Why Kenya Needs to Recover Beautiful Orthodoxy

Calling the Millennial Generation to be Grounded in the Gospel

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
W. B. Yeats

The Aftermath of the 2017 Elections

Spirits soared high on the streets as the new President elect took his oath for a second time running. A huge chunk of the national cake still remains on the table, the invited opposition questioning whether the center will hold. This antagonism was marked by the Supreme Court ruling in a landmark decision for fresh polls in October 26th after the first polls in August 8th, 2017 were nullified based on constitutional grounds. Clearly, memories of the last decade’s tribal conflicts are still fresh and the power plays continue to mark African politics at large.

Of course the concept of power is familiar to the human spirit. But especially in African cultures, there is a certain pre-occupation with the “big man.” The Nigerian Chinua Achebe is a well-known literary giant, a master storyteller in the continent of Africa. An African by-product of European education, his books always reflect this tension of the traditional and the modern. Writing in a period just after the colonization of Africa by European political powers, we can see his own struggle with modernity. Borrowing from the Poet’s powerful imagery as his book’s title, Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, the main protagonist, and his relevance for our nation today.

The “Big Man” Syndrome

Okonkwo is a warrior, who leads his family and clan with an iron feast. His personal achievement and masculine strength are his way up his “career ladder”. In the 9 villages that comprise Umuofia, Okonkwo is held in high regard because of his historic battle that unsettles the long time champion Amalinze the cat. In a long series of narratives and unfortunate happenings, Okonkwo’s gun goes off killing a young boy by mistake. As a result, human sacrifices have to be made to appease the gods and eventually, Okonkwo is exiled. Shortly afterwards, European missionaries bring a new way of life to Umuofia, and while the entire village embraces this new way of life, Okonkwo remains the only man standing. Though the story of Okonkwo was set in the late 1800’s and written in the 1950’s, its themes are relevant for our topic in 2017. Achebe and many other traditionalists see modernity as threatening to the order of life in Africa. On the other extreme, some think we should be conformed to the modern culture. Yet, following Jesus involves living authentically in our own cultural settings, while grounded in the gospel. This authenticity means critically looking at our cultures and stereotypes in line with the gospel, casting away what isn’t a principle in Scripture while retaining what is in line with “beautiful orthodoxy.”

The Call to Beautiful Orthodoxy

Beautiful orthodoxy lies at the nexus of truth, beauty and goodness. The gospel of Jesus Christ is based on a new identity for people who too often prefer lies, hatred of “the other” and self-destruction. The beauty of it is spelled out in the hope that there is a restoration ongoing in the cosmos and fully coming in the consummation. The goodness of it springs from centering our lives on this gospel, pursuing peace and justice. Many Kenyans on either side of the Presidential campaigns were pitting their chants on these two: peace and justice. One camp was saying that there cannot be justice without peace. Their interlocutors on the other hand, decried peace that overlooks proper governance structures and policies that ensure equitable distribution of resources. All along a good number of politicians continue to ride the wave of tribal rhetoric that fosters division instead of reconciliation. Sadly, this is all too familiar even in the Church in Kenya.

The demographics of the Kenyan Church are telling due to the historical mission enterprise of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Comprising 84% of the population, this majority Christian nation depicts a correlation between the geographical location of missions in the early 1900’s and contemporary denominational affiliation. Scottish missions set camp in Central Kenya, leading to the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, which remains predominant among the tribes of the famous Mount Kenya region – Kikuyus, Embu and Meru. Other Christian traditions are scattered in the East African country, which has famously been called “the city under the sun.” The Adventists and Quakers boast many of the Western Kenyan-affiliated tribes, due to the historical-geographic mission enterprise which set camp in these areas. According to the Global Futures Project of the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, Roman Catholics have a 22% representation among Christians in the country. From the geographically-wide establishment of their parishes, the tribal distribution is evenly scattered in the country. Amongst others, part of the other representation is made up of Charismatic expressions of the faith as well as some who still practice traditional religions. Traditional and folk religions are slated to increase globally “by 11%, from 405 million to nearly 450 million” in 2050 from the PEW Forum’s projections. Additionally, because of the “big man” theory, rife and relevant especially in the traditional and hierarchical African cultures, politics too easily intermingles with Christianity – especially in this case, tribal politics. The aphorism of Africans being religious will not go away especially due to the integration of religion in the public and political sphere as Elisabeth Stoddard of Georgetown University reflects on her journey to the nation a few years back.

Gospel Hope for Kenyan Millennials

I know several stories of the millennial generation in Africa who have had their relationships and courtships broken off due to tribal differences. The shadow of tribal disagreements and wars looms large. Tribe remains a quagmire in Africa, not only politically but also within personal and relational spheres. I can recollect several occasions at my former workplace where I was asked my second name in order for the person asking to lay up their cards. Yet as globalization breaks cultural borders, one starts to deconstruct the negative stereotypes inherited from our fore-fathers and mothers. And for the new generation of Christians in Kenya who historically have a healthy distance from these negative tribal narratives, perhaps change is soon coming. With the inescapable race predicament in America, it seems after all that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” has a corollary to the tribe question in Kenya. Both King and Lisa Sharon Harper call for a repentance of these institutional injustices that leave us in sordid dreams and realities. This is the only way to “restore wellness to all.” Else we are bound to go down the wrong road and create a Kenyan nation that is founded on untruths in Jim Wallis’ words [1]:

Untruths that we believe are able to control us, dominate us, and set us on the wrong path.

The rich scriptural metaphors and images call us towards the right path and healing that can bring, in Tim Keller’s words, “gospel renewal” to our Christian body and nation. [2] St. Paul depicts powerful images of the Church as a body. Elsewhere, he shows the implications of the one body when he says there are no “Jews or Gentiles,” in our case “Kikuyus or Luos.” For the new generation of Christians who are weary, Jesus invites us to break these barriers that are skin deep. Like the Samaritan woman, we are being invited and drawn in to the truth, beauty and goodness of the gospel. We patiently and persistently advocate for change, waiting for the time when “all tongues” and “all nations” shall be gathered together in the new heaven and new earth, proclaiming the victory of Christ our King, who has won the inner self-loathing and barriers that we have been putting up between God, self and others.

In the end, we have hope because Christ has made a bridge between “us and them,” and potently still between “God and us.” And this is the reason that we have courage that the center will hold and things will not fall apart. Even while Kenya’s historical narrative spins, the Sovereign Lord holds its center. The center truly holds when the gospel is proclaimed afresh and lived out in our nation. This is the gospel that the historian Phillip Jenkins notes has contemporary import to the majority world social realities of tribe, poverty and corruption. [3] This remains the call to beautiful orthodoxy for the millennial generation in Kenya.

End Notes

[1] Introduction to Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016).

[2] Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).

[3] Phillip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: OUP, 2016), 68.


One response to “Why Kenya Needs to Recover Beautiful Orthodoxy”

  1. […] These three remain problematic ways to engage the political space. The first and third, create a dichotomy between private Christian confession and pluralistic public life. Because the political space is made up of many voices, the first option calls for a retreat from the space. The third option seems different in that it engages the space but engages it from a perspective that doesn’t engage with the reality (and complexity) of diversity. The second option stubbornly seeks a monochromatic ethnic definition, rather than a diverse and rich ethnic contribution to Kenya’s public life. […]


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