By all accounts, the August 2000 shooting death of Fr. John Kaiser was a political assassination. The body of the seventy-two-year-old Minnesota native who had spent nearly thirty-six years as a Roman Catholic missionary priest in Kenya was found with a shot in the back of the head near his pickup truck. It had been left abandoned on a rural road northwest of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Kaiser was a human rights activist who frequently denounced corruption and immorality in public, naming names and citing facts. He had recently accused a powerful Kenyan minister of state of sexually violating a minor. The girl had reportedly sought the priest’s counsel, and Fr. Kaiser told her to contact a lawyer. A case was opened against the cabinet minister, who was charged with statutory rape.
The Kenyan government claimed the priest committed suicide, saying a shotgun was found near his body and a round of ammunition in his pocket. But it would be extraordinarily difficult for a person to shoot himself in the back of the head with a shotgun, and the pathologist’s reports fixed the blast that killed him as coming from a distance.
Political assassination is a feature of modern Kenyan life. “Who in Kenya is desperate enough to kill Fr. Kaiser, and why now?” the head of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission asked, adding, “They could only be powerful people who saw him as a moral thorn in the flesh.” In one instance, Kaiser accused two government ministers of fomenting ethnic violence in 1992 and 1993 when an estimated two thousand Kikuyu people died in the internal conflicts.
Kaiser’s outspoken advocacy for human rights and in particular the rights of his parishioners earned him many powerful enemies. He had received death threats and had recently assisted two women from his parish to contact the Kenyan Federation of Women Lawyers after they said another cabinet minister had raped them. “Fr. Kaiser always loved the truth,” a Kenyan bishop said. “Because he witnessed to the truth, and some powerful people feared the truth, he was killed.”
A parishioner from Kaiser’s church in Lolgorian said, “I feel very badly offended because he has always assisted my children. He was always very helpful to the congregation. Because of that, we loved him very much.”
At the martyred priest’s funeral in Nairobi’s basilica, Apostolic Nuncio Giovanni Tonnucci told the congregation, “The church, through pitiless violence, has once more been deprived of one of her ministers. Let no one have any doubts about it: we are celebrating a religious occasion; we are reflecting on a religious assassination, not a political one. Fr. Kaiser has been murdered because he was, and in the eternity of God still is, a Catholic priest who preached the Gospel. Those who killed him, those who planned his killing, wanted to silence the voice of the Gospel.”
The priest’s life and martyrdom highlight an eternal dilemma for the Christian. Should the Christian life be one of silent prayer, avoiding conflict and public positions on injustices that a single individual is powerless to do much about? Or is the way of Jesus to confront principalities and powers, as Jesus did the traditional authorities, who then caused him to be crucified?
O God, your faithful servant John has gone to his rest. May the example of his stubborn courage in the face of oppressive power be an example to those who uphold human rights and human dignity in Kenya and elsewhere. Turn the leaders of all nations to a vision of your kingdom, where all your children may dwell in safety, laughter, and peace. Amen.
- “U.S. Priest Killed in Kenya,” Christian Century, September 13, 2000.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.