Reclaiming Biblical Lament in Worship For Social Justice in Kenya
To gain an understanding of why the Church’s role in political protest is required, we must gain an understanding of the oppressive socio-economic and political structures. Unless we can see the oppressive nature of these structures in Kenya, we will never value the place for social action of the Church. What are these structures and how do they perpetuate injustices against the citizens?
These are political and economic structures in the government of Kenya whose role ideally is to serve the citizens. Unfortunately, what we have sensed in the past from these structures is the ability to wield their power to unleash structural violence against their citizens. Quite often we don’t seem to see this as violence because of our narrow definition of the same. Violence is not necessarily bloody, but this kind is equally messy and deadly. Structural violence refers to social and personal violence arising from unjust, repressive, and oppressive national or international political, economic and social structures in which the system generates repression, abject poverty, malnutrition, and starvation for some members of society while other members enjoy opulence and unbridled power.
For instance, the marketization of all economic spaces in Kenya has rendered new graduates coming out of the universities (both public and private) jobless. This is due to what Greenaway in his reflection on Adam Kotsko’s book on Neoliberalism Demons calls neo-liberalization of markets. He defines neoliberalism as “a self-reinforcing and self-justifying system – a theology that replaces a providential God with the invisible and all-knowing hand of the market.”(Kotsko, 2018) According to Greenaway, this free marketization of access to jobs, healthcare, education, etc. works in such a manner that leaves those locked out of it to have themselves to blame, and not the system, or one another. It is one’s fault that they did not compete enough in the capitalist-laden system.
On the flip side, some young people turn to Christian religious structures to find God for meaning and purpose in their lives. “Among the young, especially, anxiety and depression seem rampant and young people are held up as politically disillusioned, increasingly turning their back on both political processes and institutional religion”(Greenaway, 2018). Church worship is presently reflected in many churches in Nairobi, Kenya is mainly characterized by pomp, the hype that works at the moment to instill a sense of hope. However, this sense of hope is short-lived and most likely vanishes from the worshipers’ experience shortly after the end of the service.
Thus, we ought to deliberately and intentionally seek to reclaim our prophetic role by incorporating biblical lament back in our worship experience. This is because:
Lament helps us process pain (Psalm 10:1-9)
Biblical lament works to restore humanity in our sense of being during our church fellowship meetings. Our choice of songs and liturgical words need to have a human face in them that recognizes that we are humans who feel pain due to our experience. The progression of biblical lament starts with a recognition of one’s intense pain encapsulated in a sense of estrangement from God amid the oppressors’ arrogance.
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide in times of trouble? In arrogance, the wicked hotly pursue the poor; let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised” vv 1-2.
This estrangement from God is real for most Christians in Kenya today. Especially those who might not be knowing what to eat today, or where to start looking for work tomorrow. They feel their alienation from God as well as the pressure of the oppressors mounting behind them. It is okay to acknowledge this feeling as it helps us to psychologically come to terms with our local experience. Failure to acknowledge that pain might quickly turn into denial which will lead us to either of the following two extremes:
On the one hand, is that we might end up suppressing pain through false rhetoric and empty hype in the church that is not consistent with the living experience of many. On the other hand, we might be filled with despair especially in the face of the reality of the oppressors’ “schemes that they have devised.” Realize that oppressive structures have schemes laid down to oppress the poor and vulnerable in the society. Such schemes are evil genius that seeks to inflict pain and suffering on the masses. It is an utter pretense for the church not to be cognizant of this evil mastermind by the socio-economic and political systems of the state!
The oppressors believe that they are untouchable. Seemingly in Kenya, they are untouchable. They flout all the laws of this country and still walk freely making more threats against the poor and innocent Kenyans. Every day in the experience of mwananchi (citizen) is a constant reminder that he or she is being waylaid by the oppressor. The prideful arrogance and impunity witnessed in the country via social, and mainstream media is a sign for the poor and oppressed that they have nowhere to run to for justice.
We ought to acknowledge and incorporate this reality in our worship songs, prayers, Scripture reading, etc. We should not suppress the pain of any kind whatsoever, even if it emanates from unjust structures. Doing that allows for suppression of emotions that are to the soul what nerves are to the body. If the church is going to facilitate the healing of emotions that have been hurt due to unjust and oppressive structures, then biblical lament is a great emotional resource when incorporated into our worship content.
Lament helps us identify with Jesus (Ps 10: 14 – 15)
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a living and vivid indicator that God identifies with the poor. The biblical narrative is replete with the theme of justice which communicates the idea that God always identifies with the oppressed. The Psalmist in our passage this morning cried out “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift your hand; forget not the afflicted” v 12. God hears and never forgets the cries of the afflicted. It may seem during difficult moments, socially, economically, or politically that God has forgotten his people. However, that thinking is not a reality to the economy of God whose pursuit is for justice to befall his people.
How does God respond to the affliction of his people? He sees it! “But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you, the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless” v 14. Biblical lament connects people to the idea that God is a lover of justice and will revenge on behalf of the oppressed to restore a just society.
Lament helps hearers discern what justice is required, but more than this, it is essential for sustaining a prophetic imagination that energizes communities to secede from, and speak truth to the prevailing consciousness of the powers that be (Williams, 2014, p. 3).
The level of incapacity for churches in Kenya to engage and challenge powerful structures in our society is partly because of failure to see God on the side of the oppressed. Not only does God side with the poor through Jesus’ incarnation but also, he is standing waiting to punish the wicked oppressor. The Psalmist acknowledges this fact in the following statement: “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none” v 15.
Notice the violence with which God is unleashing revenge on the unjust oppressor. The violence by the state evidenced on the cross is a sign of the injustices of this world. It is with this violence that the oppressor will receive his due on the day of God’s justice. This helps restore hope to the oppressed even though only for the moment. But at least it does help us understand when God talks about vengeance.
“Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall sleep; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.” Deut. 32:35
Therefore, to develop a fitting discipleship model that addresses injustice questions in the church, worshippers need to be familiar with the lament itself. This is an acknowledgment that people have been treated unfairly because they are a minority, weak, vulnerable, powerless, jobless, orphaned, etc. The spiritual resource that reminds us that Jesus was treated equally but eventually overcame is helpful. A realization that Jesus did not overcome by suppressing his feelings is also a breakthrough. He overcame by questioning God: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Ps 22:1.
Lament is packaged in ‘words of my groaning.’ Those words need to be incorporated in our liturgy, songs, prayers, scripture reading, and public responses in the context of the African worship experience. Words of groaning help us identify with the injustices meted on Jesus and help us realize that we have a part in sharing in Jesus’ suffering, yet not without protesting to the powers that be, just like Jesus. Therefore, for more holistic discipleship in worship, we ought to focus more on Jesus on the cross and identify with his pain, and not on the empty cross that has been used as an instrument of inflicting pain by the state for many centuries.
Lament helps us protest for justice, (Ps 10:16 – 18)
As the saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ Each time I am walking in the streets of Nairobi, I purpose to observe people. I have particularly noticed a pattern of behavior whereby people walk with heads bowed down, or in parks where you find people gazing at nothing, lost in deep thoughts. I can read despair from the faces of many Kenyans, both young and old. Suppression of pain does not help; it only leads to more misery and eventual depression.
All the while the Church is gifted by God with an opportunity to stage a political protest leveraging on biblical protest. This is packaged in words like those of the Psalmist:
“O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted, you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.” (vv 17 – 18).
It is acceptable to name forms of injustice in the church. “In naming injustice, lament serves as a form of prophecy, speaking God’s truth to the world, which can often interrupt doxology (Ex 2:23-25) to call into question old power arrangements that had long been legitimated and unquestioned” (Williams, 2014).
When lament is removed from our public spaces of worship it becomes widely accepted that the Church is comfortable with the status quo. Williams adds that “If justice questions are improper questions to God, they soon appear to be improper questions in public places” (Williams, 2014). If we cannot interrogate injustices in church, then we will not question the same in the corridors of power and public spaces given for us to engage in.
What follows is that Christians begin to spiritually legitimatize oppression through a call for prayer days, and false repentance on behalf of the country’s leadership. This might lead to sheer obedience to the state, and eventually, the people despair.
The political struggle that led to what we call the second liberation in Kenya was led by civil rights organizations in collaboration with individual clergymen (Patel, 2001). The late 1980s leading to the early 1990s saw a stream of street protests outside the Kenyan parliament and other government offices as people pushed for a constitutional review (Tarus & Gathongo, 2016). Sacred places were brought out in the public as women staged hunger strikes at Uhuru Park for days agitating for the release of political prisoners who had been locked in detention torture chambers without trial.
Many of these religious groups and leaders suffered and some died in the process. But the fruit of their protest started in churches and taken out to confront powers that bore fruit. In 1992, Kenya had the first multi-party elections after the constitutional review that saw a significant change in Kenyan politics.
Unfortunately, this is not the case today, over 30 years later. We are seeing elements of the Church being accused as siding with the oppressor. The few individual voices of dissent and protest against the government are being wished away as negative energies and soon disappear into oblivion.
As I conclude, I suggest that we create a political theology that is authentically African, and biblically faithful. Thus, we need to create a political theology in our Kenyan churches that allow Christians to safely utilize biblical lament as an emotional resource for processing pain. This will help us identify with Jesus’ ministry on earth which is relevant for Kenya today. Lastly, this theology will catapult us onto the public spaces where we can protest against oppressive structures. That is our social action. By this, we will redeem our prophetic role as a church to be the city on a hill for many Kenyans today.
Martin Munyao is lecturer of theology, missions, and African Christianity at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a former Global Research Institute (GRI) scholar at Fuller’s Center for Missiological Research, where his research focused on the intersection of Migration, Interfaith Engagement and Missions, which is the title of the book he is currently working on.
Greenaway, J. (2018, November). Neoliberalism Demonizes All of Us. Sojourners. https://sojo.net/articles/neoliberalism-demonizes-all-us
Kotsko, A. (2018). Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital. Stanford University Press.
Patel, P. (2001). Multiparty Politics in Kenya. Revista Ciencia Politica, 21(1), 154–173.
Tarus, D., & Gathongo, J. (2016). Conquering Africa’s Second Devil: Ecclesiastical Role in Combating Ethnic Bigotry. Online Journal of African Affairs, 5, 8–15.
Williams, A. (2014). Biblical Lament and Political Protest. Cambridge Papers, 23(1).