Is it time to protect people from their churches?

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Methodist churches.

Miriam Tose Majome
RELIGION is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful: Lucious Annaeus Seneca — Roman philosopher and statesman who lived between 4BC and AD65.

The turn of the millennium brought a sharp rise in the number of evangelical Christian churches in Zimbabwe. Until the late 90s there were mostly traditional churches dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and the mainstream protestant churches like Anglican, Baptist and Methodist churches. There were a number of home grown churches such as ZAOGA, AFM, FOG and religious sects associated with the Mapositori faith. Zimbabwe is a constitutional democracy meaning there is no official State religion, although there is a bias towards Christian rites during sombre occasions. Even so, it is illegal to compel people to subscribe to it. There is both freedom of religion and freedom from religion in Zimbabwe meaning people are allowed to subscribe to any religion of their choice as well as not subscribe to any religion if they do not want to. Adherents of other religions like Islam, Judaism, Rastafarianism and Buddhism have the right to practice their religions freely and defend their rights to do so if they are hindered.

Before the 2000s Christian churches generally conducted their affairs quietly and discreetly without attracting too much attention and some still do. Society seemed to be in harmony and the religious establishment appeared to be balanced and did not jostle to hog the limelight as it does now. Things changed after 2000 when church and religion were suddenly thrown into everybody’s face everywhere. Waves of radical Christian evangelism took over the country when local charismatic preachers discovered the power of radio and television. At first they imitated American TV evangelists then the majority settled their admiration on West African religiosity, which is a curious fusion of Christianity and African Spirituality embellished with a good dose of superstition, mysticism and occultism.

With the aid of substantial financial resources obtained from congregants in the form of tithes, offerings and “seed money”, which is the same mould of medieval church indulgences, they took advantage of public media especially radio here in Zimbabwe to establish themselves. Radio stations also fell in love with the advertising revenue even if some of the advertorial claims are downright unethical. The churches are advertised like ordinary businesses and use innovative messages to attract audiences to their churches for spiritual healing sessions and to witness purported miracles which are often curiously reminiscent of road show magic displays. The churches present a radical departure from the familiar traditional genteel Christianity of yesteryear. As the confidence in them grew and audiences expanded the proprietor preachers started giving themselves titles like prophet, apostle, evangelist, Man of God, overseer, Spiritual Father etc. The common denominator of the new religion is a very materialistic, self-centred, selfish, instant gratification kind of Christianity.

The most enterprising of the preachers were quick to realise that religious faith is a pliant tool which can be used to make good money if  they line their ducks well. All that was needed was charisma, very good oratory and public speaking skills, good organisational skills, a flair for business and good entertainment and motivation skills. The most successful sales people, preachers and politicians are those who have mastered the art of speaking well because human beings have an affinity for people who speak well. It is not called the gift of the gab for nothing.

Almost all types of churches promise congregants financial prosperity, instant gratification and an almost hedonistic kind of salvation in exchange for financial donations to the church. It was a radical departure from the old fashioned Christian values which promoted perseverance, long suffering, piety, delayed gratification and turning the other cheek. The instant material results oriented Christianity resonated with a large swathe of the Zimbabwean populace weary of poverty and decades of economic depression. The bodily healing claims coincided with the maladies associated with the HIV/Aids pandemic which had ravaged the populace in the 1990s. So the claims were readily received especially where modern medicine had seemed overwhelmed or unattainable because of the expenses. The sustained economic problems exacerbated the social, mental and bodily ills so the promised quick fix antidotes by glib smooth-talking preachers found and still find ready takers desperate for any available relief and messages of hope.

People hang onto the claims of healing and deliverance from supposed evil spirits because many religious people can be gullible. They are ever ready to believe without question anything and everything they are told by their preachers. They brook hearing no evil about their religious leaders and defend them vociferously against any criticism whatsoever.

Many African governments, Zimbabwe amongst them, have shown a propensity to embrace and even encourage these type of churches. The reason is simple. Since the beginning of time religion and politics have competed and colluded to control the people. Karl Marx the philosopher and founder of Communism described religion as a tool used by the ruling classes to temporarily provide relief to the suffering masses through the experience of religious emotions. He said religion is the opiate of the masses because it makes people sleepy like opium does. Sleepy people will be oblivious and forgiving of the injustices committed against them by the people who oppress them.

The first African government to be courageous enough to regulate churches was Rwanda. In 2018 the Rwandan government closed 6 000 churches and 100 Mosques in order to re-establish social order and control. At the time the capital city Kigali had over 700 churches. President Paul Kagame remarked that there were fewer boreholes and factories than churches in Rwanda. The government cited public safety concerns and mandated religious leaders to have theology degrees.

Zimbabwe has slowly made its way to that precarious place where religion is becoming a growing public hazard. There is no regulatory mechanism to monitor church and religious affairs such that it is virtually a free for all arena. Anyone can open a church and have absolutely unfettered reign under the guise of religious freedom. There should be no field of human endeavour that is beyond scrutiny and regulation because all human systems are fraught with flaws. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches is not a statutory body and has very limited self-regulatory powers. It is a voluntary organisation with no powers to enforce compliance a state regulator would.

To be continued by looking at the Ugandan Kanungu district church massacre in which 700 people were locked inside a church and burnt to death in 2000.