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Leaders who fall back on scripture must ensure their words support the truth

OPINION
By Rev Edward Buri | May 23rd 2021
A matatu with a painting of US presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Dr King is frequently cited as a freedom champion who stood on a spiritual platform. [Courtesy: AFP]

A string of insults, a bag of foul language, blaring character assassination and the speech still ends with “God Bless Kenya!” How is God supposed to fit comfortably in such a dark sentence?

Such is the conflicting form of our politicians’ speeches. Their boldness to accuse others of moral failures, while they themselves have a forest of logs in their eyes, is often dizzying.

Their spiritual agility–their mastery in the syncretistic dancing with angels and demons–is worthy of study. This romance with light and darkness comes alive in their words.

It is common for lead politicians to make reference to religious personal experiences–and the scriptures–as part of their expression of political agenda.

These references are received by some as shallow-mindedness. To others, it stirs suspicion. At other times it is cited as a form of fanaticism.

Politics as a discipline is vast with its own concepts, history and language. But our politicians still find value to import religious language.

Some consistently include scriptures–and songs sometimes–as part of their political expression.

Some–because of their consistent priest-like attitudes–have, within the political groupings, earned descriptions like ‘pastor’ and ‘bishop’.

Hypocrisy

A common response from competing politicians is to mock the open religiosity and bash it as seeking political mileage.

It gets worse if the openly religious politician gets into a situation that soils their image; they get all forms of derogatory remarks accusing them of hypocrisy and pretentiousness with phrases like “a hyena in sheep skin.”

Some politicians – when they come under pressure especially when they are falling out of favour with the system–invoke religious words as they express discontentment and even vengeance.

They leave their enemies and express their inevitable come-back with phrases like “There is a God in heaven!” Those who are not too religious get on the touchlines with phrases like “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Even presidential addresses frequently have religious lines that take the form of short spiritual commentaries. Religious language is inserted to serve as a speech-booster.

Debates in Parliament and the Senate creatively incorporate scriptural references, a subtle art that touches the hearts of citizens while still making the intended political point.

In a recent heated debate, a senator passionately asked “Who will deliver us?”

This is Mosaic–Messianic language of the need for a transcendent saviour.

Several politicians have described themselves as being on the “side of justice.”

Justice is a big theme in the scriptures, and being on the side of justice is understood to be on the side of God.

Some have cited their spiritual identity and said “I’m a Muslim” or “I’m a Christian”, which is meant to affirm truth, reliability and believability.

When another is seemingly out of line, they are reminded “You are a religious man”, which is meant to invoke an expectation to behave in particular way.

Poor man’s goat

One learned friend used the story of the rich man and the poor man’s lamb.

This is drawn from the encounter between Prophet Nathan and King David, where David was accused of taking a poor man’s goat to slaughter for his feast.

The senator was rejecting the idea of poor counties losing revenue to the perceived richer counties.

Then there was the King Belshazzar reference for whom the writing on the wall said “Mene Mene Tekel Peres.”

This was in reference to the pride of some leaders, on whom the politician prophesied doom.

A favourite for many legislators is frequent mention of Martin Luther King Jr – a civil-rights leader and a Messianic figure.

Citing Dr King is supposed to identify the speaker with champions of freedom who stood on a spiritual platform.

This import of religious language is a recognition of the prominence of politics in the Holy Scriptures.

It activates the connection between the divine theme of deliverance with the daily acts of earthly governance.

Religious narratives provide mirrors where leaders can relate with heroines, heroes and villains.

Religious language imbues political talk with mysterious divine power, providing room for politicians to speak in a prophetic-like dimension as they strategise for future outcomes and participate in potent present actions.

Religious language adds weight and transcendence to their expression–making the politician appear to be an agent of God.

Spiritual sources

To make this linkage between religion and governance more meaningful, leaders should endeavour to cite their referenced authorities correctly – not randomly, playfully or comically.

It is critical that such citations be in support of the truth. Citing spiritual sources to support untruths is manipulative, disrespectful, and dangerous.

To communicate authenticity, legislators who chose to import religious wisdom should cite their sources consistently so that that forms a part of their public political identity.

Scattered and touristic scripture mentions appear convenient and manipulative.

Also important is citing inclusively.

As a public leader, one needs all to listen with no repulsion on the basis of religious bias, hence the need to give the citations a universal relevance.

It is critical for the legislators to appear to live a life that corresponds with their spiritual citations.

The Holy Scriptures should not only be used to make and win arguments.

When speech connects with life, it is more believable. People know you mean it because you live it.  

The writer, Rev Edward Buri is a PCEA theologian and Founder, Institute of Ethics and Youth Affairs.

 

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