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Peter in Kenya, Part III: Fairy Gold

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

Folklore has stories about objects that change as you carry them from one place to another, like Fairy gold that turns to clay in your pockets when you return home. Christianity did something like that when I traveled from America to Kenya. Waking up in another world, I took a piece of worthless clay from my pocket and saw it shine like gold.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not Christian. I still have no illusions about the incalculable harm that Christianity has done throughout history, and in particular, the harm that Christian missionaries have done in Africa. In many cases, they served as the vanguard of European colonial conquest, or they were used to pacify an occupied and oppressed people. But the picture looks different when you actually get there.

For one thing, the Quaker missionaries in Kenya have a more complex history than most. The imperialist occupation was British while the missionaries, by in large, were American, and to this day Kenya is one of the places in the world (one of very few, post-Bush) where you get a better reception if you’re a visitor from America than from elsewhere.

The missionaries in Kenya worked to alleviate suffering. When the British instituted a hut tax to be paid in hard currency, this forced large numbers of subsistence farmers off of their own land and onto British plantations where they could work for cash wages. American missionaries responded by helping to develop cottage industries like brick making, so that small rural farms could generate cash income. (Though one can ask why the missionaries never directly protested the taxes…) Among missionaries, the Quakers were unusual in having a strong concern for women’s rights. Many different missionary denominations started boys schools; the Quakers started schools for girls as well. Quaker missionaries were also a driving force in the elimination of female genital mutilation as a common practice, and pushed to eliminate dietary taboos that caused significant malnutrition among pregnant women.

Still, the harm is a fact of history that contemporary missionaries like my friend Eden Grace live with every day. There’s no escaping it—not if you keep your eyes open. And yet, on the ground, there is work to be done…

And on the ground, the landscape of African Christianity looks very different than it does from over here, peering at it through a telescope from the heart of the industrialized west.

In America, when a Christian exhorts you to read the Bible, accept Jesus, and be saved, the inescapable subtext is: Those people are bad. Those people are damned. Come join OUR group, do it OUR way, and become one of the good people. American Christianity exists within a pluralistic society. We have neighbors who are Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, Pagans, Wiccans, secular humanists, Native Americans, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses… All of us, if we’re willing to look around, can see people from a variety of religious faiths and spiritual disciplines whose every word and every action is grounded in faithfulness.

And we have all heard Christians decry even the best of them as unbelievers and damn our society for its pluralism. If you read the Bible, if you believe the words of St. Paul, then Mahatma Gandhi has to be burning in Hell. Not for any sin, but for being a saint bearing the wrong brand name. In a pluralistic society, believing in Jesus means believing in Jesus’ exclusive copyright. Nice Christians will talk about the “scandal of particularity.” Less nice Christians will talk about the heathens being cast into the pit. But all of them are aware on some level of the tension between a universal God who loves us all, and a salvation that is exclusive to the members of one particular sect.

When you step off the plane in Kenya and look around, the religious landscape looks completely different. Kenya does have lots of sects, Quaker and otherwise. Kenya also has a lot of intertribal mistrust (largely an aftereffect of the colonial occupation), but Kenyan religion didn’t seem, from what I saw of it, to be sectarian in anything like the way American religion is. It’s like, Americans are always asking for the best and latest diet; Kenyans are just asking for food.

Kenya did not have the misfortune of conquering half the world and then having to assimilate half the world’s cultures and religions. Kenya was conquered. And when Kenyan Christians exhort you to put your faith and trust in God, it’s not about My God can beat up your God; it’s about God can give you strength and hope when you are beaten and oppressed, watching your society torn apart and your family dying.

In Kenya, Christian faith shines like gold.

In Kenya, the task of throwing off colonial rule and building a stable and peaceful democracy has been (and still is) a desperate struggle. They don’t have a comfortable status quo to fall back on. Spiritual survival and physical survival are both tenuous, and when Kenyans find a way for Spirit to touch their lives, I think they’re less inclined to question the packaging.

There are certainly American Christians who try to see their religion this way, casting the struggle not as one of Christianity vs. other forms of religious expression, but as Christianity vs. chaos and destruction. Often what they’re talking about is the chaos brought on by gay marriage, universal health care, teaching evolution in the schools, and the worldwide conspiracy of scientists to dupe us into curtailing global warming.

But in Kenya the chaos is real. It’s hunger and malaria, poverty, displacement from the land, and the ghastly spectacle of intertribal genocide in neighboring countries.

A second reason that Kenyan Christianity is so different has to do with history. It is hard for me to turn to historical Christian writers for inspiration or guidance because, before I can open myself to any real message of Spirit they might have for me, I have to ask to what degree they took part in religious wars or the violent suppression of rival sects and how much of their writing is just an apology for the theological views of the winners against those of the slaughtered.

That question just doesn’t come up for Kenyan Christians. The missionaries came, and they offered hope. Kenyan Christianity doesn’t date back any further than 1902, and to my knowledge it hasn’t sponsored a single pogrom in that whole time.

To be continued…

Photo: Inscription at Kaimosi Friends Mission Hospital


Joanna Hoyt said…
Thanks for this post. I can only imagine the freedom of Christianity in such a different cultural context.

And yet, with all the baggage, with all the wrongs in our history, I am an American Christian. Which doesn't mean I think you're going to hell. Or that I think I have to figure the afterlife out at all. It does mean that I have met God, am trying to follow God, and have understood my encounters with God in terms of the Christian story. and am kept faithful in following mostly by a community and a set of writings and practices which are Christian. There are parts of this community and tradition that I love. There are parts I struggle with because they point out my failures. Other parts I struggle with because they seem wrong to me.
i guess it's a little like being human. Or being a member of my family.
Peter Bishop said…

I love it that there are Christians like you in the world. You remind me that, even in America, there is gold in Christianity.

It's very difficult for me to access that gold. I can't get it from the religion directly. It's like the Christian story has been poisoned for me, and when I seek out God, it has to be through other channels. But the Light found in Christian faith still reaches me, filtered and reflected, when I worship alongside Christians in Quaker worship. It's not the only Light, but it's definitely real, and I am grateful to my Christian and my non-Christian fellow Quakers for their faithfulness.

It's an odd and uncomfortable religious stance, but it's where I'm at.
Peter Bishop said…
Did I mention, "Thank you"?
Hystery said…
I wanted to point out, as a non-Christian who studies Christianity, that the history of liberal American Christianity has very strong connections to human rights movements both here and abroad. A significant number of Civil Rights and women's rights activists from the past two centuries have drawn from Christianity to support their call for equality and social justice. Feminist and liberation theologies are a couple golden examples of this historical tradition which continue to be taught and celebrated in mainline seminaries and churches today.
Peter Bishop said…
Yup. In spite of exhortations like "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ." (Ephesians 6:5) and similar passages in half a dozen other places in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, The abolitionist movement managed to find a lot of strength and inspiration in the Bible.

I don't understand it, but its clearly very real and very powerful.
Joanna Hoyt said…
Mr. Bishop,
Thank you, belatedly, for your generous reading of and response to my hastily written comment. (That night I thought of all the unpleasant things which someone could think I meant, and it was a great relief to find you didn't think so.) And for all the food for thought.

I am thinking more now about the responsibility that goes with espousing any deeply valued cause or tradition--the responsibility of living in a way that doesn't poison or undermine that tradition for other people. I suppose that this involves both living well and confessing openly and promptly when I have betrayed the values I profess... Must think more on this.

I'm trying to better udnerstand your response to Hystery's post. I don't mean this sarcastically, i just wonder: Have you found a tradition or community which doesn't contain elements which you consider destructive? Or do you stand outside all traditions/communities because of the evil in them? Or is it a matter of your having been hurt by/ made singularly aware of the evil within the Christian tradition, so that there is a visceral response to that that isn't present when you deal with other groups? Or something quite different?
(Yes, I know, it's really none of my business.)

I am sorry for what we have done, both to you and to others whom you value and care about. (And I do mean 'we'--I have done and said various things which I wouldn't like Christianity to be judged by. but since I claim to be Christian, there is some judgement there, whether I like it or not.)
Hystery said…
It is very easy to understand how Christians were able to move beyond what biblical scholar Renita Weems has called "texts of terror" if one remembers that educated, mainline Christians have not used a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible for a very long time and that the entire history of Christianity includes great diversity of interpretation. Christians' relationships with the Bible has not been monolithic. Not by a long shot. Friends are just one example of a group of Christians who did not feel obligated to interpret scripture literally or to give the same weight to each story within it. Of course, Friends also led the abolitionist movement. Truth for authority, as dear Lucretia would say, and not authority for truth.
Peter Bishop said…
@ Joanna: No, I certainly haven't found the religion or community that is completely untainted and free of historical baggage. And I'm going to be talking a lot more about that in part VI.

I just deleted the rest of this comment, because it was turning out to be longer than the average blog post. It was also starting to sound like a tirade, and that's not really where I want to be coming from.

Thank you again for your comments, and for being a deeply committed Christian who I can hear and by whom I can be heard.
Peter Bishop said…
@ Hystery: Yes, attitudes toward the Bible vary, but even the most liberal Christian denominations still pay a kind of lip service to Biblical authority and literalist creeds, and...

It's like...

It's easy for me, as a white guy, to find the Declaration of Independence to be a beautiful affirmation of human rights. There's a line towards the end about "merciless Indian Savages" which I can ignore. I can even forget it's there. Certainly nobody who's working for human rights today still feels that way. But if I try to hang a framed copy of the Declaration in the lobby of an organization devoted to working with Native Americans, I should be prepared for trouble.

I still admire Jefferson. I still find the Declaration of Independence inspiring. But I’m not going to be thrown for a loop when I find that some people have problems with it.
Daniel Wilcox said…
Mr. Bishop,

As a former traveler, retired teacher, Christian-lite;-), etc., I've been intrigued reading about your experiences and reflections on Kenya. And reading the comments from others.

Here's two of my thoughts: Good luck;-) for those who hope to find a worldview that doesn't have a lot of bad baggage as well as good.

At least, I spend 50 years of my life seeking the ideal worldview. But even with Quakerism, I got shocked--horrified to learn that George Fox supported Oliver Cromwell's reign of killing during the English Civil War! Etc.

And, secondly,more and more I also realized, that if I found the perfect spiritual place, it would still have, even at my very best behavior,my very unperfect self.

As a teacher, parent, Christian, I determined not to make any of the horrible mistakes previous generations made. I succeeded fairly well, but guess what, I made new "horrible mistakes".

How are the interactions going with your students? No doubt they bring many different perceptions as well to the mix.

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox
Hystery said…
In describing the religious requirements of groups represented by thousands of denominations and millions of individuals, many of whom do not not identify with any particular denomination, words like "all" are a bit dangerous. One should not, I think, lump together people like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Lucretia Mott, or Sojourner Truth with folks like Jerry Falwell, Augustus Strong, or the current pope. Due in large part to an historical trend in which we've seen the right wing of the Church grow in membership and PR power in the past several decades, there has been far less information and discussion available related to the liberal churches' contributions to intellectual and social history. The Right has denied that the Left really get to count as Christians. I don't think we should let them get away with that.

Another thing I've learned to take quite seriously in the study of religions is the need to refrain from placing too much stock in the official position of any religious hierarchy. I'm less impressed with any orthodox statement of faith than I am with the evidence of faith as found in collective historical action. Frequently, how one interprets one's religion has a great deal to do with one's position in society. The oppressed seem to identify far more with those passages that speak to the oppressed. The powerful tend to identify with passages that speak to the powerful. That the Christian perspective is golden in Kenya is no less remarkable than that it is golden in the American civil rights movement, or that it was often used to support women's suffrage, or that it was at the heart of the abolitionist and pacifist movements. Not all Americans have been powerful white men so therefore, not all American Christian perspectives will reflect an interest in power and control.

In short, women and minorities write theology too.
While I can't speak for Peter of course (and, quite as obviously, he hardly needs me to) I do want to add my own two cents here.

In Joanna's questions, "Have you found a tradition or community which doesn't contain elements which you consider destructive? ...Or is it a matter of your having been hurt by/ made singularly aware of the evil within the Christian tradition, so that there is a visceral response to that that isn't present when you deal with other groups? Or something quite different?" I would, myself, answer that the last option, something quite different, is the reason I have, myself, never been Christian.

Growing up outside of Christianity, and with only a vague notion of what Christianity actually was, I nonetheless was listening for and speaking with Spirit from a young age. (Perhaps most of us are, and perhaps not--I honestly don't know about that.)

So when I first encountered Christian perspectives--fundamentalist and evangelical ones, since they're the loudest--I found myself instinctively comparing what they were insisting upon with what I already knew, because Spirit had spoken within me.

I knew women were equal to men. I knew gays and lesbians were not lesser than heterosexuals. I knew that love did not include sending your children to an eternity in hell for disobedience, and that self-sacrifice for the good of others was not the exclusive domain of any one historic figure or god. And any religion that insisted otherwise fell short, and I never could take it seriously for a moment.

As to other forms of Christianity--liberation theology and so on--when I encountered that in college, I loved the politics, loved the people, loved their community, but could not belong to it, because they seemed to give a kind of superficial lip service to a god they didn't actually connect with very strongly. They seemed very secular, not open to ecstasy and miracles, and, again, Spirit has always been in my life, so I really didn't see a point to a religion that seemed lukewarm in its direct, relational aspects toward the divine.

Socially conservative Christianity never made the slightest sense to me; liberal Christianity seemed friendly but notional and requiring lip service to a story I couldn't believe in... It just did not speak to me. I did not find anything in either movement that called to my soul.

It was not until I found Paganism that I found a religious movement that both made sense with the things Spirit had been telling me all along and that I knew in my bones must be true, and which valued actually spending time in direct communion with Spirit.
Since then, I have found the Religious Society of Friends. And Christianity as I have encountered it among Quakers is a different animal, far more alive to what it really means that the letter of the law kills, while the Spirit brings life, and far more able to use Christianity as a conduit to something far more important than any religious label: a vital connection with the living Spirit of Peace and Love. (I don't say that's unique to Quakers, just that I first found it here.)

If I had first encountered Christianity in this form, perhaps it would have called to me. However, the shape in which Spirit first entered my life was not this shape, and so I am not a Christian Friend, but a Pagan one (however much that might be causing George Fox and Margaret Fell to revolve in their Graves... though I don't believe it causes Spirit itself a lot of annoyance.)

And, as Daniel points out, the Pagan community is as human and annoying as Christianity. Up close and personal, one of the things all spiritual communities have in common is the way they are flawed and difficult; it has taken me a long time to realize that that is not a bug, but a feature. Community is important precisely because it is imperfect, like me, and offers me plenty of spiritual and personal challenges in which--to borrow a Biblical phrase--I can practice the art and science of learning to remove the beam from my own eye before I attend to the mote in the eye of my neighbor. Communities of whatever religion eventually wind up being laboratories in which we get to practice the hard work of compassion, integrity, and love.
Peter Bishop said…
@ Hystery: You say, "The Right has denied that the Left really get to count as Christians. I don't think we should let them get away with that."

On the one hand, I agree with you so strongly that it makes me want to jump up and shout, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

On the other hand, I really think it is the job of the Christian Left to stand up and be counted. It's not that "we" shouldn't let them get away with it. If "we" is you and me, then "we" is a non-theist eco-feminist with a PhD in Women's Studies and a retired Wiccan High Priest who's now a member of perhaps the most liberal Quaker monthly meeting in the world. Does anybody anywhere really give a crap what you or I think a "real Christian" is?

I cherish the left wing Christians in my life. I am grateful for the privilege of worshiping with Christian Quakers like Eden Grace, or like Joanna Hoyt, and being allowed to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit alongside them, without anybody asking me to take a loyalty oath or recite the Apostles' Creed. I celebrate the connection with the Divine that they, and hundreds of others of my acquaintance, have found through Christian practice, Christian stories, and the Christian tradition.

But every so often I just want to say to them all, "Would you please go and talk to each other and reach an agreement on what you mean by 'Christian'? Come back and tell me when you've decided, and then I'll tell you whether I think I can be one."
Daniel Wilcox said…
Hi Mr. Bishop,

I know it's best not to comment twice on the same day, but your comment made me do it;-)

To answer, what is a Christian?

A Christian is one who loves Ultimate Reality with his heart, his mind, his actions.

And who is U.R.?

The God who was demonstrated by Jesus, (and many other individuals such as Levi Coffin, Martin Luther King, etc.) who loves others to the point of self-giving, even loving one's enemies in their actions.

The God who loves every single human who has ever been created and who loves the whole cosmos, and who is wooing all toward Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Love in the final consummation.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox
Joanna Hoyt said…
Mr Bishop:
"But every so often I just want to say to them all, "Would you please go and talk to each other and reach an agreement on what you mean by 'Christian'? Come back and tell me when you've decided, and then I'll tell you whether I think I can be one."
That made me laugh, and think too. I don't think I can define what it means to be Christian in any universal way. I know what I mean when I say I am one. (And am brewing a blog post about that.) I don't think it's up to me to decide who else is, or what other people should mean when they say they are.
Actually, when people say they object to Christianity I tend to wonder, "What do you mean by Christianity?'

Cat--thanks for the account of what you had experienced of Spirit, and the difficulty of finding a community with room, for that. I've struggled with that too. And I wanted to clarify--my question to Mr. Bishop wasn't leading to "Why aren't you Christian?' but "Why is Christianity poisoned for you?" I +There are many rich Spirit ways that I am not part of, but that I respect and can sometimes learn from.
Peter Bishop said…
@ Daniel: By that definition, I am a Christian and always have been.

@ Joanna: First off, please call me Peter. I'm not sure why my Blogger ID is popping up as Mr. Bishop. That's my schoolteacher persona, that I use when I post homework assignments at . I guess I'd better check my settings!

I _will_ answer your question, "Why is Christianity poisoned for you?" Just not tonight. Too wiped out from ripping up poison ivy and Japanese knotweed, but also... The answer to that could fill a book. Or at least a series of blog posts.

So stay tuned.
Peter Bishop said…
Oh, and @ Daniel: For my students, the trip to Kenya was entirely secular. They're Advanced Placement Biology students, and we spent our time touring hospitals and outreach clinics in rural western Kenya. I think it was a profoundly spiritual experience for them, but not a religious one, and my conversations with them about it have been about the secular aspects of the trip, not about my own religious musings.
Joanna Hoyt said…
Thanks, Peter. And may I put a link to your blog post in the opening of a post on my own blog?
Peter Bishop said…
@ Joanna: Absolutely!
Hystery said…
First, I want to say just how much I enjoy your posts here despite my argumentative style. Secondly, I think your point about whether or not anyone cares what "we" say is a good one deserving reply. I should be more clear in saying that I realize that in large part, I never really stopped considering myself a part of the Christian community having been raised in the Church, educated in a seminary and by liberal Christians, and now, as a Friend, again sharing worship with liberal Christians. But it is more than family and community. As an historian, I practice a kind of maternal research in which I become protective of the people I study. I want them to be understood and it bothers me when they aren't. My job is to give voice to the dead. Finally, my contact with evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is insignificant and rare. My contact with the liberal Christian community is much more intense. They are my family and my folks, the foundation of my spiritual life as a Pagan and as a Quaker. I do not always agree with them, but I need them to be seen and known. I am not me without them.
Joanna Hoyt said…
Thanks again, Peter! Some wrestlings with the questions you've prompted in me are online at

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