Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When Good People Do Nothing

Transcript of a Sermon delivered at Living Hope International Christian Centre, San Rafael, California, Sunday, 24 September 2007

I am grateful to be able to worship with you this morning. I arrived from Kenya on Friday and am visiting with family here in San Francisco ahead of attending a conference in San Jose next week. It is always such a joy to be with Kenyans abroad and whenever I travel. I take advantage of what spare time I can find to fellowship with brothers and sisters who are spreading the Kenyan charm in far-flung lands on this green planet.

Our reading today is taken from Judges 9: 1 – 21.

( Reading – Judges 9:1-21)

When I was asked to speak at this morning’s service, I struggled to come up with a suitable topic. I was taught in my preaching class in Bible school that when one mounts the pulpit to share from the Word, one should not only exegete Scripture, one should also exegete his audience to make the word come alive and relevant to his hearers. For me, this is a difficult undertaking, since I am a visitor and am not well acquainted with the issues of moment to you here. And so I will beg your indulgence as I speak from the point of view of what is happening back home in Kenya.

As you are aware, it is election season in Kenya and things are beginning to heat up as we prepare to elect a new government (or re-elect the old one) and a new parliament and local authorities by the end of this year. This has prompted my choice of subject for today’s sermon in which I try to highlight the role that good people must play in the politics of our land.

Traditionally, Christians in Kenya and in Africa have tended to shun politics. There are several reasons for this but due to limitation of time, I shall briefly discuss four:

First is the weight of history. The missionary experience during colonial rule discouraged active participation in civic affairs. Politics was largely regarded as worldly and Christians were to have as little to do with it as possible. Some have argued that this was part of a conspiracy where the missionary project was an intrinsic part of colonial domination. Indeed in extreme cases, for example in Apartheid South Africa, sections of the church provided a dubious “biblical” justification for apartheid.

Whether by default or by design, the teaching of the church in colonial Africa left a legacy of exclusionary politics where politics is left to worldly people while the church focuses on pastoral issues. But by so doing, this approach has ended up limiting the definition of politics as a process of acquiring political power for power’s own sake and thereby enabling politicians to protect their own interests as opposed to working in trust to advance the interests of the nation.

But even before the advent of colonialism and the missionary project, and this brings me to my second point, religion has historically tended to introduce a false dichotomy with regard to the management of human affairs. Jim Reeves’s famous song comes to mind here. “This world is not my home, I am just passing through…” Many have interpreted this song and sections of Scripture as meaning that Christians should have nothing to do with how their countries are run but should focus instead on winning souls.

But few stop to wonder what happens to the souls if the conditions in a particular country make it impossible to keep soul and body together. At worst those who subscribe to the “Jim Reeves” school of thought behave as if social problems do not exist; at best they try to salve their consciences by engaging in acts of charity.

They conveniently forget that Moses did not go to Pharaoh seeking better food and medicine for the slave labour force; he marched on the palace with a profoundly political demand, “Let my people go!”

When they read the story of the Good Samaritan, they deliberately refuse to ask, “What would the Samaritan have done if he repeatedly found victims of robbery on the Jericho – Jerusalem Road. Would he have continued taking them to the inn and paying for their treatment from his own pocket, or would he have started asking some fundamental questions like, why is there no street lighting on the road to Jerusalem? What have the police done to combat this sort of crime? Has there been any cooperation between the Jericho and Jerusalem metropolitan councils to improve security along this important access road? What have the authorities done to equip the inns along the road with medicine and oil to take care of those that fall prey to the robbers known to be operating along this road?

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31 - 46) Jesus tells us that on the last day, we shall be judged on the basis of whether we provided food to the hungry and water to the thirsty; whether we invited in the stranger; whether we clothed the naked; whether we looked after the sick; and whether we visited the prisoner in jail. These things can and should be done at a personal level; but at a societal level, they all involve very political choices, and Christians should not imagine that they can escape their God-given responsibility to make life more liveable through fighting for a fair and just distribution of power and resources in the society of which they are a part.

Thirdly, we have been misled into maintaining a loud silence in the public square by buying into the false popular belief that we are “the leaders of tomorrow.” I am forty years old today, and all my life, I have been told that I am “the leader of tomorrow”. But tomorrow never comes. Those who became ministers at independence in their twenties are still calling the shots. We complain that our country is being left behind, but what do we expect when our leaders have been at the helm of politics since the 1950s. How can you have a new idea when you have been on the scene for 60 years?? I am amazed at how a young country like Kenya, with over 70% of our population at the age of 35 and below can allow itself to continue being ruled by septuagenarians?

The phrase “Leaders of tomorrow” should be scrapped from our political lexicon and dismissed with the contempt it deserves. We need to develop a culture of leadership development and succession that is in tune with the changing challenges of our time. And we should not apologize for it. I repeat here what I have said before. We will continue to value the experience and the wisdom of the old, but when they become obstacles to change and progress, then it is not just our right, but it is our solemn duty to politely but firmly show them the door.

Fourthly, we shy away from politics because we have a limited definition of politics. Politics is not just about party positions, important though this is. It is about the process of making decisions for groups in all spheres of social endeavour. God instituted politics and we should robustly engage in it the same way we engage in any other part of God’s creation. The powers we engage with are God-created. But because of sin, they are fallen but they can and shall be redeemed. Indeed we are God’s instruments in redeeming the powers and being a foretaste of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This is not to take a position on the latest fad of church leaders seeking political office, which is not within the scope of our topic today, so I shall say no more about it here.

If politics is a dirty game, it is because we have left it to dirty people to play while we stand on the sidelines and complain. This brings me to today’s text from the book of Judges Chapter Nine. This is an interesting story of Abimelech, the illegitimate son of Gideon, who murdered Gideon’s legitimate sons in order to have himself enthroned as King. Only Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, escaped the slaughter. Abimelech, then appealed to his mother’s tribesmen, on the basis only of the fact that he was their flesh and blood, to support him in his quest for power. Abimelech also hired reckless, adventurous youths who became his followers.

This profile of Abimelech, the usurper, sound uncannily Kenyan. His approach to politics was nakedly tribal, he murdered potential competitors and he intimidated the populace by using an armed militia of unemployed youths. But it is Jotham’s words that bring to the fore the most chilling comparison with our situation today.

During Abimelech’s coronation ceremony, Jotham tries to warn the people by telling an interesting parable of a community of trees in a desperate search for a king to reign over them. First they approach the olive tree but it declines. “Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honoured, to hold sway over the trees?”

Next, they approach the fig tree but it also refuses to serve. “Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet,” it asks, “to hold sway over the trees?” Then they approached the vine which also declines saying, “Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?”

In desperation, the trees turned to the thornbush and asked it to be their king. The thornbush, knowing their limited options, gladly accepts but with a caveat, “If you really want to anoint me king over you,” it tells the trees, “come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”

Having thus warned the people of Shechem, Jotham flees into exile, but the people ignore him and proceed to anoint Abimelech king. His reign is marked by strife, oppression and civil war, as predicted by Jotham.

In the same way, many good people in Kenya today have opted out of getting involved in public affairs and left the country to be governed by thornbushes. We are too busy producing our olives, figs and wine to get our hands dirty with political issues. And yet we get all upset when these thornbushes go to our parliament, steal our money, while being unable to raise quorums to pass vital legislation.

But we must get involved. And not just in the voting during this election year, but in the daily tedious task of building institutions and holding our leaders accountable. We must be willing to take risks and to pay the price to reclaim our country from those who have stolen it from under our noses. And if necessary, we must refuse to cooperate with a political class that has made it their stock in trade to subdivide amongst themselves the garment that covers our nakedness. We must unmask the charade that goes by the name of party politics in Kenya today.

There are many reasons why we must do this but because we don’t have much time, I will briefly focus on three.

First, whether we are involved or not, we are still responsible. In any country, especially in Africa, politics has an important impact on the direction that our societies take. Hospitals have drugs when politicians want them to have drugs; roads are fixed when politicians say they get fixed. Politics is too important to be left to politicians alone.

Second, if we do not get involved, others will make the decisions for us. All the decisions made by politicians affect all citizens alike. The Bible reminds us that we may not be of this world, but we are in this world. We should therefore not be too heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good. There are too many moral dilemmas in our time for us to remain neutral. It was Edmund Burke who said that all that is necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. Closer to home, Prof. George Kinoti has pointed out that it is immoral for Christians to opt out of the struggles of our time only to come in and reap from the blood and sweat of others.

Third, we must get involved because God expects us to get involved. Matthew 5:13 tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Salt both preserves and gives flavour to meat. Christians like to complain about the rottenness of society, but if the meat is rotten and tasteless, there must be something the salt is not doing.

In light of all this, how then should we live? It is possible that being so far from home and without the vote, you may be feeling pretty helpless. But there is much you can do both here and at home in Kenya. Three possibilities come to mind:
First, you should pray for the United States of America. In Jeremiah 29:7, God instructed his exiled people to pray for the country into which He had allowed them to be taken into captivity, “for when it prospers, you also prosper.” Likewise, we need to understand and own the problems and challenges afflicting the country of our sojourn; to pray about them and to contribute towards solving them.

Secondly, we should get involved in local political issues of our day – in our church, community, in our children’s schools, our local authorities and so on. As in evangelism, in social justice issues, the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. We should refuse to be lukewarm or complacent. God wants us to get actively engaged in rebuilding the walls around our communities to make them safe again in all respects.

Finally, for you who live abroad, you should remember Zion. I have had opportunity to speak to groups of Kenyans in many countries since the 1990s and I have repeatedly sought to remind them (including myself when I lived abroad) that the task of rebuilding our country belongs as much to us as to the people back home. In July 2000, in an address to a group of Kenyans in Oakland, California, I appealed to Kenyans to invest at home with what was then considered to be a controversial statement:

“My plea here is made even more urgent by the fact that all Kenyans look forward to the time they can retire at home and many are busy saving money to build a house there. But pray tell me, are you going to build that house in the air? How can you look forward to retiring in a country that is quickly going to the dogs on your watch?

Others are comfortable being Americans and we cannot fault them for that. But I would like to point out that American capitalism, in its current form, is on its last leg as a dominant socio-political formation. It is unsustainable for the simple reason that you cannot have all this accumulation in one part of the world while the rest of the world is starving. Something has got to give and it will give soon.

One of three things will have to happen in the next five years. Either there is going to be a major stock market crash precipitating a great depression; or there is going to be a major war – which is what capitalism has traditionally used to redistribute surplus resources from one part of the world to the other (… it has been the same story since 2nd World War where Europeans destroyed their continent to enable Americans to make a massive transfer of resources through the Marshall Plan). The third possible scenario is that even at this late stage, America and other rich nations will see the looming disaster and agree to a Marshall Plan for Africa.

Whichever comes to pass, it behoves Kenyans in the Diaspora to take the lead in reconstructing their country. For the comfort zone we have occupied in the US and elsewhere may not remain comfortable for long.”

A year after this warning, 911 happened and the war on terror began, making it inherently difficult to travel to, remain and work in the US. The comfort zones are no longer as comfortable as they used to be, and it has become even more important to rebuild our Zion. We should get involved in making Kenya liveable by defining those issues that we feel passionate about and giving our time, talent and treasure in reclaiming the fortunes of our land. You may not have the vote, but you have immense influence. You also have resources through which you can become involved in giving provision for the vision of a better homeland.

Nehemiah had a good secure job in the king’s palace (Nehemiah 1), but this did not blind him to the sorry state of the land of his birth. He used his position to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to keep enemies at bay and restore the dignity of his people. We are in a similar position today. Our beloved country lies dangerously exposed to mercenary thornbushes who owe allegiance to no one but themselves. We will soon go through the ritual of electing yet another lot. But have we asked ourselves what would really happen if we all got seriously involved in snatching our country back from the brink?