Profiteering Prophets and Social Redemption
Posted By Osamede Osunde
Nigeria is probably the most religious nation in the world. Its landscape is dotted with spires, domes and turrets. Its noisy metropolitan areas teem with churches and mosques and undulate to calls to prayer and evangelical music. Enraptured worshippers contribute significantly to the unhealthy decibel levels of some of our cities. Among its citizenry are many for whom a pilgrimage to Mecca or Jerusalem is a badge of religious devotion sought after with great zeal. Individuals sport religious appellations like pastor, deacon and Alhaji as both religious emblems and social ranks in a society obsessed with titles.
The most prominent aspect of Nigeria’s religious revival is what the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) once called an ‘evangelical boom’- an explosive multiplication of churches and clerics which began in the early nineties and surged on into the mainstream embracing young upward mobile middleclass suburbanites. That boom has today become part of our contemporary culture. Being born again is now socially acceptable and even politically correct in some quarters. Religious billboards and banners are prominent features of outdoor advertising.
But the spread of churches, mosques and clerics has been accompanied by a growth of a far less desirable kind. Although many fail to connect the two social trends, the religious boom has been paralleled by a decline in moral values creating an intriguing spectacle of more religion and less morality. This is evinced by Nigeria’s abysmal rating on the global corruption index and its rating as the most religious nation on earth. There is a profound dissonance between the spread of pop religion and the moral decline that has promoted corruption from a malaise confined to the rarefied heights of governance to a full blown social plague.
Many observers are quick to point out the gulf between the Nigerian state and the citizenry. Few seem to have discerned that a similar chasm exists between pop religion and the contemporary social reality. In other words, Nigerian faithfuls live in a bifurcated reality; on one hand partaking in a common social experience as Nigerians while on the other hand functioning as believers in controlled environments provided in their churches and mosques. The net result is that the values and virtues ostensibly imparted by these creeds are hermetically sealed off from social reality. For all the religious fervour in the nation, faith has little or no social expression.
In my opinion Pop Pentecostalism chiefly exemplifies the paradox posed by this bizarre compartmentalization. Pop Pentecostalism is my generic term for the popular ecclesiastical subculture loosely classified as ‘born again’ movements. It is a cross denominational phenomenon that embraces even the erstwhile orthodox institutions with its creedal emphasis on an oracular authority figure, miracles and materialism.
The typical clerical figure of pop Pentecostalism is a sharply dressed, suave, smooth talking televangelist who dispenses miracles and prophesies untold wealth to his flock in return for their votive offerings. He cuts the picture of affluential aloofness, apparently impervious to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life in Nigeria; vagaries which his admiring flock are all too painfully familiar with. The none too subtle subtext of his ministry is that they too can be like him; they too can ascend to a plateau of spiritual invincibility and financial security if they will do as he says and pay the price literally. This is the face of pop Pentecostalism.
The gospel of materialism has unlimited appeal in a country where so many are reeling from poverty and hardship. The decline in values which has made wealth, material acquisition and status the indicators of success has made the urgency of this message even more acute. The convoluted processes of our institutions and the absence of due process have made the pop Pentecostalism’s prophets virtually indispensable as facilitators of divine intervention.
But why is all this important at all?
While observers tend to depict the problem of Nigeria as one of governance, it is really best understood within the framework of a unified field theory that takes into cognizance the failures of various institutions such as the family and religious bodies. As a potentially powerful force for positive change, pop Pentecostalism must be dissected to ascertain its part in Nigeria’s social ferment. The problems of Nigeria will not be solved solely by sound economic and political programs. There is also a need for a re-engineering of our value system in order to initiate a true national rebirth. The re-engineering of a society’s values is the preserve of religious bodies. However our society persists in an ethical free fall despite what some people claim to be an ongoing religious revival.
In truth, the doctrines being trumpeted by pop Pentecostalism are part of the Nigerian problem.
A religious movement can develop a narcissistic obsession with its own mythology. Its adherents can become blinded by a creed of materialistic self-involvement to the problems of a society which they are meant to heal. Compartmentalization in such a movement can become the engine for a conveyor belt of schizoid believers who sport two or more personalities to deal with their bifurcation of reality. This is what has befallen pop Pentecostalism. As a movement it is bereft of any redemptive impact on society and is thus useless as an agent of change. It has in fact, now come to embody some of the worst attributes of our nation.
Sometimes the pace of events which shape the social, economic and political reality may overtake the pace of developments within a religious movement. When this happens, the movement loses gravity as it were and begins to rear adherents that are out of sync with reality. Movements respond to the disorientation occasioned by this loss of sync in different ways.
Firstly, there is the response of archaism_ a resort to romanticizing and reliving a glorious past. Adherents are exhorted to long wistfully for the good old days, the old time revival of the sweet by and by. The faithful are conditioned to pine for stained glass and gothic architecture; to relive the past while never confronting the present. Such movements quickly fossilize on the fringes of the flux of social change.
Secondly, there is the response of eschatological escapism. This is an apocalyptic belief that society is condemned to self-destruction. Existing social conditions are cited to bolster the argument that ‘the end is nigh.’ There is nothing left for the faithful other than to remain in suspended animation awaiting their mass evacuation from this planet by their saviour. This view is similar to the beliefs of certain cults abroad whose members believe that any day now a spaceship bearing Elvis Presley will arrive our planet’s orbit to pick them up.
The third response is that of mysticism and is the preferred option of pop Pentecostalism. This is evinced by the unhealthy over emphasis on the esoteric - holy ghost fire, witches and wizards and fetish media. This form of spiritism is vastly appealing in a society whose cultural inclinations traditionally tend towards fetishism. In fact, the allure of pop Pentecostalism is rooted in its syncretism-the mixture of religious elements from diverse sacral traditions to create an all purpose panacea. Today’s super pastors are not unlike the witch doctors and Babalawos of yore and are regarded with awe as custodians of the arcane formulae for controlling the hands of God. In a society suffering from abdication of responsibility at all levels, pop Pentecostalism’s prophets fulfill the important function of providing scapegoats. Witches, wizards, demons and even God himself can be blamed for human ineptitude. Problems clearly rooted in human stupidity can be conveniently ascribed to the sorcery of enemies.
The authority figures of pop Pentecostalism are larger than life, inflated by the veneration of their followers. The entities which we call churches are for the most part simply personality cults where multitudes cluster around the personality of the ‘anointed man of God’ and live off his oracular pronouncements. In return for their unquestioning loyalty and fawning adulation, the ‘man of God’ will ostensibly facilitate the safe passage of the worshipping masses through the divine secret pathways to the realms of bliss on earth.
The ecclesiastical culture within pop Pentecostalism’s little enclaves is frighteningly identical to the behavioural patterns found within cults. There is the primacy of a central visionary figure whose infallibility is unquestionable. There is also the surrender by members of their personal sovereignty, their money and their property as part of their worship offerings which go towards sustaining the pastors’ opulent lifestyles. Any suggestion that these men of God are less than fallible is regarded as disloyalty and is viciously punished. The pre-eminence of the supreme ego is jealously guarded. Indeed the mushrooming of churches and the preponderance of splits mostly arises from personality clashes within their oppressive hierarchical orders. Promising individuals that show a flair for leadership and independent mindedness are noted as heretics, possible threats to the central authority figure and dealt with as such.
The mystique surrounding the exploits of these men of God and their appearance of being larger than life are carefully cultivated as vital elements of the ministry’s appeal. There is also the mind control and mass hypnosis which stems from the mesmeric power of these prophets. Religious demagoguery is an integral part of pop Pentecostalism. This accounts for why Pentecostal boomers although often fairly well educated are quite capable of suspending their intellects as a part of their devotion which emphasizes a strange (and thoroughly unbiblical) antipathy between faith and reason.
From a sociological point of view, a clear parallel line can be traced between the hyper-authoritarian leadership culture of pop Pentecostalism and the neo-autocratic paradigms of power that denominate politics and governance in Nigeria. There is an umbilical connection between the highly patriarchal structure of pop Pentecostalism and our patrimonial state. Another line can be traced between the bread and butter gospel fed to Pentecostal boomers and the ‘Come and chop’ paradigm of Nigerian politics.
The Pentecostal boom of the nineties has mutated into self serving personality cults and commercial enterprises that employ hype, an aggressive marketing blitz, audio-visual spin-doctoring and televangelistic glamour; all of these aimed at fine-tuning a machine designed to maximize profiteering. But the true danger of pop Pentecostalism is to be found among its adherents. Its devotees are between their late teens and their forties thus occupying the strategic age bracket which ostensibly should be the most productive segment of our population. This generation ought to be the human engines for our national recovery yet their values are moulded by a bankrupt religious establishment, their worldview framed by a creed of greed that has conditioned them to think only in terms of self-gratification. The cult figures of pop Pentecostalism are remaking this generation in their own image; creating a class of self involved clones without any sense of values, personal vision and transcendent purpose while affecting a pseudo-spiritual aloofness from the issues that trouble the society.
There is something gravely wrong with a situation in which adherents of a redemptive faith have no social conscience. The essential beauty of the Christian gospel is that ‘the word became flesh.’ It speaks of a divine purpose assuming material manifestation in time and space; the eternal ideal assuming a finite reality in the person of Jesus. The church as a community exists to transmit the transcendental values of righteousness and justice modeled by Christ into the contemporary culture. This invariably affects the material conditions of human existence- hunger, alienation, poverty, injustice, oppression, crime, disease, corruption- and thus leads to social redemption as the concrete culmination of personal faith. The true validation of spirituality is in its social manifestation. Salvation may be an inner reality but its ultimate culmination is its impact on the external material environment. Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are only a few of the historical figures that have embodied this truth.
The abject degeneracy of pop Pentecostalism explains the disconnection of the church from the society. The Pentecostal boom faced with a choice between material affluence and moral influence embraced the former. In the absence of a moral high ground, the church has lost the capacity to modulate the values of society or the operation of the state by speaking truth to power. And in fact pop Pentecostalists who attempt to speak truth to power could very well stand accused of pharisaical hypocrisy. They cannot condemn graft in governance because their own churches are scarcely models of fiscal transparency and probity. Pitifully few would be able to survive the scrutiny of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). If we were to be a country with an efficient financial regulatory environment many of these churches could find themselves in serious troubles for financial crimes.
Pop Pentecostalism’s prophets cannot criticize corrupt government functionaries for robbing the poor citizenry because they do the same albeit shrewdly concealing the fraudulent exercise by branding it with some biblical metaphor.
Only the most irredeemably self righteous bigots among the pop Pentecostalists can criticize leadership because as we have seen, the egos in ornate cathedrals do not require less massaging than those else where. The tin gods that need to be broken in our society are not limited to the inner sanctums of state power or to the gilded corridors of banking halls. Pop Pentecostalism embodies the syndrome of dysfunctional religion. It has no capacity for prophecy- it cannot address the issues affecting the society. Its devotees have been sorely ill equipped by the movement’s indoctrination for the task of nation-building.
The gulf between the church and the society can be bridged by empathy. This empathy itself will derive from a new self realization on the part of the church as an agent of social change. The incarnation of Christ, which is the kernel of the gospel was a demonstration of empathy on a cosmic scale; God becoming like man in order to redeem humanity. The church exists to replicate this event by reaching out to redeem man from negative social conditions.
Religion as we know it today, for the most part, has become an impediment to culture change. Its ways and its means have become grossly obsolete. Any reform must begin with a realization that pop Pentecostalism is a part of the problem as a purveyor of mind-numbing opiate for the denizens of a decaying social order. The structures and emblems of pop Pentecostalism have to be discarded. The celebrity complex, the veneration of these clerics as demigods and the unholy power that they wield over millions of devotees must pass away in order to set a generation free to embrace the calling of social redemption.
The Nigerian religious establishment is ripe for a reformation as is the society as a whole. The recovery envisaged in the political, social and economic spheres cannot be attained without a recovery of values. In fact a reform of existing religious strains including pop Pentecostalism itself could be a springboard for a mass mobilization of civil society. As Reverend Father Matthew Hassan Kukah writes, “to create an effective civil society, the church, which has in the minds of social scientists, come to be seen as part of the oppressive class, must move towards a more vigorous people-oriented quest for the restructuring of society. It has to disengage itself from the paraphernalia and trappings of power with which it has come to be associated in its relation with the power structures of society.”