MERCHANTS OF FAITH IN THE AGE OF HUNGER

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GUEST COLUMNIST BY ALEX OTTI

Today, this column is devoted to an interrogation of issues raised in “Saved for His Praise”, a new book by the journalist and publisher, Prince Emeka Obasi which was presented to the public in Lagos a few days ago.

In the book, Obasi weighs in heavily on exposing the reader to a series of incongruities relating to ‘the permissive culture of religious hypocrisy and the monster of fake prophecies which it has spawned;’ and he remarks that the challenge is quietly and steadily swamping our national space. He has several tales to support his view.

One is of a young man who beat his 80-year old mother to death in Calabar. There is another of a retiring headmaster being burnt alive in his own house by his kinsmen in Okigwe. And for good measure, we can also add this equally confounding one about a pastor who reportedly butchered his girlfriend and then used her body parts to lay the foundation for his church building in Abeokuta! The meeting point for all three narratives is that they had to do with a ‘spiritual interpretation’ of why the dramatis persona in the texts were prospering or not prospering. We will return to this point subsequently.

Indeed as copiously recounted by the author himself, he has lately fallen victim to this same horde of fake merchants of faith who crept up close to his own family and beguiled his relatives with the astounding declaration that the author was the reason other members of the family were not prospering! When this ‘great discovery’ was relayed by the author’s sister to him, he asked for clarifications and it was then that other details emerged to the effect that the same fake merchants of faith had also gone on to add that about the only way they (the relatives) would be freed to prosper would be for the source of their retardation to be taken off the scene.

In the midst of this ‘outrageous revelation,’ Obasi is overtaken by a mystery ailment that even at the time of writing has yet to be fully defined. He juxtaposes the fact that this illness came about at the same time that the fake prophecies were already in the air and that all efforts to find suitable diagnosis and treatment in Lagos, Abuja and the United Kingdom had not yielded positive results. Indeed, at a point in time the specialists in the UK had literally given up, and it was at this point that he was to intensify his dependence on the efficacy of intercessory prayers to the almighty God for his healing. In the course of this, prayers were said for him by a vast network of Christians and clergy. Without any equivocation, the author credits the fact of his being alive today to the strength of the intercessions that were made to reverse presumably evil pronouncements and actions that may have been foisted on him and as typified most notably by the mystery ailment under reference.

Pushed to the wall in this manner then, Obasi also spends a lot of time in the book, explaining to very minute details literally every step that he had taken through the years to advance his career and life in such a way as to put the lie to the fake prophetic revelations by the said merchants of faith. In the course of doing this, he touches on issues relating to his astounding educational career, his foray into entrepreneurship, sibling rivalry and envy, the post-war state of the defunct Eastern region as well as the accompanying crisis of poverty and vision that the poor regard for education and its liberating potentialities has engendered.

On a good day, matters of faith are indeed controversial. And this is more so in a nation like Nigeria, where issues of religion and faith have historically been the cause of many a misunderstanding. But then there is a sense in which the subject being discussed here, namely that of ‘false spiritual readings’ would conveniently be located as ‘having crossed the threshold.’ We are talking of situations that have involved near-death scenarios, the unlawful taking of lives and the destruction of properties. Surely, such matters can no longer be left and reviewed as regular affairs because they are not. Something definitely is wrong.

It is therefore to Obasi’s credit in “Saved for His Praise” that he has taken on the tough task of not just pointing out these distortions that have seemingly come to live with us, but that he has also gone on to quite rigorously locate them as the warped and manipulative antics of merchants of faith; opportunistic purveyors of the word of God, false prophets, who for a varying range of reasons, now carry on so shamelessly, ‘saying what God did not say’ and in the process, creating crisis and imbalance in families, communities and the broader national space.

Interestingly, other religions are not spared from the prophecy business. Some of them engage in outright guesswork and it applies mostly to situations where answers are either yes or no. Statistically, the chances of occurrence of each outcome is 50%. If for instance you are contesting an election, it is either you win or you lose. Predicting that you will win is an easier and a better prophecy. If at the end, you do not win, it is your fault. They will find what you should have done but failed to do to blame it on. If you win, credit goes to the “man of God”. I have heard of situations where some high ranking leaders and politicians would take no decisions without consulting their prophets, spiritual leaders, Mallams, marabouts or native doctors. As if the electorate voted such spiritual leaders with the politicians.

Indeed, were these to be mere fictional tales spun and woven by a creative writer in the course of his artistic labours, they would have been applauded as perhaps the product of a rich and fecund imagination bordering on genius. Alas however, these are sadly not contrived, but real stories that involve real people in our communities and nation. Qualifying most aptly as tales that would easily fit into the epic ‘Stranger than fiction’ mould, they are reports of incidents that have been laid bare already in our public space. And they speak to the nagging concern that indeed, an epidemic of sorts may already have unwittingly crept in on us even as it behoves all men and women of goodwill to rise up to the task and join in taking steps to arrest this scourge before it grows further teeth.

Alarmingly, it is to be noted that these weird and grotesque occurrences are being justified ‘in God’s name.’ But we must strongly repudiate them as monumental fallacy that should be quickly discountenanced as this, most clearly is not the self-same Church that the Lord Jesus Christ had said that he would build himself. They are rather destructive and opportunistic distortions that are concocted in hell and indeed have nothing to do with the basic tenets of the Christian faith that I have come to know through the years and embraced.

Also included at the other end of the same spectrum of flagrant distortions that require frontal repudiation is the recourse to illogicality and nonsensical insinuations to explain why some people are not doing well in the material sense in this world that we live in. The time-tested faith-work balance that John Calvin and the other promoters of the Protestant Ethic had underscored very many years ago, and which is at the heart of the success of western civilisation has not been fully assimilated by the purveyors of this aberrant logic. When the Bible says ‘faith without works’ is dead, it means it as plainly as it is stated. No equivocation. To succeed in life would require more than outlandish and real faith-distorting pronouncements being made over you. The God we serve is a God of balance and even as he does miracles, he equally enjoins the cultivation of a solid work ethic. Today’s fake prophet conveniently feeds those that will not heed this basic truth with obtuse and distorted comfort-prophecies to look elsewhere for their lack of success. ‘Somebody is using your luck’, indeed!

Pushing the plate one step further, the writer takes his exposition one notch higher by penning open letters to some notable ‘fathers of the faith’, who he stridently implores to weigh in on the subject in order that corrections can be made.

Indeed, the letters to the church leaders, which had earlier been circulated ahead of the presentation event, do indeed strike a fundamental chord. While acknowledging the great advances that have come to the nation through the agency of Pentecostal Christianity, which the author correctly locates are in a sense equally connected to the great work done by church leaders, the author however goes ahead to register the fact that the malaise presently being introduced into the fabric of society by the purveyors of fake and destructive prophecies, who are in a sense also associated with the Pentecostal explosion, gives Pentecostalism a very bad name.

This is because, no thanks to these inglorious antics, a quite pervasive state of crisis and strain was already emerging and resulting in broken homes, broken marriages, broken relationships and businesses. The polity is also being affected as in some instances, the same ignoble merchants of faith go about hawking their wares to politicians of different descriptions and contexts, and thereby encouraging them to extra lengths to ensure that their so-called ‘prophecies’ did indeed come to pass, like we noted earlier.

The social reality appreciation of the problem which both the author and former Ondo State Governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, explored in the foreword to the book and the core text itself is most germane. At the launch event proper, Mimiko returned to the same subject, tracing the connection between the types of miracles being sought by people to our mode of social organisation and levels of deprivation.

Some examples here would include miracles of getting visas, miracles of childbirth and miracles of securing university admission, which would not rank as such in societies with more advanced social and governance systems. In those societies, they would come as normal provisions of sound social organisation and expected by-products of stable economies, structured policies, robust political competition, a commitment to enlightenment and forays in medical science and dynamic development. However, in our self-deflating environment where we insist on practicing the most prebendal of political regimes, these and more are still not normal and therefore have to be conjured from ‘the land of spirits.’

Equally of note is the fact that a number of these false prophetic centres even send early signals of the propensities they harbour right from their naming to the promotional materials that they pass on to members of the public. What for example do you expect from ministries that are named ‘Mountain of Swallowing Problems Prayer Ministry’ or ‘Iron Must Obey Ministry’ or ‘Fire for Fire Prayer Network’ or ‘Run for your life International Chapel?’

Or what great Christian teaching would you get from ministries that advertise their events in such formats: ‘Who tied the goat?’ ‘Give me a spouse or I die?’‘My spouse has gone mad again!’‘Who is monitoring my life: Leave me and let me drive my car!’Na my matter go kill you!’

There is even more: ‘O God, na like this we go dey?’ ‘Kill them before they kill you!’ ‘How to identify a witch: Operation point and kill.’ ‘I don taya for this nonsense.’ ‘War against delay: This beautiful sister must marry.’ ‘I will not leave Lagos empty handed.’ ‘Tied down in the village but needed in the city.’ ‘Uncle, Wetin I do you?’

Overall then, we agree with the author’s thesis that the core challenge is traceable to a crisis of permissive ignorance. Marx may have indeed gone the other extreme when he wrote that ‘religion is the opium of the masses.’ However, in their uncritical gulping of suspect prophetic pronouncements without as much as double-checking to see whether they are in consonance with the word and will of God even as expressed in the Bible, some of our ‘parishioners’ do unwittingly make Marx out to be a “prophet” of some sort.

Emeka Obasi’s emotional rendition of his near death experience is like a wakeup call to a society, either in slumber or in denial or infact, both. It brings to the fore the harsh realities of the unspoken social milieu our society is trapped in, the world of pastors, prophets, prophetesses and sundry preachers. These have increasingly become real time merchants of prophecies, divinations and visions. Steadily, surreptitiously and relentlessly, they have invaded the social fabric and are wreaking havoc.

“Saved for His Praise” is a mirror reflecting the tragic descent of a society into the torrid world of fraudulent faith hustlers and their desperate and hapless clientele and highly recommended reading for everyone.

For Obasi to lay bare his personal life in such minute details publicly, is a real act of courage. In the end, if the book succeeds in catalysing action for the society at large to rise against this monster, his efforts would well have been worth it.