Whenever he is not leading mass and preaching to his congregants, Nyeri Catholic Archbishop Anthony Muheria is most likely on another public platform, speaking on a national issue.
Over the years, Archbishop Muheria has emerged as a voice of reason, always ready to register his contribution to national discourses.
He was as vocal on the need for consensus during the botched Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) constitutional amendment push as he was against the Supreme Court’s recent judgment that allowed the registration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) groups.
The Nyeri bishop has a philosophical air about him. He makes deliberate pauses when he speaks and always expounds his thoughts. Though he hardly ever raises his voice, his monotone comes off as authoritative, which, perhaps, explains why he is always called upon to weigh in on national matters.
Recently, he has raised concern over the standoff pitting President William Ruto and his rival Raila Odinga.
Like many clerics, Archbishop Muheria believes that the solution lies in dialogue and not the grandstanding currently witnessed between the two leaders.
He is among the most vocal religious leaders urging that the President and the Opposition leader see the sense of talking to each other.
“We have great respect for all our leaders. Many of them have made great sacrifices for our country. However, we expect that they seek ways to resolve their political differences in a civil respectful manner. What we are witnessing is a desire to show might, and talk at one another often with totally unbecoming language. Politics is not about insults nor is it about a show of might,” Archbishop Muheria told the Sunday Standard.
“We as Catholic bishops said that we believe our leaders as government and opposition can sit and talk about what really is affecting Kenyans, and work together towards solving our issues.”
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He has taken issue with the opposition demonstrations, arguing that they will not help lower the cost of living. This past week, he was among the Catholic bishops that called an end to the demonstrations and the beginning of positive discussions.
But the church has been divided over the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya’s demonstrations, which return tomorrow. While some clerics have opposed them, another has endorsed the protests, citing the constitutional rights Kenyans have to picket.
Equally fundamental, the church has also been split along political lines, with sections evidently supporting Ruto, even during the campaigns, and another endorsing Raila. And in their support, some have ceded their pulpits to politicians, who have used them as political platforms, with others spewing hatred without as much as a reproach.
At the height of political campaigns in churches, the Nyeri Archbishop was among those who stood firmly to protect against the encroachment by politicians. (Some sections of this article are excerpts from the Archbishop’s recent interview with Spice FM)
Question: Does the clergy, collectively, have the moral authority to advise Raila and Ruto, or even the nation on the correct path to take given some of them have clearly takes sides in the politics?
Answer: Often when we speak of the “Church”, we also include all kinds of people who use this title for their own personal ends. This often gives the Church a very bad name. However, the true churches, true religious leaders, faithful to their mission of being the moral compass and conscience of society, have not only the moral authority but also the obligation to point out the ills facing us. We are making all efforts to persuade our leaders that elections are over and hardened stands and hate speech will not take us forward. We plead that they take to put our country before their individual interests. Our country is worth more than individual interests.
Do you think the clergy’s calls for dialogue have been ignored because some clerics have ceded their pulpits to the politicians and continue to accept donations, whose source they don’t know?
I do think our leaders will heed the call from religious leaders and hopefully tone down their attitudes and avoid violence even in expressing their dissatisfaction.
Sections of the clergy have urged politicians to keep politics out of the pulpit. Should the same standard apply in that religion should keep off our politics?
Society and people’s plight on social issues is also the mandate of the Church. Engaging in the well-being of our nation is not doing politics but giving ethical guidance and social concern for the people. This is part of the mission of the Church.
Who is the custodian of values or who guides us when it comes to values? There has been an agreement that religion has played that role in this country. Is religion still playing that role?
That’s a very pertinent question because we should never be comfortable and we should keep asking that question. As church leaders, we should constantly ask that question... I do believe it’s true as religious leaders, as religions, and as faiths, we are custodians of values. We don’t own values therefore we can’t manipulate them or misrepresent them or even sometimes use the fact of the values as a political tool for self-gain. It should always be positive in terms of values that build society, uplift and build the person. Are we still playing that role? I would say a big yes. However, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster because when we sometimes speak about church leaders we immediately start deciding how authentic those church leaders are...We have, by and large, kept calling for the need to keep political hygiene. What really is political hygiene if not the value of respect for one another, the African value of respect for one another? What is that if not respect for the human dignity of the persons? When we speak... we actually speak deep down about values. I think our society has become deaf. They easily wash away and dilute those clarion calls. They want to hear less and so we have been given less space. The space of religion as a steward and custodian of values has slowly been squeezed or shrunken because the political volume and the political noise have encroached slowly (into our space). That’s one of the reasons why we fought against the use and invasion of sacred spaces.
Historically, religious leaders did not wait to be given this space. They took the space and were sometimes called radical. Do you think then that the church today needs to be more radical in its stance?
Certainly, they are positive points about trying to be radical but society has changed quite a bit. If you go back maybe 20 or 30 years ago, you realize that the medium through which we reach people and engage with society was very limited. There was no digital space in Kenya before multi-partyism and the forum was the newspaper and the two or three TV stations. If you go back into history and not only Kenya. For instance the US with Martin Luther King or even further in India with Mahatma Gandhi who was a religious and political leader, how did they use their space? Through speech, only speech. The medium and the way of communicating have so much spread out that it is no longer possible to easily come out with that forcefulness of the past.
It is not something that you can easily amplify as much as it was in the past. When a leader managed to enter those spaces in the past, it was extremely effective and it was extremely powerful.
Archbishop Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki spoke at a time when the media itself was scared to speak. When he spoke in Nakuru... it was a fully dedicated line - all lines were there and all media were there. When the media became free and when it spread out and now you can have other voices, then obviously that voice that was as strong, as much as it may be repeated in today’s religious leaders, would dissipate. What we are enjoying now is a wider spectrum of communication and what we are called to now is to be smarter. I don’t think what you are called to is to be more radical. I think we are called to be smarter - to know how to package what we are saying. Beyond just the fact that I’m a religious leader, I must speak in a way that the common folk, not only the ones of my faith, will connect with.
The values are very relevant and they are just as precious but they need a certain repackaging... so that we who are selling them, the custodians of these values, are able to bring out the sparkle and the splendour, just as much as those before were able to.
Why is it that the vices are now sounding or packaged sweeter and better than the values?
They have always been packaged sweeter and if you go back to history, even in the Greek culture, you will find that vices were packaged as very attractive. Man and woman are inclined to that mystery of evil - I know it’s a bad phrase. There is always that curiosity and wanting to explore evil, not only good. That is because we have fallen. Evil is not all ‘evil’. There is always a speck of attraction of some valued goodness. What has happened right now is that in society the vices and the negative influences of man have been given a lot of space because now it’s about commerce. I can assure you that it is more commercially beneficial to work with the vices. if you’re able to break man’s control of self, if you’re able to make man not be able to control his liquor intake if you are able to make man break his self-control even about his own self of how he spends... you are able to make much more money. Unfortunately, the commerce of evil is much more lucrative than the commerce of good. A lot of our entertainment... has been especially through the media. Society has been thrown into promoting evil or evil tendencies.
We then are given the bigger challenge of how do we then make what is good, human and beautiful and attractive because when push comes to shove, and one has to choose a wife or a husband... they don’t choose crooks. You choose the person with the best values and you actually fall back on those values that you may have abandoned. Even robbers choose virtuous wives. The challenge is not only for the church. I think society needs to look back. African society had a way of protecting and nurturing values, and that was part of the transmission from the elderly to the young and through the family... That role, unfortunately, has broken, because it (society) seems to have somehow lost its foothold. The role was not only totally religious. It was cultural. It was based on how to move forward culturally in order to make values blossom.
We have to ask what became of the African values of our leaders... for us who claim to be Christians or believers, how much are we also custodians in our own lives, families and Society of the values that we have embraced?
Pope Francis was here the other day in South Sudan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and one of the things he decried was the exploitation of the multinationals in Africa and that they fuel a lot of things, including Wars and the emptying values of Africa. He spoke very strongly about ideological colonization the neo-colonization and that is also a reality. There are counter-values that have been pressed upon us very strongly and we know that they are not values because even from the early civilizations even before Christ they never were values. And that is coming through media, movies, entertainment and music.
We in Africa and other nations find our bearing in the community... has the focus been changed to what originally was and what has been introduced, individualism ahead of collectivism?
I agree fully that the spotlight has moved from God to self. We coalesce around a doctrine or dependence and the Transcendent is the one who brings us together as a community. Christianity is coalescing around Christ and his gospel. This focus from God to the individual has also come because of the materialisation of faith, of belief. In the African context, you did not believe that you benefit. You believed so that you live and lived to believe. Christian faith is the same. We are united with the Christians, with God and with those who have died. We are on a journey and even though they may have gone before us we are following.
But when we started instrumentalizing faith and when certain parts of Christianity and certain parts of society then said faith is an instrument for me to benefit: I believe so that God blesses me and I Prosper; I believe so that I then get a status in society; I believe that people look at me and say oh what a wonderful guy that fellow is.
When I become the spotlight, no matter what I say, as a pseudo believer doesn’t have value... and that is what we have with this ‘prosperity gospel’. It is no longer about connecting but about (self) praise. The antidote to this is to rediscover transcendence and rediscover God as God. We are fearful to discover God as God because he makes certain demands of our lives. Our reading of faith is to connect with God... but now what we want is to make it a social construct, whereby I would make my religion according to my parameters. That is why we speak about the democratization of faith - let’s decide what we’re going to believe.
The other day the pope indicated a route towards changing the canon law to re-look at the celibacy of priests... there is also the interpretation of rights and bringing in LGBTQ rights. Isn’t it all about a society living in its time and bringing faith to this time?
About the pope and the revision of the rule of celibacy... It wasn’t determined by Christ. The church determined it in its time and so the discussions have been going on and I think that’s what the pope was trying to explain.