The Kenyan starvation cult case is tragic. It's also all too familiar.
Religious leaders often use God as leverage to convince gullible followers to make terrible decisions
This newsletter is free, but it’s only able to sustain itself due to the support I receive from a small percentage of regular readers. Would you please consider becoming one of those supporters? You can use the button below to subscribe to Substack or use my usual Patreon page!
By now, you’ve likely seen the horrific headlines out of Kenya: At least 90 bodies have been found in shallow graves, the result of a Christian cult that told members they would meet Jesus after starving themselves to death.
The body count will likely rise, though there’s also a growing list of people who have been rescued (34 and counting). A manager for Kenya’s Red Cross told CNN that 259 people have been reported missing by their families, including 130 children. It’s not clear how many of those people might be part of the religious group.
The victims were all members of the Good News International Church, led by Paul Mackenzie Nthenge. Police began looking into the graves after receiving a tip that the bodies were buried in the eastern part of the country.
Mackenzie was arrested by police on April 14, shouting “Praise Jesus” as he was escorted away. The televangelist began his church in 2003, and he’s been a lightning rod for controversy ever since. That’s mostly because he has a habit of urging members to dissociate from the rest of the world. He’s told members to quit school, leave their jobs, stop eating “worldly food,” refuse medical treatment, and destroy their government documents (like IDs and birth certificates). They were also told not to speak with people outside the cult if they had any intention of getting to Heaven.
What makes this whole tragedy even sadder is how Mackenzie could have been stopped earlier because everyone knew he was trouble. Just last month, on March 23, he was arraigned in court after allegedly telling parents to starve and suffocate two children; he was then released on a $74 (USD) bond. He had also been arrested in 2019 on separate charges involving the death of children, but once again, he paid the bond and was set free. Both cases are ongoing. In 2017, he was arrested over his anti-education preaching, though that case didn’t go anywhere.
It’s not clear if the recent wave of starvation-related deaths began after his release in March or if some of those bodies had been underground even longer. This quotation from a local politician is haunting:
“The month of March was set aside for all the children to die. The month of April was set aside for the women to die. May was for the men to die,” said [representative to the county assembly Samson Zia] Kahindi, based on the questioning of a surviving cult member.
Mackenzie claims he shut the church down in 2019, as if that should absolve him of any connection to these fatalities. There are unverified reports that some members of the group attempted to escape, only to be killed. This is based on the fact that at least one body recovered from a grave appeared to be otherwise healthy and not emaciated.
[Kenya] President William Ruto on Monday said the cult leader belongs in prison as “what is being witnessed in Shakahola is akin to terrorism”.
I have no idea what Mackenzie may have said to convince dozens of people to take their own lives as a precondition to meeting Jesus, but I would caution people against treating this story like something that happens over there. Kenya has long fostered religious cults, yes, however there’s nothing strange about a religious leader convincing people to harm their bodies (often in the name of Jesus).
President Ruto added that Mackenzie “pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal.” But the truth is he can be both. What he (allegedly) did wasn’t “un-Christian.” It was just unorthodox.
In the U.S., there are Christians who use prayer as a substitute for medical intervention—”faith-healing”—and children have paid the price for it with their lives. There are Christians who justify child abuse as an extension of biblical wisdom, “training up” their kids with a rod lest they be spoiled. There were Christian and Orthodox Jewish leaders during the pandemic who ignored safety precautions and crammed themselves indoors, without masks or social distancing. There’s no shortage of religious leaders urging members to avoid life-saving vaccines. You could even argue that this applies to pastors who think a pre-teen rape victim ought to bear her attacker’s baby no matter what it may do to her body.
The body count in Kenya is horrific because the numbers are increasing in large batches, relatively quickly. But we should be similarly outraged by the slow drip faith-based deaths occurring in the U.S.
The idea that a religious leader could convince followers to put their own lives in danger, using faith as the brainwashing weapon, isn’t limited to cults or foreign countries. It happens in our backyard, too. It happens all the time. It’s not limited to one religion. It’s not limited to well-defined cults (which mix poisonous substances with food or drink rather than starvation). It may even be more pernicious in certain situations because some behaviors—like vaccine denial—put other people in harm’s way.
And that’s before we even get into the Christian Nationalists attempting to legislate their archaic beliefs in order to cause maximum damage.
If Mackenzie is found guilty of these deaths, he deserves to be punished accordingly. Religious freedom cannot be an excuse for this kind of irreversible damage. But what he appears to have done isn’t a stretch from what countless religious leaders do all the time. Using God as leverage to convince gullible followers to make terrible decisions is, unfortunately, all too familiar.
If you appreciated this article, please subscribe to my newsletter for free or share this post on Reddit, Facebook, or the godawful Bird app.