F&A Series: Mishpat as a Counter-Narrative to Nationalism

Dr. Nash’s speciality is in a constructive approach to historical theology. Her doctorate argued that an enslaved woman was an overlooked theologian who queried theodical issues in Nineteenth Century America. Currently, she has expanded this examination to include nationalist rhetoric that’s religiously inflected. Dr Nash is a visiting Research Fellow for the Leeds Centre of Religion and Public Life. 

People of African descent embody a plethora of radical faith and activist traditions used to counter racial and ethnic disparities. This blog places the ethnic nationalism, espoused by the Kikuyu peasant farmers of the “Mau Mau Revolt” (1952-1960), into conversation with American nationalism today.

While the revolt is known to play a pivotal role in Kenyan independence, it is also widely seen as an anti-Christian, violent rebellion against British colonial rule. Despite this, the rebellion represents an important historic example of faith and activism deployed to achieve liberation. These Kikuyu farmers defined themselves as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). [1] Their ultimate goal of liberation is largely undisputed. The Kikuyu is an ethnic group, and those members who participated in KLFA used a nationalist rhetoric, religiously ensconced, as revealed in their prayers, songs, and oaths.[2] It is this dynamic of faith and religious praxis, as foundational to their nationalist beliefs, that demand further attention.

These men and women often reframed Christian belief systems to argue for their own spiritual leadership such as replacing the European depiction of Jesus with Jomo Kenyatta. The KLFA distanced themselves from a perpetual sense of victimhood and reimaged themselves as empowered to operate as full citizens through their rebellion against poverty, lack of political representation, and land expulsion. The armed conflict, however, resulted in the deaths of 200 British police and army soldiers, but over 1,800 African civilians were killed. KLFA rebels killed are estimated as being as high as 20,000.

The KLFA’s ethnic nationalism, meaning a form of nationalist rhetoric intended to preserve an ethnic group, was employed to strengthen goals of self government in Kenya. While nationalist rhetoric articulates a belief in the strength of nation-building, it often reinforces structural inequity. For the KLFA, there was an obvious gendered disparity. Despite the liberationist goals, women who participated were seldom recognized as official leaders. Similarly, we see U.S. nationalism as promulgating racial disparity today.

The U.S. currently engages what is, purportedly, a “civic nationalism” promulgated through verbalization of patriotism via the lens of law abiding behavior and American exceptionalism. Yet, the deployment of those ideas are racially based. For example, though law abiding, 27 year old Breonna Taylor’s life ended when police officers used militaristic training to storm her home after midnight for crimes she did not commit. George Floyd, though a U.S. citizen, was killed over the accusation of a petty crime, ultimately denying him Due Process. In these instances, the laws are not reinforced for people of African descent in the same way they are largely enforced for White citizens.

Those who use the rhetoric of “American patriotism,” are often proving that they are actually proponents of racial nationalism. In the U.S., the “Patriot Front” is one example of a racial supremacist group which uses the word “patriot” to shield their true intent. Likewise, the “Christian Identity” group is a neo-confederate, racist group which advocates Whites, and not Jews, are the true Israelites. (See the Southern Poverty Law Center for additional information.)

Disparities between nationalism and inclusivity for its citizens, are revealed in examining both this historical antecedent, and the current American nationalist rhetoric. The ultimate reliance upon a we–they paradigm makes nationalism untenable. Faith is best placed into action when seeking ways to achieve justice for all.

As a consistent Biblical principle of justice making, mishpat is located over 400 times in the Bible. Mishpat, the Hebrew word for justice, raises a social consciousness to remember the most vulnerable in society. For various Bible writers, they are: the immigrant, the poor, the widows, and the orphans. [3] Each culture has a core of vulnerable people and, faith is activated or expressed, through pursuit of justice. [4]

While this principle is Biblical, its historical antecedents transcend Christianity, including Hebraic and near Eastern contexts. Balancing societal goals with protections for the vulnerable among us, defines an ideal social order which, in our recent history, has become increasingly dismantled. Arguably, current protests function as an outcry for humanity to re-establish that order of justice.

By practicing mishpat, we resist the nationalist urge to split ourselves along such lines as race and ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability, economic status, and religion. By cultivating a faith and activism dedicated to justice-making, regardless of background, we can actively seek a more just world for us all.

Written By: Dr. CL Nash

Image Credit: Jothee @flickr 


[1] In keeping with their own naming, I will reference the Mau Mau as the KLFA.

[2] Renison Githige. “The Religious Factor- in Mau Mau with Particular Reference to Mau Mau Oaths,” (Thesis), University of Nairobi, 1978, http://erepository.uonbi.ac.ke/handle/11295/26475 .

[3] Examples of this are throughout the Bible but can be found in De. 16:14, Ps. 94:6, Jer. 22:3 and Zer. 7:10 to name a few instances of these four vulnerable groups listed in the Bible.

[4] A quick read can be found by the Dean of Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University. See Bradley Artson. Huffington Post,Mishpat Ve-Hesed: Love and Justice,” November 24, 2013.

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