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Justice, Chotororo Style


In this series, thoseinvolved with CLC foreign missions profile one aspect of our overseas endeavors.

Imagine this: you are conducting the Sunday worship service, completely unaware that a commotion is brewing somewhere outside the church. The faint chanting of an impromptu band of vigilantes draws incrementally closer. They all started their day as ordinary citizens. Some are shopkeepers, others farmers, many idle men who sit at the junction of main roads and tell stories to pass the time. Today all of these people share a common purpose, at least for a few hours. They want justice, and they want it now. There will be no calls for the police, no due process, and no jury of one’s peers—well, maybe jury and executioners all in one. A man had stolen, or at least was presumed guilty of stealing, a couple of cows. This is no small matter, since two cows could make or break an entire family’s income. Upon hearing the burglary report, pure democracy was sweeping into action. What the people wanted was someone to die for his crimes, and they were bent on getting just that. Death by stoning would be the preferred method of capital punishment.

Bang, bang, bang! “Please let me in! I… I have never been baptized and I feel the need right now!” The person presumed guilty is at your church door and he pleads for refuge inside. What would you tell him? How would you respond in such a situation? Of course you should let him in, as the mob will not follow him into a house of worship in order to kill him. Once he is inside and safe, you can then determine if he truly has been baptized or not, then you can proceed.

This scenario was presented to the seminary students who met in Chotororo, Kenya, during a pastoral theology (also known as practical theology) lesson. Pastor Joseph was in charge of teaching this class because he had several decades of experience under his belt. Practical theology involves situations that pastors deal with, such as steps to take when you receive a call, how to conduct in-home visits, and how to handle certain counseling situations, to cite a few examples. The practical matters that confront a pastor in Kenya vary widely from those experienced by American clergy!

As I sat off to the side correcting papers from the classes I was more suited to teach, I was able to take in all of this. Upon first hearing it, I thought it seemed a bit far-fetched; but after I’d spent more time in Kenya, I realized that vigilante action is a common occurrence. There is an effort by the government to encourage people to notify their local police if they witness a crime being committed. One such commercial on national television portrays a woman at a bus stop having her purse stolen and screaming as the would-be thief tries to run away. The crowd around her stirs into action and a burly man grabs a large stone nearby while two others grab the pickpocket. The public service announcement comes to a close just before the stone has a chance to deliver its swift justice.

The events of the morning after that class took place dispelled the notion that this was purely a hypothetical situation. As I arrived at the Bible training institution up in the hills of Chotororo, I could see, in a neighboring field, two men on the ground surrounded by several agitated locals. Two police officers were keeping the people at bay to prevent them from executing mob justice. Their crime? You guessed it: grand theft cattle!

Michael Gurath is pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and a visiting missionary to Africa.