Shakahola is a wake-up call for clerics to be mindful of the poor

Mass grave at Paul Makenzie's Shakahola farm in Kilifi County. [File, Standard]

The Shakahola massacre has sparked off a critical debate about the harm cults and all religions for that matter can do to their believers.

Kenya may be an extremely religious country but the extremities with which religion is often practised should be a cause for concern.

When hordes wash the streets to receive their self-proclaimed prophet and pastors sell handkerchiefs with miraculous powers then the gullible are liable to believe every utterance that comes from their mouths. That is when indoctrination begins and abuse quickly follows.

Yet this should be a time for self-reflection and humility for all churches, even the mainline ones who portend a certain air of infallibility. Every denomination has its hierarchical structure that sets apart the ordained from the rest of the community and while this structure was established to merely designate functions, it frequently has become a source of abuse.

Those to be ordained prostrate themselves on the soil as a symbol of humility and service. Yet, when they stand up, they are given a title, a garb and access to privileges and perks in the group that has judged them worthy of membership.

They now have power and knowledge while competence is presumed as they join a class of professionals. Of course, the same holds true for physicians, academics and our learned friends. But for now, let us confine the discourse to the religious sector.

Let me illustrate by way of an example. I was ordained a priest over 40 years ago but have probably worn the Roman collar less than 40 times since.

Yet, on every occasion, people relate to me in a different manner, more deference and a certain degree of obedience and distance. The collar sets one aside, with an identity and title that is different from the rest while Jesus reminded us that we are all brothers and sisters and denounced all distinctions (Mt.23: 8-10).

Similarly, the uniform suggests a UNI - FORM, that all are to perform and behave in a similar manner as group members, which of course can stifle and suppress individual personalities. That is clerical culture and the laity too play their roles in maintaining this culture. The faithful accept the manifestations of privilege by respecting the cloth and pastor knows best and must have the last word.

This prevents laypeople from questioning or assessing the pastor's performance while he may ask as to who are they to judge him. Unfortunately, this distinction can lead to superiority and the pastor feels he is above the law. In turn it can lead to an appalling lack of accountability in the use of church funds while the faithful are reduced to paying, praying and obeying.

However, that culture of privilege, title, superiority and group loyalty even in the face of corruption and exploitation led to the widespread abuse of children in the Catholic Church globally and in many other churches too. Child abuse is frequently covered up here too and abusers transferred to continue their deviant and criminal behaviour in another setting.

While those crimes are far from the levels of Shakahola, they can never be justified in God's name nor forgiven because someone insists, "he is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek".

It is easy for every church and pastor to stray away from the Beatitudes and the demands of love in Matthew 25. Churches must ask themselves how they identify with the broken hearted, oppressed, the forgotten and the leftovers of society.

Regretfully, most mainline churches have become middle class institutions with a major focus on development projects. The masses who can't afford to contribute to those projects and lifestyles stray away to the mabati structures or rented classrooms for worship. There they become easy targets for the Makenzi radicalisation or the prosperity gospel since there is little sustenance where they came from.

Shakahola is a wake-up call for all churches and all believers; a time for honest appraisal not only of the content of preaching but the accountability and decision-making structures in every place of worship. Above all, it is a reminder that the founder came to bring good news to the poor and to set the downtrodden free.