The makeshift church had only five people. The pastor held a mic and was preaching at the top of his voice. He was a little hoarse and the service was several hours to go. It was early Sunday morning and the service was planned to end at 2 pm having started at 8 Am. Another church nearby was finishing its night vigil which was marked by loud preaching, music and drumming. There were at most 14 people in attendance. Both churches believed that they are a Bible-believing church and what they were doing was part of their call to preach the Gospel. The neighbours were getting testy though. Most of them had had a long week. They wanted to rest and bond. They had not slept well at night and now their morning was taken too. When they raised their concern with the two churches, the church leadership took a victim or persecuted mindset. They claimed the neighbours did not want to hear the Gospel. That they were persecuting them but “happy are those who are persecuted…” The neighbours wondered, what about the love of neighbour?
The priest stood pensively at the pulpit and reminded the congregation for the umpteenth time that the budget of building a new church (structure) was 80 million. He exhorted them to give generously. It was necessary that the new Church be done so that God is worshipped in a decent and beautiful place. Great so far.
I have watched and listened to announcements like this in the different Catholic parishes that I have been to. Parish churches worth millions. Adoration chapels and priest houses that are the envy of hotels. Of course, let me be clear, this is not everywhere. This phenomenon is not limited to the Catholic Church and at least not in Nairobi only. Many other Churches are building expensive structures and buying expensive vehicles for their pastors and religious leaders. I am particular to the Catholic Church because that is my home today and always.
Beyond Christianity, one can easily witness the same worrying phenomenon in Islam. It is easier to get funding to put up an expensive mosque in the most remote of places on earth. If you made a mockery of the Prophet or Koran, the reaction would be severe. Such kind of reaction is not uncommon among the Hindu, Islam, Christianity and many major religions with a preeminent founder and a Holy Writ.
What is the first greatest commandment that I refer to here? Jesus summarized the messages of the law and the prophets by referencing Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. Here are some of the references:
Mathew, 22: 36-40:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Mark, 12: 29-31:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
In Luke, 10: 25–28, it states,
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” The man answered, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
In the Gospel of John, 13:34-35, a similar message states:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
One might wonder at this point whether I am questioning the teaching of Christ. Most definitely not. My problem is with the obsession, here defined as an imbalanced and compulsive focus on a single issue or event however important, to the detriment of other important aspects. The Churches are full of how, in relation to the First Commandment, we should worship God, liturgies are clear, the ethical requirements that God commands are emphasized and great sacrifices made in the name of God. Religions are willing to build expensive places of worship and defend their scriptures with blood. But what of the second greatest commandment? Where are the sacrifices in relation to that commandment?
Christian scriptures say that anyone who claims that they love God who they cannot see but does not love their neighbour who they can see is a liar (1 John 4:20).
How can a parish build a parish structure costing 80 million whereas the same parish community has never been pushed to ensure that none of their members goes to bed hungry, none are without shelter, clothing and water, none have their family members stuck in hospitals with no one to visit or with unpayable hospital bills, that none of the parish community members is unjustly in prison or never been visited? How can it be that a Church does not think twice when it comes to contributing to a structure of stone whereas there are children among its congregation who are not in school due to lack of school fees? Are these actions not the love of neighbour? I confess that I have not been to a single Catholic parish that ever was being pushed to raise millions of money to pay school fees for their members or pay hospital bills. I don’t know a friend who has such kind of an experience. Maybe they are there, but such will be the exception and not the rule. Almost always, great funding is always geared towards the pastor’s car, house, or parish church. This is not limited to the Catholic Church. In fact, in some instances, it seems worse in some other denominations.
As I had argued earlier, I have observed that rich Muslim countries are willing to donate millions of dollars to erect a mosque in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Many of these will donate to movements that defend the Quran and the Islamic way of life. However, when Muslim refugees are running away from violence and desolation, very few of these countries open their doors generously. There are very few donations from the United Arab Emirates or other rich majority Muslim countries towards the majority Muslim refugees camps spread around Europe and other Middle Eastern countries. This, to me, is an obsession with the First Greatest Commandment. It is wrong and it makes a mockery of religion and arms those who think that religion is nothing more than delusion and control of the weak-minded.
I was and continue to be appalled at the silence of religious leaders as the poor are struggling with food prices. Even as food prices go up, there are parishes that are pushing poor congregants to build expensive clergy houses and churches. When high school students were striking due to struggles with food and being mistreated, the Church was largely quiet. The Church has not raised its voice strongly to demand that the government ends its corruption that hurts the poor the most and create protections for the poor who have been hit by the economic impact of Covid-19.
Where is the love of the neighbour? The neighbour that you can see?
You can bet your money that if the issues of homosexuality or abortion came up, the Church leaders will raise their voice vociferously in denunciation. Is it any wonder that people might be accepting of these moral issues just to spite the Church which never stood with them? Is it possible that the biggest reason that young people are leaving the Church is not because of secularism but a sense that the Church, and especially the shepherds, do not practice what they preach? If you ask me, it is a big yes.
If you go to Europe, the landscape is littered with magnificent Churches that must have cost an arm and a leg to build. But if you go there on days and moments of worship, those churches are barely full and most of the attendees are the elderly. Other dioceses have either abandoned some of these churches or sold them since they no longer have the financial muscle to maintain them. A number of these churches have been turned by their buyers into casinos, entertainment centers, and museums among others. How did this happen? Let me give it a guess…
The pastors and priests of the parish Churches in years past were obsessed with the First Greatest Commandment to the detriment of the Second Greatest Commandment. They did not balance both. They build structures and forgot to care for souls. They cared more about rules than relationships. They leaned heavily on rites and liturgy and forgot about the real lived experiences of the people. In short, they loved God who they cannot see without loving their neighbours who they can see. And so, the neighbours left. I have a hunch that God is not so pleased with our choosing which commandment to obey. I admit: It is easier to love God because He is not here and now and so we can love Him on our own terms. But loving our neighbour is difficult because our neighbour is here and now and it is not easy to love them on our own terms. We have to love them as they are. And that is the Law.