Kenya: Whose Gonna Stop the Fire?

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 7, 2008.

We call on the churches of Kenya to do their part in pursuing the common good of their communities and country. Churches have a leading role to play in ensuring respect for human life and seeking reconciliation between neighbours. This is especially urgent amid ominous signs of ethnically targeted hatred and violence. Homes, businesses, public buildings and places of worship must remain safe.

–The Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

One of the stories reported from Kenya last week is the kind of thing that keeps pastors like me awake at night, twitching and sweating. Following a disputed election, ethnic violence erupted causing a group of men, women and children to seek sanctuary in a church in the town of Eldoret. In a scene painfully reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, a mob attacked and set fire to the church. As many as thirty people died in the ensuing inferno.

As I look out at the congregation gathered to worship in my church, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and with the unnamed pastor who opened the doors of his church to a fleeing crowd only to watch the murder of those under his care and protection. The horror inside that church is beyond my imagining.

Kenya is a mess right now. The dubious results of a certifiably flawed presidential election have caused a meltdown in the social order. Much of the violence is directed toward members of the Kikuyu tribe to which the embattled President, Mwai Kibaki, belongs. According to the BBC, 350 Kenyans have died in post-election violence and a quarter of a million people have been driven from their homes.

As I read accounts of the bloodshed in Kenya, I find myself asking what role religion has played in the violence. This is a matter upon which the media have remained largely silent. Had the mob attacking the church in Eldoret been comprised of Muslims, the world would know about it. Descriptions of the event would have contained words such as “jihadists” and “terrorists”, but most Kenyans are Christians, and since the violence in Kenya came as a result of Christians attacking other Christians, international media have ignored the religious impulses at play in Kenya’s post-electoral violence.

But such impulses exist. Anytime a church full of people is burned to the ground, it is an act of religious violence; when the traditional sanctity of sacred space is ignored religious forces are at play.

I rather doubt the murderous and pyromaniacal mob in Eldoret went to the Bible or to theological orthodoxy to find justification for the murder of fellow countrymen seeking refuge in a chapel—spiritual matters seldom on are on the minds of self-righteous and bloodthirsty mobs—but as the mob was forming and as anger was fomenting, no Christian voice was strong enough to keep peace. It was a tragic failure.

This problem is shared by Christians everywhere. German Christians largely were silent during the Holocaust; too few white American Christians have spoken up in the history of the mistreatment of African Americans; we remain passive as Muslims and undocumented immigrants are demonized in contemporary society; Christians worldwide are reticent to denounce the malignancy of war.

As I look out on my congregation, come together for worship on the Lord’s Day, I see good people. I cannot imagine anyone from my flock in violent pursuit of an ethnic or political adversary. But I wonder if my preaching has instilled within them a faithful courage capable of resisting violence and of standing for peace, even when such faithfulness is dangerous.

I hope I never find out, but I’ll keep these things in mind as I write future sermons.

Just in case.

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