Touch not my anointed” is a popular argument amongst Christian adherents – especially of Pentecostal persuasion – every time someone threatens the bubble of invincibility built around their spiritual leaders.
Those four words, taken from the Holy Bible, and shamelessly mangled out of context, are supposed to mean one thing: that God’s servants, by virtue of their “calling” and “anointing”, are above criticism, censure and accountability.
When, last week, a young Nigerian woman posted on the internet an account of how she was allegedly emotionally manipulated and seduced by a rather high-profile Nigerian pastor (whom she named; she herself was not anonymous), many of the comments that followed in defence of the Pastor were based, not on a desire to know/find the truth, but on the belief that she, as a member of the flock, should not have tried to publicly call out a servant of God the way she did. In other words: It is simply not done.
It was a similar reaction that followed the widely publicised video clip in which another servant of God publicly slapped a teenage girl, on the grounds of witchcraft. Anyone who publicly condemned that action was subjected to open hostility from those who firmly believe that it is not in the place of any human to question someone whose calling derives from divine agency. Regard that stance as a theological form of the controversial constitutional immunity that our politicians have since learned to abuse; existing to protect anyone who claims to be a servant of God from having to account to anyone but God.
It is an ‘immunity’ I find problematic, and, frankly, unacceptable; I believe that no amount of spiritual gifting or authority should obviate the need for accountability by all who claim to derive their authority and standing from the name of God.
There are lessons to be learned from the child abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for years. As much as the church tried to cover up and dissemble – and that is not surprising – the sort of secular and legal scrutiny that followed ensured that in a lot of cases the truth came out.
If someone who claims to be a servant of God acts in a manner incompatible with the dictates of their religion, they deserve to be called out the way we would call anybody else out. If they break the laws of the land, they deserve, like everyone else, to face the music. That is the harsh lesson that a number of Nigerian preachers have learnt in recent years – that much of the stuff that people get away with in Nigeria – because of a general penchant for lawlessness, and a tendency for people to hide behind God’s name – ought to be unacceptable in any country that firmly believes in the rule of law and the significance of accountability.
One fascinating example of the pervasive immunity mentality comes from an essay by the writer, Yemisi Ogbe, titled ‘Men of God as Superstars.’ It is a brilliant deconstruction of Nigerian church mentality from someone with the privileged perspective of an insider.
She writes about a book, titled ‘Loyalty and Disloyalty’, written years ago by a Ghanaian preacher which emphasizes the danger of being a “rebel” within the House of God – rebel defined, of course, from the perspective of the Overlord: anyone who commits the unforgivable sin of adopting a questioning stance. By these standards, rebellion is akin to witchcraft, and deserving of nothing less than “execution.”
This is the book’s message for all “rebels”: “God will divinely, displace and replace you with someone else. Your seat will be taken by another who is worthier than you. You will be banished into obscurity and oblivion. There will be a curse on you and your family.”
Who wants to go up against a curse placed in the name of God?
Place that within the context of Nigeria, home to a people who, for all our unruliness (evident in airport terminals around the world), are given to a lot of ridiculously servile behavior.
You have to wonder why Nigerians aren’t doing a better job of questioning all forms of abuse of authority – secular or religious; corporate or public.
Nigerian Christians ought go to church not only with their hearts but with their minds as well, and seek to occupy that uncomfortable space where faith, whilst remaining fully vested in the divine, also takes full account of the existence – and importance – of rationality.
It is that rationality that reminds us to shun all foolishly simplistic doctrines, for example the one implies that if you faithfully serve God (which more often than not means paying tithes and offerings) you will come to no harm, live and die wealthy, avoid sickness – and that if all is not well with your life it has to be because you’re not giving enough, or attending church enough.
I think many of our spiritual overlords are seeking to have their cake and to eat it – living tax-free lives built on the contributions of members (last time I checked God wasn’t tossing private jets or cars out of the skies) and yet seeking to stay above the responsibility to be accountable for their actions.
As Ogbe points out in her essay: “Most Nigerian Christians understand well the contradictions in the lives of their men of God, especially in terms of what is professed, the lifestyle, and the tenets of the bible.”
Which might be fine – but only to an extent. No society can or should exist without checks and balances.
And no society can survive the impact of religion purely as a purveyor of materialistic comforts, the way we like to practise it here. By unifying the oppressed and their oppressors with the false comforts of endless hope (the insistence that with the right amount of faith the poor will find wealth, and the rich even more), religion – Pentecostalism especially, with its glitzy blending of materialism and emotionalism – helps us all adapt to and justify dysfunctional conditions we should long have revolted again.
How do you expect a people to revolt against a political class who own the front seats in the houses of God; and whose actions, judging from the consenting silence, or worshipful adoration, of spiritual overlords, does not seem to be in any way in contravention of God’s standards.
British engineer, Tim Newton, who’s on his way out of Nigeria on a new posting (he’s spent the last few years living and working here) recently blogged about “the bizarre situation [in Nigeria] where being dishonest is not socially frowned upon. Not really, anyway. If somebody is caught with his hand in the till, he is not shunned by his peers. The whole situation is treated with utter indifference, and sometimes admiration […] The only behaviour I managed to identify which would cause a Nigerian to be shunned by his peers and made an outcast, is if he decided he wasn’t a believer and therefore wasn’t going to be showing up in church (or mosque) any more. I don’t think I met a single Nigerian who didn’t attend either church or mosque, and religion plays an enormous – possibly the key – role in Nigerian society.”
Yet, that exceedingly high religious-house-per-capita levels (Nigeria is perhaps the only country in the world where factories dying and being replaced by churches seems perfectly normal) has spectacularly failed to translate into any ethical or developmental transformation.
And yet I’m confident it won’t always be this way.
A part of me can’t wait for when Nigeria starts to function properly, when, by the grace of God we will once again see factories replace churches, for the very simple fact that it will be more economically productive to run a factory than a church. (Which is as should be).
There will be less of an incentive to turn to God and his servants for the assurance of American and British visas and security and jobs and husbands and children.
We will no longer bother God for any of the many things that should ordinarily not be his business.
At that time, God willing, those who choose to believe in the existence and power of God will turn to him not for what they can selfishly extract from him, but for a personal relationship that inspires, nourishes, and guides personal conduct.
For any spirituality or religiosity that fails to guide personal conduct is a sham, regardless of how many signs and wonders it produces.
Jesus himself said so, just in case you’re wondering.
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