Kenya church leaders respond to Gen Z protest demands to separate church from politics, call on politicians to hear the people

By Ken Kagicha |
Protests in Nairobi Kenya
Protesters march while carrying signs during a protest against the finance bill on June 25, 2024 in Nairobi, Kenya. Last week saw several days of protests, mainly by young Kenyans, against a proposed finance bill that promises to raise taxes on a variety of goods. The outcry spurred the government to withdraw several contentious provisions, including taxes on bread and vehicles, but the bill passed a second-round vote and a parliamentary committee is now considering amendments. | Patrick Meinhardt/Getty Images

Religious bodies, churches and Christian leaders in Kenya have responded to a call by protesting Gen Zs to disassociate the pulpit from politicians and to be the voice of the voiceless. Different Christian bodies admitted that the Church in Kenya has had an unhealthy relationship with politicians and affirmed the right of young people to peacefully demonstrate against bad governance and injustice.

The Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK) called on the government to urgently address concerns raised by Kenyans in the wake of widespread demonstrations that turned deadly in the last week of June. The Alliance, which represents 700 evangelical denominations in Kenya, demanded the government reconsider its tax plans that would further increase the cost of living. 

EAK Chairman Bishop Phillip Kitoto and General Secretary Kepha Nyandega echoed the demands of protesters on the need to curb corruption and unnecessary government spending.

“We firmly call the government to accountability in addressing the poor stewardship of resources. In addition, we would like to comment that the sudden fiscal changes that Kenya has experienced in the last 2 years in the form of aggressive changes in tax measures, are bad for business and the economic stability of our country as they create a lot of pain among the citizenry,” said Kitoto in a statement. 

The Alliance also condemned the police for shooting and killing two protesters on June 20. The number of those killed by the police had risen to at least 13 after street protests on June 25 to 28 turned violent. Scores were injured and businesses lost millions due to looting and vandalism. Prior to this, the protests were peaceful and largely led by Gen Z’s who have been credited for pressuring President William Ruto’s government to recall an unpopular tax bill despite parliament’s approval. 

“These young people were peaceful, unarmed protesters who did not deserve to be killed or injured. We condemn the use of excessive force by the police on peaceful picketers,” said Kitoto.

Quoting Isaiah 61:8 that says, “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing”, EAK challenged lawmakers to act in the best interest of the people. “We implore the leaders of the nation and those charged with this noble responsibility, to listen to the people and focus on prioritization of essential services and goods, and eliminate all wastage,” added Nyandega. 

The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), which was one of the church organisations that met President Ruto a day after the protests turned violent, emphasized the need for the government to listen and effectively respond to the issues the youth have raised. 

NCCK General Secretary Rev. Chris Kinyanjui said the church was concerned over the failure by the government to listen to Kenyans with regards to the tax proposals that led to the protests.  

“The killing of dozens of peacefully picketing Kenyans by the police is totally unacceptable. It must never be repeated. Further, we find it heartless, insensitive and disdainful for the Members of Parliament to have ignored the will of the people by passing the Finance Bill 2024. By this action, Parliament erased its legitimacy in the eyes of the voters,” said Kinyanjui.

Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), a pentecostal church with a membership of 60,000 faithfuls, was candid in its assessment of the dalliance between the Church and politics. Bishop Calisto Odede said the youth had rightly questioned and criticized the Church for giving politicians a platform to expand their influence on the pulpit and during fund raising events. 

“Indeed, they (Gen Zs) truly showed us that, as the clergy, we should not politicize Christianity and neither should we christianize politics. We the clergy have certainly listened to your prophetic call,” said Odede, who also commended the youth for championing integrity and accountability in governance. 

Nairobi’s Trinity Baptist Church (TBC) Pastor Murungi Igweta, in a statement on the state of the Nation and the Church read during a church service, was direct on his assessment of the government’s contribution to the street protests that are now in their third week. Igweta said that institutionalized corruption, broken promises and the arrogance of state and political leaders had “brought this country on her knees.”

“We must not stand with the institution of the 'church' or denominational leaders and ecumenical bodies who have been unable to offer light to the government. They have been accomplices. They have been unable to be the conscience of this country,” said Igweta.

Online campaign to preserve the pulpit

An online campaign to keep politics out of church services hit a crescendo on Sunday 23 June when X (Twitter) users used #OccupyChurch and #CleanTheAltar to persuade churches to take a firm stand on protecting the sanctity of the pulpit and defending the rights of the protesters. 

Anglican Elder and social justice activist, Mwabili Mwagodi, rallied citizens to directly call or text church leaders that had invited politicians to their services and fundraisers. As a result of the online and offline campaign, several church events were either cancelled or proceeded without involvement of the political class. 

Due to the perception that the government and politicians have not listened to the cry of the citizens, Kenyans have leveraged digital social platforms like X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok to express their dissatisfaction and mobilize the street protests. Gowi Odera is a renowned youth pastor in Nairobi who hosted a live discussion on X space to deliberate on ‘A Christian response on the state of the Nation and what next after the protests’. 

Nearly 35,000 people joined the online conversation where theologians, pastors, youth leaders and activists concurred that there are deeper underlying issues of corruption and poor governance that the state needs to deal with decisively. There was also a general consensus that the Church and Christians need to be vocal against societal ills.

Theologian Rev. Dr. Edward Buri said that Kenyans expressed their frustration with what they think is wrong in the country, not just with the government. “The win I see in regards to these protests can only be from divine power because the young people pushing for change are just armed with peace.”

Following the protests and meetings with church organizations, Ruto committed that his government will stop police brutality against protesters and pledged to cut down on unnecessary expenditure. He also said that he is ready to have a national dialogue with the youth under a National Multi-Sectoral Forum. 

As Kenya navigates this crucial and delicate moment, it will be useful for the Church to ponder on a phrase that has been doing the rounds online: “Gen Zs have driven the Church back to God”.