By Rev Dr joseph wandera
But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; do to others as you would have them do to you – Luke 6:27-31 (NRSV)
Although Kenya is by law a secular state, with constitutionally enshrined freedom of worship, religion continues to be present in the public sphere, functioning as a key framework for communal life.
Beginning with the quest for democratic space in the 1990s, to the more recent opposition to the reproductive health care legislation 2014, which would have given children access to birth control pills and condoms, the significance of religion in Kenya’s public life is ubiquitous.
On April 28, 2017, the Catholic Bishops in Kenya released a wide-ranging letter entitled, “Peaceful and credible elections …leaders of integrity.”
The Bishops appealed to Kenyans to elect as leaders women and men of integrity, untainted by corruption, untouched by the greed for money, who shun negative ethnicity, who refrain from hate speech and who have the interest of the country at heart.
As Kenyans approach another fiercely competitive election, it is important to reflect on how religious actors could contribute towards a peaceful, free and fair election on August 8 2017.
As a powerful component of identity, religion intersects with the causes, dynamics and resolution of conflict in complex ways.
Religion can function as the nexus of powerful motivational and organisational forces that shape human action, with important implications for conflict resolution and peace building.
The cost of a badly managed electoral process, such as the tragic 2007-8 election that saw over 1000 killed and a further 600,000 internally displaced, must never be forgotten.
In the wake of those elections, Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission observed, “church leaders and elders participated in the incitement of ethnic-based violence”, repeating a pattern first witnessed in 1992.
In contrast, in the lead-up to elections in 2013, churches helped to prevent bloodshed by organising rallies for peace.
To lose a home and land is to lose the security of citizenship; it constitutes the loss of a community where people know you belong. For the young, it is to lose vital years of educational opportunity.
For a woman, especially one who is unaccompanied, it constitutes the risk of violation and abuse. For the old or ill, it brings the prospect of death closer.
For everyone, violence and insecurity bespeaks to hunger and disease. It forfeits a lifetime of investment to fire, to looters, to spoilers. Tragically, violence and insecurity can be triggered by suspicion, by communal prejudice against the “the other”.
Religious communities must therefore work actively to prevent such tragic consequences by encouraging communities of God’s people to work tirelessly towards a peaceful election.
As members of religious communities, we must defend those whose rights and dignities may have been violated during this electioneering period, speaking for them and serving them in whatever ways possible.
Religious communities must not be places into which we retreat for relief and safety amongst people who are just like us.
In the book of Hebrews, the writer invokes the language of discipleship, of going “outside the gate” to where Jesus suffers, and reminding readers that they do not have a permanent city on earth (Hebrews 13.12-14).
This responsibility of going beyond our familiar “gates” is especially incumbent on all religious leaders, those who share in the oversight and service of God’s pilgrim people.
Indeed, moral leaders must not be confined to their comfort zones; they must venture, push boundaries, and explore and pioneer new relationships for the common good.
Because religious leaders are generally accorded moral authority, their public dissent from conflict leaders and/or their ideology can effectively undermine the legitimacy of negative campaigns. They must organise their followers to take action (“bear witness”) and engage in initiatives that prevent and subdue violence, that promote alternatives in favour of all.
Peace initiatives can take the form of peace messaging in support of free and fair elections. Peace messages can be articulated by means of TV and radio, leaflets, fliers, text messaging, social media, or more commonly religious sermons.
Both clergy and lay people can encourage and support civic education, healthy debates, election monitoring and inter-ethnic dialogue. They can call all stakeholders to abide by a non-violent code of conduct. Now, more than ever, we are at an important juncture in our political history.
Religious leaders are the custodians of theology and ethics; at this historical crossroads, they are expected to provide the moral leadership that Kenya requires to align its reality with its noble democratic rhetoric.
Writer is an Anglican Priest and senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies, St Paul’s University