Pastor Paul Mackenzie Nthenge of Good News International Church is accused of having persuaded several dozen members to fast until death.
by Massimo Introvigne
Some fifty bodies have been exhumed by the Kenyan police in the Shakahola forest, near Malindi. There may be more. The authorities claim they belong to members of Good News International Church, whose pastor, Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, has been arrested and accused of persuading members to starve themselves and their children to death in order to “meet Jesus.” Mackenzie denies that this is the case, and has started a hunger strike in jail.
As it often happens in these cases, the story is somewhat confused. The police and local media both say that the victims fasted to death following Mackenzie’s instructions and that “pathologists will take DNA samples and conduct tests to determine whether the victims died of starvation”—or not.
Unlike anti-cultists and some international media, which have immediately applied to the incident the faulty paradigms of “cults” and “brainwashing,” before even knowing what Mackenzie’s church was all about, we have no idea whether the founder of Good News International Church really preached fasting until death as a way to quickly reach heaven. If he did, he should clearly be prosecuted, and religious liberty would not be a valid defense for having caused the death of several dozen innocent followers.
On the other hand, we do have some ideas about what kind of church Mackenzie was operating. Some media got the references right, but then wrongly used the incident to indict other groups that have nothing to do with it.
Mackenzie’s Good News International Church is part of an informal network of churches recognizing the authority of Kentucky-born preacher William Marrion Branham (1909–1965) as God’s prophet for our times. Branham emerged from the word of Oneness Pentecostals (i.e., Pentecostals who baptize in the name of Jesus Christ only rather than in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) to preach a series of peculiar doctrines who made him a heretic in the eyes of most Evangelical Christians, including most Pentecostals.
The so-called Branhamites (a label they do not like) may be some 100,000 around the world, and they disagree among themselves on many issues, including the exact role of Branham in God’s plan of salvation and who are exactly the descendants of the sexual relationship between Satan and Eve that Branham denounced, evil people who have in themselves “the seed of the Serpent.” Some Branhamites are white supremacists who consider those of African descent as carrying “the seed of the Serpent.” Others are not racists, and regard a variety of people, most of them whites, from atheist scientists to feminists, as being the real carriers of “the seed of the Serpent.”
After the Malindi incident, I have read attempts to connect Pastor Mackenzie, an African, to white supremacism and racism. Indeed, some Branhamites are racists, but not all. An African anti-black racist would not be an impossibility, and we have seen stranger things happening in the field of religion, but the Branham connection is not enough to come to this conclusion.
As other Branhamites—but, again, not all—and several fundamentalist Christians, Mackenzie is a radical critic of modern education as being materialistic and anti-religious, and is prone to conspiracy theories. He was arrested several times, although at least once he was found not guilty of promoting “radicalization” and persuading families not to send children to school.
In 2019, Kenya adopted Huduma Namba, a biometric ID system. Mackenzie saw in the Huduma Namba the “Mark of the Beast” of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, echoing conspiracy theories criticizing other chip-based ID system common among fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere. This led Mackenzie to be arrested and accused of operating a “cult” and “brainwashing” his followers. He was released and decided to retreat to the remote Shakahola forest area. If the current accusations are true, his would be a textbook case of amplification of deviance.
At that time, Mackenzie was supported by other Kenyan churches and pastors, most of whom did not agree with his theology and theories but saw in his arrest a violation of religious liberty. Among them were the Jesus Christians, members of an Australian-based conservative Christian movement, which has had for many years a presence in Kenya, although they made it clear that Mackenzie’s religious ideas were very much different from their own.
Appreciating their support, Mackenzie invited a lay member of the Jesus Christians to speak at one of his meetings. Coincidentally, when news about the incident in Kenya broke out, I was in Australia visiting the Jesus Christians. I could thus hear directly from them the story of how they met Mackenzie in 2019. They did not hear from him any theories about radical fasting or the virtue of starving themselves to death.
The Jesus Christians, on the other hand, are well-known critics of China, and listened with sympathy to arguments that Chinese technology was used for the chip-based ID documents in Kenya, within the framework of relationships between China and Kenya and other African countries they were not alone in seeing as too strict and dangerous.
The Jesus Christians have their enemies as well. It would of course be preposterous to attack them based on the fact that, like several other religionists in Kenya, they regarded the 2019 arrest of Mackenzie over his anti-Huduma-Namba criticism as a threat to religious liberty, and accepted an invitation to speak at an event organized by Good News International Church.
Mackenzie may be or not be guilty of manslaughter or homicide by preaching fasting to death. If he is, it is important to point out that neither dozens of Branhamite churches throughout the world, whatever one may think of their theology, nor the Jesus Christians and others who protested Mackenzie’s arrest in 2019 with arguments of religious liberty, were involved in his preaching about extreme fasting.
While principles of freedom of religion or belief cannot protect Mackenzie if he really led his disciples to death by starvation, they should protect organizations that had in the past relations with Good News International Church—but never had anything to do with its real or alleged theology of fasting—from obnoxious accusations of guilt by association.