Even for those who wish to eschew politics based on their personal opinions such as myself, one cannot hide in the face of the vitriol on social media. As one who leans towards non-violence as the best tool for progress, I was deeply saddened by the messages that partisan people make based on the differing opinions of their neighbors. This prompted me to think about the place of politics in the nation of Kenya, as we await the decision of the citizens next week in what we hope will be a fair and peaceful election.[1]

Politics is Everywhere

In Africa, certainly Kenya, politics plays a prominent role in the day to day lives of the people. In economic policy, state corporations, educational institutions, the business environment as well as media and family narratives, politics seems to be intertwined with everything. The religious space is also not void of political influence: With the historical mission enterprise, traditional Africans could not escape the colonial control of their culture. Additionally, certain European missions began in particular towns and churches up-to-date reveal this monolithic ethnic background and identity.

The demographics of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (where I fellowship) is illustrative of this monolithic in ethnicity, among many others. Fortunately, the ethnic diversity in these churches is showing promise. Yet sadly, religious leaders in many churches nationwide are implicitly partisan to certain parties and their leaders, irrespective of the issues that these parties address or the manifestos that they profess. Politics, certainly affects our ethnic understanding and diversity as a country, and sadly, as a Church. Thus, what should be our response as the Church in Kenya during this moment?

What is Politics?

On one hand, it is important to appreciate what politics entails. In a very simplistic understanding, it involves the organization of a collective for the progress of individual lives in the public sphere. Of course this entails concepts such as authority, governance and mutual ownership, the needs of the people and their resolution. Thus for the one who necessarily believes in Jesus Christ, their political understanding and participation would have to be based on the ideals of a biblical-theological worldview.

The Challenge of Pluralism

On the other hand, a political process includes navigating the challenges of pluralism. In the public arena, there are diverse people groups, ideas and resources, which are to be utilized and networked in a manner that sustains the good of all people, or a majority of them. Certainly, the biblical mandate is to care for minority groups (Ps. 72:13, Eze. 22:29, Mt. 6:3, Jam. 1:27) – whether the composition of that minority is ethnic, religious, sexual or political in nature. In light of this, certain challenges come up: for one, how can we achieve unity in the face of such diversity? Is the pursuit of peace even possible given the diversities represented? I suggest that a biblical understanding gives the best answer to these questions.

The Kingdom of God as Politics

The biblical idea of the Church as the Kingdom of God has political undercurrents. The Kingdom of God being the realm of God’s abiding sovereignty over the citizens of the Kingdom, means that the allegiance of the Christian is to God first, before it is to political agents or ethnic background. The disciples of Jesus thought that God had come to set the Jewish nation free from the hand of the Roman rule, but in Jesus, God was establishing a corporate identity rooted in the shalom of God for the joy of all peoples. His redemptive plan began with the creation of Adam and Eve (representatives of a diverse humanity), and their redemption after their fall through the calling of a particular people (Israelites and Abraham in particular) for the blessing of the nations in light of God’s faithfulness to his Covenant(s). In this biblical understanding, all nations and ethnicities are participants of the Kingdom through the Messiah.

Redemption and the Inclusion of All Ethnicities

Given the fact that we trace our lineage to Adam and Eve, we have a common ancestry: The differences of race and color can be attributed to differing levels of melanin, as well as, particularities of geography, cultural practices, ancestry and naming practices. Yes, we are diverse but in essence, united. God intended us to live in community, first with him, and then also, with our neighbor. This sums up the ethics of the Kingdom as Loving God and Loving Neighbor, which is how Jesus summarizes the entire Old Testament Law (Torah, Jewish History, Wisdom Literature and Prophetic Literature). Choosing to relate to humanity in terms of Covenant – with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and eventually through the Messiah – God shows his faithfulness in redeeming man from a realm of self-governance to a realm of dependence on and rule with God – the source and sustainer of man’s (spiritual) life.

Though some of the issues of land and mishandling of power by certain groups of political leaders and their selected few are noteworthy in the Kenyan context, we need to seriously shed off the colonial baggage which sees tribe and ethnicity as twins in gaining political mileage. As African Christians in 2017, we need to embrace a better way of seeing ourselves and “the other” and how we can meaningfully dialogue and play our roles as citizens united in a common nation.

Moving Beyond Nane Nane

The conflict lies in the fact that we are citizens of two Kingdoms.

Yet, our citizenship in the Heavenly Kingdom should transform our witness in the Earthly Kingdom, because while the latter is temporal, the former is eternal.

Far from a dualistic thinking of the two, the point is that grounding our origin, existence and destiny in the Triune-God can offer several pointers based on the above biblical theology and worldview:[2]

1) God is our Sovereign and not any political leader.

Human beings universally desire to have a king who can push their own agenda. The story of the Israelites asking for a king because of their neighbors in the account in 1 Samuel is an example. For them as for us, the lie is to think that a human being is the one who can bring total change and transformation. Yet because of creaturely limits and the human condition, only a God-Man can intervene and truly redeem. In the face of the two polar opposites of good intentions or political gimmicks of our leaders, the God revealed in the Messiah is the True Sovereign. All others are under-servants of His rule (Rom. 13:1).

2) No particular person or ethnicity can claim abiding authority over others.

Our equality is rooted in our human condition as fallen creatures and is similarly shown in our redemption and identity in Christ (Rom. 5:18). This captures both the beginning and the end of the biblical revelation: that we are equal as creatures made in the image of God, that we are equal as sinners in the presence of a Holy God and that we are/can be reborn through faith, co-heirs with Christ as sons and daughters, and sealed for eternal life through the Spirit. In short, no human being should use their authority to oppress others.

3) We should practice “subversive submission”[3]

But what about respecting those in authority? One may conclude from points i) and ii) above that we should be machete-clinging revolutionaries. Not quite. 1 Timothy 2:1 – 4 and Romans 13:1 – 7 teach us that our respect for the state authorities leads to a flourishing witness to the nations, in displaying the transforming love and sovereignty of God. Yet this is also not a license to cower in the face of oppressive systems. The redemptive plan of God in the gamut of the scriptural revelation entails the idea of righteousness and justice. Following this line of thinking the Egyptian midwives are good examples: “The midwives however feared God and did not do as the King of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very numerous. Since the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Ex. 1:17, 20-21. See also Acts 5:29). Subversive submission entails blessing those who curse us, while also honoring God’s standards when there’s a conflict that veers us away from this allegiance.

4) Loving your Neighbor is loving yourself.

Is it a wonder that Jesus summarizes the entire Law as loving God and loving neighbor? In his summary, he amplifies a very foundational Jewish scripture called the shema (Deut. 6:4). In the New Testament quotation “love your neighbor as you love yourself” Jesus reminds us a very African way of understanding the human person: that I am because we are and gives us the power to do that. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he moves the conversation from “who is my neighbor” to “how to be a good neighbor.” Moving beyond Nane Nane necessitates loving especially those who are different from us.

5) Respecting diverse opinions is at the core of being human.

In an age of information and with the hindsight of history, one is surprised that many people are swayed by propaganda, emotional appeals, ad-hominem arguments and other fallacious reasoning in civic discourse. Truly, the over-emphasis on the emotive in our age has compromised what it means to respect the opinion of others, even when differing based on divergent convictions. However, this deterioration reminds us of the malaise of the human condition.

6) Tribalism is a virus that reflects the human condition.

In matters of the heart, the head and the hands, humanity in general and Kenyans in particular illustrate that the effects of sin are far reaching. The gullibility of people based on tribal alignments, the murdering of children and neighbors for political cause, the empty verbal insults on social media, our pointing of fingers and myopia in social justice, are signs that we truly need the work of the Savior in our hearts, to influence our minds and transform our habits. Meaningful change in the society can only come from transformed people. Remembering how well-meaning Christians have reacted in this season, the clarion call is to turn back to God, who is Mighty to completely save (Rom. 8:28-30, Phil. 1:6).

7) Jesus restores and unites people of diverse ethnicities.

His might in saving is seen in his redemptive plan executed through the Messiah. Despite the fact that Israel enjoyed the close communion of this God, and in other times, dry periods seen in their exilic sojourns, the Prophets foresaw and proclaimed the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as the true solution to the human condition (Isa. 40:3-5, Luke 3:4). Further, those who are included in him and his work by grace through faith, enjoy the peaceful reign of their Sovereign Lord and their lives are transformed in righteousness and justice, in their private and public spheres (Isa. 9:6-7). In this Heavenly Kingdom, there are no divisions based on ethnicity, race, male or female (Gal.3:28). People are restored in their personal lives, in their communal relationships and in their spiritual fellowship with God.

The Church as Embassy of Christ’s Rule

In conclusion, “Before and after Kenya there was and will be the Church. The nation is an experiment. The church is a certainty.”[4] Understanding the Church as the “embassy of Christ’s rule” helps us to see ourselves rightly and give us a proper foundation for effecting meaningful change.[5] This change certainly begins on the inside, but takes on a public witness that is evident when our allegiance to the Triune-God inspires our love for all people, our civil discourse with those who differ with us and our resting in the work of Christ on the cross as the Spirit effects it in our lives. This can provide a platform for moving beyond Nane Nane as the unique citizens of two Kingdoms.

End Notes

[1] “Nane Nane” is derived from the date of the 2017 election date which is forthcoming next week on the 8/8/2017.

[2] For a more thorough understanding of a theology of ethnicity, see Rev. Ken L. Davis, “Building a Biblical Theology of Ethnicity for Global Mission,” Journal of Ministry & Theology (Fall 2003): 91 -126. Accessed on the 31st of July, 2017 from Institute of Biblical Studies.

[3] Juliany González Nieves, “Subversive Submission: A Sermon Outline of Romans 13:1-7,” De Vuelta A Lo Básico published on April 7, 2017, accessed from https://devueltaalobasico.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/subversive-submission-a-sermon-outline-of-romans-131-7/

[4] Jonathan Leeman, “The Election is Over: Let’s Get Political,” in The Gospel Coalition accessed on July 1, 2017 from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/election-is-over-lets-get-political

[5] A more expansive work on the Church as God’s covenant people and the eternal political ramification is Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (London: Apollos, 2016).

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