Occasionally Some time ago, a South African “pastor” circulated a video in which she offered to solve everyone’s problem for a nominal cost. All it entails is that those looking for solutions to their problems buy blocks of ice from him and watch them melt away. Buyers’ troubles would melt away with the ice blocks. There is just one catch: the payment must be in dollars, euros or rand. No naira or cedi.
This was all a travesty, of course, a travesty of the increasingly daring ways in which some preachers are ripping people off across Africa. What is not a parody is a video currently circulating on social media in which a pastor Ade Abrahaman calls on believers to buy tickets to heaven for 310,000 naira.
The Christian Association of Nigeria has issued a scathing rebuke to Abrahaman and is threatening to track him down and hand him over to the police. However, the CAN must first give him credit. At least he accepts naira, unlike the “disdainful” South African “pastor”.
Moreover, Abrahaman asks for a generous price, apparently in line with his Christian beliefs. Even a super discounted fare to New York would cost upwards of 310,000 naira. So the cost to paradise must be much higher. I assume that Abrahaman will suffer considerable losses.
Seriously, scamming in the name of God is nothing new. Dating back to at least the 15th century, the Church sold “indulgences” as the price of penance. It started with people paying priests a certain amount as a sign of their repentance. Then the sale of indulgences exploded following the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. People bought them for the sins they have committed or are about to commit. It was basically a fundraiser.
At the time, the Church – entirely Catholic – was one of the most powerful institutions in all of Europe and beyond. Thus, its practices were rarely questioned. That was until a priest and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany felt he had had enough. So he issued a scathing dissent. The priest was Martin Luther, and his dissent was the 95 Theses.
Predictably, the papacy tried to silence him, but he held his ground. It wasn’t like Galileo about 150 years later. Galileo contradicted the doctrine of the Church by demonstrating that the Earth was not at the center of the universe. But under the trial of the Inquisition, he recanted and apologized. For this “remorse”, he was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than death.
Luther, on the other hand, was defiant, even after facing the Inquisition twice. It was partly courage and partly political calculation. Germany was already trying to get rid of papal authority. Thus, Luther’s protest had a measure of protection, which Galileo did not have in Italy.
Anyway, it’s a long story from Luther’s 95 Theses through the Reformation, Protestantism, and the proliferation of denominations. Two major principles of the Reformation were that forgiveness and salvation could not be bought and that individuals had the ability to commune with God and come to their own understanding. Luther did not know that his revolution would ultimately lead to an uncontrollable proliferation of theologies. Or that many Protestant preachers would amount to the equivalent of selling salvation and indulgence.
And therein lies the dilemma facing the Christian Association of Nigeria. On the one hand, a tenet of Protestantism is the freedom to interpret Scripture. On the other hand, patently untenable claims undermine the very faith that churches seek to cultivate. Even unbelievers have respect for theological claims that make sense in established principles. They – no less than the faithful – are appalled by outlandish claims that only exploit the most desperate in society.
Yet where to draw the line is something the CAN has to wrestle with. The dilemma is much like the dilemma faced by democracies when it comes to social media. On the one hand, the principle of freedom of expression requires that people be allowed to express themselves. On the other hand, hoaxes, lies and incitements undermine the very purpose of free speech, which is to bring about enlightened citizenship.
The Buhari administration has amused itself by adopting an absurdly extreme policy of executing people for spreading lies. As I suggested in a fictional piece here at the time, that would be the quickest way to deplete the population of Nigeria.
The European Union recently took the far less drastic approach of requiring social media platforms to quickly remove or block such posts. There is no easy way out of the dilemma. It will long remain a subject of reflection and debate.
The same goes for CAN’s efforts to control allegations of gross exploitation. The last thing religious organizations want is government regulation. Yet this is what the CAN implicitly asks for and this is increasingly happening in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, South Africa and elsewhere, governments are looking for ways to protect the desperate and gullible from enriching “prophets” without encroaching on the legitimate practice of religion. Some passed restrictive laws, some expelled offending foreign prophets, some refused travel visas, and some arrested the most brazen offenders.
Uganda has been particularly aggressive in this regard following a number of disturbing events. Among them, a woman testified in 2007 that she had been bribed and blackmailed into testifying before a congregation that she had been cured of HIV through prayer. In 2018, the country passed a law requiring pastors and prophets to be trained in the theology of one of the major religious groups.
“These so-called ‘born again’ pop up from anywhere – anyone can become a pastor anytime, anywhere, anyhow,” said Simon Lokodo, Ugandan minister of state. to ethics and integrity, to DW, the German newspaper company. “There must be a traditional church line with doctrine and hierarchy, and there must be dogma. Without it, someone just makes noise.
Even pastors who meet certification requirements are still not spared if they engage in behavior that puts the public at risk. In December 2018, for example, a pastor was arrested for persuading a mother to turn exclusively to prayer and stop giving medicine to a seriously ill child.
Ghana enforces existing laws that regulate the dissemination of false and dangerous information. Last December, police issued a statement reminding places of worship that their freedom is “subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others under our laws”.
The CAN seems to agree with the Ghanaian approach. Even then, one must be concerned about the possibility of a slippery slope. What if the government started to question the theology of “sowing seeds” to bring prosperity? Or selling olive oil as anointed oil? Or even anointed water?
The distinction could be made that as long as there are devotees who believe these things have helped them, then there is no harm. This contrasts with selling tickets to heaven. A ticket buyer is unlikely to claim that they actually received the service. But then you never know.
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