Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sex, Death, and Christianity in Kenya

I had the opportunity to speak last week at a high school assembly in a rough part of the slum of Kawangware.  It’s a Christian school, and a friend of mine is a teacher there. There were about 70 students from age 14 to 20 years old.  As I prepared for my talk, I struggled with how I, as an older white American missionary might possibly connect with this crowd of young, hip, Kenyan youth.  I decided to use the all-purpose attention-getter for audiences like this: I decided to talk about sex.  It worked.

I told the story of boy and girl in a high school in America.  He was 17 and played football and was the star of the team.  She was 15 and was one of the school beauties.  They fell in love and started a sexual relationship.  And in the course of things, she became pregnant.  This was, of course, traumatic for everyone involved.  Then I asked my Kenyan students, what happens here when a boy gets a girl pregnant?  And in unison, the entire audience said, ‘She gets an abortion.’  I was stunned.

I have since asked around and discovered that in most cases of sexually active young people in Kenya (and it seems like many if not most of them are active, or would be if they could), when (not if) pregnancy occurs, the boy puts great pressure on the girl to get an abortion.  And the girl’s mother often puts great pressure on her daughter to get an abortion.  And all her friends put great pressure on her to get an abortion.  So shameful is having a baby out of wedlock among Kenyan Christians (and even in traditional religion families) that it – an abortion – is considered to be a necessity.  In other words, it is considered better to kill the baby than to have a baby out of wedlock.

I heard another story today of a girl in a church in my neighborhood who went to the doctor complaining of stomach pains.  The pains were severe and they thought it might be appendicitis or poisoning.  But when the doctor looked at her, he exclaimed, ‘This girl is in labor!’  She had hidden her pregnancy for 8 months, and now the baby was coming.  But nobody knew.  They quickly found the mother and informed her that her daughter was delivering a baby at the hospital.  The mother rushed to the hospital and began beating her daughter and screaming at her in a rage.  It took three people, including their pastor to pull her off.

Another friend of mine, a local Presbyterian pastor, told me about his sister who became pregnant out of wedlock and immediately came under pressure to abort the baby.  Her mother insisted that she abort the baby.  She went to her brother the pastor and begged him to let her borrow the money she needed to get an abortion.  My friend told his sister, ‘I can’t give you money to do such a thing.  I beg you, carry this baby to term.  This is a real person.  God will make this baby a blessing to many people.  But not if you end this baby’s life.’  His sister listened to him, but it was hard.  Most of the family put intense pressure on her to end the pregnancy.  But she brought her baby to term.  Six years later, little Njeri is the joy of her family.  And she is really smart.  After testing, she is ranked #1 in her class. Her mother is so glad she resisted the pressure to abort her pregnancy, because Njeri has become such a blessing to her and to everyone who knows this little girl.

Another student was born out of wedlock in a rural part of western Kenya.  The parents were shamed and told this baby is a bad omen for the rest of your life.  You must get rid of it.  The mother’s parents said that they needed to kill the baby.  The traditional way of getting rid of problem babies like this was to leave them in the maize store overnight.  This would result in the baby’s death.  So that’s what they did.  They locked up the baby in the maize store and left him there overnight.  Early the next morning, the father’s sister crept up to the maize store and discovered the newborn was still alive.  So she rescued him and brought him to her mother.  And her mother was afraid, she didn’t know if she could undertake such a responsibility.  But she chose to help this infant.  And the baby survived and grew strong and healthy.  When he was 17, he was finally told that that other woman was his mother, and that that other man was his father.  And he was told that both his parents and his grandparents on his mother’s side had tried to kill him.  Imagine the issues.  He told me today that he has benefited from counseling and has taken steps to forgive his mother and father and grandparents and other members of his birth family.  And today this baby boy that was exposed and left to die by his parents and grandparents, he is now a Christian pastor and working on his Masters degree at my university.

I was told by another student of the profound stigma attached to adopting babies.  It turns out that when a couple adopts a child, they are announcing to the rest of the world that they cannot have children.  And barrenness in this culture is a huge cause of shame in the eyes of the rest of the community.  So nobody wants to adopt babies.  And so Kenyan orphanages are full to overflowing.  A friend who already has a child with his wife and he is struggling with the whole abortion issue.  He wants to adopt a baby to help provide a home for a baby whose mother chose to spare him/her.  But his wife doesn’t want to, because the cultural taboo is so strong.  And this is a Christian family.

When I explained to my high school audience last week that unless a boy was willing to take responsibility for his actions and to support and marry the girl he gets pregnant, that he is not mature enough to have sex, I was laughed at.  Boys, especially, view sex as their right.  Girls want to be loved and accepted.  Sex is the easiest avenue to that end.  Pregnancy gets in the way of what both boys and girls are looking for.  Abortion makes that problem disappear.

Contemporary Kenyan Christian culture is mostly untouched by Christian morality about sex (among many other issues).  Contemporary Kenyan Christian culture is an accessory to the wider culture of sex and death.  And this seems ok to just about everyone.  Nobody seems to know how to talk to young people; or if we knew how to talk to them, we don’t seem to know what to say when it comes to relationships, sex and the consequences thereof.  There is a lot of noise raised all over this country by Christian celebrity pastors boasting about God’s blessing.  People think that a ‘successful’ church is one full of thousands of people cheering and dancing and shouting ‘Amen!’ to everything the MAN OF GOD in the pulpit is saying.  But truth be told, there is not very much to this ‘Christianity’.  Participation in this Christianity seems mostly to provide people with religious cover to do what they want to do.  In the meantime, ‘Christian’ teenagers are very busy having sex.  The hospitals, clinics and illegal abortion mills are busy busy busy providing ‘birth control’.  And thousands upon thousands of Kenyan babies are murdered to accommodate personal selfishness and cultural values by people who claim to be Christians.

At the very least, Christianity as a viable way of life is under severe threat in this country.  Christian profession essentially makes no difference in how one actually lives one’s life.  Christianity is adopted for utilitarian reasons, not theological or relational reasons.  And as this reality continues to inform our churches, Christianity as a religion will be (is being) hollowed out, becoming less and less relevant.  And people who adopt a religion for utilitarian reasons will drop that religion if a better way to get what one wants presents itself.  The essential self-referential perspective of most Christians here means that Christian morality can be laid aside if another option is perceived to be better for me, for my advancement, for my betterment, for my advantage.  This is why ‘Christians’ are involved in the ubiquitous and gross corruption at every level in this society.  This is why ‘Christians’ are involved in the ethnic prejudice and violence that plague the nation.  This is why ‘Christians’ here are engaged in what earlier generations called ‘promiscuity’ without even the twinge of conscience.  This is why the broken bodies and lives of unborn infants are tossed aside as if they mean nothing.  This is why I’m engaged in theological education.  Talk about an uphill fight.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Money, Churches and Kenya

What follows is an introduction to the first of ten chapters in what has become a book on money and the churches of Kenya.  These chapters are presently at a publisher for consideration and which I am hoping will be published here in Kenya.  The more precise topic is that of stewardship, and in my research I discovered that almost nothing has been published on stewardship here in Kenya at either the academic or popular level in more than 30 years.  And given the fact that money is such a central, crucial and controversial issue in almost every local church, I find this astonishing.  There are a thousand Kenyans more qualified than I am to take this subject on, but in light of the ongoing silence on the part of academic colleagues and church leaders on this issue, and because the situation on the ground has become simply ridiculous, somebody needs to start the conversation and challenge our churches into something better.  So that’s what this is.

I presented the first chapter of my ‘book’ this past weekend at a conference sponsored by ASET (The African Society of Evangelical Theology, of which I was a founding member when we pulled it together back about seven years ago in my previous life as a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology - now Africa International University).  The presentation I gave on Saturday is part of a wider body of research in which I cover the radical ways money and possessions are dealt with in the Old Testament.  I then look at the gospels where I bring out the revolutionary way Jesus deals with money and possessions and the implications for his followers then and now.  Next I look at the New Testament church where I discover that the first Christians took Jesus’ teachings seriously and where we see the impact of this on their life together and on their ministries and mission.  After this I then look at the early church, and consider the teachings about money given by the church fathers, and I discover that far from compromising the essential dominical and apostolic teachings about stewardship, the first 500 years of church history saw concerted efforts made to put Jesus’ teaching and the apostles example into practice.  And what was Jesus’ teaching about money and the church?  What was the example set by the apostles when it came to money and giving?  Many people assume that the correct Christian position on money and giving is that of tithing.  But tithing is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament epistles of Paul or anyone else.  And to the surprise and discomfort of many, tithing is nowhere mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels.  And even in the Old Testament Torah, the tithing commanded there is not the 10% ordered by many legalistic Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  Instead, OT ‘tithing’ required 23 1/3 % of one’s yearly income, a practice I see no one rushing out to keep.  So even in their attempts to be biblical about church offerings, many who insist on ‘tithing’ have missed the matatu completely.

The issue for Jesus, for the apostles, for the New Testament church, for the early church Christians is not tithing; rather, it’s stewardship.  By stewardship I mean the understanding that everything that I have is a gift from God intended by God for me to use for God’s purposes.  Steward is a slave word.  It was a position of responsibility in the master’s household.  I am a steward, which means I’ve been given responsibility to care for and make wise use of my master’s money, possessions and things.  And I will be held account for how I make use of the master’s possessions.  So I don’t give a tithe of my salary and then I’m done with my Christian obligations.  Rather I’m on call to help however I can with whatever I have, both time and money, in whatever the Master wants me to do. Stewardship is thus a fundamental element of Christian discipleship – I’ve been called out of my old life into a new life; I’ve been called to follow Jesus, to make him my Lord.  My life is no longer my own.  I have been bought with a price.  I make it my priority now to do what he tells me to do, to go where he tells me to go, to make myself and all I have available to Him and to His mission according to His priorities.   This is discipleship.  This is stewardship.  This is Christianity.  And yes, this is radical.

So after I cover the biblical and historical aspects of stewardship, I take on the twin plagues afflicting Kenyan Christianity.  The first is the issue of dependency, which is what I introduced in my presentation of my first chapter this past Saturday.  The second is the so-called health and prosperity heresy that is gutting our churches of recognizable Christianity.  Both dependency and the prosperity heresies destroy  stewardship and discipleship in our churches.  And both, for different reasons, have contributed to the life-threatening weakness of Kenyan Christianity.

A doctor cannot help the patient unless he first diagnoses what’s causing him to be sick.  And so once we see both dependency and the prosperity heresies for what they are, we can take steps to bring our churches and our fellow believers back into health, at least with respect to money and stewardship.  And so I give practical steps that individuals and churches can take to become good stewards of what God has given them.  And I give examples both of parishes that get stewardship right and are seeing some amazing things happen in their midst as a result, and examples of churches who are still doing money the old way, and the awful things that are going on there as a result.

In the penultimate chapter of my book I demonstrate the connection between discipleship and stewardship and to call my fellow ministers here in Kenya and my fellow church members to hear Jesus’ call to stewardship as fundamental to what it means to be a Christian, to repent of our wrong attitudes towards money and possessions, as if they were ours, and to give ourselves and all we have to Jesus to use as he wants us to do.

The last chapter shares an experience I had at an institution that demonstrates how pervasive the curse of dependency is among many churches and Christians and how difficult it is to lead someone, or a church, or an institution out of that perspective.

Those of you who pray, please do so, specifically that this project may be published and that it may be useful in God’s hands in the life of the churches of Kenya and in the lives of individual Christians.  Those of you who have gardens know that for your shamba to flourish, you’ve got to keep on top of the weeds, otherwise the shamba’s potential is utterly wasted.  Kenya’s churches have gone at least thirty years without anyone addressing the issue of money.  You can just imagine the shape we’re in.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Fayum Portraits

And now, something totally different from what usually appears in this blog.  

I have for years been moved by a collection of ancient portraits discovered in Egypt affixed to mummies and preserved to the present day because of the extraordinarily dry conditions in the desert where the cemeteries in which these dead were buried are located.  The mummies and the portraits date from the first to third centuries AD.  They portray mostly young people and some children.  When the body of the dead was wrapped in strips of cloth, the portrait, painted on wooden boards using the Greek encaustic method, was affixed as the face of the mummy.  Every indication is that the painting is of the now dead person.  It is possible that the painting depicts the person when they were young.  But it is likely that they are realistic portrayals of the individual before he or she was overtaken by death.  If this is the case, then these paintings are a stark indication of how brief life was in the first centuries of the common era.

Evidently, portraits in this style were done throughout the Roman empire.  But they have survived to the present day primarily in Egyptian site of Fayum, but also in other Egyptian archeological necropolises found near Memphis, Philadelphia, Arsinoe, Antinopolis, Thebes, and several other places as well.

These paintings provide a unique window into the realities of Egyptian life during the Roman era.  But for me, as look at each picture, each human face, I find them full of pathos.  The contrast of faces so full of life, eyes so engaging, the life that lays behind each picture stands in stark contrast to the reality of death and its almighty power to cut off such life and hopes and dreams and network of relationships.  It reminds me that the faces that surround me now, the lives, the relationships, the hopes and dreams, are all similarly and precariously perched in time.  Of course we all think we are going to live our lives and pursue our business forever.  Living yet another day of good health and of circumstances that are mostly happy lends credence to this common deception.  Death is far from our thoughts, and we live care-less-ly day to day as if we can get away with living however we want to live and treating others however we want to treat them.

But the Fayum faces jerk us back to reality.  Earlier generations, closer to death than we are, understood the implications of death for life.  The following inscription appears in 17th and 18th century American tombstones:

Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you will be
Prepare for death and follow me.

The Fayum portraits were commissioned to remind the living of the dead who, until recently, were among them.  Shockingly realistic, they draw us into the lives of those portrayed.  Their voices are no longer heard, embraces no longer given, smiles no longer exchanged.  They raise the questions, for me at least: what is this brief life meant to be about, and (to paraphrase Francis Schaeffer) how should I then live?

So here they are.

The oldest known icon of Christ, 'Christ of Sinai' 6th century
encaustic painting, in the same style as the portraits above.