Obama in South Africa and the curse of our flawed heroes

_102560850_mediaitem102560848Former US President Barack Obama has just concluded a moving lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was the key speaker in the celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth.

I say the speech was “moving” because I found myself inspired, nodding and agreeing with much of what Obama said. He spoke about the importance of helping the poor, loving our neighbors and championing the cause of justice — especially for the less privileged amongst us

Obama grabbed Mandela’s legacy and wielded it against the forces of injustice, oppression and inequality that continue to pervade an otherwise “progressive” 21st century.

“Stick to what is true. Stick to what you know is right in your hearts. Ultimately right makes might. Ultimately the better story wins out. My message to you is keep believing. Keep marching. Keep raising your voice. Now is a good time to be fired up.” – Barack Obama

Who can argue against that? He went ahead to quote Madiba on the value of universal human rights and freedom, saying: “We have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.”

Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that in the midst of all the cheers and claps, the shares and retweets, there were many people who did not, could not, approve of Obama’s message. More specifically, there are many people who listened to the lecture with disapproving head shakes and regretful sighs.

When Obama said, for instance, that he believed in a vision “built on the premise that all people are created equal,” some people felt it necessary to point out Obama’s failure to live up to his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, while some religious people highlighted his “evolution” towards accepting of gay marriage.

If you live in America, the lines between strong supporters and critics of Obama can be conveniently drawn between the Democrats and Republican camps. For instance, if you were to listen to Dinesh D’Souza, you would find it very difficult to believe anything good can come out of Obama’s mouth.

Yet, this is the world we live in today. We are so enamored with hero worship that we forget how often the person preaching the truth we believe in may have lived out a life that starkly contradicted those truths.

We live in a world where we want our favorite speakers, preachers and writers to promote societal values that neither they nor we could ever come close to living out. Little surprise that we have politicians at the forefront of the #MeToo movement being outed for being perpetrators of the very sexual violence they rail against.

Name your hero, and I will point out 99 reasons why they are not worth being anyone’s heroes. Remember Thomas Jefferson who was the main contributor to the US Declaration of Indepence? He of the “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” fame? Well, he also owned slaves and even bought two slaves to work at the White House when he became president in 1801.

It really depends on whose script you’re reading: Gandhi was wishy washy about supporting Britain in World War I and even actively recruited Indian soldiers for the British war effort; Martin Luther King Jr allegedly cheated on his wife; and even Mandiba, the man behind the event in South Africa today, is said to have sold out black South Africans in his negotiations with the colonial government.

While some may opt to press their confirmation bias and rationalise all the flaws of their heroes, my point is far more subtle and fundamental. There is no single human being who has actually lived up to the message they preach. There will always be something to criticise, something to disqualify them. All have sinned and fall short of the glories they proclaim.

Yet we continue to admire and celebrate and quote fallen men for the few words of hope and inspiration they share with the world. Amidst the relentless darkness that shrouds this fallen world, these people that we call heroes have managed to shine the much needed rays of hope and faith and love that is much needed in this world – if not in deed, at least in words. If not in all their deeds, at least in many of their deeds.

Fallen human beings are still able to inspire us to rise from our fallenness — or at least to want to rise. Their falleness does not disqualify the truth of their message, even though it may sometimes make it harder for us to buy the truth from them. You see, in a world that demonizes any semblance of higher beings and transcendent human principles that cannot be deduced through science and rationality, we are left rather wanting for heroes.

A fundamentally secular atheistic worldview that has no room for beings embodying truth, love, kindness and all things humane (be it in myth or reality), will always be frustrated by our flawed heroes. There will always be a reason to criticise anyone who is admired in this world.

Clearly, we need new heroes. But until we get perfect heroes, we will have to learn to make do with the flawed heroes that are available to us — Obama included.

 

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Taxi app companies exploiting rising individualism to hamper industrial action in Kenya

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I almost got lynched by a mob of Taxi drivers on Tuesday. Taxi app drivers have been on strike since Monday. They want fair pricing from Uber, Taxify, Little and other service providers.

However, some drivers have not been taking part in the strike, which means that they are sabotaging the efforts of their companions. As part of their mass action, the striking drivers have been flagging down other operating cabs, removing the passengers from the cars and forcing the rogue driver to join the cause.

In a few cases, vehicles of non-compliant drivers were vandalised, leading to millions in damages. My brief encounter with the angry drivers, however, was not because I was a passenger, but because my journalistic instincts led me to start filming some drivers roughing up their colleague just outside my house. The drivers mobbed me and demanded that I delete the footage.

Luckily, I talked them out of their outrage and they calmed down enough to even engage me in friendly banter. I was curious about their grievances and they were happy to have one more pair of ears to vent at. The drivers explained that beyond the grievances with the low pay, they are also not happy with the fact that many of their colleagues don’t seem to be taking the strike seriously.

One driver argued that these “wasaliti” (betrayers) are unwilling to sacrifice a few days’ income and yet they will still benefit from the fruits of the striking drivers’ labor.

“It is very unfair. Do they think that we are fools parking our cars and choosing not to work? We are grow men and many of us here have families. It is bad enough that these app-owners are taking advantage of us, we cannot allow these rogue elements to get away with it,” said one driver who did not want to be named.

His sentiments bring to surface a worrying trend in recent mass actions in Kenya. There is a rising individualism that is eroding the sense of comradeship that is often the ethos behind industrial mass action. Little wonder last year former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero could boldly say he would not pay doctors who had taken part of the 100-day strike. He had observed that some doctors were willing to let self-interest outweigh the collective good of fighting the system.

This card has also been used by the national government on several occasions when it threatened to withhold pay from those who took part in industrial action. The unspoken implication is that the government understands that self-interest will sabotage mass action, despite contrary efforts by union leaders.

Employers have long known that class consciousness and organization amongst the workers is a powerful weapon in the fight against the aggressive anti-labor politics of neoliberal capitalism. In fact, employees who seem enthusiastic about labor union activities are often targeted and discriminated against in the form of wage cuts and reduced benefits. It doesn’t help that social media has made it easier for employers to pinpoint which workers are taking part in industrial action.

In situations where the employers have such a tight hold on the modern means of production such as the online-taxi business, you end up with a strange situation whereby the employer also “owns” the customers. This is a strange phenomenon especially in the taxi business in Kenya where those who go into it often regard themselves as “self-employed”.

Such incidences as the “unjust” pricing reveal that this business that was once the domain of self-employment is no different from being employed by a boss who neither cares about your individual welfare nor is threatened by your attempts at collective action.

This rising individualism in Kenya’s industrial action scene is worrying. It is both a product of shifting economic dynamics and an apparent lack of foresight in our embrace of these seemingly “life-changing” technological business solutions. Something needs to give. I wish our cab drivers all the best in their challenging but noble fight.

Nairobi Chapel takes a stand on female church elders

Tyche-Learship-Consulting_Are-Women-Leaders-better-than-Men-730x414On June 23, 2018, Nairobi Chapel posted a tweet announcing the appointment of Dr. Janet Mutinda and Prof Marta D. Bennett as the first female elders in the church.

“Dr. Janet Mutinda & Prof Marta D. Bennett have today been ratified as the First Female Elders during the Nairobi Chapel AGM 2018 in adherence to the new gender policy of the church.”

This was accompanied by a link to a policy document on th church’s website titled: “Nairobi Chapel’s Position on Women in Church Leadership” which stated, among other things, that:

“Having humbly sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the process of studying the scriptures, we, the Elders of Nairobi Chapel affirm the inclusion of godly women to serve as Elders, Lead Pastors and all other leadership responsibilities within the institution of the local church.”

To many Christians in Kenya, this seems like a non-issue. We are used to seeing women pastors and elders in some of the most popular churches in Nairobi city. Pastor Kathy Kiuna of Jubilee Christian Church (JCC) comes to mind. You probably attend a church with female pastors and elders and it has never really been an issue worth highlighting.

So why did Nairobi Chapel decide to make a formal stand on the matter? While I have not spoken to any person in the church’s leadership to understand the reason behind the decision, the policy document gives a helpful context.

“The matter of women in leadership in the context of the local church has become an increasingly debated issue in vangelical circles. Although this subject is not a primary doctrine of the Christian faith, it relates very meaningfully to how a church conducts its operations practically. In this regard, the Elders of Nairobi Chapel have found it necessary and wise to study this issue thoroughly in order to provide its official position,” reads the introduction of the policy.

I think it is commendable that Nairobi Chapel has taken an official position on this divisive topic. Many churches with women in their leadership are often fuzzy on this matter. Some think it a non-issue and therefore not worthy of discussion.

Yet, we are increasingly seeing church members sparring online and in other informal forums over this very matter. Dozens of blogs and social media posts have been written by laity on this subject, with some even by people who attend apparently egalitarian churches but defending a “male-only” interpretation of the New Testament’s position on church.

Friendships and relationships have been strained and sometimes severed by these debates. Most members have approached their local church leadership with their questions and concerns only to receive an evasive and non-commital response. Yet the gender debates are increasingly taking center-stage even in secular public discourse — think gender pay gap and gender representation in government.

It is regrettable that the “church in Kenya” has largely been silent on the matter. Many believers look up to their churches for guidance and direction on many issues that spill over into their secular contexts. Most are not ready “to give a reason for” the practices that are otherwise so evident in their own churches.

It is no surprise that many Christians here in Nairobi and in the country hold theological positions that contradict what is often taught and displayed on their pulpits. This is because the only place we get clarity on these matters seems to be from our favourite bloggers and celebrity pastors from the West. Our own local churches have proven non-commital and cagey.

This should not be. Our first earthly responsibility as Christians should be to our local church. This is made so much more difficult when the local church cannot help us figure out what we believe on so many contemporary issues.

I hope this move by Nairobi Chapel will be the start of our local churches being more deliberate and explicit about what they stand for on some of these controversial biblical issues. If this will not be a tipping point, I hope it will at least be a nudge in the right direction.

Dave from Accounting is just as holy as King David

Apart from Jesus, the people in the Bible are no more our examples than the people outside the Bible. A person is not more worthy of being emulated simply because they had the “privilege” of being a character in Scripture.

God has surrounded us with relatives, friends and neighbours far more worthy of emulating than most Biblical characters could ever be. So look around, pay more attention to your fellow church members, not just as peers but also as inspirations.

Why you should not get comfortable with your doubts

Is doubt a sin? I mean, when it comes to God and the Bible and all things religion, is it a sin to doubt any of these things? The Bible seems to imply so.

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James, for instance, tells us that “when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:6).

Jesus himself also leaned on the side of sinful doubt when he said: “if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.” (Matthew 21:21)

Jude also seems to agree when he asks God to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22)

Evidently, the Bible teaches that doubt is something Christians should “not” have. We are called and urged to believe and not doubt, and we are rebuked when we doubt.

I admit that I don’t always live and act as if doubt is something that I should be concerned about when it comes to God. I have often rationalised that since I am human and I have finite understanding of everything, there is surely no way I could be certain about anything — not even God. In other words, I have argued myself to think that doubt is okay and justified since I am not omniscient.

Furthermore, isn’t this obsession with demonising doubt the reason that cults exist? How can one ever correct false (and dangerous) elements about their own religion or faith if they never allow themselves a healthy dose of doubt and skepticism?

However, I recently revisited that famous story of “doubting” Thomas and I was quickly rebuked about my complacency on this matter of doubt. Thomas did not believe his companions when they told him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. He wanted to see it for himself.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” he told the other disciples (John 20:25)

I often identify with Thomas. Many of us do. However, something happens in this encounter that is often overlooked when we use this passage to justify our own doubts. When Jesus appeared to Thomas eight days later and told him to touch his hand and side, Thomas actually never did it. Instead, the Bible says that Thomas replied “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28)

In other words, even though the evidence was before him and he had the opportunity to finally use his “senses” to verify the claims of his companions, that’s not the “reason” he ended up believing. Something supernatural happened in that encounter. Thomas ended up believing “despite” of the evidence and not “because” of it.

This may seem like a benign observation, but it has had monumental implications for my own life of faith. For some strange reason, I had made the common but false assumption that the opposite of doubt is certainty. In other words, you are either 100% sure something is true or you are doubting.

Yet, a closer examination of what biblical faith means shows that it is something radically different from our modernist idea of empirical certainty. Biblical faith looks more like trust, more like confidence rather than certainty. This confusion is the reason why those who speak against doubt are often labelled fundamentalists. 

But as the writer of Hebrews puts it: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1, NIV). The ESV translation uses the word conviction.

Back to Thomas’s encounter with Jesus. When he saw Jesus, suddenly the empirical proofs that he wanted took secondary place. Mind you, it is not that these empirical evidences were not important, it is just that they were not necessary for faith. That is why we don’t need to have perfect understanding of anything God does in order for us to believe Him.

This distinction is why I am once again back in the conviction that doubt as the opposite of faith is neither a good nor an admirable thing. I am also convinced that the path out of doubt is not through gathering more evidence and acquainting yourself with more arguments in defence of faith (these are helpful but they should never be determinative).

The way to faith is through a more relational path — showing up. Get in the Word and pray for God to restore your faith. Keep doing the acts that the Bible says are pleasing to God even as you wait for your faith. Love your neighbours, forgive your enemies, repay evil for good, be kind.

Faith is a gift, not a reward. It is a leap, not a climb.