Contemporary Pentecostalism in Kenya: of Prophets, Holiness and Politics

Kwame Ahaligah is a PhD Student examining Pentecostalism, Prophecy and Politics in Kenya, in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds

Debates on the public role of religion in the contemporary African public sphere have been stimulated by the Pentecostal-Charismatic explosion since the 1980s. Prior to this period, Pentecostalism was generally perceived to be ‘apolitical’ and largely disinterested in socio-political issues. For many African Pentecostals, politics was conceived of as a dirty game and directly involving in it, it was believed, detracted from the ultimate agenda of becoming holy—which was and still is a major theological outlook of the movement.

Neo-Pentecostalism, in particular, gained a new public significance, especially after the introduction of democracy into several African countries in the nineties and its associated liberalizations—of the airwaves in particular—enabled the ‘Pentecostalization’ of the public sphere and of politics. As a result of the contemporary massive presence in the public sphere, academic interest on how the newer forms of Pentecostalism in Africa influences or engages the political sphere continues to grow. In the light of these contemporary developments, I ask whether Pentecostal Charismatic Churches (PCCs) in Kenya have developed any form of political theology? Contrary to scholars of African Pentecostalism such as Paul Gifford (who has also studied Kenyan PCCs), I think they do and in ways that challenge the normative systematic or academic theology and methods.

In my PhD research, I study the political theologies of three relatively new PCCs in Kenya. In this context, as is the case in several sub-Saharan African countries, most PCCs have assumed a new form of political engagement, both direct and indirect, such as involvement in electoral politics and the more covert forms of political engagement through prophetic utterances, and what is popularly termed as strategic spiritual warfare prayers. I conducted fieldwork in Kenya from 2013-2015. Through an ethno-theological approach, I investigated and (continue to) analyze, taking into consideration the stand point of the churches, in particular the ‘theo—logics’ that underpins the ways in which politics is conceived and the strategies/tools devised to engage with it.

The feature picture is of a massive tent characteristic to one of my case study churches – ‘The Ministry of Repentance and Holiness’ in Kenya. It was founded by Prophet Dr. David Owuor or the “Prophet of the Most High”, as he is affectionately called by devotees. Prophet Owuor is a former scientist, having studied in Israel and worked in institutions of high repute in the USA. His conversion and call to ministry began in 2003, as he puts it, is to “prophesy holiness and repentance” to both the church and politicians to repent of their sins in Kenya. There is a sense, not just in Owuor’s theology of holiness but also quite widespread among African Pentecostals, that the continent’s supposed apostasy (reference is usually made to indigenous religions) is responsible for several national calamities, including the economic challenges it faces.

Whilst it is quite a widespread perception among PCCs in Kenya that nations collectively are under some form of curses, that can only be broken by specially anointed men or women of God; Owuor has successfully cut a niche for himself, in the way he has established a holiness rather than a prosperity ministry. His popularity is characterized by massive outdoor crusades, the politicians and high-profile citizens and foreign nationals, including heads of states who patronize such events or seek his spiritual services. I focus on how Owuor’s critic of both ecclesial and political culture in Kenya constitute a contextual, holiness, political theology.

To be clear, Owuor claims he is not interested in politics, but there have been instances, some in the course of my ethnographic fieldwork, where his ministry has instructed members not to vote for politicians who ignored his prophecies.

There are also other ways that the Ministry of Holiness and Repentance is attempting to alter existing Pentecostal-Charismatic culture in Kenya:

  1. The erection of massive tents, called holiness altars, rather than churches. This in my opinion is aimed at the mega-church culture and mega church buildings that characterizes most major Kenyan PCCs.
  2. A strict dress code especially for women. Women covered their heads, wore long robs or dresses that covered their whole body which was explained as sign of modesty. Apart from several women deacons, there were no women Bishops or pastors. This is quite contrary to how ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy of the Holy Spirit’ in relation to women leadership in PCCs has been analyzed in the literature.
  3. As mentioned, Prophet Owuor focuses on holiness and repentance from sin (there is a long catalogue of sins of which sexuality immorality is prime) as the core of his theology. This again is nothing new in African or global Pentecostalism, but it is his emphasis and the impact such an approach has had on the religio-political landscape in Kenya that caught my attention.

In the picture, both the tent and the dress code of the Ministry of Holiness and Repentance has come to represent an important part of Kenya’s religio-political sphere.

By Kwame Ahaligah

Image Credit: Kwame Ahaligah