While parts of this story are anecdotal, it's not the only version I've heard about the growing Pentecostal movement
It was barely six am today, a Sunday, when the sound of the local Pentecostal church came blaring through the windows. They stay open at night to allow the cool breezes of the African fall to waft in. Unfortunately they also allow in considerable noise, so it's time for headphones.
If you're a Southerner, born and raised, as I am, you are likely familiar with Pentecostal and Evangelical proceedings. Here in Tanzania and many other African nations it's a huge growth business, in my opinion (and many others) having nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with money. What follows is an account from locals I spoke with, who had a lot to say about religious services. Other observations are from research and stories that have made the news.
First, some context. In the biopic Get on Up, Chadwick Boseman, playing the title role of James Brown, discovers Pentecostal services young. Here is a pivotal scene, which nearly precisely mirrors what's happening right now over at this church:
Whether or not you and I agree that this is actually worship, and apparently many do, the problem is that over here, it's very big business. People are convinced that they can pay their way to heaven. They are already dirt poor, but they will scrape their shillings together to thrown at a loud-mouth preacher, being told that the more they bring, the more likely they will be given a path to that better place.
The real draw of such services is pure showmanship. The screaming, yelling, loud music, speaking in tongues, the posturing is nothing more, in my opinion, than a great big production with one primary purpose: to separate the poor from their pennies by convincing them that the more they give, the more likely they will be sent to heaven.
A number of locals (not named for their own protection) explained that this all too often leads to the poor guy on the street turning to theft. Every time he brings his ill-gotten gains to the church, the entire congregation hollers his name to the skies. That's heady stuff for the people I see eating the leavings of other people's fast food out of the trash can, which my guest house manager Eddie and I saw yesterday on our way back from the supermarket.
That dusty, bedraggled man, his pants hanging off his butt, feet bare and licking the last of the sauce from a crumpled piece of tinfoil, would be screamed to the stars every time he brings in money. Money that sadly, he likely steals, which also sadly, and much worse, may land him in jail, which means he is promptly forgotten.
Wherever there is terrible poverty, stife, and disease, people desperate for hope can be convinced of damned near anything. And that makes too many people the perfect targets for such messages.
The preachers are extremely canny, and they know that public acknowledgement is seductive. The preachers, who are all too often drawn solely for the power and the income, learn how to bilk people rather than save them.
Interestingly, a German man is largely credited with bringing the brimstone style of evangelism to Africa. He knew precisely what he was doing and to whom:
From the article:
At huge rallies - including one in Nigeria's main city, Lagos, in 2000 that was said to have drawn 1.6 million people - Bonnke claimed to heal people using the powers of God.
He also told followers he had witnessed people rising from the dead, although such "miracles" were dismissed by his critics.
That's all I need to know about this cretin to dismiss him. Because this idiot seems to have missed the message: that if going to heaven is The Big Reward, why in God's name-or anyone else's- would some poor sot want to be brought back to life if he'd already gone home to his Maker? Someone explain this to me.
I heard one particular story which didn't make it to Google. One particularly creative way one Pentecostal church uses to wash its sinners is to beat the holy crap out of them with sticks. The worse and longer the beatings, the more you are forgiven.
There is only one outcome for that. One woman's head injuries were so grievous she was hospitalized. I seriously doubt the church offered to pay the bill; it's far easier to mutter that her sins were apparently so awful she got what she deserved.
I wonder, assuming she got out of the hospital alive, if she was then shunned for being irredeemable, or accepted back. Anyone's guess and the person who shared that story had no idea.
While I am not a believer, for those determined to present Christ (who, natch, is lily White) as a gentle SOB, this doesn't compute. Beating the crap out of a churchgoer doesn't sound like turning the other cheek to me, but it seems to appeal to the deeply superstitious.
This article speaks to the rise of such churches in Ghana, but I include it here to make a very powerful point.
Here is what gave me the greatest pause:
A distinctive feature of the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches that distinguishes them from the other generations is their avid use of the mass media, attraction to the upwardly mobile youth and the insistence on the need for one to be “born again” and experience the blessings, transformation, empowerment, success, and prosperity concomitant with the “born again” experience—material salvation, which is largely expressed and more evident in healing and deliverance (Asamoah-Gyadu, 2005).
That is very distinctly the cult of Trump: abundance beliefs, which I was first exposed to during the New Age Movement in the 1980s, and which many then turned into evangelical abundance cults. They are cults and nothing more, again in my opinion, and the more gullible the population, the more fearful and less educated, the more likely they are to buy the snake oil.
Racism is bred and nurtured in such churches, for if God only favors the rich, then by default the poor are sinners, and everything after that is pure PR manipulation. Sure works in America.
The researchers did point out the considerable good works that such churches are doing in Ghana, but my problem is that the research ignores the seedier side of church-as-business model. As with all religious models there are of course very good people trying hard to do the right thing, which is a source of hope. What isn't is the flip side, which is all about money, coercion and control.
What the article reminded me of was how the Mormon Church, with the full cooperation of the State of Utah, controls and distributes charity support for people but ONLY if they convert to Mormonism. Mormonism is, to my mind, a cult, again that is my opinion only. To that please see this piece by NPR.
I have an increasingly difficult time with any religions' taking over such services from the government, which in this country used to be separated. Call me crazy, but the founders had the right idea, and we are losing it along with our minds.
The last time I was in Arusha, I was in a cab with one of the staff as we were being taken to the market. Josef translated the cab driver's conversation. He was poor, and he was getting ready to start preaching. He didn't believe in God one bit, he said with emphasis. But every preacher he knew was rich, and he wanted some of that money. He told us he didn't care about God or people. He just wanted to be rich. Enough said.
Multiply that by thousands. Millions. How is that different than in America? The land of fleecing the population, greed and the evil televangelist?
This Al-Jezeera article outlines the precise problem I'm addressing:
Moshi is the town which becomes Kilimanjaro Central during the two climbing seasons. I have friends there, one a devout Catholic. She doesn't participate in such services, theirs are more controlled and driven by Church dictates. She's unlikely to be killed in a stampede. However, this article perfectly expresses the extraordinary and irresponsible power over people that self-appointed "Apostles" have over people during difficult times. This happened early in the pandemic.
Tanzania's then-prime minister had loudly told his people that the power of Jesus would kill the Covid in his body (he later died of Covid, rather spectacularly, as did other African leaders). Having made that proclamation, he set his own people up to be seriously duped and manipulated by these very preachers.
Before we rail at the African nations as being full of dupes, we need to turn that lens on our own. Here in America that same movement, highly motivated as it is to exercise as much power over women and our bodies as possible, was able to mobilize and move enough politicians to bring us to the brink of horrifying social change sweeping us back to the Middle Ages.
This isn't that article, but the point is well taken. America is increasingly a land of ignorant, backwater folks easily duped by the latest supersition. What frightens me more is how many of those people have degrees, which seem to mean nothing in terms of teaching people how to think critically. Why otherwise would we have lizard-people conspiracies, child-eating conspiracies, I could go on? We are no different than those folks dancing, screaming and falling on the floor just a few blocks away.
I am all for religious freedom, but even those freedoms desperately need limitations. Where such religions prey on people, where they encourage the worst of behaviors, where the church leaders effectively turn a gentle Jesus into a brute demanding beatings for sins, it's gone off the rails.
In a world at war, still reeling from Covid, we are off the rails. That is when religious cults, wielded by the unscrupulous, get a toe hold, then a nation hold.
A nation asleep and distraction pays little attention to evil. Evil masquerading as holy has been with us since the beginning of time. Only these days it has megaphones, megachurches and megapower.We need to bloody well pay attention, for we are already paying the price.
But hey, that's just my opinion.
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