Please Make a Movie about David Gitari
The Kenyan archbishop's life is 100x more badass than anything on TV.
This post is pretty simple: David Gitari is an absolute legend I have been reading about, and I want to give two anecdotes about his life, each of which would make for a solid film. Gitari was an archbishop in the Anglican Church of Kenya who stood up to not one but two dictators and lived to tell the tale, and even just the sheer audacity with which he defended the rights of ordinary people would make him the perfect action movie star.
David Gitari entered the national stage in 1975 as a priest, asked to give a series of six lectures on national radio about "the sanctity of human life".
This was a more challenging task than it might first appear. Popular minister JM Kariuki had recently been murdered, almost certainly at dictator Jomo Kenyatta's order. Society was tense, closed doors hiding a constant stream of fearful and discontent whispers. The Anglican church (hereafter "the Church") was in an uneasy truce with Kenyatta's KANU party, avoiding overt criticism in exchange for the right to continue its local social and economic programs.
It takes little effort to imagine the sermon Gitari was "supposed to" deliver: perhaps an oblique reference to the "difficulties facing the country", but primarily a retreat into safe, traditionally Christian themes of personal piety and individualized salvation. Spiritual words of peace and comfort without taking sides or rocking the boat.
But David Gitari was not here for a truce.
David Gitari was here to tell the truth.
So David Gitari gave six lectures on the biblical story of Cain, a man who tries to kill his brother when nobody is watching. Gitari emphasized that Cain had killed Abel for material, human reasons, and lambasted those who would take away life for political gain. He spoke pointedly and directly about Kariuki's stances on poverty and government-sanctioned land theft, proclaiming that the defense of the poor would would not die with Kariuki. With a mix of prophetic anger and deep biblical insight, he proclaimed:
When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asked him, ‘Where is Abel your brother’? And Cain answered: ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper’? And God said to Cain, ‘What have you done Cain? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground and now you are cursed…’. Today God is asking Kenyans, ‘Where is your brother JM Kariuki?’ And those who assassinated him or planned his assassination are saying, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
Speaking publicly about the murders of an authoritarian government is not safe, and Gitari soon found himself "invited" to "discuss" his views. Throughout an undeniably terrifying interrogation by agents of a government unafraid to "disappear" people, he continued to drop one-liners like the badass action hero he was:
"Your sermons this week are very disturbing,” one of the seven men grilling him said. "Your reference to Cain killing his brother Abel may make listeners assume you are referring to JM Kariuki's assassination."
Gitari responded, "If my sermons were disturbing, then they had served their purpose as the gospel of Jesus Christ is very disturbing, especially for sinners."
Twelve years later, Kenyatta was dead and a new tyrant, Daniel arap Moi, had consolidated power. In May of 1987, he announced that he was changing the constitution to further restrict the (already fraudulent) elections: only members of the ruling KANU party would be allowed to vote.
Gitari responded with a public sermon titled "Harassed and Helpless", an exposition of Matthew 9:35-36:
And Jesus went about all cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Gitari's translation, from his "Church and Politics in Kenya"
Gitari was not content with vague platitudes about "the helpless" or kind, non-confrontational visions of "compassion". He called out specific groups by name and was explicit about what was being done to them: coffee farmers whose union was being supplanted by Moi loyalists, the poor who could not afford KANU fees and were losing what little enfranchisement they had left, the ordinary Kenyans suffering the painful effects of economic inflation and growing inequality.
Gitari's audience included a number of clergy and high-profile church leaders. With characteristic fire, he reminded them of Jesus' words: "the harvest is many but the workers are few". The harvest, in Gitari's telling, consisted of every single injustice in every corner of the world, from the mistreatment of the poor to the consolidation of the one-party state. He called upon the church to "follow in the [footsteps] of Jesus Christ” and to go out and preach and teach in “every market, every secondary school, every primary school, every dispensary, and every village". The church would be the very hands and feet of Jesus, ready to fight back against every sort of corruption or mistreatment.
This was not popular with the Kenyan government, who felt that the church should focus on the spiritual aspects of life and not get involved in "political matters". KANU-aligned newspapers began calling for Gitari's arrest and implying that he was an enemy of the state. A local KANU chapter sent "rowdy youths" to his next sermon, attempting both to derail the church service and intimidate Gitari into silence. Gitari continued to preach, explicitly referencing those who had threatened him and reiterating the role of the church as seeking justice at any personal cost.
On June 21st, Bishop John Mahiani hosted a traditional "civic service" in the town of Nyeri celebrating the work of local politicians. The week's text was Joshua 1, a passage about God selecting Joshua to lead his people, and the people wishing him strength and courage. As they did every year, local officials and dignitaries arrived en masse and prepared to be blessed and thanked for their service.
Unbeknownst to the politicans, the bishop had secretly invited Gitari to preach in his place. Bursting into the church, Gitari announced that the week's text would be changed to Daniel 6, the story of a truth-telling servant of God thrown into a lion's den by a capricious tyrant. The man who'd volunteered to read the passage aloud refused, blanching at the possibility of appearing subversive.
Gitari, having no such qualms, read the text himself and gave an unbelievably pointed sermon. Sentence by sentence, he walked his listeners through the story of Daniel, "a hardworking civil servant, honest, capable [who] was removed unjustly from his position [...] due to tribalism and corruption" and Darius, a king whose jealous advisors convince him to pass a law forbidding the worship of anyone but the king. This law, as the advisors planned but to the king's chagrin, results in Daniel being thrown into a lion's den where he is ultimately rescued by God.
Gitari drew a parallel between the advisors' law and Moi's new voting restrictions, pointing out that "King Darius made the mistake of allowing the constitution to be changed before this matter which affected fundamental human rights was thoroughly discussed by all concerned" before concluding that "Daniel was in effect telling the king that when the constitution is illegally changed so as to interfere with a fundamental human right [...] that new law can be disobeyed." (Quotes from pages 200 and 201 of this book.)
The sermon exploded. Gitari's words reached not only the church's attendees, but the entire nation as the media rushed to cover them. Newspapers that were legally prohibited from criticizing the government found the loophole they were looking for, reporting Gitari's words as "news of national importance' without officially endorsing them. KANU-backed publications published denunciations that only helped a debate that was supposed to be illegal spread further. Letters to the editor poured in on both sides of the debate. The government demanded that Gitari apologize, he responded that he had no apologies to make.
As tensions rose higher and higher, with more and more Kenyans flocking to Gitari's defense, Moi was forced to concede Gitari's right to speak, if nothing else. Kenya is a democratic country, he said. "Let the bishop speak."
And he spoke.
Gitari's fight continued. Kenya remained an officially one-party state for a couple more years, until 1991 when resistance by anti-KANU leaders (including Gitari) forced the government to repeal the constitutional amendment. Gitari lived more many more years and did many more things. Once he spoke to six thousand people about Moi's corruption, forcing him to escape a hundred government goons breaking into his home seeking to kidnap him. Gitari was terrified and forced to stop prea-- actually, no. He preached again the next week to FIFTEEN THOUSAND PEOPLE on the same subject.
His article "Church and Politics in Kenya" is a good introduction to his thinking, and worth applying to your own context, whatever that might be.
He passed away in 2013 after a brief illness.