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Role of Church in Ethnic Conflict

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4289 words Published: 23rd Jul 2018

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Write about a recent ethnic conflict in your context showing the role of social, political and religious institutions in the conflict. Discuss what the Church has done (or should be doing) to ease ethnic hostilities.

Despite the persistent contribution of governments worldwide to ensure that there is a balanced socio-economic development in all spheres in the society, social inequality is still rife and embedded in all aspects of social development. However, it is worse in developing countries and highly manifested in ethnicity. In multi- ethnic communities, ethnic identity is an additional variable in social-economic development over and above those normally present in the more homogenous communities. The role of ethnicity in development can be negative or positive and it can also be a problem or a potentially rewarding challenge. Unfortunately it is the negative aspect of ethnicity that has been publicized or researched.

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According to the Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, the term ethnic is defined as that which is of a national, racial or tribal group that has a common cultural tradition or of a particular ethnic group. Brown (2000) defines an ethnic group as that community which claims common ancestry and sees the proof of this in the fact that its members display distinctive attributes relating to language, religion, and physiognomy or homeland origin. Young (1994) argued that ethnicity is a concept that has no significance in isolation. His thesis is that any analytical attempt should begin from the premise that ethnicity is a relational concept. According to Young and Turner (1985), ‘we’ can only find relevance in ‘they’. In most cases those who define themselves as ‘we’ ascribe to themselves positive attributes and give negative and disparaging ones to the ‘they’ group.

Positive ethnicity refers to the constructive social-cultural identification with and a sense of belonging to a particular ethic group. Negative ethnicity mostly in the form of tribalism or ethnocentrism is the pathological and destructive nature of ethnicity. It is when a particular ethnic community considers itself superior to other communities. This form of hatred or repulsion of particular communities or individuals’ of a particular community is referred to as ethnic bigotry. Ethnic bigotry manifests in various ways including speech, actions, and subtle or hidden repulsion of outsiders. It may also result in ethnic tensions or protracted physical or non-physical conflict between ethnic groups (TJRC, 2013).

Kenya, which is a multi-ethnic society with over 42 ethnic communities, is an invention of colonialists, an invention which seemed to have been flawed from the start and hence was a crisis in the making because the invented territory brought together different ethnic communities, some of which had little or nothing in common culturally. In Kenya, the dominance of ethnic affiliations comes to the fore in almost all aspects of human life. In cases where ethnic affiliations are strong like in politics, no one would like to think freely. People always imagine that ethnic based thinking is the solution to every issue of concern but it is worth noting that such ethnic based thinking is a big challenge and threat to development. For instance in Kenya, the majority of the citizens who qualify for opportunities in government and state run organizations are never considered. Instead, politicians practice nepotism and those who wield power fill the positions in their ministries or state run organizations with their relatives and constituents who are close associates.

In Kenya, negative ethnicity has contributed to ethnic tensions which have culminated into violence. Proximate causes of violence are intrinsically related to democratization and the electoral cycle; its roots are to be found in recent times and are politically instigated, and not primordial. As the move to multi-partyism became increasingly probable, senior politicians in many political rallies issued inflammatory statements and utterances, asking for people to go back to their ancestral lands or they be forced out. The advent of the violent ethnic clashes closely followed these rallies. As new political parties emerged, a clear enduring pattern of ethno-regional interests appeared. The violence then in Kenya appeared to be ethnicized expression of political conflict. Ethnicity in this case, was the medium of political violence and not its cause. However, the system once in place, became self-perpetuating for instance it increased the likelihood of future conflict by sharpening ethnic identity and chauvinism, as well as promoting the doctrine that specific region of the Country ‘belonged’ to the groups that ‘originally’ occupied them. This led to coming up of terms such us ‘outsiders’, ‘foreigners’, ‘strangers’ or ‘aliens’, and this is regardless to the legal ownership of land and the constitutional right of all Kenyans to live anywhere of their choosing within their country (Ndegwa, 1997).

Until late 2007, Kenya was considered one of the most stable countries in Africa. It had functioned as East Africa’s financial and communications hub, the headquarters of many international non-governmental organizations and a magnet for tourism. The violence that erupted in the wake of the controversial 2007 presidential election tested Kenya’s political stability more than never before, almost plunging the country into full-blown civil strife. Like a festering wound, it exposed the structural rot embedded in the country’s system. A convergence of irregularities, pertaining to land allocation, an overbearing presidency, a pervasive culture of impunity, and ethnicisation of power, malfeasance and sheer mendacity among both the political elite and the rabble almost pushed Kenya over the precipice. Prior to the 2007 elections, the political elite had been conducting a lot of campaigns, but a closer look at these campaigns revealed that most of it was on ethnicity and the different ethnic identities that exist in the country. It turned out that the political elite had actually exploited the fact of Kenyan different ethnic identities to forward their political agendas.

The disputed 2007 elections spurred outbreaks of violence across the country whose carnage was horrific: 1,500 dead, 3,000 innocent women raped and 300,000 people left internally displaced. Most of this atrocities happened in the first 14 days after the election. The severity of this conflict unfolded in a span of 59 days between the general election day, December 27th, 2007 to February 28th, 2008 when a political compromise was reached. The magnitude of the trauma and structural violence that took place in Kenya after the fourth multi-party general election took both Kenyans and the international community, alike, by surprise (Maupeu 2008). In retrospect, the violence that occurred could not only have been predicted, it could most likely have been prevented.

Social issues which are both cultural and historical factors also played a role in causing the ethnic violence that was witnessed. Social inequality is not only the income gap between the upper and lower class but it also involves differences that exist in terms of access to education, health, employment and infrastructure development, political rights and representation. In Kenya, historical data suggests that public resources such as education facilities, health facilities and services, water, land, employment opportunities and amenities such as shelter, electricity, fuel, and physical infrastructure have tended to be distributed to the elite and those close to political power. For instance, economic growth has largely continued on the lines set by the earlier colonial structure and Kenyanization has radically changed the racial composition of the group of people in the center of power and many of its policies, but has had only limited effect. This extreme social inequality has resulted in differences in regional or geographic wellbeing which apparently coincide with ethnic identities as ethnic groups reside in specified geographical regions in the country.

Economic aspects of life are so dear to all persons. The ethnic violence experienced after the 2007 election also attributed to economic issues. Economic issues include; unequal distribution of resources and scarcity of resources. Ethnic conflicts are also an outcome of unequal economic opportunities. Another cause of the violence was cultural domination together with political suppression. Ethnic groups tend to have perceptions of another ethnic group being favored by the structures in place economically. Marginalization is also another key concept in this context. Kenya has faced a high rate of unequal distribution of resources across ethnic divides. The political ethnic game plays too along economic activities. For example, since independence in Kenya, the Kikuyu has always been granted a huge share of economic infrastructures. Land has been in question ever since. The distribution of the colonial settler land to the local communities in Kenya took and ethnic twist. For instance, in the buildup to the 2007 elections, in some parts of Rift Valley, Kikuyus were told that they will have to vacate their land “before the elections, there were rumors that if Raila won, Kikuyus will have to go” Jane Njoki a resident of Burnt Forest. “When the election results were announced, they started burning our things and beating people because we are Kikuyus” added Njoki.

Economic causes also revolve around appointments into public positions in government. This applies in both age and ethnic grounds. The youth in Kenya feel left out as all key positions are given to ‘older people’. This leaves the youths to be used by interested parties in violent conflicts. They also engage in these violent conflicts to obtain identity and let out their frustrations. Job opportunities are a way to economic welfare. Ethnic based appointments are also a cause of ethnic conflicts in Kenya. The ethnic group in power favors the ethnic community from which the leading individuals hail from. This leaves the other individuals from the other ethnic groups who qualify for the same appointment deprived and feeling left out.

The political factors that cause ethnic conflicts are far more considered than all the other factors in the form of economic and social. Access to political power has, by and large, determined the distribution of socio-economic and political benefits. The old Kenya constitution conferred vast powers to the president including power to allocate by nomination cabinet positions and make appointments to constitutionally protected offices. Regimes therefore entrenched their rule, assigned strategic administrative positions and directed political resources to support the then provinces or ethnic groups. Every political regime tends to allocate more of the national cake to their ethnic group or supporters at the expense of others. When one group is endowed with its interests the other groups feel marginalized and left out thus the urge to speak out by violence upon the explosion of the frustrations from within as witnessed in 2007 post-election violence.

Discriminatory government policies also play a significant role in aggravating ethnic conflicts because the political class in Kenya influences all the other aspects. The politicians formulate, make, implement and amend laws. Distribution of wealth or resources follows the directives of the leaders. This is always the argument behind ethnic conflicts in Kenya whereby the politics play an integral role in driving the nation away from nationhood to negative ethnicity. Such ethnic divisive policies leads to the development of the feelings of being excluded, ignored, and discriminated against on the part of some ethnic communities. Kenyan politics are based on ethnic aspirations by political parties and also the regime power. Political alliances are made with regard to gaining ethnic support often resulting to formation of ethnically instigated opposition political parties to find ways and means to access political power as was witnessed in the build up to the 2007 presidential elections.

Political inequalities also apply to the youth in Kenya and it is a factor for ethnic violence. The youth in Kenya aged between 18-35 years of age comprises about 60% of the national population. This shows how the demographic factor also plays part in the ethnic conflicts in Kenya. General elections are the highly lucratively rewarding season for the youth. This is the most volatile cohort and politically salient because of three main factors: the group is highly mobile, most educated and networked and also the most unemployed. Therefore they become most vulnerable to be politically lured or politically radicalized. For instance, the 2007/2008 post-election violence demonstrates how violently the youth engaged in the conflict. They were funded and mobilized by the non-youth to be volatile. A trend in Kenyan politics is the rise of youth militia, which have sometimes been identified to work for individual politicians. The youth involvement in violence and ethnic conflicts is purely instrumentalist and attributed to the youth claiming political space after being neglected. Political exclusion of the youth in Kenya is rampant thus the violence either on the ethnic based conflicts or other forms of demonstrations.

Kenya’s population is mainly Christian and comprised of Protestants and Catholics. There is also a good fraction of Muslims and Hindus and other traditional religions. While religion is domesticated by morals that are illuminated by faith, most states are guided by politics whose orientation is generally practical empirical and in most cases the church. Although the church has been focal in articulating issues that destroy morality of the nation (Anderson & Lochery, 2008), chronological events show that the church has been intertwined with issues of ethnic identities. The church leadership has not taken a united approach towards promoting positive ethnicity thus mixing religion and politics. On one hand, the church has been guilty of silence when it should have spoken and on the other, it has been guilty of actively precipitating negative ethnicity. Thus many religious leaders are unable to quell negative ethnicity because some of them have contributed immensely to it. For instance, in Nakuru County, there is a strong presence of the church yet the area has witnessed ethnic tension which has always resulted to tribal violence and ethnic killings in almost all election years. This could be an indication that the society has not received the voice of the church.

In the run up to the 2007 general elections in Kenya, the church was seen as being openly partisan along ethnic lines. Christian believers were clearly confused by conflicting ‘prophesies’ of prominent Christian leaders who predicted victory for various candidates and prayed and anointed them as God’s choice for president. The uncertainty generated by these conflicting views fuelled the divisions in the church. Reports from the Rift Valley indicate that the church leaders used civic education, prayer meetings and other occasions to openly campaign for their preferred parties and candidates. During the post-election violence that erupted, some Christians withheld the biblical principles of love, peace and reconciliation and gave in to ethnic hatred and violence. “I will never trust a Kikuyu again in my life. I can’t express what has gone on in my heart. I can’t live with you and fellowship in the same church for more than 10 years and instead of protecting me you are the first person to threaten me” said Ken Okoth who lived in Naivasha prior to the 2007 elections. The church leaders also could not rise above their partisanship and give the country a clear moral direction and the church was reduced to a helpless spectator to the emerging tragic drama. The burning of over 400 churches during the violence was a sad reminder that many had come to regard churches not as sacred and neutral places of worship and sanctuary, but as part of the contested terrain of partisan politics. “I recognized members of my own congregation in the mob that burnt down the church and my home” says Rev. John Maina

The church has a duty to speak forceful on broader issues of justice yet this has not been evident in Kenya. In March 2008, the National Council of Churches of Kenya apologized to the nation for having taken sides during the 2007 general election. This was an important step in the long road to the church recovering its credibility and playing its role of being the conscience of society. Several other churches also joined forces in an initiative that was dubbed ‘Msafara’ – the wheels of hope in which over 500 believers joined a caravan from Mombasa through Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret to Kisumu praying to cleanse the nation from demonic influences and taking humanitarian relief to internally displaced persons. Therefore, the church needs to do a lot more particularly in evaluating its own role in promoting positive ethnicity. Some of the things that the church needs to do or is already doing are as below;

Discipling the nation

There is need to ask ourselves how is it that Christians so easily turned on each other. The church needs to be at the forefront of fighting tribalism and forging an abiding spirit of nationhood. There is need to seriously address issues such as the gospel and culture, which go to the ethnic divisions that have plagued Kenya for many years. There is also need to connect spiritual warfare with rigorous socio-political analysis and engagement. The post-election violence was evidence enough that there is very little that is binding the different tribes together. Politicians have also made it very clear that if left to their own devises, they shall continue to mobilize for support along ethnic lines and therefore continue to fracture this fragile country. The church therefore needs to urgently step into the void especially as we are nearing another election period in 2017 by defining the spirituality of our nationhood.

Reconciliation initiatives

The church has a prominent role to play in reconciliations all over the world. As the salt of the earth, Christians have a mandate from God to make the world livable. Church leaders have a duty to promote unity in the multiethnic churches. The church must understand its mission before God, not only to promote peace and reconciliation, but to develop structures that will sustain peace and overcome any incitement to violence. Whereas certain individuals can take partisan positions, the church as an institution should not be drawn into ethnic party politics. The church should teach the vanity of negative ethnicity and the value of unity in diversity by being guided by the bible.

In Kenya where ethnic conflicts recur, the church should often strategically engage the citizenry with biblical lessons on creation and God’s purpose for them to experience meaningful and selfless relationships. As the salt of the earth, the church should always use its flavor to influence others to seek value of harmony. The impact of the church is the only hope of peace and reconciliation. Every person regardless of race, religion, color, culture, class, sex, or age has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served but not exploited. The church needs to reconcile people to God and, in the same manner, reconcile people to people.

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Embodying authentic community

The church must embody authentic community, to show the world what relationships are to be. Community in African perception is alive in the sense that all people are connected to the community through spiritness of the community. It is therefore necessary for the church to provide a Christian definition of community that goes beyond ancestral connection. Community includes the wider human family. This community is generated and sustained by the grace of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Without this divine intervention, humanity is incapable of transcending the hatred and exclusion that hinder authentic community. Thus, sin has to be conquered for genuine community to be possible. Understanding the church as a family is a theological motif that conquers ethnic divisions. The term family refers not merely to the nuclear family, but to the biblical idea of those who share a common ancestor, the founder of the church, Jesus Christ. In the family of God, there are no distinctions of social relations. Paul argued in his letter that individual differences are merged and unified into a common life in Christ (Ephesians 2:14-17). Therefore the divisions along ethnic lines must not exist in the church.

Exhibiting a counter-cultural faith

The world can only be convinced that the church is a better alternative when the church constantly revisits and evaluates itself on the basis of John 13:34-35: “a new command I give you: Love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV). One of the ways Jesus demonstrated his love for his followers was that he broke the walls of division and embraced all his disciples as his brothers and sisters, irrespective of their tribe, race or nationality (Matt. 12:46-50).

The church community should exhibit a counter-cultural faith; a faith that rises above the tides of ethnic divisions. The Christian faith is a way of being. It is to know God and become a changed person. Being a changed person calls for a counter-cultural expression of faith. To be a changed Christian means exhibiting the inward transformational reality outwardly. It means expressing an alternative faith, an alternative prevailing culture. By being counter-cultural, the church exhibits to the world, a world characterized by divisions and violence, a different way of being human. Counter-cultural faith also means harmony, cooperation, and reconciliation. It also means representing Jesus in the world. Such representation calls for a heroic faith, the interruption of status quo including power, politics, and domination, and introducing a different way of practicing these realities. By interrupting the status quo, the church embodies how it is to live differently. It shows that it is possible to transcend negative practices that have for a very long time resulted in ethnic violence.


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  • Jane Njoki, 42 year old mother of two who used to live in Burnt Forest area in Rift Valley before the 2007 PEV – 12 October 2016
  • Ken Okoth a former flower farm worker in Naivasha and currently a trader in Kibera area of Nairobi. Nairobi 8 October 2016
  • Rev John Maina was chased out of his home in Molo, Rift Valley Province, in a wave of violence that rocked many areas of Kenya following the disputed elections in December 2007 – Nakuru, 9 October 2016


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