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Speaking Truth to Power: Christian Faith Actors and Kenya's Liberation Movements

Decolonisation, Development and Faith

By Dr. Alice Karuri (Strathmore University)

This blog post is the second one in a series that captures some of the learning that took place during three roundtables that we organised at the Annual Conference of the Development Studies Association in June 2021. The roundtables brought together researchers, practitioners and theologians from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America who work at the intersection of decolonisation, development and faith. Our work also builds on the Fair and Equitable Initiative of the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities.


For poor countries, oppressed and dominated, the word liberation is appropriate, rather than development. – Gustavo Gutierrez


Development or liberation?

In 1986, the UN General Assembly declared development a human right. The UN Declaration on the Right to Development includes putting people at the center of development, ensuring free, active and meaningful participation, securing non-discrimination, fairly distributing the benefits of development, respecting self-determination, and sovereignty over natural resources.  It further stipulates that these should be carried out in a process that advances other civic, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The multidimensional aspect of development therefore questions claims to ‘development’ in countries where neocolonialism and state oppression are perpetuated. Should we aim for liberation instead? And what role do faith actors play in the struggle for liberation?

Christian and traditional faith actors in Kenya

I view a faith actor as a person who undertakes a certain action or course of action, compelled by their interpretation of what is expected or demanded by the tenets of their faith. In Kenya, a country where more than 85 per cent of the population is Christian, the role of the church in liberation and development has been significant. While the first recorded contact with Christianity goes back more than 500 years, it is only within the last 200 years that it began to spread. Missionaries engaged in ‘development’ by establishing churches, schools, and hospitals. Adherents of traditional beliefs, however, resisted these institutions as being counter to their faith. How then should faith actors engage in ‘development’ when there is no agreement on what ‘development’ is? If liberation is deemed a necessary precursor to development, what actions are plausible for faith actors in their engagement in liberation efforts?

The first liberation: Anti-colonialism

The first liberation in Kenya refers to the struggle against colonial rule, which reached its peak in 1952 when a state of emergency was declared. Among the MauMau freedom fighters in this liberation were some who had been educated in mission schools and their supporters included professing Christians. There were, however, Christians who lost their lives for refusing to take the oath administered by the MauMau. They are considered martyrs, although few know their names. The MauMau on the other hand were regarded as a terrorist group by the colonial government and the subsequent two post-independence governments. In 2003, the Kenyan government lifted the ban on the MauMau movement, and its members are today celebrated as national heroes. Christians and liberation fighters, however, are not mutually exclusive groups, and there are some who identified as both. The most renowned is the MauMau leader, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, who hours before his execution wrote a letter to a Catholic priest, asking for prayers and a mission education for his son. Other faith actors chose to ‘decolonise’ their faith by appropriating the Christian faith and established indigenous churches that allowed polygamy and tolerated cultural practices such as female genital mutilation.

The second liberation: Decolonisation

The second liberation in Kenya came more than twenty years after independence, beginning in the late 1980s. It refers to the struggle against state oppression and the push for multi-party democracy. The government had in the post-independence period leveraged the colonial structures of oppression and shifted to a one-party political system. A cadre of clergy used the pulpit to ‘speak truth to power,’ and at the forefront was the ‘Dangerous Quartet,’ as they had been dubbed by a government minister. It comprised three Anglican Bishops – Alexander Muge[1], David Gitari[2]and Henry Okullu[3], and Presbyterian clergyman, Reverend Timothy Njoya.[4] Alongside these was Catholic Archbishop, Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki.[5] The firebrand clergy gave courage and credibility to the second liberation movement and received overwhelming support from ordinary citizens, as well as backlash from both political and faith leaders. Speaking against land grabbing, politically instigated ethnic clashes, economic injustice, and the lack of democracy came at a huge cost to these clergy. Bishop Muge died in a ‘car accident’ in 1990 that was reportedly engineered to intimidate political dissidents. Reverend Njoya was defrocked three times on allegations of ‘using the pulpit for politics’ and faced three attempts on his life. Bishop Gitari escaped death by climbing to the roof during a house raid by an armed gang. The courage of the clergy galvanized a movement that eventually led to a change in the constitution and to multi-party democracy.

The third liberation: Whose truth, which power?

Corruption, a lack of accountability and economic and political injustices still exist in Kenya. The voice of the church in Kenya, across denominations, has however been largely silent, beyond issuing blanket statements. Is it possible for faith actors to engage in a third liberation? Several challenges constrain the church from continuing to ‘speak truth to power.’ The first is the globalised context within which development currently occurs, as compared to the period of the first and second liberation. Environmental and trade injustice, inequitable distribution of resources, and corruption are not confined to national borders and actors. While this presents more issues to speak on and a larger community of faith, the complex structures of domination, oppression and exploitation make it difficult to identify the ‘power’ that should be addressed. A second challenge pertains to the perceived lack of moral authority of the church. In recent election campaigns, it has been commonplace for politicians to leverage the church as a campaign platform. This often occurs in fundraising events where politicians are major contributors and fuels the perception that the church has been coopted and can no longer ‘speak truth to power.’ A third liberation, however, does not need to take the form of the first or second liberation. Violent action would be counter-productive and fiery sermons may be ineffectual in the current context.


Undoubtedly, undertaking ‘development projects’ without pursuing liberation from underlying systemic injustices, is untenable. A unified voice and common action by faith actors towards liberation, however, requires that faith is considered in intersection with other identities and issues in our increasingly complex world. This is especially so in the case of ethnic identity in Kenya, which is closely tied to historic injustices, political power, and unequal development. Faith, as a particularly strong element of identity for many Kenyan actors, can create a common space for discourse, agreement, and engagement in the efforts towards liberation.


[1] Died in 1990. See N. Otieno, Beyond the Silence of Death: Life and Theology of the late Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge. Nairobi: National Council of Churches in Kenya 2013.

[2] Died in 2013. See D.M. Gitari, Let the Bishop Speak. Nairobi: Uzima Publishers (1989); In Season and Out of Season: Sermons to a Nation. Regnum Publishers (1996); Responsible Church Leadership. Nairobi: Acton Publishers (2005); Troubled but not Destroyed: The Autobiography of Archbishop David Gitari. McLean, VA: Isaac Publishing (2014).

[3] Died in 1999. See H. Okullu, Church and Politics in East Africa. 2nd Edition. Nairobi: Uzima Press (1975);

Quest for Justice: An Autobiography of Bishop John Henry Okullu. Nairobi: Uzima Publishing House (1997).

[4] See T. Njoya, Human Dignity and National Identity: Essentials for Social Ethnics. Nairobi: Jemisik Cultural Books (1987); Out of Silence: A Collection of Sermons. Nairobi: Beyond Magazine (1987); The Divine Tag on Democracy. Yaounde: CLE.CIPCRE (2003); We the People. Thinking Heavenly, Acting Kenyanly. A Memoir. Nairobi: WordAlive Publishers (2017).

[5]  Died in 2020. W. Waihenya and T.N. Ndikaru, A Voice Unstilled: Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki. Nairobi: Longhorn Press (2009).