A popular fanaticism has stormed altars of evangelical churches in the past decade, not only in South Africa but also across the continent.
Here in South Africa we hear reports of prophets compelling adults to eat grass and drink petrol. Not long ago the country was shocked by self-proclaimed prophet Lethabo Rabalago (aka Pastor Doom), who sprayed pesticides in the faces of willing congregants. Pastor Tim Oluseun Omotoso, currently on trial, faces 63 criminal charges of rape, human trafficking and racketeering. Prophet Shepherd Huxley Bushiri was arrested earlier this month on charges of fraud and money laundering. Prophet Paseka “Mboro” Motsoeneng recently claimed to have gone to heaven and sold pictures he took there for R5 000, and said entrance to heaven cost R10 000.
Why do largely adult congregations, and communities as a whole, invest copious power and trust in such individuals? The followers of these men are too often ridiculed as irrational, hopelessly indoctrinated and even mentally unhinged. These judgments reveal a shallow understanding of religious belief, religious people and their institutions. It’s easy to blame these events on the spell of dogma or the vulnerability of “ignorant” minds to superstition, but such conclusions are reductive.
An increasingly defining feature of evangelical Christianity in South Africa is the subscription to the “prosperity gospel”. This belief holds that financial success and physical health are always the will of God. Moreover, this belief maintains that those with strong faith, positive thoughts and words — plus big donations to the church — will receive an increase in material wealth in return.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” — Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843)
According to Marx, legislation, religion, the content produced by media, cultural traditions and dominant moral systems are seen as expressions of the economic relations and conditions in society. For Marx, religion is an opiate because it provides an escape, a euphoric respite from the almost unceasing pain and suffering experienced by those who cannot escape from under the boot of economic and political subjugation.
In an increasingly materialistic society, in which wealth is not only a symbol of social status but also of moral virtue, and how much money one has in the bank correlates with one’s agency (one’s ability to satisfy one’s needs and pursue one’s interests), certain strands of Christianity are drastically adjusting their approach to poverty.
South Africans are not unfamiliar with bouts of instability. For the past decade we appear to be constantly teetering on the edge of economic or political ruin. Politicians are continually entangled in debacles of gratuitous corruption and state institutions weaken in their capacity to manage resources and provide services. And our economic growth seems perpetually stunted.
“Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: everyone knows an explosion may happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be.” — Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2007)
This influential sociologist coined the term “liquid modernity”. Bauman offers accurate and comprehensive characterisations of our socioeconomic environment in the 21st century and its effects on our collective psychology. He defines the instability of our times as a consequence of what he calls “negative globalisation”. Economic connectivity and interdependence mean the negative effects of neoliberal policies — the deregulation of corporate activity combined with the increasing privatisation of essential “public” goods and services — reverberate globally.
In developing countries negative globalisation manifests as governments waning in their power to provide collective security; for example, the subsidisation of healthcare, education or comprehensive social security.
The hazards of modernity in South Africa are exacerbated by the titanic weight of the country’s history. Half a century of apartheid and more than 200 years of colonialism have left legacies of racial inequality, inter-generational poverty and a broken educational system, to name a few. How do these depressing socioeconomic realities relate to the alleged death of a follower of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome after not taking medication, believing the pastor had healed her of tuberculosis?
Bauman highlights how the fear and uncertainty of our times often compel people to escape from reality. Religious fanaticism, Bauman argues, is a common form of escapism. Unable to secure employment or build careers, submerged in debt, neglected by the state — citizens spend their days managing risk.
It is powerlessness in the face of an increasingly hostile and rapidly changing world that breaks the spirit of the poor, working and precarious middle classes. Shame, perhaps even self-hatred, devours one’s psyche as inflated prices and welfare checks mock one’s lack of self-reliance.
“God has never made a failure; that he gave birth to you means you are a success. Success is in your DNA.” — Oyakhilome
The gospel of prosperity promises power. With faithful words and steadfast prayer, existence can be reclaimed from uncertainty and rescued from financial ruin. The gospel here is an antidote to chaos, a mechanism to re-establish order, as a supernatural child of God. Miracles such as healings, luxurious cars, job promotions and bank accounts filled to the brim are to be expected.
In the eyes of congregants, their pastors and prophets stand as proof of God’s desire for abundant wealth and health among his children. Bushiri has a net worth of about $150-million. Congregants claim such excess as their own. It often builds aspirations to be as blessed one day. When large donations and offerings are demanded from the unemployed or those living on the minimum wage, not giving or offering little is viewed as a sign of little faith — and this threatens one’s connection to heaven’s ATM.
Importantly, the promise of power, which is premised on people’s desperation, creates an environment fertile for exploitation — one that is often keenly exploited. Like United States President Donald Trump and other populist leaders, charismatic preachers attract those desperate for order, security and safety, regardless of what that safety may cost and even if it is merely a mirage.
Alongside money, personal agency is sacrificed at the altar of these churches. They do not revolve around the real needs of their congregants but around the vision of a single individual. Pastors become both celebrities and chief executives. And, like the idols of the secular world, rarely can they be held accountable.
These churches often lack internal structures that could demand transparency and accountability. Naturally, then, power is exercised by one individual (or a handful of leaders) who literally rule over others. To say no to demands and desires expressed by these “men and women of God” is unthinkable for many followers. Questions and critiques by congregants are treated with hostility.
An institution is crafted within which, when people’s dignity is harmed, their safety threatened or their loyalty abused, congregants cannot even rely on each other to report or fight against misdeeds done by church leaders. Because these prophets and pastors claim to be ordained by God, action against them is sinful action against God.
At this point I could be accused of excessive pessimism. Some may ask: If these messages provide hope and revitalise spirits, why condemn them? Don’t we all need faith in something to get through these difficult times?
Faith, and whatever necessary illusions it provides, is not what’s under scrutiny. At its core the gospel of prosperity depoliticises poverty
and inequality. In this theology, these conditions are no longer problems centred on justice and equality. They become purely spiritual matters — matters that reflect failures of belief and not of our unjust society.
This framework veils how poverty and inequality are largely the result of how elite minorities have designed our societies. When church leaders preach that material flourishing directly correlates with one’s faith or offering, people are then blinded from seeing the real chains that shackle them to lives of destitution. Their consciousness sedated by promises of gold and glory, congregants of these charismatic churches remain prime subjects for mistreatment.
Until we drastically change the foundational designs of our economy and political arena, more people will run to hide from or to seek dangerous escapes from reality. This isn’t a call to abolish organised religion or destroy the church; it’s a plea that we discard any and all forms of ideology that seeks to make a joke of human agency with manipulation, coercion and control.
In other words, we must aim towards a future in which the socioeconomic realities people experience are ones they may not only tolerate but potentially enjoy. In such a state, various opiates would largely become obsolete.
Andile Zulu is an undergraduate student of religious studies and political science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and runs a blog titled Born Free Blues