Why solving cultism in Kenya should not be led by religious leaders

I have always wanted to track down any Kenyan who was allegedly healed in one of Prophet Owuor’s crusades, or the healing services broadcasting daily on local TV channels. I never got around to it in my short stint in the newsroom, but maybe I will someday.

But if any other reporter takes up the assignment, I believe they will stumble across a few strange facts. For instance, they will probably discover that their families had spent thousands of shillings to get the person in front of the prophet since “the Lord’s anointed” is a busy man and it is probably easier to secure an appointment with the President of Kenya than with the Man of God.

They will also discover that this money was more than they would have spent taking the person to the hospital – though this is not always the case. In most cases, it is cheaper to go to the prophet as most of the diseases are chronic.

Many Kenyans who show up on the doorstep of a miracle healer have a trail of muddy footprints behind them, from the many fruitless visits to different doctors and hospitals. For many of us, religious healing is a last resort, a last ditch attempt to make sense of a life that has left us bruised, traumatized, and out of options.

It is easy to blame the teachings of Paul Makenzi, but that will quickly get us into a theological fix. Many of the people who sold their belongings and left plush jobs and loving relatives to travel to Shakahola were not doing an “unbiblical thing”. They were probably obeying Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:21 “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Or maybe Luke 14:26 is the passage that did it: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

So why do some Christians read the same verses from the same Bible and don’t take them literally while others do? One could argue that there’s an entire logic of biblical interpretation (“the right interpretation”) that can protect us from blindly following those scriptures.

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However, determining which preacher or church has the right interpretation of these verses is the crux of the problem, because the moment you start judging one church’s interpretation of the Bible over another church’s interpretation, you start playing God.

This is probably the reason why many of the organized churches that have spoken out about the Shakahola tragedy have largely steered clear of biblical arguments.

The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) called what Pastor Makenzi did a “charade” and described his sermons as “cultic preaching” without going into what exactly was a charade or cultic in Makenzi’s teaching. The statement wound up by calling for “a strong mechanism of regulating religion” without getting into specifics.

In fact, almost all the organized church leaders that have spoken against the Shakahola massacre have pointed at “the doctrine of fasting to death” as the only problem with Makenzi’s teaching. Which technically means that, unless a religious teaching explicitly asks people to die, anything flies. In other words, Makenzi’s biblical namesake Paul would also be disqualified for teaching “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) if the people of Philippi started fasting to death in the name of Christ.

In a recent article on how to tell if you’re falling into the trap of a cult leader, Bishop David Oginde (formerly of CITAM) points out that a cult leader would often demand his followers make financial sacrifices for the leader’s own gain.

However, this argument falls flat in the face of 20th century’s most infamous cult leader Jim Jones. In 1978, 918 people died through suicide after drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. All of them were followers of Jim Jones and acted on his instructions and teaching.

I wonder what Oginde would say about the fact that right there on the stage at the central pavilion in Jones’ religious settlement, lay the body of the cult leader Jim Jones himself – he believed his own teachings.

Here’s the thing, any religious (or political) teaching has the potential of developing a cultic following. We see it every day in the number of poor Kenyans willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of politicians.

Just as we cannot put the solution to political extremism in the hands of any one political party, we cannot put the solution to cultism in the hands of religious leaders.

Yes, just like any Kenyan, religious leaders are welcome to weigh in and participate in finding the solution, but they cannot be the authority. The final solution cannot be a religious one.

The true authority in protecting the lives of Kenyans must lay in the supreme law of the land, the Kenyan Constitution. What does the law say about protecting the health, wellbeing, and lives of Kenyans from all dangers religious or otherwise? This is where we should start.