After the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping through Kenya, my home country, the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, called on all of us who live here to offer up prayers for God’s intervention, direction and favor amid the pandemic.
He made this call just a few weeks after a major investigative journalism exposé had revealed alleged misuse of millions of dollars by Kenyan government officials, dollars meant for buying COVID-19 medical supplies, exposing health workers to infection and death.
Later that week, in an appearance on a TV morning talk show, I responded to the president’s suggestion by saying I wouldn’t be praying for the leaders — as is our default interpretation of what a national day of prayer calls for — but instead I would be praying that we, the Kenyan people, would survive the greed, mendacity, callousness and cruelty of our political elite.
I said that I hoped we would realize that our future and destiny as Kenyans didn’t have to be tied to the callous decisions and unconscionable limitations that the political elite place on us for their own benefit.
Within hours, my Twitter timeline was ablaze, with many people lauding me for my bravery in “speaking the truth.” Among the likes and retweets was the sentiment that it was actually radical to suggest that a Christian response to government corruption and impunity would be to reject performances of piety, and imagine a world where we, the people, transcended the strictures of the nation state and its attendant logics.
The fact that religiosity (in my context, Christian religiosity) is often used as a cover for impunity is obvious for anyone who has even a cursory understanding of history. Religious officials have long been available to be co-opted to serve as moral chaplains to those in power, “resulting in turning the moral witness of the church into a mere political gallery,” in the words of theologian and historian Lamin Sanneh.
But there is another way to read the scriptures, and that is to seriously contend with the historical and material circumstances of Christianity’s central figure — Jesus of Nazareth — and against that backdrop, see Jesus’s message as recorded in the Gospels not as one that is easily coopted in the service of the nation-state but as one that inherently challenges state power and violence, and invites us to do the same.
For God and for Country?
The Kenyan national anthem is a prayer, that begins: “Oh God of all creation/ Bless this our land and nation/ Justice be our shield and defender.” The preamble of Kenya’s constitution begins: “We, the people of Kenya, acknowledging the supremacy of the Almighty God of all creation…”
It is not that the notion of separation of church and state is lacking in Kenya. Rather, to be a good, patriotic citizen is presumed to mean a person who acknowledges God’s authority.
This idea is not as benign as it first appears. Over the past decade or so, with the pushing of white American evangelicals, Kenya has followed the trend of many other countries by making its own National Prayer Breakfasts a regular feature on the political calendar. As Kenya recorded its first coronavirus cases in March 2020, one of the first moves that the government made was to declare a National Day of Prayer.
But the same government is headed by a president and deputy president who were both indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to violence that broke out in the country in the wake of a disputed election in 2007. Neither of the two men were in the presidency then, and neither were they running for the highest office in that election, but they were both implicated in organizing the violence on opposing sides. Once indicted by the ICC, the improbable duo — Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto — teamed up and ran for the highest office in the land and won, in an election animated by hate speech and the stoking of ethnic tensions.
In their first term as president and deputy president, the two mobilized substantial government resources and state power to have their cases deferred, referred to an African court, or to stall, discredit and frustrate the ICC’s cases against them.
When both cases were dropped — Kenyatta’s first, then Ruto’s — the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor stated extensive witness tampering as the reason for the collapse in the cases. As the cases were in preliminary hearing, a critical mass of witnesses withdrew cooperation and recanted earlier testimonies due to what prosecutors and human rights groups alleged were threats, intimidation and bribery. Not only that, but nearly a dozen people connected to the international court proceedings against the Kenyan leaders were turning up dead, all while the two leaders and their allies crisscrossed the country holding “prayer rallies” and asking Kenyans to pray for them that their cases would be dropped.
Once the two were in the clear, the president’s Twitter handle read:
“By the grace of God, justice has been done. #AsanteKenya (thank you Kenya).” That Twitter handle has since been deleted.
Reimagining the Citizen-Believer
I attended a girls’ high school in Kenya that was founded by a coalition of Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries. It was the first high school for African girls in Kenya, an elite institution that trained students for high-profile positions in colonial and independent Kenya. That we would be in leadership positions in the future was a given — in fact, we were already leaders among our peers, simply by virtue of being students there. The intertwining of patriotism and religiosity was taken for granted in the school’s ethos and mission, a legacy of British colonialism where the brutal edicts of Empire were tempered by an appeal to the fostering of Christian love, devotion and obedience. We wanted to grow up to be good Kenyans and this meant being “subject to governing authorities,” as Paul in Romans 13 asserts.
It wasn’t until many years later that I began to question what this intertwining between what loving your country and loving Jesus actually means. In 2017, I was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, and I spent a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading, reflecting and being a part of that intellectual community. I arrived to the U.S. less than a year after Donald Trump became president, and everywhere I looked in Cambridge, people were still in shock, grappling with that election’s result.
That year, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, came to speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I was in the audience that rainy April afternoon, and I remember the tension in the room that day. Hearing her speak about her baby boy, and the callousness and cruelty from the state she’d had to endure since her son’s killing, was more heartbreaking than I can describe. To add to it all, the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Sandra Bland were still fresh.
It was at Cambridge that I first read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, and began to ask myself what response my faith could give me when confronted with the reality that the state did not always act with benevolence toward its citizens. State-sanctioned murder was the reality for Black people in the U.S., and it was the reality for me back in Kenya, where the police have always acted with impunity and without accountability, and where political forces can always intimidate, bribe, harass, murder and “disappear” people — as happened with the ICC cases.
Until this point, I had not seriously wrestled with what my faith could give me in this moment. In my younger years, I took it for granted that although Kenya’s political and economic system was flawed, I could still overcome it with hard work and good connections. In the wake of that disputed election in 2007, and the spiral of political dysfunction that followed (and especially after Uhuru and Ruto became president), I could no longer say this with confidence. By this time, I had also stopped calling myself a Christian, because in my mind, it meant aligning myself with people who wielded prayer rallies and public performances of piety as a shield to deflect calls for justice and accountability.
But in Howard Thurman I found a different reading of Jesus. In my formative years, although I had read the Bible cover to cover and New Testament many times over, I had never actually spent time contemplating who the historical Jesus was, his material circumstances, his political realities, his social limitations. Perhaps having always read the Gospels with the systematic theology and abstractions of St. Paul influencing my reading, I knew Christ the figure, but not Jesus the man.
Thurman introduced me to Jesus, a man who grew up in Palestine — Judea — in the first century, which was under Roman colonialism. The Romans were ruthless and extractive. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a place of entrenched poverty in the ancient world; Nazareth was known as a place of revolt and unrest. In Galilee, a certain man called Judas led a revolt and broke into a Roman armory in Sepphoris — a city next to Nazareth. The rebels broke into the armory, intending to steal weapons to start a rebellion. The revolt failed. Historical texts say the Romans defeated Judas and his followers with the help of mercenary warriors from Arabia. The city was burned to the ground, the rebels were captured, and 2,000 Jews crucified as a public warning against such revolts.
Thurman’s Jesus was not an abstract Christ. He was a man who existed at a particular moment in historical time, grappling with real, material oppression. It is impossible to think that the young Jesus was untouched by this central question of the day. The question was not academic — as Thurman argued, it was the most crucial of questions. In essence, Rome was the enemy; Rome symbolized total frustration; Rome was the great barrier to peace of mind. And Rome was everywhere.
Howard Thurman writes:
No Jewish person of the period could deal with the question of his practical life, his vocation, his place in society, until first he had settled deep within himself this critical issue…. This is the position of the disinherited in every age. This is the great question of today. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life?
This reading of the Gospel for me was life and freedom, because for the first time in my life, I had some kind of blueprint for actually seeing and wrestling with the injustice, cruelty and pain of an unjust state and of unaccountable power, instead of thinking that if I kept my head down and worked hard it would all work out in the end.
My friend, J.L. Legard, pushed this revelation even further for me when he argued a case for Christian anarchy. In his abolitionist reading, the nation-state — as an entity that claims to possess a monopoly of violence — itself is illegitimate and unnecessary for liberating the oppressed. We should never assume that we must cooperate with the state or work within state structures in order to achieve freedom. Legard’s reading of Jesus is that of an apocalyptic prophet who dares us to reject all forms of coercion and invites us to imagine liberation as a voluntary and cooperative effort that affirms the agency of all and rejects the domination and subordination of human beings.
“The apocalyptic Christ allows us to imagine that individuals and communities can be trusted, because God entrusted God’s power in our very beings over which no state or person can rule without our consent,” he writes.
We can read the scriptures in any number of ways, and for me, I have now found in the Gospels a template for imagining a world where the execution of Jesus by an unjust power elite, as a state-sanctioned lynching, tore apart the Temple curtain which kept ordinary people from the Holy of Holies where God’s presence resided. As Legard argues, with the breaking of this hierarchical barrier separating the masses from God, “our bodies become the temple and empire of God, and thus the jurisdiction of God. Therefore, no state can legitimately encroach or impose its power upon the sacred — the human being. It is a merging of both flesh and spirit, which elevates the once downtrodden and oppressed into a position of power, not to coerce but to extend the voluntary divine community.”
I am amazed that I hadn’t really seen the Gospels as a disruptive spiritual and political technology until I saw Jesus as a victim of empire — oppressed, marginalized and disinherited. The neat intertwining of patriotism and religiosity is not possible when one takes the vantage point of the disinherited.
The message of the cross is that an unjust killing itself exposes the injustice of the power structure that sanctioned the killing. But the other message of the cross is that unaccountable power never has the last word. God could not allow Jesus to remain in the grave — Sunday morning tells me that even though the night may be long, oppressive systems will one day fall in judgement, and “the kingdoms of this world, will become the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ,” as the New Testament asserts.
Instead of using scripture as “a way to baptize our bigotries and consecrate our callousness,” as Jonathan L. Walton argues, I instead would like to invite other Christians to place this Jesus of Nazareth at the center of their faith and practice.
This Jesus was not available to provide spiritual cover for state power, impunity and corruption. This Jesus was not in the business of abetting oppression while preaching patriotism, quiet obedience, or simplistic appeals to law and order. This Jesus did not even move to Rome to cozy up to the power structures of Empire and “influence” Caesar for good. This Jesus was executed because his life’s work dared to speak of another kingdom and another way of being in the world, where God is on the side of the poor and oppressed and is fighting alongside them for their full humanity.
In the wake of a global pandemic and a year of worldwide protests against racism, police brutality and state-sanctioned murder, imagining this kind of world has never been more urgent.