Of rogue preachers and misleading theologies: Is it time to regulate the Church?

By David Tarus |
Kenya Interior Minister
Kenya's Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki speaks to the media after the discovery of what had happened in Shakahola Forest where cult leader Paul Mackenzie led his followers to starve themselves to death. | TRT World / YouTube Screenshot

It reads like a horror story, and most of it is quite unbelievable that it can, let alone that it did, happen. The story of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie of the Good News International Church is a tragic event in Kenya’s recent history.

Mackenzie, a former taxi driver, closed his church, which he founded in 2002, in August 2019 and urged his members to join him in the “Holy Land”—the expansive Shakahola Forest spanning over 800 acres. By the time his plans were discovered, he had led close to 500 people to death.

Mackenzie intended to establish the Church in the Wilderness—a group of brave individuals willing to live and die for their faith. In this context, the forest symbolized Bethlehem, while the outside world, seen as corrupt, represented Babel. The followers were regarded as holy people who had distanced themselves from the world’s corruption and were being prepared by their leader to meet Jesus. They resided in districts named after biblical locations such as Jericho, Galilee, and Bethlehem. Ironically, these devoted believers lived in makeshift polythene and mud houses without clean water and toilets. Mackenzie had mastered the art of mind control, leading his followers blindly like sheep to the slaughterhouse.

It is now clear that the end-time preacher had a well-planned operation. Reports suggest that he had an organized hierarchy with sentries to keep it tightly knit. Mackenzie’s leadership structure saw him as chairman, assisted by a vice chair, a secretary, an assistant secretary, a treasurer, and an assistant treasurer. His wife played a role in attracting new members. As believers gathered in Shakahola forest in Kenya’s South coast, Mackenzie’s methods were initially subtle. He created a pretend Christian sanctuary to deceive believers into feeling a false sense of togetherness and hope. Once everyone was on board, serious life-threatening activities began. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic bolstered his end-time messages and confirmed his belief that an apocalypse was imminent, which attracted more followers.

According to media reports, Mackenzie duped his victims into burning their academic documents, selling their property, and giving the money to him. He also convinced them to throw away their phones, making them completely unreachable, and to take a vow to fast until death. He convinced his followers that starving to death was the fastest way to meet Jesus. Children were not allowed to go to school because education was from the devil. Seeking medical attention was also prohibited because medicine was evil.

Mackenzie instructed that children were to die first, followed by teenagers, women, and finally, men. Believers were told to fast outdoors to speed up dehydration, which was easier in Malindi’s hot and humid climate. The men were even forced to dig mass graves. Those who resisted, especially children, were tortured by a group of guards. Autopsies revealed that the victims died from starvation, while others were strangled, beaten, or suffocated. Some victims were even missing body organs, suggesting that the cult may have been involved in organ harvesting. Those who were rescued were severely ill.

Mackenzie held what he called “harusi” (weddings), which were essentially funerals for those who had died of starvation. He compared it to uniting with Christ and assured his followers that he would be the last to starve himself to death. At the time of writing, more than three hundred and fifty bodies had been exhumed, and the police are still discovering mass graves throughout the forest. There are also reports of over five hundred people missing.

It is truly baffling how one person could deceive so many into willingly leading themselves to their deaths without raising any suspicion. The massacre could have been prevented.

Some escapees and rescued victims initially reported the matter to the police, but their concerns were met with little interest. Furthermore, Mackenzie was already on the police’s radar since his first arrest in 2017 for radicalization and the promotion of extremist beliefs. Yet, it seems that no one took his dangerous nature seriously. The police did very little to stop the massacre from occurring, and the public also failed to notice the warning signs. Why did no one raise an alarm when children were missing from school? Why didn’t the schools protest the disappearance of these children?

This is not the first time we have heard of such horrifying acts being carried out in the name of faith. We have seen believers reject conventional medicine in favor of relying on prophets and pastors to heal them. This indoctrination has resulted in people surrendering their right to life to these fraudulent individuals. Those who have fallen victim to these teachings seem to have been convinced that by isolating themselves and surrendering to a specific god, they are fulfilling scripture and will receive a heavenly reward.

The Shakahola incident has sparked debates about constitutional freedom of worship, the regulation of thousands of churches with questionable doctrines, some of which are promoted through TV stations, and the corrupt and extremist preachers who take advantage of the impoverished masses. The rise of freelance preachers, without any hierarchy or order, who deliver passionate sermons and perform miracles for profit, has contributed to the chaos in the faith sector. The horrors of Shakahola are a result of rogue pastors who exploit desperate believers searching for meaning in their difficult lives. There is a pressing need for a thorough re-evaluation of faith within the context of radicalization, extremism, and prosperity theology.

President Ruto, Kenya’s first evangelical president, has established a Commission of Inquiry and a Task Force to investigate the events at Shakahola and provide recommendations for a legal and regulatory framework to govern religious institutions in Kenya. The report is still being prepared.

There is a need to incorporate content on religious extremism and indoctrination into the curriculum of primary and secondary schools. Children at this age have malleable and impressionable minds. Their personality and worldview start to form, and whatever they are taught may contribute to who they will become. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago, famously said, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” This resonates with Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (English Standard Version). Thus, as we shape these impressionable minds, we must be mindful of what we teach them.

Recommended areas addressing extremism and indoctrination may include the sanctity of human life, human identity within our cultural and religious context, and responsible citizenship. In addition, life skills to mitigate the social, economic, and political factors that may foster extremism, radicalization, and indoctrination should be included. Subjects like critical thinking skills, religious consciousness, and entrepreneurship can be valuable. Both government and religious institutions need to develop alternative narratives to challenge dominant narratives that promote radicalization, extremism, and indoctrination. These alternative narratives should be integrated into the nation’s academic, social, and religious fabric.

David Tarus serves as ACTEA’s Executive Director. Previously, he serves as a lecturer and Deputy Principal at AIC Missionary College, an affiliate institution of Scott Christian University. David is a graduate of McMaster Divinity College (PhD in Christian Theology with a focus on Systematic Theology), Wheaton College Graduate School (MA, Historical and Systemic Theology, and Scott Christian University (Bachelor of Theology). He is the author of A Different Way of Being: Toward a Reformed Theology of Ethnopolitcal Cohesion for the Kenyan Context, co-editor of Christian Responses to Terrorism: The Kenyan Experience, and several articles. His research interests are in theological anthropology, ecclesiology, and socio-political issues. He is an ordained minister of the African Inland Church, Kenya, and serves as Associate Pastor, AIC Milimani Nairobi.