Pastoring Through A Contested Election: A Kenyan Perspective
Since I’m about to talk about a topic as precious to us as politics, allow me to make a clarification as I begin. Contrary to popular opinion—perhaps even including that of the editors of this article—this is not the African perspective, nor is it the Kenyan perspective. In fact, what I’m about to say might not even be the perspective of the members of our congregation. I’m simply sharing one pastor’s best efforts to lead his congregation through a season of political turmoil. So draw any counsel you might from the words below with caution. This is simply what Ken from Kenya thinks; Africa has not approved this message.
I’m yet to witness a Kenyan election that was not contested, save the General Elections of 2002 where we all got what we wanted: the ousting of the incumbent who had ruled for 24 years and the installment of a coalition government which we all believed would usher in the kingdom. Five years later, the elections were bitterly contested, and the country stratified yet again along tribal lines. Promises were broken, alliances were redrawn, and lives were lost. Beaming optimism devolved into bitter cynicism. The evil of our tribalism that we had managed to domesticate so well and for so long violently erupted into our society in all of its grotesque ugliness.
THIS IS US
Sadly, this affected our church.
Unkind, evil words were spoken with conviction by professing believers on both sides of the divide. Words were scrutinized, motives were judged, opinions were dichotomized, and the options were tyrannically simplified. Members displayed little empathy for one another.
So what did we do? We confessed our sins in our corporate prayer. We confessed not as tribalistic units but as united sinners who have been brought together through the blood of Jesus.
We also sought to interpret the state of our country primarily through our doctrine of sin. Our division as a nation was the surest evidence of our “division” from God. Our countrymen hated each other because they were haters of God. The nastiness in our national politics embarrassingly exposed our nastiness as humanity, reminding us that we’re all self-destroying rebels who cannot fix ourselves. We need a Savior.
Even in the church, we need to remember this. We’ve not yet been totally purified of sin. We’re still tempted toward everything that defined us before we came to Christ: “evil, covetousness, malice. . . envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. . . gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29–31). For these sins and many more we sought forgiveness from God.
If your aim is to be a faithful witness of God’s truth in a season of political turmoil, then I suggest you start with a robust confession of sin. This strips us of any self-righteousness and self-pity that muddies our gospel witness to our communities. After all, the saints who see themselves primarily in the light of their well-studied political opinions are least likely to be the fragrance of God’s truth to the onlooking world. We must remember that, apart from Christ, we would be miserable sinners. We ought to cry, as wretched men and women, “Who is sufficient for these things?”
POTENTIALLY PREJUDICED VS. GUILTY AS CHARGED
During this season of political unrest, it occurred to me that my voting choices were strangely aligned to my ethnicity. Do you know what else I noticed? The same was true for many of my friends, even though their particular voting choices were different than mine. All our votes closely aligned to our ethnicities even though each one of us would have argued that our tribal identity had little to do with our opinions.
I want to be clear: I hold my opinions because I believe them to be true. And yet, it’s hard to say that I am entirely untainted by the tribal prejudices I have inherited not merely from Adam but also from my particular ethnic heritage. Without having to confess my political views as sin, I’ve found it useful to hold them with a healthy dose of suspicion.
As a pastor, this insight into my potential prejudices helped me hold to my political opinions with humility. That meant not sharing them broadly and avoiding arguments about politics in which I tried to convince others to cross over to my side of the divide. In short, I refrained from moralizing my political opinion. While some suggested it was sinful to celebrate the electoral victory of the president, others described the results as an answer to prayer and insensitively exhorted those who felt robbed and wronged to pray for the president “as the Bible clearly instructs.”
I and our church benefited because I didn’t correct every perceived error nor did I engage every discussion. The complexity and intensity of politics can easily overshadow the unity that is ours in Christ. We can’t let that happen. Instead, we must strive in the Spirit so that we display the gospel clearly to the glory of God. What did that look like in our church? Instead of intensity, we strove for gentleness. Instead of drawing lines and making demands, we strove for patience. Instead of making enemies with all who disagreed, we strove for bearing with one another in love.
LET BROTHERLY LOVE CONTINUE
After a bitterly contested election, it doesn’t take a genius to know that some of your members will be angry and maybe even a little bitter. Meanwhile, others will be giddy and relieved. In our particular case, we had members who spent several nights huddled with their kids, frightened by the smell of teargas from the riots near their homes. We also had members who slept soundly. What did we do? We encouraged those who rejoiced at the result to abandon their rights for the sake of those who are not. We encouraged them to do a little more than spare a thought for those who were afraid. We encouraged them to actively serve them.
Pastoring through a contested election isn’t like writing a position paper. It’s attending to wounded sheep. It’s calling members as brothers and sisters to check in on each other. It’s opening up our homes for anyone who felt unsafe. It’s fewer barbershop conversations about various theories related to politics and sociology and more empathetic interactions with a focus on the obvious needs around us. We don’t need to agree on all the answers to show compassion, or to lament an obviously sad state of affairs.
And pastors, some people you’ve shepherded for years may call you an apostate because you mentioned the “J” word. Some may think you don’t care about their pain because you pray about God’s command to submit to the government. It’s okay. In a time of turmoil, keep your primary focus on your sheep, and incessantly express compassion and love. This will go a long way.
PREACHING THE WORD
It was a fight not to get sucked into the categories society had established for us. When the political lines are drawn between “Justice” and “Peace,” it’s unlikely that believers will comfortably identify with either side of the divide. Though the heated conversations of the day sound all-important, we should remind ourselves that the Word of God endures forever. News channels, newspapers, and social media are filled with mere opinions. So, pastor, make sure you execute your God-given charge and preserve your pulpit for that Ancient Word. Don’t confuse the value of any political insight with the value of God’s Word for God’s people.
In our case in 2017, the elder scheduled to preach on the Sunday after the controversial election preached from Obadiah. In that book, God had prepared a rebuke for many of us and an encouragement for all of us. Points in the passage weren’t forced to fit into the political season. Instead, this brother faithfully preached the passage in front of him and allowed God to do the hacking and healing he wanted.
Just consider what Obadiah covers: God’s justice, which had been directed to Judah in judgment, was now directed at the Edomites who “stood aloof on the day that strangers carried off the wealth of Judah.” Those who gloated at the destruction of others were warned of God’s coming judgment. And the sins God promised to judge went well beyond mere actions. He who sees all things will bring his righteous judgment upon their sinful attitudes toward their “enemies.” What’s more, God announced that all nations would face his impending judgment. Meanwhile, Obadiah offered the hope of God’s coming kingdom.
If there’s ever a time to trust in the sufficiency of God’s Word, it’s in the midst of political turmoil. When your people look to you and ask what “word” you have for them, make sure that you aspire for nothing more than being a faithful herald of God’s Word both in season and out of season. Faithful preaching in a season of political turmoil will offend and encourage indiscriminately. It will reshape the boundaries politics has erected and promote a peculiar unity not around shared political viewpoints but around deeper, more enduring truths. Faithful preaching will lead you and your people to regular repentance and reified faith in our crucified, raised, and ascended King, the One who is indeed coming soon.