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.

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