And this lack of self-awareness of the church is not new. During colonialism, the church turned a blind eye to – and sometimes actively supported –colonial oppression of Africans, because missionaries also believed that we Africans were backward and needed to be civilized by the love of Christ.
We are now in the neoliberal era of the single American empire. Neoliberalism is the belief that all human endeavours can be run with the logic of the market. The neoliberal logic places profit above human welfare, and blames all social problems on individual mistakes and individual failure to conform the neoliberal logic.
Neoliberalism is behind many of the social and environmental problems which the Kenyan public hopes to hear their clergy address. Neoliberalism informs the Kenya government’s privatization of healthcare through undermining working conditions in public hospitals, just so that both medical workers and patients can rush to private hospitals. Neoliberalism has led to the privatization of public land, leading to the ensuing loss of wildlife and the escalation of conflict around pasture and water. Neoliberalism has turned our schools into prisons for children, which the Kenya police have reinforced by threatening our children with life-long criminalization. At every crisis, the government says to the Kenyan people that meeting some targets set in international forums is more important than meeting our own needs.
The invisible hand of neoliberalism
Unfortunately, neoliberalism is very difficult to detect, because it looks like common sense and similar to every day organizational practices. The neoliberal logic has managed to become invisible through imposing its toolkit of strategic plans, targets, performance indicators and vision and mission statements at the workplace.
Take for example strategic planning. The neoliberal strategic planning differs from the usual long-term planning in one subtle, spiritual and very fundamental way: strategic planning places the plan before the people. With strategic planning, what matters is less the needs of the people, and more the targets you meet.
When the target is profits, strategic planning makes a little more sense, because one aims at a certain profit and the company does all it can to achieve it. But such a spirit contradicts the love, compassion and empathy that are supposed to drive services such as education, medicine, pastoral ministry, and even government. In these “care” sectors, we serve real people in real time. Extremely rigid plans do not work for us because we cannot predict, with scientific accuracy, what services the people need.
Let me use an example from teaching. If a student calls me at 10 pm in distress, I cannot humanly say that I'm not going to attend to him because it was not in my performance targets. But at the end of the year, that care work which I gave will not be counted in my evaluation. In fact, I will be told that I'm not achieving my targets. And yet, if I was to be so inhuman as to tell the student that I won't get promoted for helping him, and if the marketing department found out, I can easily be fired for not keeping the "customer" happy.
In fact, the temptations Jesus faced were literally neoliberal. When Jesus was hungry, the devil answered with the irritating neoliberal challenge of "what's your solution," and suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. When the devil asked Jesus to throw himself down to be rescued, and to bow down to the devil and own the world, the devil was providing a strategic plan as a substitute for God's plan. The devil was arguing that after all, Jesus would still achieve the goal of extending God's kingdom. With the devil's strategy, Jesus would have achieved world power and fame and would have avoided the excruciating pain of being crucified.
It is not a mistake that Jesus faced these "abstract" temptations before he started his ministry. The devil - even the capitalist devil - knows that once you give up the principles of faith, love and environmental consciousness, the slope towards bribery, drug addiction, sexual abuse, corruption, murder and all the "petty" things we complain about, becomes very slippery.
And so, until the church spends time understanding and critiquing the "common sense" ideas that drive government, business and society, the church cannot speak prophetically to a corrupt and incompetent government, and to the people whom that government oppresses.
The church in the neoliberal image
And by failing to challenge these “common sense” neoliberal ideas, the church has started to worship the neoliberal god. These days, churches invite business consultants to train them in using the neoliberal managerial toolkit and don't pay attention to the spirits that come with that toolkit. The church now preaches a salvation so personal, that it has no social impact. Through the prosperity gospel, it tells us that we are poor because we don’t tithe or manage our finances properly, not because the leaders are sabotaging the economy. The clergy tell us that we’re sick because we don’t have enough faith that Jesus can perform miracles, but they do not address the undermining of public healthcare. And when government fails to provide the services our taxes pay for, the church steps in as a private solution and offers the same social amenities that the government is supposed to provide.
Most of the sermons today are guilt trips. We are called selfish for not tithing, sinful for having sex, careless parents when our kids make mistakes, and poor for not applying principles of financial management. Jesus on the Kenyan pulpit today is not a Jesus of love and justice, or a Jesus who destroyed the temple to rebuild it. He is a Jesus of individual self-improvement.
The clergy are unable to address the gods of our age because they are simply not reading, and they do not engage in “earthly” public debates. Pastors read fellow pastors but will not read important social texts like Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One does not need to agree with those writings, but one needs to at least read them well enough to offer a robust critique of them.
And the church hates academic thought. I’ve heard Kenyan clergy preach that subjects like sociology, science and philosophy will get congregants nowhere. Some tell us that they don’t study theology; they study the Bible. Most of the scholarships offered to Kenyan clergy in study in the US and the UK are in missiology – in other words, Africa is still virgin territory for evangelism, even though Christianity had been on the continent centuries before the European missionaries arrived here.
And Kenyan clergy have shunned intellectuals. More than once, I’ve heard pastors repeat the corporate mantra that academic learning cannot provide practical knowledge. It is ironical for pastors to attack academics as only theoretical, when people come to church every Sunday for non-practical approaches to the practical issues they confront.
But this apparent deafness of the church is not new. The church has always flirted with ideologies of the racist-colonial state that wages war against people, especially women and people of color. Slave traders quoted bible verses on the ships, and slave masters recited bible verses as they whipped the slaves. Colonial missionaries supported the colonial government, and churches after independence still take their cues from the government. So now that corporations rule the world, the church is trying to behave like a corporation.
It is in this context that the youth in Nairobi are walking away from the church. They feel that the church doesn’t address the whiteness of Jesus, or the corporatization of public life. They’re tired of pastors quoting Joel Osten, Billy Graham or Rick Warren, white men from the same USA where Martin Luther King lost his life fighting for the poor, and from where racist police kill many young black men like our police do in Kenyan slums. It is as if Africa has no great cloud of witnesses who lived the faith, so that through our youth, the faith of their foreparents can be made perfect (Heb. 11: 40).
The youth are tired of hearing pastors tell them that their financial welfare resides in working and saving better, or worse, tithing better so that God can bless them. The youth don’t hear church rebuke the government for the lack of credit for our youth to start businesses, for the corruption that denies youth healthcare they need for their young families, and for the criminalization of the youth through extra-judicial killings and police violence when they voice dissent. The youth never hear their stories told at the pulpit, or hear a prophetic voice similar to that of United Church of Christ minister, Rev Traci Blackmon, who led a group of clergy to the office of the Senator of Kentucky, and who would prophetically rebuke politicians by saying: “Call your god who your god is: capitalism. And we come over in righteous resistance against capitalism taking these halls.”
Active citizens and public intellectuals like myself are also tired of the church. Only two things keep me a Christian today. One is that I’m a third-generation Christian who is the grand-daughter and daughter of people who used their Christian faith for radical social change. I’m one of those who easily sing that the old-time religion is good enough for me. Two, is a chapter on the church that I read in Carter Woodson’s Miseducation of the Negro. Woodson cautions black intellectuals against abandoning the church, because with all its flaws, the church is still part of the social capital of the black community, and so intellectuals need to remain in the church to help the church offer the people an updated and well informed response to the issues facing the people.
So in my heeding Woodson’s advice, I have decided instead write my own “sermons” on what Christ is saying to the citizens about our concerns. What does Christ say about public healthcare, about sexual harassment, and even about academic honesty? I have called for a theology of public life, where the church lets go of its ego, stops seeing itself a parallel government or parallel corporation, and starts preaching to congregations about Caesar’s obligation to provide social services and about the devil of corporatization.
The church needs to stop imitating the golden calf of the corporations and the state. But more than that, the church needs to understand and critique the narratives and structure of the state and corporations. If it doesn’t understand how to do this critique, it should be humble enough to let its congregation members help. The era of the all-knowing clergy has no place in the twenty-first century.
The typical response to these criticisms is for Christians to go on the defensive and ask: who is the church? Which church are you talking about? The public is then given a litany of different descriptions of the church, from body of Christ to the all familiar “the church is you and me.”
The irony of this escapism is that the escapism is characteristically neoliberal, because like neoliberalism, it denies institutional and collective responsibility. Such defensiveness is an unnecessary preoccupation with personal innocence, which is ironical, given that the church preaches a Jesus who was without sin, and yet he paid the price of our sin.
But most of all, the criticism about defining who the church is really irrelevant for ordinary congregation members. Ordinary members of the public are not familiar with theological debates on the definition of the church, and do not have time to preoccupy ourselves with those debates anyway. All we see is one face of the church, the one of money laundering in the name of receiving donations from politicians for harambee projects. If there is a side of the church that cares for justice, then it is the responsibility of the clergy to make that side visible and loud.
Our lives matter
How can the church take care of its flock in this neoliberal age? I will answer that question using the story of the weeping woman who washed Jesus’s feet. The story is found in all the four gospels, but I will cite the version recorded by Matthew 26: 6-14:
And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.”
But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
I believe that Jesus was saying that for all our social justice projects, we still have to see individual poor people and their life stories. We have to see a sinner woman repenting and changing her life, and an anxious Jesus about to be nailed to a cross. We should not dismiss real flesh and blood creatures of God so that we can meet our performance targets and philanthropic projects.
But the Kenyan church, since colonial times, is not Jesus affirming the woman. The church has taken the position of the disciples, feeling that the individual problems of people are not important, and instead raising money from corrupt politicians so as to provide social services to the very same poor.
Sometimes, people need, more than anything, a church that feels that the people matter enough. Sometimes what we the people of Kenya, and especially the exploited, need from the clergy is not simply another temporary relief from our poverty. Sometimes all we need is a church that sees us, affirms us, and that asks like Jesus: “why do you trouble my people?” Or that says like Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”
This is the edited text of a presentation I made at the conference on "Ethnicity, Morality and the Public Square in Kenya", held in Limuru and organized by the Project for Religious Freedom and Society in Africa of Yale University's Macmillan Center, August 31, 2018.