I recall conversing with a friend from one popular West African country when I was in Rome, Italy few years ago for studies. My friend was lamenting about the rate at which new churches and sects were emerging in his country. Quoting his words he said “Now it is almost impossible to count the number of churches in my country because every minute a new church is being formed”. Listening to him back then I said to myself ‘that is a western African problem; in this part of Africa we are Ok’. Listening to him now I perfectly understand his concern. I had absolutely no idea that it was just a matter of time before my friend’s concern caught up with us in this part of Africa. While it might be an exaggerated assertion that every minute a new Church is being formed it is also a valid that the rate at which Churches are mushrooming in Botswana is alarming. In this reflection we want to look at this phenomenon of mushrooming Churches in our country with the intention of addressing the question whether the rise in the number of churches and sects is an indication of people’s desperation in the face of rising poverty. Is there any causal connection between religion and poverty? Does poverty drive people into religion, or does religion leave people poorer than before? This presentation adopts the very simple definition of religion as man’s relationship with God, a relationship which expresses itself in belief, worship and morality.
This reflection would like to bring into focus Karl Marx’s discourse about religion. The central argument of Karl Marx is that the existence of religion is merely a manifestation of an abnormality in the social order, for under normal circumstances or the communist utopia religion is not necessary for the conditions that create it do not exist. In Marx’s words, religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of heartless world and the soul of soulless condition. It is the opium of the poor”. Thus according to Karl Marx religion becomes a necessity in a society where there is poverty and oppression. In fact religion becomes a tool for the perpetuation of the social conditions that create it. Religion keeps the poor and the oppressed from revolting against conditions and systems that make them so for it promises them a ‘pie in the sky’. Religion with its traditions and doctrines is nothing more than a series of myths which justify and legitimize subordination of the subject class and the domination and privileges of the ruling class. It is a tool for the maintenance of the status quo.
In the above Marxian exposition we can draw the conclusion that religion is a tool in the hand of the rich and influential members of society who benefit from a prevailing oppressive socio-politico-economic order. This tool is used to brainwash and indoctrinate the poor and the disadvantaged so that they submit and accept the prevailing order. The promise of a new order in the after-life where the poor and those who cry shall be blessed and the kingdom of God shall be theirs, makes the poor to submit and accept the poverty and the crying on this this side of existence.
Looking at the situation in our country today I would have serious problems agreeing with Karl Marx. The presentation of religion today, especially by the mushrooming Churches does not remotely have any inkling to the Marxian version of religion. The pastors, evangelists and prophets of today present religion as an immediate answer to their life predicaments. This is what is making the modern day emerging religious groups attractive and appealing to the masses. If you are poor you just to put yourself under the covering of the pastor/prophet and your poverty becomes a thing of the past. Theirs is not a promise of a pie in the sky, rather the change is hic et nunc, here and now.
The new emerging Churches do not labour and spend time preaching about the trinity or other traditional doctrines rather they invest time in healing and casting demons out of people. It is almost like these churches believe that it’s not the political order that need to change, it’s not the economy and the policies that need to change for people to live prosperous lives. Rather what one needs is deliverance for he is what he is because of the devil. This has proved to be very appealing to the masses especially those that are desperate for a change in their lives. Traditional Churches like the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist are perceived to have failed to change people’s lives. While these traditional churches emphasise their theology of redemptive suffering which call people to endure their sickness and suffering as a way of participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ on the cross the new churches are blazoning the stop suffering messages. These messages are further substantiated by miracles, signs and wonders.
It is not the intention of this reflection to judge whether the traditional churches have failed to be relevant today or whether the new emerging churches are genuine. Rather I would like to submit the assertion that the prevailing socio-economic environment has proved a very fertile ground for the new emerging churches. People are poor and suffering. Many people cannot see a way out of their situation. The unemployed youth cannot hope for employment since there are no jobs on the market and should there be jobs some of these youth are unemployable because they lack the requisite qualifications. They lack the requisite qualifications because they could not afford school fees. Some sick cannot see a future because they cannot afford the medical expenses. This is the prevailing situation. People are living in utter desperation.
It is in these desperate times that the new religious movements/churches are thriving. To the unemployed youth they preach a God who qualifies the unqualified and to the sick they preach a healing God. Their strongest attraction comes from the testimonies of people who encountered the God of ‘Prophet X’ and their lives were no longer the same. Whether the testimonies are stage managed it is not for me to say.
I would like to bring into this discourse the two major maxims of religion. The false maxim states that ‘fear not for all the things you are afraid of will not happen to you for you are under covering’. The maxim of true religion states that ‘all the things you are afraid of may possibly happen to you but fear not for God is with you’. At the centre of true religion is the person of Jesus Christ and his relationship with God his father. Jesus’ relationship with his father is the model of religion.
Our constitution upholds freedom and worship and so everyone is free to choose where to worship but I do feel that as spiritual directors we have a role to play in guiding people in their choices. We do not choose for people but we help them in the process of choosing so that they can make informed choices. A religion that is not concerned about my immediate environment and situation but only promises me a pie in the sky is not relevant. A religion that turns a blind eye towards the oppressive systems is not relevant. A see no evil hear no evil kind of religion is not true. A religion that is not modelled on the person of Jesus Christ is not true. The Bible has to be the guiding book.
We get the correct picture of God in the Bible. The rising number of new churches has led to a competition between the churches or ministries each presenting its ‘God’ as the most powerful God. Statements like ‘there is no other God more powerful God than the God of X Prophet or X Church’ are very common. There is only one God and we get to know him through reading and meditating His Word in the Bible. The German philosopher once remarked ‘in the beginning God created man in his own image and likeness but today man is creating God in his own image and likeness’. It seems the new emerging churches have created a God who is not easily accessible- a God who is enticed and enchanted by tithe and partnering with the ministry. We cannot worship any other God besides the God of Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ is the true God who heals and saves.
Let the Spirit of God guide you in your choice of where to worship. The Bible warns of the false prophets, the wolves who come in sheep skin. It is only with the spirit of God that one can discern whether one is a true or false servant of God. These are desperate times and we need God more than ever but religion should not be used to exploit people. Religious leaders should not use religion as a tool for their self-aggrandizement. Religious leaders should be humble after the mode of Jesus Christ, the model pastor.