Mombasa is awash with not just tourists but hawkers of every description. One of the latter caught my eye as he peddled one of those huge wall posters meant to brighten up even the humblest of structures. His was a picture of a luxurious mansion with the caption ‘God’s plan for you’ and underneath it read, ‘All is possible with Jesus’. The message itself was pretty sacrilegious stuff but what made the whole affair so grotesque was that the hawker was selling his wares in one of the most overcrowded, impoverished settlements in the whole city.
Folks condemned to occupy such dehumanising spaces are mostly street wise enough to reject such simplistic, escapist, materialistic messages propagated by preachers of a prosperity Gospel narrative. Yet, as this year has revealed, there are just as many charlatans and opportunistic conmen posing as preachers in the religious sector as in the political arena. In both cases it is the poor who in their innocence and desperation are most likely to fall prey to their tricks.
Two thousand years after Jesus of Nazareth was delivered in a stable in Bethlehem his billions of followers cannot agree on the reason for his incarnation or on the message that he preached. That he chose to arrive unannounced, spend his early years in exile and live his life in moderate poverty among the forgotten wings of society is conveniently ignored. The prosperity Gospel and worship of Mammon have taken centre stage in much of Kenyan religious society. An appealing if misleading message of ‘get saved, get rich’ or ‘give to the preacher and you get back a hundred fold’ is the gist of much preaching.
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between promises uttered by many preachers and those made by the mganga (witchdoctor). Many churches might as well display their wares like the mganga with signboards that say: Love, Work, Wealth, Land, Lost Objects? For many Christians then Jesus is the new witchdoctor with the supporting cast of a loud band and wailing choir members. For these, faith is about receiving not giving and God can be bribed or arm twisted to satisfy your every desire. So traditional religion is often just given a modern, glitzy, emotional twist and rolled out to excite the masses. But inside nothing of substance has changed nor have the masses been liberated from ignorance and poverty.
The message of Jesus, however, was a radical call to live as he lived with dignity and in service. He came to bring good news to the poor, set the blind and prisoners free and to proclaim a new way of living that he called the Kingdom of God: a kingdom of peace, justice and inclusivity. For many then, that message brought liberation, hope and empowerment because Jesus reached out to the outcasts of his society women, prostitutes, the poor, lepers, tax collectors and then welcomed them into his movement to live with majesty as children of God.
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Religion for Jesus then was not a safety net or a drug to escape from the pain and hardship of life - quite the opposite in fact. It was taking a risk, immersing oneself in the beauty, chaos, possibilities and messiness of life; leaving the familiar and bringing freedom and energy to those most oppressed. In terms of liberation theology then this was making an option for the poor, taking their side and devoting energy and resources to ensure that the voiceless would be given a voice of their own. Option for the poor was not excluding the rich but calling them to also play their part in building a more just, merciful and inclusive society.
The poor of course are still with us but regretfully as extras that fill up the pews rather than at the centre of transforming society. There are at least 16 million Kenyans living below the poverty line trying desperately to make sense of their existence and to keep food on the table. The Christmas story is calling them too to take responsibility for their own liberation and to be nourished by the words of Jesus.
Jesus humble birth and life shows that the cause of the poor is God’s cause. Salvation is as likely to be found in the struggles, streets and market place as in the ornate houses of worship. As Pope Francis says the poor have a privileged place in the Christmas Crib because Christ’s birth has “room for all that is truly human and for all God’s creatures”.
- Gabriel Dolan [email protected] @GabrielDolan1