by Rev. Canon Francis Omondi
Looking at 1969 from the biography of John Gatu
The year 1969 witnessed the end of the first parliament of independent Kenya. It had not been an easy journey through the first term of Kenya’s life as a nation. The country was due for the first post-independence General Elections.
The political atmosphere was tense and had been simmering since the infamous Limuru Convention of 1966 and the ensuing fallout. The formation of KPU as the opposition party and its nationwide influence was worrying the ruling party. Such developments stoked fears in the ruling party of losing the elections.
During Madaraka Day celebrations, President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta announced that General Elections would be held. The ominous oathing began. The oath was intended to galvanize the support of Mt. Kenya people for the presidency, ensuring that the leadership of the country would not leave the house of Mumbi; the national flag was not to depart from its then current position.
These dynamics rendered the Luo people and those who supported them as the enemies of the Gikuyu people. It constituted the very risky prospect of pitting the Gikuyu people (or GEMA) against the rest of the nation. Then came the July 4th killing of the Hon. Tom Mboya by Nahashon Njenga. The resulting riots threatened the breakup of the nation. The fragile efforts that had been made towards building a nation appeared irreparably damaged. The process of Africanisation, which had been intended to bring the country together, became, in the opinion of some people, a process of “gikuyuization.”
These acrimonious dynamics continued to the end of the year and concluded with the detention of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. It is against this backdrop that church-state relationships as recounted by the Rev. Dr. John Gatu in his book, ‘Fan into Flame,’ will be considered.
The importance of the year 1969 against the backdrop of the prevailing church-state relationships cannot be over-stated. The Rev. Dr. Plawson Kuria hints at the importance of the year in the introduction to his dissertation in which he recounts the nature of Kenya’s church-state relationships in general and with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in particular. The greatest honour must be reserved for Very Rev. Dr. John G. Gatu for documenting and re-telling this story so bravely and truthfully for posterity. The fact that the church survived this remarkable episode should be applauded. We, the church, should be inspired to stand firmly in times of trial, re-affirming our calling, building on the foundation that Gatu and his contemporaries have laid.
We can better appreciate their contributions by comparing experiences with churches elsewhere that faced similar dilemmas. Gatu’s narration of the 1969 experience in Kenya can be helpfully compared with the experience in 1933 of the Protestant Church in Germany in the context of the courageous prophetic contribution made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
PCEA POSTURE ON CHURCH-STATE RELATIONSHIPS
This relationship, observes Rev. Gatu,
“can best be described as checkered and it is best informed by various phases in our history. Sometimes, it was clearly a symbiotic relationship, where each partner depended on the other as the occasion demanded. Then again, it was an ambivalent co-existence or at worst an acrimonious and confrontational relationship” (2016 180).
The church’s position can be deduced from several documents that were made public during church-state encounter in 1969. The Covenant Statement of September 15, 1969 provides the best representation of the PCEA’s position.
The PCEA COVENANT OF UNITY AND LOYALTY, Article 2:
“Recognizing His command to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the teaching of the apostles that the authorities that exist have been instituted by God and are due to be given such respect, service and obedience as is compatible with a God-fearing life, we pledge unfailing loyalty to the President, His Excellency Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his government elected in accordance with the constitution…” (210).
This covenant crystalized the position first mentioned in a letter of July 22,1969 addressed to the President, in which Gatu, with other church leaders, affirmed that, “there is no authority (government) but by act of God and the existing authorities are instituted by Him (N.E.B. Romans 15:1-2)” (196).They continued: “Allow us to declare here and now our loyalty to your government and our uncompromising allegiance to your Excellency as a person and as the Head of State. Our prayer books or other prayers offered every Sunday in our churches demonstrate the honour in which your government and your person are held” (196).
They perceived themselves as loyal subjects of a legitimate state and as partners in the development of the nation and the people of a new country. In Gatu’s own words:
“…this was a relationship in which mutual respect between partners in human development was manifest, while at others, it was a relationship bereft of understanding and tolerance” (180).
PCEA theology, being heir to the reformed tradition, would be quite close to German Protestant doctrinal positions, particularly with regard to church-state relationships.
The Protestant Church in Germany affirmed what has been referred to as Luther’s Two Kingdom Doctrine on church-state relationships. Martin Luther used the phrase, “two governments” rather than “two kingdoms.” Luther’s doctrine, also embraced by Philip Melancthon, was later labeled the “two kingdoms” doctrine affirming that the church should not exercise worldly government, and that princes should not rule the church or have anything to do with the salvation of souls (Gritsch 1986, 48).
Augustine‘s church-state model as expounded in his famous tome, The City of God, provided the foundation for Luther’s doctrine (Sockness, Brent W. (1992).
Luther attempted to synchronize seemingly contradictory biblical statements. The Bible contains passages that exhort Christians to obey rulers placed over them and to repay evil with retribution. Other passages, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, call for passivity in the face of oppression.
In an attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory passages, Luther deviated from the Roman Catholic position, which considered the latter biblical statement as an ideal for a more perfect class of Christians as opposed to radical Christians who rejected any temporal authority.
Thus emerged Luther’s understanding of the church-state relationship: the temporal kingdom has no coercive authority in matters pertaining to the spiritual kingdom. Luther was fully aware of the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church had involved itself in secular affairs, and he was aware of the involvement of the princes in religious matters, especially with regard to the ban on printing the New Testament (MacCulloch 2003, 164).
God has ordained the two governments: one of them being of a spiritual nature, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ reigns over Christians and pious people; and one of them with a secular mandate to restrain the unchristian and unregenerate, obliging it to keep the outward or public peace. We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids as long as it does not violate our Christian conscience and as long as it legislates only on matters related to the secular body politic.
However, if the secular government invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only presides and rules, we should not obey, but choose instead to suffer. Temporal authority and temporal government extend only to matters, which are external and corporeal (MacCulloch: 2003, 238).
The position of the German Protestant Church with regard to government authority was clear. But this position changed when the government position regarding Jews was articulated in 1933. The government position became a source of great conflict and posed a moral dilemma for the church. Would the church defy government policy on the Jews?
THE CHALLENGE TO RESIST THE STATE: Conflictual Relationships.
From time to time, the purposes of the state and the purposes of the church find themselves at odds with each other. Such a situation confronted the Rev. Gatu when the Kenyatta Government asked him and his colleagues to take the Gikuyu oath. In some measure this request reflected the close relationship between the President and the PCEA leadership.
The Gatundu phone call of June 9, 1969 summoned PCEA leaders to take “the Gikuyu Oath” which was being administered to all ” Gikuyu of good will” to solidify the unity of the tribe (188).
The oath had been launched among President Kenyatta’s followers as a means of rendering the GEMA people ready for the general election (189). The Kenyatta regime considered the threat from KPU, the opposition party, a serious issue that required the President’s home front to be politically united. Kenyatta offered terms that he assumed would be acceptable to the clergy: “[We]…will not require the clergy to take a blood oath, but will take it in any other form…including drinking milk,” Gatu explained.
Details of the oath were not divulged to them unless they agreed to take the secret oath, but it was made clear that this was a serious matter and the sooner they complied the better.
“The implication was clear. If we refused to take the oath, it would signify our betrayal of the President and the inability of the PCEA to reciprocate the confidence that the President had in the church we represented. Of all things and of all places, this was the last thing we expected to come from the lips of the one we had come to love so dearly, Our President,” Gatu lamented (189).
This decision seriously affected the church, for which reason they requested time to pray. They called on other leaders in the church to assist in the quest for an appropriate decision. Unity of the church body was vital in dealing with the state. For this purpose, the invited leaders were Bishop Obadiah Kariuki of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Rev. Charles Kereri and Rev. Andrew Wambari, head of the Africa Inland Church
DECISION: It was wrong to take the Gikuyu Oath. “Unlike the oath we took during the struggle for independence, this oath was totally unnecessary, aimless and offended the traditions and customs of the Gikuyu people, who would ordinarily never administer oaths to women and children. We also found out that people were being forced to part with money during the oathing ceremonies. This also was contrary to the principles of binding oneself to an oath. Furthermore, no one was prepared to give us the exact text of the oath” (190).
In addition to moral considerations, they objected to the oath because:
- It was of no use and they deemed it purposeless at that point in the history of independent Kenya.
- Many people were being coerced into taking the oath.
- The oath would have a divisive rather than a uniting effect on Kenyans.
In administrating the oath, the government violated the constitution, thus undermining its legitimacy to rule and to be obeyed. Worse still, it was evil in that it excluded its own non-Gikuyu citizens from leadership in the nation. The government had imposed this oath without the consent of some of the citizens. This was stated clearly in the protest letter to Kenyatta and in the meeting of July 22, 1969:
“It is now known that many Christians, and ordained ministers included, have been compelled to take the oath which is contrary to their religion and belief in a manner that is contrary to the same …people have been subjected to torture, inhuman degrading punishment and other treatments. Contrary to section 74(1) of the constitution of Kenya and section 78(1) where it is laid out: Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his\her freedom of conscience.”
The church had legitimate reason to protest this intrusion that would undermined its own teachings.
This was stated in a letter to the President dated September 15, 1969:
Since the service of God involves loving our neighbors as ourselves, we stretch out our hand of brotherhood and fellowship to people of every tribe and race. Our resolve is to foster unity and combat division and to conduct our lives and work without discrimination or favoritism (210).
The oath fomented serious division in the country: Kikuyus vs non-Kikuyus, on one hand, and one Kikuyu district against another, on the other. Undermining the fragile national unity, which had begun taking root, was against government policy of Harambee and against the concept of national unity.
Dietrich Bonheoffer’s moment of resistance came to the fore when the Nazi government introduced the Aryan Chapter action against the Jews. Unfortunately the German church began implementing this law by excluding non-Aryan members from its services in compliance with government dictates.
Should the church support a government that violates national laws, which also contradict the church’s teaching?
RESPONSE OF THE CHURCH TO STATE
Bonhoeffer was explicit with regard to the church’s obligations to fight political injustice. The church, he wrote, must fight evil in three stages:
Firstly, the church must question state injustice and call the state to responsibility;
Secondly, the church must help victims of injustice, whether or not they are church members.
Ultimately, the church might find itself called, “not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to help those who fall into the spokes of the wheel itself,” in its effort to halt the machinery of injustice.
Confronting the State
Stage one: By means of memoranda, protest letters and meetings church leaders made their positions and reasons for opposing the oaths clear, personally delivering the documentation to the President, from July 22, 1969 to September 15, 1969.
They sought government protection from forced submission to oath taking and they sought protection from rogue gangs, which were administering the oaths.
Stage two: Public protest and exposure.
The September 15, 1969 killing of Samuel Gathinji brought the church to keen attention. Meanwhile protests to Parliament were not effective because the Minister of State and the Vice President denied that oathing was taking place. Public prayers in Tumu Tumu, Kikuyu, Chogoria and Nakuru and public denunciation of the oathing forced the government to act. These actions were supported by both local and international press releases, embarrassing the government. The serialization of stories regarding the victims of forced oathing had a huge impact on the government. Kenyatta finally halted the oathing in September 1969.
“Kwaria ni kwendana: Gikuyu na Mukabi mangiaririe matingiaruire….” The press pressed Kenyatta out of denial and pretense (233).
“It is important to emphasize that despite the grave nature of the 1969 oathing, the church tried, as much as possible, to engage the political class at the highest possible level, without necessarily attracting media attention. Whether this tactic was right or wrong under the prevailing circumstances, is for the reader to judge. I have combined this private and personal approach for finding solutions to challenges facing the church and society at large with wide consultations before calling on the church to take an informed posture. In retrospect, the most important element is that the church rose to its calling, that of being the conscience and the prophetic voice of the nation. The modus operandi of working quietly behind the scenes has worked well for me and by extension for the PCEA over the years. In this context I speak of myself and to some extent the PCEA, but it does not mean that other churches did not respond to the 1969 oathing with equal vigor in their own ways. I thank God that PCEA played a critical role in resolving a politically motivated, destructive, base ambiguous and subtle challenge that had far reaching repercussions for the church and the nation” (180-224).
Stage 3. Being Light.
We have the challenge of building on Gatu’s foundation. We find ourselves called to halt the machinery of injustice, exclusion and tribalism, including but going beyond assistance to victims of state injustice.
The oath was introduced to bind the Gikuyu people together and to keep the leadership of the country among them. This mutated to the “uthamaki concept” in the understanding of those outside the community. Perhaps there is no oathing taking place today, but the spell of the 1969 oath still casts a shadow over the country’s political atmosphere.
-The tribal-political dynamic was legitimated in the country.
-The Kikuyu-Luo divide became institutionalized.
-Animosity has continued close to 50 years and has also affected the church.
Should church leaders have gone beyond protest against the oathing to urge the hearts and souls of Kenyans towards unity and love, and to urge the government towards a greater degree of fairness?
Does the state have a right to exclude select communities from leadership of the country?
Bonhoeffer’s final point…
Ultimately, the church might find itself called “not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but also those who have fallen into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the machinery of injustice. With the establishment of the Confessing Church, German Christians withdrew from the traditional Protestant Church and acted against the German government, seeking to stop it from continuing on a destructive path.
The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion,
to grieve in a society that practices denial, and to express hope in a society that lives in despair (Walter Brueggemann).
We must rise:
We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
(Words and music by Tim Conry)
Articles on the same subject by Canon Rev. Francis Omondi’ appeared in:
THE PLATFORM – For Law, Justice and Society (Nairobi)
December 2016-January 2017, No. 25/26
Title of article:
‘Why Uhuru Must Free Kenya From His Father’s Oathing’
STAR (Nairobi newspaper)
January 8, 2017
Title of article:
‘Why Uhuru Must Free Kenya From His Father’s Oathing