The craze for materialism and primitive accumulation
Now, anyone who is seriously concerned about the Nigerian situation will be hard pressed to explain how and why a nation that is so richly endowed would find its citizens living with some of the most inhuman conditions in the world. In the last few years, despite claims of being a growing economy, the standard of living in Nigeria has continued to fall dramatically. Interestingly, this fall in the human condition seems to have created a fertile environment for the emergence of the kind of deep religiosity that has ironically placed our country on top of both the most religious and corrupt nations of the world. One would ordinarily expect that in this environment of widespread moral degeneracy, religious leaders would rise up to their prophetic social responsibility of not only speaking truth to power and working for the enthronement of a just social order, but also of showing good example in the conduct of their lives. Sadly, this is not the case. Not only has organised religion lost its capacity to help generate a sense of moral revulsion and prophetic outrage against the ills of society, but often what we see is that religion has become an ally and at other times a guilty bystander to the collective oppression of our people.
Some Nigerian pastors today have emerged among the richest preachers in the world with luxury lifestyles that are totally at variance with the squalor and misery of most members of their churches. Religion has simply been reduced to a business venture that thrives in a vast ocean of poverty. The more things are getting bad, the richer some pastors are becoming. As the people get poorer, to that extent are their pastors getting richer. In a nation where millions of people go to bed hungry every day, where acute poverty now live in many neighbourhoods and even walk openly in the streets, some religious leaders have ridden on the crest of our collective social dysfunction to material and financial prosperity. A New York-based online media survey published in October 2014 showed that six of the top ten richest pastors in the world are Nigerians. All of them became rich through their churches and investments. In a special study in Vanguard Newspaper in October 2014, titled ‘Rich Churches, Poor Members,’ the authors drew serious attention to the money-spinning machine that Christianity has become in Nigeria. They questioned the propriety hoarding such stupendous wealth in a society where more than half the population are living in abject poverty. The report mentioned one pastor who is running a business empire, and who owns four luxury private jets with a combined cost of $98.3 million.
Yet only a few critical observers are questioning this trend. The vast majority of believers are quick to canonise such wealth as God’s special blessings, arguing that the God of their pastor is not a poor God. I really sympathise with such believers because I understand the psychology of transference at work in their minds. As human beings, we tend to admire in others what we want for ourselves. We wish that what they possess should be ours, so we console ourselves by associating with them and with their achievements as a way of assuaging our own deficiencies. No wonder, anyone who dares to speak out about against such aberrations in Christianity is immediately branded as an enemy of progress, one who is bitter and envious at another man’s success.
Thus, in order to protect themselves against the devil and his agents these super-rich men of God now ride in exotic bulletproof SUVs and employ the services of gun-wielding mobile policemen and bodyguards. But one is tempted to ask, which Jesus are these pastors worshipping when they are getting richer and their members are getting poorer? The one who was born in a house of goats and sheep, the one who had nowhere to lay his head, the one who suffered and died an excruciating death on the cross, and was even buried in a borrowed tomb? Or is it another Jesus? Where did this super-rich man of God mentality come from, when the Lord Jesus himself sternly warned his disciples about the dangers of hoarding wealth and avarice? Was this the lifestyle of the Apostles of Jesus and the early Christians? Sadly, this is what has become of the geography of Christian faith in Nigeria today.
The corruption of religion by money
Today, the collusion of religion and politics has robbed some Christian pastors of credibility, as some of them now openly court the friendship of the political and business elite in hope of eating the crumbs falling from their tables. In a society where an exploitative and greedy crop of leaders has held the citizens under siege, many pastors continue to remain indifferent to the plight of the people. We see today how so many pastors seem to fall on one another to touch the fringe of the garments of the rich. They flock to bless the newly built mansions, businesses, and exotic cars of these elite, many of whom are living way beyond their means. Public officeholders whose salaries are a subject of public knowledge are buying up properties and establishing businesses that call to question the source of their wealth, yet no one dares to ask any questions.
There seems to be a conspiracy of silence on the part of many pastors. As long as the fat envelopes and donations from these rich patrons continue to come steadily into the tithe boxes, no one seeks any explanation for their newfound wealth. I have always being awed by a remarkable admonition made by Pope Francis in this regard. In his Wednesday General Audience of March 2, 2016 at St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis issued a stinging rebuke to rich patrons who offer the church dirty money gained through exploitation of workers and outright stealing: ‘I think of some rich patrons and benefactors of the church that say: take this donation for the church, and it is profit from the blood of those abused, treated as slaves, workers with poorly paid jobs. I say to these people: Please, take back your cheque and burn it. The people of God, the church, do not need your blood money. They need hearts that are open to the mercy of God.’ Pope Francis has branded such money as ‘the dung of the devil’ and has consistently condemned the evils of unbridled capitalism.
But will Nigerian Christian pastors ever say no to such filthy lucre? I am not sure. Our time has become almost akin to the time of Jesus: the moneychangers have returned to the Temple! Not only do many Christian churches celebrate the rich and powerful, they also now confer all manner of dubious titles and awards upon corrupt people. The name of the poor widow who comes every day to keep the church premises clean never appears on the list of awardees. The Sunday schoolteacher who takes care of the children never features on the award list. The organist who makes worship lively never features on the list. Neither is the young woman who cleans the pews in church. Church awards today are now about the rich, the wealthy, the influential, and the powerful. Money has become the new yardstick for gauging religiosity. Big donors are called ‘pillars of the church’ and conferred with questionable titles. Under the influence of dirty money, our churches are re-casting biblical teachings to suit the rich. You are considered a pillar of the church if you make fat donations to the treasury. Yet the Bible tells us who the real pillars of the Church are, the Apostles (Ephesians 2:19-20).