A question that becomes increasingly urgent when Kenya gets into the election mode is: should Churches accept gifts from politicians or not?
Answers range from an unambiguous negative to a plain “yes”. There are churches that will accept the gifts, but under certain conditions.
It is a controversial debate that gathers momentum and gains heat as the elections draw nearer.
Opponents of contributions offer various reasons. Some reject these monies because they believe it’s loot stolen from the toil of hard-working citizens, many of them poor.
The donation is no better than the 30 pieces of silver, Jesus’ worth, in the Judas transaction. Such monies, the argument continues, are not meant for the common good but a means to attain a personal end.
Besides damaging specific communities, opponents of such gifts point out that the Church suffers terribly in long-term loss of self-esteem.
This monetary and psychological control of the Church by state officials or individuals, going back to the time of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, began as patronage and had far-reaching consequences including loss of freedom for the community of faith.
Those opposing gifts by politicians argue for strict separation of Church and state, a principle clearly stated in the Kenya Constitution 2010.
They point out that the heyday of the Church in Kenya was during the tenure of leaders such as Archbishop Ndingi Mwana ‘a Nzeki, Bishop Alexander Muge and Bishop John Henry Okullu, who spoke truth to power because they were independent-minded and not beholden to particular politicians.
Clerics willing to receive gifts from politicians argue that you can’t immediately tell tainted monies from clean offerings.
The next premise in the argument is that a person is held to be innocent until they are proved guilty. Therefore, accept the offerings.
Furthermore, politicians should not be looked at suspiciously simply because they belong to what many now call “the political class”.
At any rate, there must be persons in society carrying out the vital role of politics. Even the decision to be apolitical or indifferent to politics is itself a political act.
If a practitioner of power and governance wants to be generous, why should Church or society forbid him? Why must we assume that it’s stolen loot? Are we not being judgemental?
There is no society without the political institution and practising politicians. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church encouraged political participation, freedom and responsibility in the running of society (Church in the Modern World, Number 76).
But the Council also pointed out that “the political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other”.
The recent re-statement by the Catholic bishops on this matter is timely. Congregations in the Churches – rural, peri-urban and urban – have a plurality of political opinions, positions and choices.
Every worshipper or visitor is welcome. All have the same status, rank and rights. Let whoever makes an offering drop it in the same collection box or hat.
No political speeches are allowed. When tallying the collection, the deacons and acolytes will be able to tell if there’s any tainted money to be returned to the donors.
Fr Lawrence Njoroge serves at St Augustine Church, Juja, and is Professor of Development Studies and Ethics at JKUAT.