The Kenyan media has of late been awash with reports about priests, bishops and all kinds of preachers who have turned wolves instead of being the shepherd that guards and guides the flock.
If it isn’t priests defiling young boys or girls, it is some bishop stealing from the congregation, or another self-appointed archbishop claiming church property as theirs.
These men and women of God seem to be more lost than the sheep they are supposed to guide.
They have abandoned spirituality and worship material things. They claim that God doesn’t bless poverty – or the poor.
They declaim that to those who have, the Lord shall add, and that from those who have less, because of their little faith, the good Lord shall subtract.
This obsession with things material is part of the background to the debate on whether churches should accept ‘donations’ from politicians or not.
The catch in this donations saga is that politicians aren’t the cleanest of Kenyans, morally.
So, when they ‘give’ to the church, and give millions when Kenyans are starving to death or are unemployed or can’t make a living, what message is the clergy sending to their congregations? Are these donations mere giving or are they tithes in another name?
These supposed ‘servants’ of God have desecrated God’s injunction and turned the word of God on its head.
They interpret the Bible in the most liberal of ways, giving their own meaning to even the most basic of Biblical orders.
The most disturbing is the conversion of a very simple instruction to tithe into a demand that Christians are obliged to give to the Lord, generally, what the pastor has decreed.
Today this is the most contentious question among Christians in this country. And this is no longer a religious or spiritual matter.
It is social and cultural; if not significantly economic or even political. But it is its socio-economic implications that should bother Kenyans most.
For instance, how have Kenyan preachers made giving to the church almost a precondition for membership in their churches?
When did the gospel of prosperity become the order and belief of the day in many of our Pentecostal churches?
How have some pastors convinced their adherents to invest in savings and credit societies but ended up ‘privatising’ these public organisations, such as in one of the ongoing sagas today?
And how did Kenyans become entrapped in these schemes to fleece them by the men of the cloth?
The church wasn’t this rapacious just a few years ago. Nor did priests openly preach acquisition of material wealth.
The prosperity gospel that is now almost the second nature of many churchmen is a recent importation from America.
Americans invented the fusion of religion and money-making. American televangelists then retailed this belief to the rest of the world, beginning in the 1980s through the very wildly appealing ‘crusades’.
Since then, Pentecostal churches in Kenya with affiliation to American ones haven’t been shy in encouraging young men and women to strive for the things of the earth, even as they prepare to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
In a tradition that seeks to imitate the American practice, these Kenyan priests urge young men and women to work hard and tithe as often as they can, and not to forget that one has a job because God has blessed them.
In an essay appearing in the magazine Vox in 2017, the author explains why one of the most read, listened to and followed of American prosperity gospel preachers, Joel Osteen, believes that prayer can make one rich.
The author notes that the kind of preaching that promotes materialism in the same breath as spirituality has its origin in an American movement called New Thought.
She points out that this movement emphasised the capacity of the individual to surmount problems if they put their mind to work.
The point here is that if one works hard and complements it with prayer, they will be rewarded with material wealth right here on earth.
Definitely this school of thinking, according to the author, traces its roots to the work ethic of the Protestants in Northern Europe, and which is captured in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber.
The Protestant ethic preached the exertion of the body together with prayer to realise wealth.
Thus, the latter-day Kenyan preachers aren’t doing something new. The path they walk on is a well-beaten one.
These women and men have watched the sermons of American televangelists. They have seen the glamour of those TV shows.
They can feel the wealth of the men and women they would wish to copy. And they have Biblical orders to support their self-serving schemes.
The problem is that our preachers generally forget — or pretend not to know — that ours is a poor country and that tithing is a big task for a family that can barely afford two meals a day.
Such a family will ‘give’ to the Lord but will be left wondering who needs the money more than the other.
Socio-culturally, many African societies decreed that when there was bountiful harvest, the extended family would benefit from one man’s farm or hands.
And that those who took care of the community’s spiritual matters would be supported, not compensated, because they could not work normally.
But such spiritual arrangements were not based on threats of eternal damnation to be suffered by one if they didn’t give to the church.
One gave because there was a socio-cultural expectation – it was just the right thing to do.
But there wasn’t condemnation of those who didn’t give — yes, they were seen as mean but that was pretty much it.
Yet today it seems like the money changers that Jesus Christ chased out of the Temple have taken over the House of God and insist now that giving must be done, whether one is able or not.
But probably there has always been something about money and Christianity. According to bible scholars, money is writ large in the good book.
They claim that it is mentioned more than 800 times. But it is the order to ‘give’ to God, to tithe, that the latter day priests interpret to their own advantage.
Such biblical orders are quite clear — if one has the means, then one is obliged to give back a percentage to their God.
What was given to the church in the past would normally return to the community, as churches established and managed schools, hospitals, orphanages, old people’s homes; churches were the first to offer comfort and assistance in a time of need, such as in the case of the crisis in northern Kenya; the tithe was used to support the suffering.
Today, many churches have abandoned the orphans, the sick, the widowed, the poor, or the hopeless.
Instead, they extort from the needy, threatening them with eternal damnation should they not give to God.
These men and women are like the Kanu youth wingers in the 1980s who would walk into a home and pick the only goat in the home because the owner hadn’t paid the annual party membership fee.
Membership of God’s flock has nothing to do with paying for the priest’s lavish lifestyle — top-of-the-range cars, mansions, Saville Row suits, holidays in exotic places, expensive colognes, et cetera.
Many of these so-called charismatic preachers are mere fraudsters, robbing innocent Kenyans who can’t make ends meet but are perpetually made to believe that God will redeem and thrust them into the club of the rich should they give away to the pastor the little that they have.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; [email protected]