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Blurred lines: Church in identity crisis, risks getting assimilated by powerful State

Bishop Mark Kariuki (standing) prays for President William Ruto, his deputy Rigathi Gachagua and their spouses after the two were sworn in on September 13, 2022. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

The church is facing an identity crisis relating to its positioning in the new political administration. It is pulling in different directions.

Some sections are very happy insiders while others are stranded outsiders, pondering whether to walk in too, or to stay outside looking in.

During the entire campaign season, the church was identified by different players as a heavy vote pocket. Bagging the church vote meant a significant score.  Interested suitors moved in to woe the church for a form of union.

Some had a head start in that they were already active in churches and were known members of local faith communities. The question was how to make this Christian status yield a vote dividend. 

Some said that it was time to have Christian leaders in positions of power, painting their competition as a risky experiment. They persuaded Christians of the need to choose their own to position godly representatives in power.

Others heightened their church participation by identifying struggling church projects with promises to take them over to completion. This commitment was met with handclaps and cheers across many congregations with rare millions flowing in.

Debt of gratitude

The surface read godliness but beneath was church capture. The strategy worked in some churches but was treated with caution in others, leading to whole denominations issuing statements to their churches on politician handling.

The church map, therefore, took the colours of collaborators and resistors.  The yellow collaborators are now singing the song of victory. Team Yellow is thanking the section of the church and its leaders who granted it deliberate visibility which cashed into votes. The pastors who were on the “ground” are finding a basis of congratulating themselves since their preferred leaders won.

UDA’s gratitude debt combined with some pastors who are considering themselves as victory stakeholders has made the line between the church and the new administration blurred. This sets up the stage for a possible thick relationship between the church and the State. But this thick relationship is a strategic powerful shot from a long way out.

The score angle had its best view at the president’s inauguration ceremony. While a president and his deputy kneeling for prayer is not new, the public granting of a Bible to the new president as the guiding book was new.  Incorporating their wives in the kneeling moment was new. Some of the officiating pastors were new to an event of a president installation magnitude and the generally expected clergy were uninvolved.

Notably, and strange to many people, blowing the shofar was new too. It was surprising to hear the dynasty-hustler accent in one of the prayers, “God you have shown the world that a chicken seller can become a president…”

Sourced raw from the campaign narrative, the slippery line sounds more like the voice of the kneeler than the one knelt for! It implies a priesthood that is prone to the language of the king rather than the language of the Creator. 

President William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua kneeling in prayer with their spouses at Kasarani on September 13, 2022. [PSCU]

This is exactly the danger – the assimilation of the church by a State system through the tact of honour. Constant affirmation of the church in the State narrative has an effect of numbing the church’s prophetic muscle.

Toxic and unaligned

This numbing, coupled with calculated massaging gifts helps the State in its intent to keep the church close. The closeness turns the church into “thus says the king” suspending “thus says the Lord.” The State strategically engages the church and its leaders in lucrative assignments such that the church has no time to listen to its God. With the hearing of God gone, the church goes too. For any impact in checking the State, church leaders must maintain their distance-consciousness. 

Theological pride and denominational competition are rife. The section of the church that actively laboured to get the new administration in may not be ready to share the spoils with the church that took a different tone. The win-sponsoring wing is acquiring a lead role. 

Like men in black, they are ready to play rough at the gate, determining who sees the powers and ordering those from unfriendly clusters to turn back.  This may not sound like something men and women of the cloth can do. But before they are “of the cloth” they are men and women. Their earthliness has a way of surfacing – a lot.

A part of the church is already feeling minimised and unneeded.  They are considered “toxic” and unaligned to the new “altar.” They have had their chances in the past. It is now time for the spiritual “hustlers”!  A crack is already forming in that there is an “in-field” church and a “touch-line” church. The in-field church is the First 11 - they lead, others can only be substitutes. The sentiment “it is our time to eat!” applies even among these men and women of God.

A priest will be close to the king and fear telling the king truth. But a church that is impressed by power will easily be tamed and classified as non-threatening, to the delight of those who would pray for a docile church. The issue is not so much proximity to power as it is the potency of the prophetic duty. Church leaders drunk with the greed of proximity to power are likely to be insensitive to other faiths. They would want to render the mosque, temple and shrine invisible.

This would be a really gluttonous act.  Such intentional hindrance would be truly “overdoing” church. Ultimately, feelings of disregard would amount to the withdrawal of support and tension in the hitherto successful interreligious initiatives.

We see different political formations meeting to strategise their approach – some in Mombasa others in Naivasha. The church should understand that this a strategising time and also converge and regroup to define its modus operandi given the incoming Ruto administration.

President William Ruto signs his inauguration certificate as his wife Rachel Ruto, far left, and Attorney General Kihara Kariuki (right) look on. [PSCU]

The Uhuru methods are overtaken – they will not do.  Without new formulations, the church risks lagging behind and playing catch up, a sorry position it finds itself in often. The church game must change. The church must pull down its campaign-season tents and pick a new strategic location to pitch camp.

Otherwise, the clever political schemers will be happy to give the church a spectator role, allot it a terrace in the stadium with a sign saying “No jeering allowed. Only cheering.”

And as the church checks the government, what does it base its assessment on? Does the church have its own comprehensive vision or is the church a masters student studying party manifestos while hers is missing from the pile?

The church needs its own known vision that displays and discusses in detail its plan for the people. Relying on political formulations means the church will permanently play second at best.

Party manifesto-dependency makes the church shallow. Some of the political parties went to great lengths to impress in the manifesto competition.

What does the church bring to the table apart from critiquing the formulations of others?

The church must do the hard work and present to the people a practical document of how to make “a little heaven down here…right here in Kenya.” 

This way, the church sits at the table as a thinker and designer – not merely a commentator.