agenda through Christ. [Ephesians 1:10] This spiritual endeavour necessarily covers our personal lives, our families, workplaces and the values and systems we see, as well as the underlying assumptions and motivations that drive the world around us. It also includes the physical, material circumstances that we find ourselves in. Where any of these varied situations are at odds with God’s agenda, then they must be brought back into dialogue and relationship with God. The term often used is that all these people, things, systems, and structures are to be “reconciled” with God and his purposes. [Col 1:20, 2 Cor 5:21]

One could argue that this is vague and non-specific. Where do we find the purpose of the church specifically indicated? Jesus gives us some pointers in his own mission, which he bequeaths the church in Luke 4:18-19. Referring to Isaiah, he said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[ Isaiah 61:1; Isaiah 58:6]

The spirit of the lordLet’s exegete this. The church exists to make a difference in the lives of the poor. This is not just spiritual, emotional or intellectual poverty. A casual look at the New Testament demonstrates that God’s agenda necessarily includes all the above as well as material, economic poverty. Poverty alleviation is the business of the church! Jesus is also about liberation, setting people free. His agenda is for freedom. Again this is not just from spiritual, or intellectual captivity. Those are important but this also includes those in political, ethnic, and racial oppression. Many facets of this liberation message are political. And so, contra-Moi, politics is necessarily the business of the church.

God’s agenda is healing, for the blind. God is interested in people’s health, their ocular, aural, olfactory and every other kind of wellness. It’s been laid bare for us in the good book that Jesus and those he mentored invested themselves in the spiritual and physical health of the people around them. Hospitals are therefore the business of the church!

I note here, and this is significant, that God’s agenda is not limited to the freedom, health and well-being of just the believers. God’s agenda, mediated by His community, is for all of humanity. My purpose as a Christian is to make the world a better place for everyone. Sometimes my efforts as a Christian reduce the quality of my own life, but for the sake of someone else. That notwithstanding, Christ’s message offers God’s gifts shared for all humanity.

The last part of the statement is often overlooked. The proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour. Elsewhere you will find the term, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee. The Year of the Lord’s favour was a biblical concept where God required his people to push a reset button in society to restore what had gone off centre in the societal systems and structures. (Far cry for what Jubilee, the party has delivered…) Land was returned, slaves were released, and the marginalized were given a second chance in the Jubilee cycle which was to last 49 years. This was a time for hope and renewal for a society which had atrophied over time. In short, Jesus teaches me that the church is also in the business of hope. This hope is supplied at great cost written in blood at Calvary. This community exists to announce and where necessary engineer a reset both giving much-needed hope for the individual and for the society they live in.

Christian cross with Jesus Christ statue over stormy clouds

My reading of the purpose of the church necessarily requires the church to actively engage in politics and economics. Mr Moi was wrong on this one. It must speak about good and evil, but must also tangibly act on the same. It must encourage, dissuade and negotiate in order to fulfil its mandate. It hasn’t always done a good job of this, and I am sure article in at least one of this week’s newspapers may eloquently prove this. But its failure in practice does not negate its mandate in theory [in theology?].

The church’s work of proclaiming the good news to the poor is a call to social work in all its forms. This proclamation of Jesus [and him crucified, and resurrected], necessarily involves work in schools, hospitals, orphanages, care for the aged, refugee work, mental healthcare and any other area involving the marginalized, and affects the well-being of the society. Such involvement will be at every level imaginable, so long as at least one member of the church is there. To suggest otherwise is to misdirect the community. It is on this count that Dr Njoya’s statement above misses the mark. While motivated by the chronic ineptitude of various church leaders, her prescription either dismisses or ignores the express purpose of the church.

Any discourse about what the church should [or shouldn’t] do will be strengthened by a proper understanding of who the church is, and what the purpose is. I have explained what the purpose of the church is and in general terms who the church is. Let me make a further distinction here. The church is a group of followers of Christ. It is a community. It is a group of people organically connected to each other by a common faith in the person of Jesus. This conversation is impoverished whenever the church is viewed primarily as an institution – an inanimate body built around a particular structure for a specific goal. Truth be told it is an institution with structures for a goal. In fact, it is a motley conglomeration of many institutions. It, however, is much more than that, it is a community, an organism more than an organization. That the church fails, for example, to speak prophetically to the Presidency is an indictment on particular institutions, but not on the community. Even here one has to specify which of the many institutions, that form the local, nationwide or worldwide church are being indicted.

Institutional failure may reflect on the institution but it does not absolve the community of its mandate to pursue its purpose in society. If the church has been silent as an institution, it must realize its own shortcomings as a community, and get back on its mission. The mission didn’t go away, its the institution that got distracted. If it stopped speaking prophetically, it must open its mouth again. On the same token, if some within its proximity require education, healthcare, or legal services, then the community must get in there and do what it can at all levels.

Oppressive government healthcare practices and policy must be confronted with sharp rebuke from church members [leaders] on the pulpit, church members in that sector of society [health practitioners] and the church members in the affected area [wananchi.] Other church members should revise, re-craft and push, by advocacy or other means, policies that address the inadequacies and issues of the sector. At the same time, church members also have a responsibility to the victims of the broken healthcare system [patients in the hospitals, nurses, doctors etc]. In addition to much fervent prayer, which we know can bring supernatural healing, the church [leaders and members] have to trust God to take further tangible steps. After all, as James pointed out, if a vulnerable person comes and the Christian community “does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” [2:16-17] An implication often missed in the reading of this passage in James, is that somehow, with all the needs of the institution, the cost of being Christlike community rests with the community itself. With wisdom, restraint and hope [all available in varying measures], Christ invites church members the privilege of fincancially supporting the work. And the work is a lot! Where the government neglected to build a hospital, the church members should build one. Where the government is failing to maintain the hospital, the church, that is the community of Christ-followers, should step in.Bible and Medicine

In other words, the failure of the government, civil society, the media, or NGOs is not a license for the church to abdicate its spiritual and physical mandate to fulfil its purpose. On this score, I would argue instead that we need to see much more engagement. The churches, especially the charismatic ones whose expression I belong to, [we] need to do much more than they have been doing. We the church, members, leaders and all, should build those schools, take over public hospitals, support the orphans, run for political office – and do whatever the mission and purpose requires. The church is more than an institution, it is a community. Its mandate is to do all within its power, engaging all its people and resources to align everything to God’s agenda for humanity. As it is, where we are now, there is too little engagement with politics, healthcare, education, infrastructure, economics and so on. I hear Jesus saying through Luke 4, that we need to get on with it already.  The church is mandated to have its finger in every pie, and keep it there until its mandate is fulfilled, or Jesus returns – whichever comes first.

Forgiveness, Irrationality and Choice

Posted in If I was... on October 4, 2019 by Kyama

Brandt Jean statement https://youtu.be/xkOXpmePoDE

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Faced with an opportunity to address the killer of his brother, Brandt Jean chose a difficult path. He voiced his forgiveness and even stated that he would not have wanted the Amber Guyger not to go to jail.

That felt wrong to me on several levels. A person of color died, unarmed in his own apartment, from bullet out of a white police officer’s gun. Forgiving one is not recommended, in a racially charged nation where many offenders are hardly brought to book. Justice needs to be served, if not for this family, for many others vicariously. Jean’s statement felt to me like it trivialized the gravity of what was at stake here.

However at another level Jean did something that sets him apart from the Pope’s words to his shooter or Mandela’s approach to peace in post-apartheid South Africa. Pope John Paul II had instruments of power. His forgiveness came at a great personal cost but his position of authority and responsibility in the world afforded him a certain status and possibly cushion from the effects of this heinous act against him. Mandela was already a famous leader by the time he left prison. He led the nation and had access to resources and status that is vastly different from Jean’s situation. While I don’t claim to be an expert in these matters, or to understand Jean’s environment from a first had perspective, it is not lost on me that nothing in Jean’s life now or in the future is set up to be spectacular or cushioned. He has nothing to gain materially from this situation. In fact, he lost his brother, his privacy, his dignity, his preferred future and so on. When Jean goes back to life, his racial background will predispose him to the same fate that befell his brother. I struggle with that in light of what he said. It doesn’t sit well with me.

Jean lives in a world where systemic injustice not only robs him of dignity but of choice. Systemic injustice exposes him to death on his person, and the possibility of grief every time he steps out. Even when he is at home or at school he has no choice about whether he will experience loss of a loved one by virtue of his race. He also has no choice about the remedy for his situation. When a person gets shot, the only choice he has for justice is to return to the same system that let him down. That is why his statement is at once both jarring and admirable to me.

Invited to address the court, for once Jean had a choice. A free choice to respond. Forgiveness became his escape pod from the matrix. He opted to voice forgiveness, renounce the impulse for revenge and free himself from Amber’s unwitting grip on his life as the killer of his beloved brother. His society’s choice (and mine) was for him to vent its pain and disappointment with the broken system and its broken people. The justice system offers an opportunity for victims to articulate their sentiments before sentencing. It is a part of the system’s way of dignifying the victims. For the rest of us this was an opportunity for Jean to accept partial justice and make legitimate demands for more. There are possibly people out there, even ones oblivious of the racial divide, who would have recommended forgiveness, in an abstract theologically philosophical way. It is a novel concept that is kind of unique to Christianity.

The ultimate choice though was Jean’s. He seemingly ignored these potential voices and demands and made his practical choice. Its irrationality is only matched by its audacity. I look at my own life and shudder at the struggle I have to forgive people, even for things they inadvertently did to me. It took an immense amount of ‘something’ to help him rise above the situation, rise above us and choose a difficult but potentially liberating path. It is that ‘something’ he called faith in Jesus that I find most intriguing because it offered him freedom that the state or society is unable to give. Granted perhaps a pastor or church person might have talked to him. But that isn’t enough. That faith must be activated in the heart to be any use in a situation like this. I have preached many sermons on forgiveness, but in the final analysis, after the sermon comes the decision. When it comes down to the wire the listener has to decide. After the decision comes the action. The decision and action are the prerogative of the individual. What did this faith do to Jean? What is this thing that for millenia mingles irrationality with audacity? Why is it that this faith inspires acts that that are both awe inspiring and repulsive? As people here would ask “kwani what did Jesus do to him?”

 

The Caged Monkeys and Colonial Christianity in Africa

Posted in African et Religio on September 9, 2019 by Kyama

In case you haven’t heard about the caged monkey experiment, it goes something like this. A researcher put five (or some say eight) monkeys in a cage containing a bunch of bananas hanging from a string, with a ladder leading up to the fruits. When the first monkey went for the bananas, the researcher sprayed all monkeys with freezing water for five minutes. Later, when a second monkey attempted to go for the bananas the researcher once again sprayed all monkeys with the cold water for five minutes. The researcher allegedly put the hose away and never touched it again. When a third monkey went for the bananas, the others, afraid of punishment, attacked him to prevent him from climbing that ladder.

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Image result for monkey cage    The researcher then replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey who wasn’t part of the original experiment and had never been sprayed with water. As soon as he touched the ladder to go for the bananas, the other monkeys attacked him. Whenever he tried again, they attacked him again. Thus, the new monkey learned not to go for the bananas. The researcher replaced a second monkey with another new monkey. The same punishment was meted on him by his compatriots. Eventually researcher replaced all the monkeys one at a time leaving none of the original monkeys. The new monkeys, who had never been sprayed with cold water, learned to avoid the bananas.

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The researchers allegedly hypothesized that, if they were to ask the monkeys why they don’t go for the bananas, they’d answer “it’s because that’s the way it’s always been done.” This story is often quoted, especially on social media, as an indictment against religion, especially the dysfunctionality of Christianity in Africa. The problem with Christianity, the enlightened ‘quoters’ say, is that the faithful are uncritical in their belief. The observers decry the unwillingness of Africans to question the motives and ‘import’ [pun intended] of what is believed to be a religion foreign to the continent. They highlight its absurdity in a modern world that is moving away from religion in pursuit of the benefits of science.

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People only believe in religion because “that is the way it was done.” With a nod to Marx, they argue that religion’s intoxicating effects have created a “cage scenario” where none of the original proponents are there to elucidate why things are the way they are. They just “beat everyone,” down to religious submission. In all honesty, many can attest to this seeming religious “control” over their private lives. In many places on the continent, all freedoms to believe are granted except the freedom to “not believe.” Now, for all the publicity this research account receives I haven’t found any proof of the actual experiment in the way it is often stated. As far as I am concerned it is a modern myth, or legend. Its point, however, is forcefully made. The argument frequently articulated especially on social media is that for Africans to think freely they must rid themselves of religion, especially of the White Christian kind.

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Of what use is this religion in Africa? Debate is rife, questioning the value of this Christianity, for a continent full of woes. What has this thing done for us since it came [sic], they ask. The failures and excesses, particularly of the Pentecostals, accentuate the frustration, resentment even, against organised religion for the continent. That is if one can bring themselves to call these vociferous strands of Christianity ‘organized.’ Layered on top of this is the extractive, colonial heritage that attended the missionary years in Africa. The argument goes, that African Christianity’s provenance in Europe, with its North American cousins, renders it useless for any practical purpose on the continent. Only when a truly “melanized” Christianity is found can it be trusted as a means by which society can use to address its problems. Until then, it must be treated with the disdain and suspicion it deserves. For some reason, in the eyes of the critics, early African Initiatives in Christianity, the so called Spirit cults don’t count as African Christianity.

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My thesis is that such an adversarial engagement with religion in Africa must also be subjected to scrutiny. We must apply the same intellectual rigour to ask ourselves why we are asking ourselves these questions. To put it differently using Ricoeur’s language, we must apply the hermeneutics of suspicion on our own suspicion! But first it is important to get the facts right.

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The charge sustained by European trained African pre-independence, and early post-colonial thinkers is that Christianity is a violent, colonial, and white, affront to African progress. On violence, guilty as charged. A cursory look at history books reveals its long, tragically embarrassing savage history, in Europe, the middle East, Africa and elsewhere. It is not a pretty history by any standard. One has to admit though, that this isn’t unique to Christianity. That is to say that the charge isn’t materially different from human carnage elsewhere in the name of this or other religions. As a matter of fact, secular humanistic ideas whose devotion to science were touted to yield human progress have not fared any better. Some of the worst mass human tragedies were sanctioned by these intellectual experiments in ‘secular, scientific morality.’ Simply put, violence is a human condition. And a horrible one at that. Historically, religion and ideology are inadvertent vessels of this vice.

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The other assertion is that Christianity is colonial. This assertion needs a nuanced response. Many initial missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa were white Europeans. [On this there is a really interesting piece of history from Liberia and Sierra Leone, and another from Coptic Egypt, but that is for another day.] Colonialists were also white Europeans. Those are givens. It is true that some missionaries extolled the virtue of the imperialistic priorities of colonial governments. It is also true that some White settlers and members of their governments appreciated the presence of missionaries who “bottled and exported” their religious expression for consumption in dark Africa. However, the presumption that because missionaries came from Europe they rendered the faith inherently colonial or white is problematic in many ways. The logic of ‘race equals religion’ is difficult to sustain. If Christianity is white, then what is ‘black religion’? What of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and Coptic Egyptians? Christian Nubians? This logic simply does not hold factually.

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Aside from the first-century examples above, the temporal gap between the missionary enterprise and actual colonialism in Africa renders the argument at least partially void. On average, most missionaries began work in sub-Saharan regions, at their own cost, on average half a century before the substantive colonial invasions. Pioneer missionary work started in earnest long before Bismark’s imperial tea party in Germany. The pioneer land grabbers of different ethnicities poured in after they were given license at that 1885 Berlin conference. Colonial business people were slow on the uptake! They got in much later in the game, after the missionaries had already spotted the potential for evangelistic pursuits.

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In Kenya, we are looking at a significant gap between the advent of the missionary era in 1844, and the formal establishment of the Kenyan colonial government in 1920. This was 75 years after missionary entry and a whole 15 years after the railway, the single biggest statement of confidence in the colonial enterprise. Missionaries and colonialists didn’t come at the same time, and their priorities were materially different. Even when colonialism did take root, the relationship between the mission and the government was far from harmonious. Colonial businesses and governments frequently clashed with missionaries. To them, the missionaries seemed too obsessed with the natives. Furthermore, missionaries often quarrelled among themselves over doctrine, worship practices, and, yes, followers, black African converts. That was the reason for the famous 1913 conference on missionary comity in Kikuyu. Knowing what we know in Africa about ethnicity, it is hard to discount the ethnic dimension of disagreements among missionary agencies.

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Eventually, the colonial governments began to exert control and manage the missionaries movements. This paved the way for the geo-ethnic distribution of denominational affiliations in sub-Saharan Africa. The result was a tense environment comprising delicate webs of relationships between missionary agencies, white settlers, and their governments. Just because they were all white didn’t mean they agreed. We all know very well that just because we are all black does not mean we agree with each other, or that we are happy to see one another in each others’ countries, for example. The same is true of the missionary era.

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It is common knowledge among keen students of religion and politics, that the mission school was really the first incubator for revolutionary African activism. The first tier of African political leaders, almost without exception were the product of Christian missionary education. What was it about that Christian missionary experience that got them going? I venture to say that it is the subversive message of freedom, and equality enshrined in Christian teaching that sowed and/or watered the seeds of activism among these courageous freedom fighters.

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Those who read words like “he who the Son sets free is free indeed,” “it is for freedom that He set you free,” “all were made in the image of God,” “in the image of God He created them,” “let justice roll down like a river,” “loose the chains of injustice – and set the captives free,” and so on, could not help but question the iniquity of colonialism. The message of the gospel is subversive in its very nature. Jesus subverted the human order of leadership, governance, economics, social norms and demonstrated that God can break through these to offer alternatives. These themes found resonance among many on the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Deep Christian reflection on the continent, however, dates much further back than the last couple of centuries.

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Reaching further back into the first 400 years of Christianity, African contributions to the establishment of Christian faith and the safeguarding Orthodoxy cannot be overstated. We include in this long list of contributions – the founding of society-shaping monastic movements by Anthony with the fathers/mothers in the Egyptian desert, the crafting of systematic theological reflection by Origen in Egypt, the introduction of trinitarian theology by Tertullian in Tunisia, the defence of the deity of Jesus by Athanasius, right up to Augustine’s writings which inspired valuable principles of moral philosophy upon which contemporary governance, democracy, leadership and even modern law are based.
European minds, thinkers, philosophers, secular or religious alike were shaped by this body work. Africans helped lay the foundation of all serious academic instruction in European academy for over a millennium. Ironically this heritage of critical thought contributed to a groundswell of intellectual engagement that precipitated in the enlightenment thinking. Without these germ ideas it is hard to imagine what modern thought would be. A brief overview follows of the development of key strands in this thinking.

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Rene Decartes (1596-1650) interrogated the link between thought and identity. “I think I therefore am,” was his maxim. He was responsible for the Cartesian dualism that mind and matter are separate and distinct, coming together in the human. Interestingly, a Catholic himself, he offered an ontological argument for God. He tried to show that God is apart from the human, and exists because he is separate. This benevolent God, he taught, offers the possibility for humans to perceive him, and their reality. It must be remembered that this was a period of political and religious foment in Europe. The church was behaving badly and the geo-politics was nothing short of tumultuous.

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It was Thomas Hobbes (1588 -1671) who articulated the value of the state in regulating human society. He theorized about the possibility of an objective science of morality. In his view religious experience of necessity must agree with reason and human experience. Some of these ideas provided the foundation for the interface between religion and state made famous in intellectual circles by the writing of John Locke (1634 – 1704). He explored ideas about democracy, the definition of church and state, and religious tolerance. These thoughts came from his religious foundation forged in the church-sponsored universities upon which intellectual learning thrived.

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Perhaps the most notable reaction to religion-oriented biases was François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694 -1778). Influenced by Locke’s ideas, he ventured to the margins exploring the possibility of reason outside of the church. Riding on the elite, and popular ‘enlightened’ disaffection with religious institutions he offered that the bible and even Christ could be antithetical to reason and progress in society. He roundly rejected the value of the church and Islam while maintaining a soft spot for Hinduism and Confucianism. There was virtue, he conceded, in those who gave up much for religious calling. He popularized the (somewhat factual) notion that Christianity was indeed a bloody affair.

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The next salvo against religion, in a Europe increasingly enamoured with empiricism, came from Auguste Comte (1798–1857). He employed a developmental [evolutionary?] perspective of the societal quest for truth. He argued that this quest for truth occurred in 3 stages – theological [fetishism], metaphysical [abstract, unreliable grasp and use of science], and posivitism [concrete, practical, pragmatic empiricism]. Comte even proposed a religion of humanity, basically the pre-cursor to secular humanism, as an attempt to address extra-ecclesial solutions for morality in society.

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The problem of religion in society refused to go away. Each in their own way, these three intellectuals shared a common commitment to unmasking ‘the lies and illusions of consciousness.’ Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) pioneered a modern type of interpretation which looked beyond the prima-facie, or obvious meanings to search the less visible and less flattering truths. Children of their times though they were, they pioneered what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ A term that continues to find much use in philosophy, intellectual history, and related fields in the humanities.
This hermeneutic demanded a reading between the lines to find the omissions, and contradictions to see what is said through what is left unsaid. Such readings of life and thought of necessity required the suspension of so-called absolutes to find the hidden meanings. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) advanced in his thought this now widely accepted scepticism about absolutes. He questioned the categories of right and wrong, sane and insane, and human nature. He did not deny the categories but investigated them interrogating what was contingent, and showing the relationships between knowledge and politics, power and knowledge.
By this time religion had long shifted from its foundational role intellectual discourse to an idea on the same plane as any other idea to be relativised. Others came afterwards to build on these ideas into a fabric of intellectualism whose worldview marginalized religion. Noam Chomsky (1928), for example, a non-religious thinker questioned his own society’s ideas of western democracy, capitalism and even cast a disapproving glance at socialism. His view, reminiscent of Marxian thinking, saw organised religion as an attempt to control.

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I write this extremely brief account to problematize the history of Western intellectualism and its import on African response to religion. For those who saw philosophy, and later on technology, as the solution to the need for God, religion became a dispensable idea. While the Western world shifted from an appreciation of the metaphysical, African thinking continued to essentialize religion. Spirituality remained one of the core elements of their worldview through which they process meaning and their reality. In the words of Mbiti, they remained “notoriously religious.”

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It is on this religious substratum that the unexpected growth of Christianity grew. There are very few such moments in the history of Christianity where this magnitude of increase has been witnessed. From reportedly under 10 million in 1910 to half a billion only a century later. Many of the 10 million were in the historically Christian communities of Egypt and Ethiopia. The move shifted from over 90% traditional religion to almost 50% average Christian population over Africa, with Africa South of the Sahara accounting for large proportions. Much of this growth came about in the 1960s to the 1980s, that is, decades after the missionary era.
There aren’t many ways to explain this phenomenal growth. One possibility is that the missionaries really didn’t leave but evangelized fervently remotely. This is not easy to sustain given the evidence. Another possibility would be that the colonial culture and education continued to perpetuate Christianity after the missionaries left. This is a popular theory in various forms. While partially true, the problem is that it does not account for the prolific conversions found amongst Africans through the efforts of indigenous churches, which had little or nothing to do with colonial governments, let alone Euro-American missionaries.

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A third possibility is that African Christians took responsibility for evangelization, articulating their own faith in terms that their compatriots understood. This is easy to see in the historical and demographic data available today. The rise of Christianity after the end of the missionary and colonial eras bears witness to this indigenous impulse for Christianity. The most prevalent, and arguably the fastest growing Christianity is the effervescent, exuberant expression that has found its way into nearly every historic mission denomination and catalysed the formation of numerous new independent churches. This Christianity takes African spirituality seriously and aims to process life and meaning through its lenses.

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This is a Christianity with a markedly different ethos than missionary Christianity even where it shared denominations. The settler, and the white evangelist alike, did not recognize it or care for it. Yet, it survived persecution first from the missionary, then the imperialist, then its own African intellectuals. It prevailed against the odds, resiliently holding fast to the African psyche. Its resilience forces us to rethink our engagement with it.

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Could it be that this faith finally found a way to dock itself to the African worldview and find sustenance in the indigenous intellectual and spiritual DNA? If so we must ask ourselves where the notion came from that conceived an Africa apart from religion, or Christianity for that matter. I submit that it is not inherently African to construct a reality without spirituality. We must interrogate the very suspicion that recently emerged about African engagement with Christianity. We must now allow for the possibility that there is more than one way to evaluate the value of religion in society. A hermeneutic of suspicion and intellectual disdain is not the only way. Appreciative, emic engagement can also yield fruitful reflection.
Back to the monkey story. The advent of ubiquitous social media platforms has made it possible for engagement with the intellectually elite “masses.” A small caucus has popularized a culture of “mob justice,” against those who venture into non-Voltairian views of Christianity in Africa. Few know why proponents of religion, and Christianity for that matter, are vilified on platforms that are premised on the value of free-thinking. I advocate for a thorough re-examination of the hermeneutic of suspicion that religion in Africa has been subjected to in the last 40 years, and most vehemently in the last decade over social media. I affirm the cumulative and collaborative effect of pooling knowledge over the centuries. However, I urge an audit of the project ascribing Western post-enlightenment priorities to a context without the enlightenment’s intellectual and political history. The arguments citing violence, and colonialism are no longer sufficient to sustain mature intellectual engagement with the role of Christianity on the continent. African classroom and public intellectuals must to get out of that cage and start finding the bananas for themselves, on their own terms.

Prayers and Patients: Religion and Medical Care in Africa

Posted in African et Religio on August 26, 2019 by Kyama

 

A first-time mother came to the hospital with her parents in labour and ready to deliver. As they admitted her into the ward complications arose and the doctors discovered in her a life-threatening condition. Scans uncovered the baby’s serious congenital deformity. The father of the child was missing in that action. As the next of kin present, the bewildered parents faced difficult choices to make regarding their child and grandchild. It is a mothers’ union friend of the parents who phoned the pastor seeking prayers for the precarious situation. The doctor on call overhearing the call pondered in his mind how to avoid or altogether dismiss the likely nuisance of the priest. Choosing to focus on the patient’s care, the doctor eventually asked the nurses to make the decision wisely as he and others did their work. Just before the theater, one of the nurses in charge allowed the parents only one outsider into the room before the operation, she recommended the pastor.

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Faced with the difficult task of caring for both the mother and her child, dealing with complications of the next of kin falls a distant second in terms of medical staff’s priority. Hospital teams have at their disposal medical science as their primary tools for engagement. Understandably, existential questions about mortality, fate, hope should come after the pressing medical concerns of the moment are dispensed with.
Enter the clergy. It is in moments like these that religious leaders can help the family process some of these questions. Through their calling, they have a complementary set of skills, experience and training to address the non-medical needs of both the patient and their kin. Their words of comfort and prayers, and at times much-desired advice about what the family play a unique role in the well-being of the invalid, and their community.
Therein lies the quandary. Staunch advocates of progress on one extreme insist that the need for God in situations like those above ended when science found the explanations behind diseases and their cures. “Malaria is a parasite, not an evil spirit!” (Though admittedly both parasites and evil spirits prey on their hosts in ways that are not dissimilar.) If the purpose of medicine is to cure the illness, then religion is peripheral to the discussion. It becomes a matter of personal preference whose value in modern society is at best minimal, and at worst, destructive.
Clergy from another extreme insist on Divine agency in the matters of mortality. God is the author of life, they insist. He is the Lord over science and not subject to it. They relegate the role of science to the fringes rightfully insisting that it does not have all the answers required. Sadly in this day, it is not uncommon to hear from time to time, sects in the margins which discourage, even forbid medical intervention for their ill members. More common however are outrageous, mostly unverified, claims of faith healing for some of the most complex medical conditions. What are we to make of the assertions from these extremes? The answer lies in understanding the purpose of science and of religion in society.
Science in general, and medical science, in particular, serves a function very different from religion. I take it that the purpose of medical science in society is to progressively explain reality with a view to solving material problems associated with health. Medical professionals in research and care devote themselves to the preservation of life and the improvement of its quality for convalescents. Vast advances in medical science have provided cures to many illnesses, with promises of more. On the same token, medical science has also opened up knowledge enough to demonstrate how little we know about health and the preservation of life. Much more remains to be done to address a wide range of serious illnesses that have eluded medical intervention. Much as we would like, science does not have all the answers, even in the field of medicine.
Religion has a very different function in society. Its role is to make meaning out of reality. It helps individuals living in the community to make sense of what they see, know and understand. It also helps give meaning to what people do not see, what they do not know and what is incomprehensible. Unlike science, religion goes beyond the tangible and empirical to the metaphysical in its quest. It provides terms and concepts to what people in the non-Western world believe to be a vast world that we cannot see. Also unlike science whose practitioners are a select few, the function of religion is not private, but often in the context of community, especially in the majority world. Religion involves a commitment to not just morals but to a shared perspective of reality. This society-wide quality of religion thus becomes very useful in medical ethics and care. In fact, in this area religion aids medical care in ways that can be very complementary to medicine. Here are some ways this happens.

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At a very basic level, religion provides the patient with a framework to deal with the reality of their illness. Illness, especially chronic or debilitating forms, bring the patient face to face with the prospect of death. Questions about the meaning of suffering, life, love and existential issues loom large, while the science of medicine busies itself with its quest to preserve their life. Counselling psychology is an important discipline in providing a specialized kind of care to deal with these and other issues. It is, however, is limited in its often individualized scope. Its application can also be costly in terms of resources and personnel. It is precisely in these realms that religion aims to provide a way forward. At a bare minimum religion, if a patient is so inclined, can help chart their journey towards understanding and even resolution. This journey uses landmarks known by others who also share the faith. For example, the patient and their loved ones can share together in the knowledge of a caring, all-knowing God who isn’t surprised by illness. The patient can also have a common understanding with their kin and community of what their faith says about life after death.
In this way, the community around the patient also is able to find resources to deal with the reality of illness. Without such resources, the community is hard-pressed to find hope, experience love or even endure the uncertain route to potential recovery. The family of a patient may share a faith that provides them with what psycho-social resources they need to manage the uncertainty as they anticipate the potential healing. Such hope may prevail and be effective in this purpose, independent of the patient’s own commitment to the faith. That is to say, a patient’s family can pray for healing, even if the patient themselves are not as fervent in religion or don’t believe at all. Christianity, Islam or other faiths can benefit the kin, even if the patient [or even care giver] don’t subscribe to it. Admittedly this is where some of the biggest criticisms come against religion, particularly of the fiery Charismatic kind that I subscribe to. Here the zeal of the faithful and their leaders often discredit medicine, often standing in the way of anyone who sees issues differently. While their motive isn’t sinister its effect is to bring disharmony in the very situation that needs peace. This notwithstanding, religion provides the community around the invalid with the opportunity to find meaning in difficult situations.
In those cases where the patient and their kin have to face death, religion provides a framework to deal with the loss. All religions have some way to deal with mortality and its consequences on those left behind. This is an important aspect of religion in community life. Death is an eventual reality and medical care is constantly on the frontlines of dealing with it. This is also the case when the care of an invalid is extended for periods of time with the inevitable result of death. Religion provides meaning in liminal moments such as these. Christian faith, for example, provides sacred scriptures, prayers and sermons that prepare both the patient and their family to come to terms with the transition from life to death.
The scope of some illnesses straddle the biological, psychological and social boundaries. Mental illness is one such condition, which is in itself a category for a very broad range of illnesses. Psychological and psychiatric help is indispensable in the multi-disciplinary treatment and care for these conditions. With this, as with other complex issues whose effect touches the community, the mind and the body, answers cannot be exclusively limited to one approach. Religion can provide for the patient and community useful parameters with which to navigate the conversations. Christian scriptures, for example, provide hope for even the most debilitating of conditions. Other Christian teachings also provides avenues to strengthen families fractured by the effects of mental illness.
Finally, religion provides room for the inexplicable. Whether it is sudden unexpected turns for the worse, or scientifically inexplicable healing, or the unwarranted lack of progress, religion can provide answers for all. The answers may not satisfy all, may seem irrational, bigoted, unscientific, or downright ridiculous, but they are nevertheless attempts at explaining a reality that the patient and their kin needs to come to terms with. Religion can provide hope that there lies something or someone out there who can provide a different result from science. Many find hope through words such as “God hears your prayers, and can heal you.” The instances where that such hope has borne fruit of different kinds are too numerous to dismiss. As we often say in my church, “God is on His Throne making miracles happen.” Religion can pave the way for the impossible.
It is for these reasons that religion needs to come to the table in providing care for the ill. There are those who hail progress and modernity as the elimination of the irrational, replacing it with science. Science has explained it all, they say, so we no longer need God – He is Dead. As we have established, the function of science in society has its limits. Having been a pastor for two decades, I have found that religion provides important, communally agreed-upon frameworks for answering those questions that science was never meant to, or simply does not know how to answer. In other words, God is very much alive and helping the faithful come to terms with their reality.
Medical institutions that are serious about giving holistic care to their constituents must, therefore, contend with the important role of religion. Those with medical ethics teams will be well advised to include religious practitioners as stakeholders to speak into their care giving practice. Discerning hospitals provide opportunities for the patients and their kin to access pastoral care in the course of their treatment.
The nurse allowed access for the pastor who arrived just in time to pray for the pregnant girl. The prayers were loud and disruptive as the medical team scrambled to prepare and hurry the girl to theater. “May your will be done. Amen!” the church minister said as she concluded her prayer. The parents released their child to the doctors and resigned themselves to the outcome in the waiting room, ruminating on the final words of the prayer. Whatever the outcome from the theater, that nurse might have just done the greatest service to the family.