This op-ed won the judges’ prize of the inaugural The Continent/Democracy in Africa Prize for Comment Writing
In a continent abundant with resources, why does the lavish wealth of a few exist alongside the poverty of millions? Pastor Chris Oyikhalome, leader of Christ Embassy, could answer by telling us that poverty is an affliction of those lacking faith. Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, of the Enlightened Christian Gathering, might beg us to remember that poverty is a demonic force that can only be wrestled into submission through spiritual warfare.
These self-proclaimed men of God sever poverty from the economic systems and political orders which produce it. Instead, like many of the first European missionaries who brought the Bible to Africa, they skillfully manipulate religion in the pursuit and service of oppressive power.
Their followers acclimatise to the inequities cultivated by capitalism, as the multi-millionaire preachers nefariously chase self-enrichment.
Their tool is the prosperity gospel, a branch of Protestant christianity that conceives the salvation of humanity as a contractual agreement with God. Belief and surrender to Christ delivers not only atonement for one’s sins but also exceptional health and extraordinary wealth. Through potent prayer, positive confessions and generous church offerings, one can access God’s ancient promise of prosperity.
An outsider to the theology may view it as irrational but ultimately harmless dogma. This would be a naive mistake. Our ability to solve social plagues such as poverty or inequality partly depends on how we define these problems. In understanding the fundamental causes of poverty, we move closer to effective solutions to them. By relegating poverty to the realm of the supernatural, prosperity preachers disguise the true and tangible conditions which cause their congregants’ suffering and pacify their political consciousness.
The prosperity gospel succeeds by exploiting desperation caused by economic dysfunction and social instability.
In South Africa, where pastors like Chris Oyikhalome attract large crowds in stadiums, 44% of the working age population is unemployed, more than half of citizens live in poverty and the country stands as the most unequal society in the world. There is a pervasive sense of despair, desperation and disempowerment amongst ordinary people. Disempowerment drives citizens to disengage from political action which could alleviate their suffering.
All these converge to render many vulnerable to abuse by prosperity preachers.
Attuned to the desperation of their followers and by framing themselves as authentic prophets in a deeply religious continent, such pastors amass reverence which allows them to exploit their congregants.
Pastor Tim Oluseun Omotoso, of Jesus Dominion International, currently sits in SA prison on trial for 63 charges of rape, human trafficking and racketering. Prophet Bushiri, estimated to be worth $100 million, faces charges of theft, fraud and money laundering.
The prosperity gospel promises power to those who feel helpless and submerged in the storms of socio-economic crisis. But it is ultimately a hollow call because it masks the true nature of poverty, and so leads societies away from tackling it. Instead of questioning the inefficient or self-serving economic policies of politicians, prosperity preachers shame congregants for lacking the faith to banish poverty from their lives. Rather than critiquing the monopolies mutli-national corporations have over resources, sermons encourage people to seek individual financial upliftment through offerings, even though the greatest victories against poverty were gained through collective political action and the redesigning of economic structures.
The prosperity gospel elevates the myth that individuals with endless supplies of will-power can rise from destitution – the religious way of condescendingly telling the poor to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. At best, it is a sedative respite from reality, lulling followers into slumber while we all continue to be ruled by elites who prioritise profits and power over people.
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog