A variety of occurrences have precipitated this reflection. Kenyan headlines have run amock with several state injustices. Solai dam collapse has led to the loss of many lives, with promises of investigation reflecting empty rhetoric. Elsewhere, student unrest due to mismanagement and misappropriation of funds led to boycotts and eventual shutdown of a prominent private university in April 2018. One wonders how a country that touts itself as a Christian nation would stand in solidarity with oppression and injustice. Has the Church lost its mission?
When we talk of the Church, people quickly think about buildings. But the Church is made of people. So have we lost it? I remember having a conversation with a friend about the state of the nation, and he was lamenting at how much injustice has silenced any hope. It got me thinking, what is the Church’s role with regards to justice?
I am part of a society called Apologetics Kenya whose mission is to get both those who identify as religious or with faith traditions and those who are irreligious or antireligious to explore the claims of the Christian worldview. Our speaker on the 16th of May, 2018 Darius Okolla (Twitter handle @TheTweetingBandit), talking about the gospel’s intersection with contemporary issues, made a pressing claim: The Kenyan Church in its over-emphasis on personal piety has lost its purpose in advocating for justice. All this pointed me to what I was reading about two founding Church leaders in Kenya and their justice advocacy.
Henry Okullu was a onetime provost of All Saints Cathedral and Bishop of Maseno South diocese. Converted in the heyday of the East African revival, he worked in Uganda and later in Western Kenya as a priest/journalist. A turning point in his life was the Christian response, or lack thereof, to injustices of his day: the socio-political situation was the one-party state of Kenya which silenced democratic voices. Many, such as the politician Ouko and Bishop Muge, would be killed for dissenting. It was in this ferment that another leader in the Presbyterian Church would be a vocal exponent of justice. The Reverend Timothy Njoya, infamous for his pursuit of democracy, was defrocked thrice by his Church and flogged severally by the state. In his book We the People his provocative thesis is that the Kingdom of God restores people from being viewed as property, and the state from being viewed as a market. These two leaders had turned the pulpit into a public platform for justice.
the Kingdom of God restores people from being viewed as property, and the state from being viewed as a market.
Karl Max’s truism that religion is an opium of the masses sadly reflects the uncritical and unexamined life and practice of the contemporary Church – Christians oftentimes focus on their own self-interests. Interestingly dissenting voices are always rejected and walk a solitary path. Okullu himself in his book A Quest for Justice says “It is a very painful lonely business occasionally to obey a call from God to give a lead in a fiercely controversial national issue. But that is the role of prophetic demand.” It has been the case for voices in the Old Testament era, in the life and times of Jesus Christ, in the radical Christian discipleship of the early Church, in the early modern period of church reforms in the 1600s, in the dismantling of civil rights and political oppression of nations in the 1900s. The Church has lost one of its core mission when it has emphasized another important one. However,
Justice and Righteousness are twin missions of the Church.
In my understanding of the Scriptural witness, individual regeneration should lead to societal transformation, albeit not perfectly. The passing on of the African-American theologian James Cone (see his New York Times obituary) has reminded many of the call to justice that he, and his contemporary Martin Luther King Jr., so much esteemed. These individuals echo so many Old Testament passages that are fully embodied in Jesus’ mission statement (Luke 4:18-19 cf Isa 30:18, 58:6; Jer 9: 23-24; Prov 21:15; Amos 5:24; Mic 6:8):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
So yes, let the church call us to righteousness. But let the Church also call us to advocate for justice. Yes, let the Church remind us of the inner regeneration of the Spirit. But let the Church also remind us of the outworking of this in personal and societal transformation. The false dichotomy that justice and righteousness are foes leads to a Church that limps and loses its saltiness. Though many of us have interpreted the gospel message into an individualistic soothing that supports our religious and socio-cultural status quo, following Jesus will always turn the world (and our own individual worlds) upside down.