MEN OF GOD AS CON ARTISTS
I am about to steer the hornets’ nest, for in Nigeria, no issue can be as sensitive as religion. My apologies to those who might be offended by this piece, but what must be said must be said.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am a practicing Christian and by all standards I consider my self a good one at that. I believe in the existence of a God and in the reality of Heaven and Hell. But I also know where to draw the line between spirituality and deception.
I don’t know if the Churches pay tax, if they don’t, they ought to because they are now very potent money spinning institutions. At some point in our national life, I had held a strong opinion that since every other option had failed, the only hope left for the nation was the religious institution. I was not alone in this conviction, the generality of Nigerians thought so too. Then, as it is still now, the nation seemed on the verge of breathing its last with a combination of bad leadership, corruption and tyranny driving the people to desolation. Every one turned to the heavens for help like the children of Israel in the wilderness. This massive return to God was evident in the rapid spread of Pentecostal and new generation churches across the land and an increased call for prayers for the nation by the few founding father that were still alive. One former Head of State General Yakubu Gowon perhaps not too brave as to entering the trenches to fight the draconian Abacha Regime called on Nigerians to Pray through his “Nigeria Prays” campaign. I remember even the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria formulating a special Prayer for Nigeria in Distress. God and what ever reassurance we heard from the pulpits became the only solace for the common man and I tell you, Sundays were a day most people specially looked forward to.
Soon however, the whole religious revival fever generated its own problems. It gave rise to a new set of Chief Executives going by various names such as general overseer, supreme shepherd, founding bishop and the like. These individuals who driven either by a foresight of the boom that lay ahead had set up their own churches suddenly turned into kingpins as their congregations transformed from mushroom gatherings into business empires and very large conglomerates. Gradually but steadily, a new class of bourgeoisie emerged, this time around in the vineyard of God and thus unquestionably divine.
We watched as the focus shifted from an intercession to save our nation from final collapse to a grandiose scramble for the same old root of all evils, money. Pastors who had tasted the pleasures and comfort of the elite class by virtue of their headship of various churches and the unhindered assess it gave them to the common wealth of their congregation sustained their position by spreading a new gospel of prosperity. Under this new revelation, they made anyone who chose to come under their spell believe that God never wished for any one to be poor and that every child of God could become rich and have everything they wanted only if they could be bold enough to put the Lord of the harvest to test. This in reality translated into giving more passionately from their meager earnings to sustain the ministry and indeed the pastor’s new standard of living.
It was at this point, when it became obvious that religion had become business with the key players acting in no way different from our civil leaders, that whatsoever belief I had for a miraculous rescue of our nation by the Churches died. One event had been central to this. Once, the church I attended had had the rare privilege of hosting Our Founder. Rare in the sense that it was not every day such a senior man of God came visiting and with the visit were expected many miracles, testimonies and special anointing. The joy of the church members knew no bounds and a lot of preparation went into according him a most befitting welcome.
The Holy man of God while in the full glory of his Episcopal regalia on the day of his visit stood before us on the alter and began what I prefer to call a lecture on religious capitalism in the name of preaching a sermon. To make matters worse, he spoke for so long a time that for me it became not just boring but also irritating, yet for what ever reason, the excited congregation kept clapping and cheering. His every statement was about money. Money to spread the gospel, money to furnish the new bishops house, money to change the bishops car, the bishop now needed a private jet to ease his movement, what of his wife?, she needed a good car, money to over haul the bishops wardrobe, the importance of sowing a seed in the life of the minister of God, and how blessed it was to give than to receive. Money for this, money for that. All these was nauseating enough but it was when he confirmed the rumours that had been making the rounds -a story I had argued and prayed was false- that he accepted a donation of five million naira and a Jeep from a member who was found to have defrauded a bank that I lost my patience. What justification? God accepts everything brought to him as offering whether earned, stolen or looted. I couldn’t take it any more. I got up and left the church through the back door. I never returned there and I am afraid that since then, I have not been able to hand my soul to another man of God.
What we have today are mega rich, celebrity, Super star, stage con-artists parading in the name of Men of God. I am often seriously amused when I watched their broadcasts on the television and indeed I will advise any free-thinking individual who wants to be amused to tune to those broadcasts any time he/she can. From the outset, they leave no one in doubt that the emphasis here is not about what the Bible says but a stage-managed effort to delude and by extension hypnotise their highly gullible congregation into parting with more naira notes. Some times, it just looks like drama. Indeed, it is drama if you ask me.
The Man of God stands on the pulpit in a polished Italian Suit the type whose price tags in boutiques read like telephone numbers. Depending on his preferences, his hair could be in jerry coils or a bushy afro cut into a style called Punk. He speaks with an annoying accent (preferably American for desired effect) which he’s been able to cultivate and perfect over time and bounces all over the pulpit throwing punchy remarks or cracking jokes to the delight of his congregation. Much of what he says is incomprehensible, thanks to his accent. Occasionally he goes to the glass stand where his bible is and reads out a verse then spends the next fifteen minutes explaining it. Most of his talk is about Wealth, Prosperity and Miracles which sometimes sees some of his listeners’ rising up and jumping senselessly into the air which kind of spurs him on. It goes on and on and on.
It’s no secret that a good number of these Superstar men of God have built business empires. Agreed, every individual has the right to own and operate a business, but when the capital for this is reaped off innocent Church-goers then it becomes morally questionable. Owning Private Universities seems to be the current craze among them. Universities that a greater percentage of their congregation cannot send their kids to because of the cost. Owning eye-popping Jeeps and flashy rides is now a minor thing and if you think your State Governor’s convoy is intimidating, wait until you see that of one of our more prosperous Men of God. Holiday trips abroad are a normal way of life and hey, they, like the banks keep opening new branches nationwide.
They, like the showbiz celebrities are not spared of controversies. We read about one pastor attacking another (a competitor) on the pages of newspapers. We read about their illicit affairs with female members of their congregation and how their marriages are collapsing because of one flimsy issue or the other. We also read about some more obscene stuff like their setting people ablaze in the name of casting out demons or deluding dying AIDS patients who should rather be seeking medical help into believing they can cure AIDS. And of course it is always at a cash and carry basis. The congregation pays for even the smile they wear boldly on their faces.
Now, would we be right in always attacking our civil leaders of corruption and deception when our religious leaders are worse? Would it be wise for us to continue to fall prey to these self-serving individuals who claim to be speaking for the Supreme Being when clearly it is evident that they are just toying with our sensibilities? I have a feeling that this was what Karl Marx had in mind when he said that religion was the opium of the masses…..a potent item to make them sleep to their reality.
As I scribble this down while the bus am travelling in drags along on the Lagos –Ibadan expressway in a frustrating traffic jam caused by a church crusade holding on the expanse of land that had now become a church estate along the road, a familiar feeling of annoyance envelopes me. An annoyance against every institution that deludes the masses that they lead.
Ifedigbo Nze Sylva