Monday, June 23, 2014
“You can speak with spiritual eloquence, pray in public and maintain a holy appearance…, but it is your behavior that will reveal your true character “…..Dr Steve Maraboli.
his commentary was triggered by a You Tube video that was recently sent to me. The sender, a staunch reader of my commentaries for more than a decade now, felt that, as a social commentator, after watching the video, I would be incensed enough to write something that would trigger a conversation on the issue. He was right, I was incensed!
The video in question was that of a pastor called Lesego Daniel of Rabboni Centre Ministries in South Africa. The video opens with a scene where several members of the church congregation seem to have been hypnotized. They were sitting or lying seemingly lifelessly on the floor as the young pastor pranced around the stage like a tiger surveying its prey, barking out orders to the congregation. Soon, he announced that just like Jesus turned water into wine, stone into bread, and fed a huge congregation, he was going to feed the congregation with special food instead of bread.
He said the food will give them life and with that, he commanded them to go outside the building and eat grass. At first, it seemed like a joke or figure of speech until many members of his congregation, especially the young and energetic ones, rushed outside the church, as cameras followed, and actually started grabbing, stuffing into their mouths, masticating and swallowing grass like a sheep would. I could not believe my eyes. As they ate, he kept saying, “eat quickly” and the more he said that, the more diligently they obliged. One could tell from the way some of them were glancing around, to see what the others were doing, that a mild competition of sorts was going on as to who would eat the most grass.
Midstream into the chaos that had ensued, he asked the members of the congregation that remained inside the hall, “will those that are eating grass die?” “No-o-o-o”, the group intoned in unison. He had this sadistic glee on his face showing that he was enjoying every bit of what was happening. He seemed to love the fact that he had power and dominion over vulnerable people. As he continued to prance around, he added, “if your husband is there or your wife, they are eating life for resurrection”. At this point, the video of what was going on outside the church building, which was being shown on a big screen TV inside the building, zoomed into a little girl. She was crawling around, on the ground, and eating grass along with the adults. With a sickening glee that lent credence to his megalomaniac disposition, he muttered, “look at the little one”. This ugly spectacle went on for a while until he felt he had made his point. He had power over his congregation. At that point he shouted, “Come back quickly”.
Rising from the different locations to which they had scattered, in search of grass to eat, the “grass eaters” started back towards the church. The enthusiasm, with which some of them had dashed out of the auditorium, when he initially commanded them to go and eat grass, was no longer there. They looked tired and less enthusiastic.
On the YouTube page, where the video of this dastardly act was posted, one of the viewers wrote , “God will make an example of this wicked pastor. He will destroy his soul for all his ungodly works. People go to church to seek God and all they get is this wicked man standing in the way. God will cast him into outer darkness and all his demons with him”. Many share this sentiment. Some of the people that profess to be servants of God end up meting out physical and emotional abuse on their flock. Another viewer of the sickening video wrote, “This is a demon, be aware who preaches to you. God help those people in that congregation”.
Of course, after eating grass, many of the people that indulged in the act got sick. One is almost certain that some of them will start doubting the so-called man of God and his teachings. He may have, by using the name of God to give instructions that never came from God, distanced some people from the Christian faith. They will be wondering why the congregation got sick when they were obeying instructions from God.
This is not the first time that men and women who profess to be speaking with authority from God, have caused physical discomfort or even death to their followers. These men are missing the point of the Christian faith – humility in the service of God and authenticity. They love power and tend to display their power over their flock by goading them into doing what people would not ordinarily do. Watching the video reminded me of a tragedy that occurred years ago because a pastor, who preached in the name of God, gave a command.
It was November 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Northwestern Guyana. More than 900 people, followers of Jim Jones, a self-styled pastor and minister of God, died from cyanide poison which they took at the behest of their pastor. The world was stunned, as videos were released, showing lifeless bodies of members littered under the makeshift pavilions in the jungle where the pastor had herded his followers.
Most of the followers of Jim Jones had left their families, loved ones and friends, back in the United States, and went along with him. They believed and trusted him to help them seek and find the redeeming face of God. Many of them staunchly believed that, in forsaking their friends and families and going off with Jim Jones, they were following in the footsteps of the Disciples that left their friends and families and went along with Jesus Christ. They did not realize that the man they were following was more of an egomaniacal lunatic than a pastor. Instead of helping them get salvation, Jim Jones gave them death. He was more interested in asserting his powers and maintaining dominion over the people. When he felt that his cover had been blown and that he was fast losing grip of the unbridled power he had, he went for the jugular and poisoned them all with cool aid laced with cyanide. He unleashed all that evil while prophesying the name of God just like pastor Lesego Daniels was doing when he asked his flock to go eat grass! But we thank heavens that God is a kind and forgiving God. Otherwise, for all the atrocities that mankind has been committing while prophesying his name, he would have unleashed, on the world, a level of destruction that will make the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah pale in comparison!
When the news of the atrocity in Jonestown first broke, after the initial shock, some saw the dastardly act as an aberration. Of course we know that, in different forms and magnitude, the world has continued to witness various forms of atrocities either committed or perpetrated by men and women that doggedly profess the name of God. Did the world not learn a lesson from the Guyana tragedy? Otherwise, why would another “pastor” ask his flock to go and eat grass and they oblige? If Pastor Daniels is able to command his congregation to go out and eat grass, what would prevent him from pulling a Jonestown-style madness whenever he feels like?
There is obviously a proliferation of people that purport to speak with authority from God but are mere egomaniacs interested in asserting undeserved authority on others. The bible warned about false prophets, their proliferation and how to spot them. Avoiding falling prey to their machinations entails watching the words they utter, the deeds they do and examples they set. If their actions do not match what they say, then look before you leap. If what they say or preach run afoul of the teachings of Christ, one has to be circumspect.
A few years ago, Huffington Post reported a story that will bring tears to the eyes of every one that has a heart. In Eket, Nigeria, a family was told by their pastor that their 9-year old boy was a witch! [Huffington Post, Oct 18, 2009]. The story goes that after the young boy was accused of “being a witch”, as a form of exorcism, his father took acid and attempted to force it down the boys throat. In the process, it spilled and portions of the boy’s body, including his face and eyes, were incinerated. In the ensuing weeks, the young boy’s body could not withstand the physical trauma that the acid had subjected it to and so after a month in the hospital, he died!
Now, how ignorant or gullible can a father be to accept that type condemnation of a child given to him by God and whom he had nurtured for 9 years? Even more troubling is how perverted can someone, who claims to be speaking with authority from God, be, to summarily condemn a boy barely old enough to give himself a bath? This excessive belief in witchcraft seems to be predominant in that part of the country but is a problem in many other parts of Nigeria and Africa. This issue is so pervasive that there are some church denominations that have pastors who actually purport to “specialize” in witch-hunting and exorcism! They claim to be able to pinpoint children and even adults that are witches. I saw a poster of a planned church gathering somewhere in Calabar Nigeria and the highlight of the event was titled, “Kill that witch!” That means it was a gathering where families take those in their families suspected of witchcraft for positive identification and exorcism.
We have read many stories of what these people call exorcism. There is physical abuse, there is emotional abuse, there is excommunication, and there is alienation of the victims from family members. The stigma that go with the people accused of being witches is so overpowering that some lose the will to live and hence try to end their lives.
It is instructive that the reasons for which some of the children are labeled witches are unbelievable. Sometimes, a child is branded a witch just for being reclusive or non-conforming. In some instance, a belligerent child is branded a witch. Even a child that has what would be diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), in the Western world, is branded a witch! A child that may be susceptible to hallucinations, “hearing voices” or “seeing imaginary things”, all conditions that could be the result of medical abnormalities in the brain, is branded a witch and condemned. The pastors that make these assertions always try to find a family misfortune that they can blame the “witch” child for. For example, if it is a family where a woman has been trying to conceive for years and could not, the pastor will say it is because of the “witch” child. If it is a family where someone has terminal ailment, the “witch” child is blamed. If it is a family where enough progress or development is not being made, the “witch” is blamed. Of course when a family believes that the source of their misfortune has been identified, the tendency is for them to go along with any suggestion to reverse their misfortune. Hence they agree to any steps suggested by the “man of God” for exorcism, no matter how harsh, unconscionable or ignoble.
I have been to three continents although I have lived in Africa and United States the most. But I cannot think of any place I have been, whether in the western countries or otherwise, where all the children are perfect. Here in the United States, I see children that are belligerent, I see children that are non-conformists, I see children that are reclusive and I see children that “hear voices”, or have hallucinations. I see children that try to subvert their families in all ways possible. These children are not branded witches and ostracized or go on stomach churning exorcism. Many are taken to medical doctors for proper diagnosis of the underlying medical problem that may be causing or exacerbating their condition. With diagnoses, medication follows. Hence people that are bipolar, hear voices, hallucinate are treated and many restored to normalcy. Why some so called men of God have taken it upon themselves, in Africa, to be condemning God’s children to untimely death and eternal damnation, beats the imagination. Some try to justify what they do by the bible verse that says “suffer no witches”. If we literally follow all bible verses word for word, no one will exist on the face of the earth.
It should be mentioned that in the African environment, it is not only children that are sometimes branded witches. Sometimes, these pastors also brand adults witches. These types of accusations trigger deep family feuds that last and linger for a long time. The scenario goes thus: someone becomes sick, instead of going to seek proper medical diagnosis, the person is taken to a church where the pastor prays and claims to have received word from above that the sickness was caused by a witch, usually a family member or someone close to the family. Bitter feuds develop between the families. The time that could have been used to take the patient to the hospital for true medical diagnosis and treatment is spent feuding with the accused family. Meanwhile, the ailment deepens and before long, things get to the point of no return.
A friend told me a while ago how, after his father’s burial in Nigeria, when he came back, one of his friends called to commiserate with him. As they were chatting, his friend asked if they found out who killed his dad. My friend responded that his father died of natural causes as spelt out by the doctors but his friend was unconvinced and went on to tell stories of people who developed sicknesses all for men of God to tell them that it was caused by witches. Now, go figure. Why can’t someone die of natural causes? Why must every death be attributed to the handiwork of witches?
I understand that witch-hunting is banned in Nigeria but it does not seem as though people who engage in it are being prosecuted aggressively. The government has to take steps to stamp out this injustice.
Now, on a slightly different note here, the other day, I logged into my Facebook page and what greeted my eyes was a video of another pastor “ministering unto his congregation”. He talked about power that comes from believing in God and then said he had the power to make even children in the womb of their mothers dance. Almost immediately, the camera zoomed into a seemingly pregnant lady sitting on a chair, amongst the congregation. The woman appeared to be sleeping because her eyes were closed. Just then, the pastor said something like “dance baby dance” and the woman’s tummy started making rhythmic motions as if the baby was actually moving in her womb, in sync with the song that the pastor was singing. I was curious so as soon as the camera zoomed closer into her, I observed that the woman was the one subtly gyrating her hips and in resonance, her belly was following suit, creating the impression that the baby in her womb was moving or dancing.
This deceitful exercise continued for quite some time and sometimes to applause from the suspecting or unsuspecting congregation. After a while, I could no longer look at the shameful spectacle. I had concluded that here was another fake one bringing disrepute to Christianity and Christendom. What was the point of this exercise, I wondered. Let’s just for a moment believe that this was real, what was the utility of a baby dancing in the mother’s womb as a miracle? Christ’s miracles were significant, valuable and did not need to be faked. If this pastor had any powers to effectuate miracles, rather than embark on useless, magic-like exercises, he should be healing the infirm or be doing something useful not making a baby in the womb dance. He sought the easy path to create the impression that he had the power to effectuate miracles.
Over the years, and the world over, countless number of young boys, genuinely drawn to the service of God, as altar boys, have been abused sexually by men they trusted, believed in and hoped would help them find the face and blessing of God. Some of them recount the abuse they endured and when asked why they did not refuse, would state how they were goaded into believing that refusing was tantamount to disobeying the wishes of God. It is painful to note that because of the traumatic experience they had, some of these altar boys have either completely fallen away from the service of God, or have perpetually but inadvertently lost the ability to trust any man. Some flounder and have continued to search for identity all because of what people did to them in the name of God. How can the perpetrators of these heinous acts still call themselves fishers of men and try to liken what they do to what the disciples did thousands of years ago? The more painful part is that it is a handful of these bad apples in Christianity that try to soil the good work that others are and have been doing.
Then there are some “men and women of God” that engage in what has been debunked as fake healing miracles. This is not peculiar to any particular country or continent. It is happening the world over. Through sting operations, it has been established that some of these people plant fake sick people and then, in the full glare of the congregation, during church services, pretend to heal them just by laying hands on their fore heads. For the avoidance of doubt, as a Christian, I am a firm believer in biblical miracles and I believe that the power to heal still abound in men and women even today. I recall when my mother used to visit us many years ago. On Sundays, whenever we were unable to go to church, we would turn to television ministry for that Sunday’s service. Sometimes, the pastor would ask for people hoping for miracles to place their hands on the television, over his, and miracles would happen. I had no problems with these until we started reading expose that point to the fact that some of the people that purport to have been healed, were actually planted in church and that sophisticated technologies were being used in church premises for communication between the cohorts that collude in this and the main actors. It was a huge disappointment to know that all the deception were being done in the name of God. Vulnerable people rush to them to get healing but end up disappointed. They become alienated instead of strengthened in their belief in God. This makes it imperative that every Christian must be on alert. If they start seeing things that seem too good to be true, they must look before they leap!
Inspite of all these disappointments, though, I believe in miracles and have always believed. But miracles will only come from genuine men and women of God that live the word they preach. You shall know them by the type of lifestyles they lead, by what they say, by the deeds they do, by how they treat fellow human beings, by their disposition. Some call themselves servants of God but spew hate in the name of preaching and some are more political than the real politicians and their words and actions are guided by politics not true words of God.
Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, Author of Surviving in Biafra - The Story of the Nigerian Civil War