Posted in Commentary, culture, Faith, Religion

Celebrating the Bigger Picture in Benny Hinn’s Shift on Prosperity Gospel

When I first came across a YouTube clip circulating on social media that Benny Hinn had renounced the prosperity gospel and that he will no longer “ask people for money”, I was reluctant to celebrate.

First, being the skeptic that I am, I thought the clip was had been edited to fit a certain narrative, so I wanted to watch the entire message before forming an opinion. So I looked for the original message. I found it tucked inside a 3-hour long Facebook Live video on Benny Hinn’s page. I even posted the full, unedited transcript on this blog.

The more I listened to his original words, the more I felt my reservations fade.

More questions than answers

However, many questions quickly followed this initial excitement. Does this mean that Benny Hinn is on the path to affirming and preaching the true gospel? What about Benny Hinn’s views on other teachings of the Bible?

Wait, it sounds like he renounced the prosperity gospel, but did he say what the true gospel is? Was he always preaching the true gospel and then adding the prosperity stuff on top or is he now changing his entire understanding of what the gospel is?

Come to think of it, Benny Hinn doesn’t use the phrase “Prosperity Gospel” anywhere in his message. He uses the word “prosperity” a lot, and rebukes those who try to peddle the gospel as a means to prosperity. Is this the same thing we mean when we speak about the prosperity gospel? Are we putting words in Benny Hinn’s mouth?

As far as I know, prosperity gospel is the teaching that Jesus died to make us healthy, wealthy and happy. But the true gospel is about Jesus dying to save us from our sins and restore our broken fellowship with God. Did Benny Hinn make this distinction? Is he even aware of the nuance? What exactly is the gospel according to Benny Hinn?

These are just a few questions that led me back to my previous reluctance to celebrate what many have lauded as a significant shift in Benny Hinn’s theology.

But I am a communications specialist, and I like to think I understand the power of context and environment in determining the effect someone’s words have on another. It is why echo-chambers continue to thrive on the internet and why confirmation bias tends to rule our convictions.

When you’ve already decided that a person is against you and doesn’t want you to succeed in life, you develop filters for whatever positive thing they say. You never associate with them or give them a willing audience, and when you are forced to listen to them, you always expect them to speak against you and you grow suspicious when they say anything positive about you.

This is why, no matter how good your arguments and how compelling your evidence, you will never convince a Jubilee party die-hard to vote for the opposition party.

Bigger picture

This brings me to the point I refer to as the “bigger picture” in Benny Hinn’s latest words. I am celebrating Benny Hinn’s words, not because it says anything about the overall change in his theology (or even a change in the trajectory of his theology), I am celebrating his words because of the people who got to hear them and, for the first time, consider the truth of those words and possibly believe them.

The “bigger picture” is not the man who claimed to renounce the prosperity gospel, the bigger picture is the masses who heard, listened, and believed him.

There are those who have faithfully followed Benny Hinn Ministries who will struggle with this question. Probably for the first time in their life, they will feel the instinct to disagree with their teacher and like the Bereans, they will go back to their Bibles to confirm the truth of these new and strange claims.

Some of these people will share the clip with their friends in the same prosperity and Word of Faith circles. Hopefully, the anouncement will be subject of discussion in Bible Study groups and Whatsapp groups and after-church conversations in those circles.

“Did you hear what Benny Hinn said? What do you think it means? Do you agree? What do we do with this new shift?”

Listening again, for the first time

And in the process, many will Google their questions and they will encounter other people speaking about the same topic. Probably for the first time in their lives, they will dare to examine the words of those “enemies of the church” who have always spoken ill of their pastor and movements.

They will wonder how what these people knew that their pastor did not; what they said that caused their pastor to change his mind and announce it so publicly and so brazenly. Then they will listen to these enemies again, for the first time.

The more I consider all these possibilities, the more I realize that Benny Hinn’s public renouncing of “prosperity” is not about Benny Hinn. It is not about expecting Benny Hinn to go out and sell all he has and give to the poor. It is not about expecting Benny Hinn to now change his circle of friends and denomination and join the “true-gospel” movement.

It is not even about whether Benny Hinn should now apologize and make amends for all the people he ostracized for calling him out when he preached the prosperity gospel; or whether he should now begin a ministry of calling out those he once walked alongside.

For all we know, this may be the last time we hear about it. He will probably do an interview or two about it and then quickly fade back into the movement that he has led and been a part of for decades.

For all we know, he was probably using even this supposed recanting as another opportunity to make himself look good and honorable before human beings. Only God knows what is in Benny Hinn’s heart — It is possible to confess that you used to be a people-pleaser and still do it as another act of people-pleasing.

Of course I want and pray that Benny Hinn will fully embrace and preach and live out the true Gospel. As far as I know, what he has said is worth celebrating. But it is simply to early and we know too little to tell whether this is indeed what it happening. We celebrate the teaser, even as we await the rest of the story.

Yet despite this, I see a bigger and a more immediate cause for celebration. In just 5 minutes Benny Hinn has planted a seed of (or at least a curiosity for) the true gospel in millions of hearts that may never have considered listening to someone who wasn’t Benny Hinn.

Whatever we think of Benny Hinn in this season and afterwards, we cannot deny the fact that God has, in this moment, used him as His instrument. And this is definitely worth celebrating.

For the fame of His name.

Posted in Commentary, Kenya

What the 2019 census reveals about Kenyans

The questions asked during the census exercise have been quite revealing — but not in a way many of us have thought of.

Depending on where you live, you probably found some questions odd or unnecessary. We even joked about it on social media. Someone wondered out loud on Twitter why the enumerator found the need to ask if he owned a TV and yet she could see it right in front of her.

Another city dweller found the question about owning cattle a little amusing. I personally remember pausing for a few seconds before responding to a question about owning a canoe (I don’t). I, too, joked about this on Twitter and Facebook.

Humor as a shield

For Kenyans living in the city, especially the middle class, many of the census questions felt out of touch. Yet instead of realizing that these questions ought to teach us something about the rest of Kenya, we chose to laugh and meme our way through the oddities.

We used humor to shield ourselves from the realities of the stark inequalities in a supposedly “united” Kenya. We do this a lot. Just check out the hashtag #KoT on Twitter. If we are not raging about a foreigner who has disrespected our country, we are making fun of the ridiculous levels of corruption within our own borders.

One man’s joke is another man’s lifeline

The census questions say a lot about the reality many Kenyans still live in, a reality that we cannot afford to joke our way out of confronting. The way a Nairobi resident felt about answering “no” to whether they owned a car is the same way someone in rural Kajiado felt about not owning a “cow”. Except that in Kajiado, the feeling was much worse and the implications of that reality much more devastating.

Owning a canoe in the fishing villages around Lake Victoria does not make one the butt of a joke. To some (who own it) it is a means of sustenance and a mark of great privilege,  while to others (who don’t) it is a mark of failure in life. One man’s joke is another man’s lifeline.

While you are wondering whether to classify your home theater system as a radio or part of your TV, someone in a slum not far from your apartment complex does not even own a portable radio. Another in a remote village in West Pokot doesn’t even see the need to because his area doesn’t receive a radio signal.

I spent a few days earlier this month in Mosiro Ward in Kajiado County where I came face to face with the reality of child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). To many of us in Nairobi, the term FGM is often relegated to hashtag activism and the horror story that occasionally shows up on our TV screens.

The girl child as property

Yet, to many girls as young as 10 years old in Mosiro, this is a reality they have to live with — a rite of passage that defines them and earns them a place in their society. FGM is not a matter of choice or opinion for many of these girls, it is as natural to their life experience as menstrual cramps — they know to expect it and they better be ready to endure it.

I hate to imagine how many fathers glanced at their pre-teen daughters when the census enumerators asked if they owned a cow. Because to many of these men, bringing a girl into this world is an economic investment that guarantees a bump in the number of cows you own. It is sad that there are still communities where the question of whether you have a child and whether you own cows sounds like one and the same question.

This is nothing to laugh or joke about. For each property-related question that you answered “yes” to, there are millions of Kenyans who answered “no” and still many others who were too ashamed to confess their lack. Yet this is why the census exists, to reveal the needs in our society so that the government can make informed decisions regarding resource distribution.

A call to confront the inequalities

Isn’t it ironic, then, that instead of getting angry about the basic things we own that our fellow countrymen can only dream  about, we find ourselves amused? Is our conscience this seared? The opposite ought to be the case.

The question about your level of education should provoke you to care about access to education (or the lack of it) for hundreds of thousands of Kenyan children.

The question about the number of children you have should provoke you to care about the infant mortality rate and what we can do to stop preventable deaths in the country.

The question about how you earn a living should provoke you to care about the rising rate of unemployment in Kenya and the tone-deaf advise college graduates get about becoming entrepreneurs instead of getting a job.

While you were wondering whether to classify as a “habitable room” your guest room and the SQ that you have converted into a study room, there is someone who was not even sure what to call the shack they live in.

As I write this, the Kenyan drought management authority says that more than 2.5 million Kenyans in at least 11 counties facing starvation as drought and hunger situation gets worse. This is not just a food-related census question to respond “yes” or “no” to, it is a matter of life and death.

This is what census 2019 reveals about Kenya — or at least it ought to. I hope that when the results are released in three months, we will use them to confront these issues, call our local government representatives to account, and do something to make our neighbor’s world, and not just our own, a better place.

Posted in Commentary, culture, The 4th Dimension

Why we should fundraise for weddings

A good friend of mine turned 30 the other day. So her fiance and friends decided to throw her a surprise party. Those who could chipped in to make the day a success. We also bought gifts to take to the party and did our best to keep the secret until the big day.

Nothing strange with this arrangement. Makes perfect sense. We also held a similar surprise party for another friend who was leaving the country to study abroad. People raised some money and organized the party. Totally normal affair.

So how come the topic of raising funds to celebrate the permanent union of two friends evokes so much emotion and debate today? Why has it become anathema for a couple to raise funds for their wedding?

The wedding fundraiser controversy

For the longest time, I’ve been on the never-raise-funds-for-wedding camp.  I was easily among the people who, in principle, thought that it is inappropriate to ask people to give you money to have a lavish wedding. People should learn to live within their means, especially now that they were getting into marriage. Furthermore, a wedding, unlike a funeral, is not an emergency, right?

The logic seemed pretty clear… until it wasn’t any more. I realized that the reason we find it so controversial that people raise money for their weddings is not because something is wrong with the couple, but because something is wrong with our understanding of what a community is.

“The reason we find it so controversial that people raise money for their weddings is not because something is wrong with the couple, but because something is wrong with our understanding of what a community is.”

I used to silently agree with those who spoke against raising funds for a wedding. We believed that those who did so to have an extravagant wedding were “idolizing the wedding”. This aversion to such actions was further confirmed by people who would borrow loans to fund a wedding.

“A wedding is about the couple, it is their marriage after all,” we would argue. “The people you are killing yourself to impress with your big wedding will not be there when your marriage is in a storm”

We would applaud and admire the couple that went super scrappy on their wedding day and never borrowed a dime. Even more noble was the couple that resisted the peer pressure and the force of society and walked into the AG’s (Attorney General’s) office to get it over and done with.

However, even though I saw the logic of that line of thinking, I secretly and silently worried that I would not be able to fund the kind of wedding my fiance and I desired — nothing fancy, but even a normal wedding was a costly affair. I was reluctant to ask people to help me fund my wedding (though standing on this side of the wedding, it hits me that I was only able to have the wedding I did by the grace of God and the generosity of others).

A radically different view

Today, I hold a radically different (and hopefully obvious) view, though not entirely so. Nowadays I believe that the scrappy wedding is the anomaly. The AG-visit-no-wedding is the aberration. And this is where the analogy of the birthday party comes in to help.

Although I now fully support fundraising for a wedding, I disagree with the insistence that the couple should be the one to take out loans or ask people to give them money for a wedding. It is sad that we have pushed marrying couples into this corner. Like the birthday party, a wedding ceremony should be the initiative and responsibility of the family and friends of the couple.

I disagree with the insistence that the couple should be the one to take out loans or ask people to give them money for a wedding. It is sad that we have pushed marrying couples into this corner. Like the birthday party, funding a wedding ceremony should be the initiative and responsibility of the family and friends of the couple.

If a wedding is indeed about the parents and the community, as we like to say, then the parents and the community should come together to make it a reality for the couple. The couple should only be consulted on their preferences for the wedding, and even these are not hard conditions as the family and community should tell them what they can or cannot afford.

So how come we seldom think of weddings the same way we think of birthdays and work anniversaries and other parties that we throw for our family members and friends? I can think of two reasons:

1. We live in an overly individualistic age

Even though we understand weddings to be merely ceremonial, we still think of them as the couple’s affair. This is partly an overreaction from the now outmoded practice of arranged marriages. In the past, when parents would choose marriage partners for their children, the parents were also responsible for the wedding.

The young man and woman never spent a dime. Weddings were community affairs. The two families invited and worked together with relatives and friends to celebrate (and fund the celebration) of the union between the two families. Today, we want the superficial image of a community (the wedding guests) without the responsibilities of the community (owning the wedding).

This is not entirely the fault of the community. It is also the fault of the couple planning to get married. We have become islands. People don’t even know we are about to get married, or if they do, we make the wedding a personal affair and bride/groom-zilla our way through every detail.

Marriage is no longer seen as a rite of passage worth celebrating, but a business contract between two people with zero accountability/submission to the larger community. You might as well fund it yourself.

2. The commercialization of weddings

Since we believe that our marriage is no one else’s business, we end up making our weddings a spectacle, tweaked to impress and gain social capital. We may not want people to contribute towards our wedding, but we will definitely make sure they are impressed by our wedding.

So we find ourselves in this precarious position where we want to host 500 guests at a fancy venue and feed them all and make sure we do it without asking for a dime.

No wonder weddings have become commercialized. They are now one of the ways we make our mark in society instead of being one of the ways the society makes its mark on us by acknowledging that we have taken a step worth celebrating.

What makes a marriage covenant significant was not always the signature in the government document, it was the family and friends who gathered together to say “we acknowledge this step, we celebrate this union, and we are doing this to show you that we are for this marriage and not against it. We support you and we will always be on your team.

A celebration

We like to say that a wedding is a celebration. If a wedding is a celebration of marriage and a celebration of the couple, then it makes sense that the family and friends of the couple take responsibility for the wedding. Why should a birthday inspire such a meaningful and thoughtful community participation when a wedding doesn’t?

Finally, on that popular funeral comparison. We always like to say how a funeral is an emergency but a wedding is not. This is how we justify raising funds for a funeral but not for a wedding. What we miss in the process is that the dead person is not the one raising the funds. They can’t do it, duh. It is their family and friends who come together to do it.

Sadly, even this sad aspect of life has been tainted by our atomized society and we now see funeral fundraisers as about the person/friend/colleague who has lost a loved one. We see our contributions to funerals as being about the person who is raising the funds rather than being about the dead person. If a funeral is indeed a “celebration of life” or a “send off” party as some of us like to call it, then the family and friends are coming together to plan and fund the party, without the invitation of the dead person

Similar thinking should apply to a wedding ceremony. The couple, having declared their love for one another and their intention to get married, the community should take over. The couple should only avail themselves to the witnesses of their wedding and (hopefully) their marriage.

Yet I am afraid this may all be wishful thinking, considering the rate at which meaningful communities are dwindling in our current society. It is worth thinking about though. For the Christians, I propose the local church as a good place to start this shift in thinking.

Posted in Commentary, culture, Features

Black is not beautiful

While attending an event recognizing persons living with disability in his constituency, Kibra Member of Parliament Ken Okoth recently tweeted:

“Celebrating the International Day of Persons Living with Disability. Inability is not Disability (sic).”

This example illustrates an important point about many of our attempts to “normalize” what the prevailing culture otherwise finds abnormal.

Chances are you have heard the popular phrase “black is beautiful” used in a conversation or you read it in a piece of writing. The context is usually in the attempt to fight against the popular (false) assumption that light skinned people are more beautiful simply because their skin is lighter.

However, many who respond with “black is beautiful” seldom take the time to think through the implications of their well meaning response.

If I am not mistaken, I assume that what they intend to communicate is that beauty is not skin deep and what ultimately distinguishes beautiful from ugly is not the color of one’s skin but something else along the lines of what Dr Martin Luther King, Jr called “the content of their character”.

But how does simply stating “black is beautiful” (often as a caption to a picture of a black woman) communicate this message? It sounds more like a desperate attempt to force a “truth” that the audience simply doesn’t find convincing.

It is almost like walking into a jewelry shop and shouting “iron is precious too!” It is very close to what we are often doing (albeit unconsciously) when we insist “black is beautiful” in an atmosphere that seems to elevate lightness of skin as a measure of beauty.

To stretch the analogy further, if someone was to approach the shouting person in the jewelry shop and asked them “why do you say iron is precious?” the person will most likely start listing all the major feats that iron helped human beings accomplish in history.

However, in doing so, the conversation will no longer be about the chemical composition of iron but about something entirely different. You see, if the preciousness of iron is determined by its ability to serve as a tool, then diamonds should be at the top of the list and gold at the bottom. Clearly, the parameters for determining the preciousness of metal were never located in the hardness of metal.

In the same way, the cultural standards of beauty are not in the color of one’s skin but in a combination of factors that can never be simply reduced to skin color.

Black isn’t beautiful, and neither is whiteness or lightness.

But the sad reality is that if you grew up associating whiteness with wealth, privilege and beauty; then you will always struggle to disentangle blackness from poverty, disadvantage and ugliness. White is civilized, black is not.

Instead of maintaining “black is beautiful” or “black is beautiful too”, perhaps we should spend more time investigating how come white is beautiful in the first place, and why that seems to be a given. By pursuing this line of inquiry, we may just realize that what is needed to see black as beautiful is not to give black the things that white has (clearly, that isn’t working), but to take apart our entire value system and anchor it on something less superficial than health, wealth and the pursuit of privilege.

This won’t be easy. It will mean questioning almost everything we have always believed about how the world works. It is going to be a messy process. Many of these cultural biases are so ingrained that we act on them mindlessly. Even more troubling is that even when we attempt to fight against these biases, we still do it along contours defined by a worldview that privileges white over black.

This is what I mean; we have dark skinned models who are skinny and wearing make-up and strutting on stages in exactly the same way that white models used to do in the time when all models were white. The only thing that has changed is that we now have black models on events that previously only had white models. This is not progress.

As long as we fail to see that the system that came up with beauty pageants and skinniness and make-up and stage-strutting is the same system that made white beautiful, we have not accomplished anything, not even if all the models became black.

A culture is deeper than its symbols. A culture is also about values, and it is ultimately about worldviews — the lens through which we view and interpret all of life. This is why I don’t believe the way to change a culture is to chip away at each symbol, one symbol at a time until we finally change the underlying worldview.

The only thing this will achieve is a regressive series of “campaigns” that never seem to address the heart of the matter; one day “black is beautiful”, the next day “plump is beautiful”, the following day “burkas are beautiful” and after that “kinky hair is beautiful”… and so on. While such campaigns give us a sense of motion, they are not marks of any meaningful progress, they will never get us to the change we desire.

The change we desire and instinctively crave for when we shout “black is beautiful” is a more radical (radical as in root) change. It is not a change that is color-blind, but a change that sees color through the right lenses and appreciates the diversity of the world without needing to flatten it in order to please or accommodate everyone.

Do you have some ideas on where we can begin in our quest for this kind of cultural change? Or is it a lost cause? Are we just re-arranging furniture on the Titanic? And is there even a point trying to work towards such a cultural reformation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Posted in Commentary, Kenya, Media

I am Sharon Otieno

Sharon Otieno was 26 and in love. The Rongo University student was on a night out with friends when she met the man that would dominate her mind and inbox for months to come.

A charming man

The man was charming. He was kind and good to her. She blushed whenever she spoke about him or saw his name on the caller ID. He was not just friendly to Sharon, he was Sharon’s friend. Despite his busy life as a politician, he always made time to meet Sharon.

He bought her gifts and flowers and took her to fancy restaurants. He was quite romantic. Sharon fell for the man. And she believed that he had fallen for her, because that’s what he said. She could also tell it from how he looked at her, and how he always referred to her as his sweetheart and “baby”.

You see, the man always kept his word. He was never physically abusive and he never said an unkind word to Sharon. When Sharon told him that she was pregnant, he never suggested abortion. This wasn’t just about sex to him. Instead, he promised to take care of the mother and child. He would always be there for his baby and their baby.

Sharon wasn’t stupid, despite what many people now think and say of her. Sharon did what we all do — she was bold enough to believe in true love. She dared to dream of a happy future with the man she loved. Their age difference wasn’t an issue — people with a much bigger gap between them had lived “happily ever after”. The fact that she was still a student didn’t matter. She was an adult.

A horrifying death

Sharon died afraid and confused. She died a horrifying death, in the hands of savage men that she didn’t even recognise. Sharon died with a thousand questions that she barely had time to articulate. Probably the final and most prominent thought on Sharon’s mind as she breathed her last was “why?”

This is also the question that many of us, in the wake of her demise, are left fiddling with. Strange men and women who have never even heard of Sharon have come up with strange riders to this existential word “Why.”

“Why was a student messing around with men her father’s age? Shouldn’t she have been in school focussing on her education?”

“Why was she involved with a prominent politician if her motive wasn’t to extort money from him and enrich herself out of the man’s misery?”

These whys have confounded many who came across them, especially on social media platforms. However, the larger majority of the whys were kinder to Sharon, more thoughtful and compassionate, even in the midst of the pain and rage.

“Why did anyone think Sharon deserved death?”

“Why take advantage of an innocent and impressionable girl only to end her life in such a cruel manner?”

And while we are at it, “Why is the world so cruel?”

We are Sharon Otieno

There are many dimensions to Sharon’s tragic love story that we will never understand. Yet we should never forget one thing: Sharon was never any more guilty or more foolish than any of us. Sharon’s story is our story.

We, too, will meet men and women that will knock us off our feet and make the world worth living in once more. We will come across men and women that will cause us to stay up late into the night Whatsapping goofy emojis and whispering sweet nothings until we fall asleep.

It won’t matter how rich these people are, as long as we are convinced that they love us and truly care for us. We will get pregnant out of wedlock and choose to keep the baby. We will make plans for our child’s future and stay up late chatting about baby names an the kind of schools we want our child to attend.

Sharon’s story is your story and my story. Her tragedy is our tragedy. Her and her family’s quest for justice is our quest. Her mistakes are our mistakes, and her heart is our heart.

Many more of us are still making and living in decisions much like Sharon’s. We are still falling in love with people the rest of the world believes are wrong for us. Our family and friends have probably tried to talk us out of those relationships, but we believe we know better. What we feel is real. If they truly loved and cared for us they would be on our team.

And many of them are. They are rooting for us. Praying for us. Hoping we will come to our senses and leave the relationship, and at the same time hoping that our relationship will bring lasting happiness.

Monster are us

Despite what we like to believe after the fact: there is no sure way of knowing if a relationship will be bad for you. Despite what we are thinking and saying about the “powerful” people behind Sharon’s death, we would be gravely mistaken to think that we know what monsters look like.

The monsters that walk among us don’t have long sharp canines or thick pointy horns on their heads. Monsters are not always out to get us. Many of them do genuinely fall in love and make sincere promises to marry us and spend the rest of their life with us. Many monsters are usually saints. Until they aren’t.

We would be gravely mistaken to assume we are faultless when it comes to our monster-detection capabilities. You see, it should not come as a surprise that sometimes monsters are us. The men that we write off as monsters after the (tragic) fact are our drinking buddies and “political connections” before the fact.

The man or woman’s political position or wealth or even his marital status have never been guarantees that we will never be happy with them. The heart wants what it wants, and Sharon’s heart made a choice, a choice that, despite her best judgment that it was the right choice, had tragic consequences.

Even as we watch and pick our lessons, may Sharon’s story cause us to be a little kinder with the truth — whatever we conceive it to be. If you have friends or family in Sharon’s position before her death, be there for them now rather than later. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Share your concern even as your cheer them on.

Love them with the truth.