As dawn timidly caresses the window panes, the pulpits vibrate with song and verse. The children wear the scars of early morning fatigue and the adults meanwhile swing and sway with respectful delight. Their song rings out, each verse and syllable a confirmation of their unwavering faith. Most fall into some hypnotic routine, their eyes close and their arms stretch out, up to the sky - physically and symbolically reaching out for God. Theirs is a practiced choreography performed to the tune of sacrifice and devotion. They stand, they sit and then they kneel. This perhaps is the most apt analogy of the African’s experience of Enlightenment, colonialism and then post-colonialism.
It was a Sunday morning, and I had agreed to accompany a friend to a church service. As I stood amongst the crowded pews, I was struck by the enormity of the spectacle and the operation unfolding in front of my eyes. I estimated that there were at least 10,000 worshipers crammed into what could easily have been mistaken for a pop concert arena. Huge plaza HD screens hung from the rafters, speakers thundered with hymns, and cameras record every moment (to be reproduced on the church’s own TV channel). This was to be the first of dozens of one hour-long services that would be held throughout the day. I was at Rhema, South Africa’s largest and most influential church, whose supporters include some of the country's most powerful people - including the President himself.
Centre stage, and the object of everybody’s gaze, stands the pastor. He speaks into a wireless microphone, his sermon reverberates throughout the building, touching and mesmerizing each spectator. It is at this point that it dawns upon me the extent to which he is more than just
man: in the complex capitalization of faith, the pastor or the religious leader is accorded unprecedented power - and in turn wealth. Indeed the obese wealth of certain pastors can be observed throughout the African continent, and elsewhere for that matter. The extent to which these ‘millionaire men of the cloth’ have amassed such wealth leaves me incredulous as this stands in stark contrast to the flocks they claim to Shepard, and contradicts the morality to that they incessantly peddle. This is an issue that concerns Africa as a whole.
Christianity was brought to South Africa by the first Dutch and British settlers in the 17th century, and since then it has come to dominate the country’s religious landscape, with over 80 percent of the population claiming to be Christian. South Africa is not a unique case as Christian based churches hold sway over the continent. These assortments of different denominations and ministries have suffused European interpretations of Christian doctrine with traditional African spiritual approaches. The fragmented and divergent character of Christian theology, as well as the multiplicity of diverse denominations subsumed under the Christian religion - each of which interprets the gospel differently - can be observed across the continent. As such, to speak of the Church in Africa, is to speak of a complex and fractured grouping of denominations, each reflecting a particular branch of Christianity - these are located between the divisions of post-Reformation Christendom and the cultural plurality and historic divisions of traditional pre-colonial African beliefs. The melding of these has led to such a multiplicity of denominations that it remains impossible to perceive the Church as a single or homogeneous entity without first acknowledging its diverging components.
The elaborate spectacle which I personally witnessed that morning was further made clear to me as a small donations basket was passed along my row; I felt the pressure to empty my pockets of coin and note. I can only imagine how the pastor barely contained a gleeful smirk of satisfaction. There is without doubt a heinous discrepancy between the wealthy pastors and the poor congregationalists of whom they are meant to serve. The issue is of course made markedly more visible in countries and regions which suffer from stark socioeconomic imbalance - in which a tiny percentage of the population possesses the majority of the wealth. As the world continues to hemorrhage with austerity measures, it seeks to stabilize itself after the 2008 financial crisis, and it is amazing how certain sectors remain seemingly immune to the financial pinch. These churches and the pastors that lead them are seemingly impervious to the economic strain felt by states, businesses and individuals alike. Then again, perhaps it is simply a case of human nature that in such moments of despair people turn to their faith and religion with ever-increasing devotion, desperation and zeal. Religion undoubtedly has the potential to offer hope, help, guidance and escape from a world full of obstacles and hardship, and as such, people are too willing to put all of their money towards this commodity - often blindly so.
Seen in this light, it is not hard to understand how these religious leaders, despite the economic malaise experienced by those that they claim to serve, have amassed such wealth. And whilst these claim to be serving humanity by providing spiritual guidance, the lucrative aspect of their “service” cannot be ignored. Pastors have turned businessmen, and through their savvy marketing and shrewd entrepreneurship have become some of the richest men on the continent. On every day except Sundays, theirs is a world of private jets, speed boats, cars, magazines, newspapers, TV stations, record labels, hotels, satellite TV and real estate. Interestingly, the top five richest pastors in Africa are all from Nigeria. These include David Oyedepo, whose net worth is estimated to be $150 million (the world’s richest pastor), Chris Oyakhilome (net worth: $50 million, Chris Okotie (net worth: $10 million), T.B. Joshua (net worth: $15 million) and Matthew Ashimolowo (net worth: $10 million). As a Forbes article poignantly observes, “God is good, especially if you’re a Nigerian pastor with some business savvy.” There is, of course, a direct correlation between the wealth of these pastors and the power they command over their followers. I think of such stories as the one that recently went viral of a pastor who was able to convince his congregation to eat grass. This example demonstrates the utter devotion and submission these individuals can enlist in their followers. Giving money that they do not have is but only one example of the power these religious leaders command.
Religious language carries significant weight throughout Africa, and is entangled in the continent’s history; thus religious leaders play and important and central role in the course the continent takes. It is because of their importance and the moral responsibilities they hold that the rise of the millionaire pastor is a particularly egregious phenomenon. As they sit upon upon their golden thrones, one must ask how such a thing is possible and tolerated. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all churches, ministries and men of the cloth are engaged in a money-grabbing venture; however, the unparalleled wealth of a certain of these suggests that something entirely disingenuous is occurring and that faith has become more about the money than anything else.
And so it was that as I left that early morning service, as I saw the pastor along with his entourage leave via the back entrance towards their Mercedes S600, Rolls-Royce, Hummer and Porsche, I felt a seething anger boil within me. These con-men, these millionaires and these men who have sold empty riddles to people who many of which are without hope, in exchange for their last coins.....well, such men deserve our deepest scorn and criticism.