Never has the commercialisation of religion and the steady rise of rogue pastors gnawed at our social conscience as we witness today. Of course, I am aware of decent men and women who have a sincere passion for God and who are equally alarmed at the desecration of the sacred space in Ghanaian society.
I am also well aware that there are divine ostriches among us who pretend or prefer not to see, hear or speak on any such goings-on in today’s church. But thanks to the smartphone and social media, we have all become daily recipients and witnesses to the scariest forms of Christianity in Ghana and across Africa.
Fifty or more years ago, our parents sat in silent reverence on Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist and Anglican pews and listened to decent men tell them about sweet Jesus and God’s love for mankind. They did not imagine that just a generation away, their children and grandchildren would grow and scream and be asked to deplete their bank accounts to support the worldly lifestyles of predatory pastors.
They never imagined that Christians would be commanded to eat grass upon the prophetic instructions of a “man of God”, fall, roll, wiggle and shout mindlessly to high heavens-- all in the service and theatrical praise to some imagined Caucasian or Judeo-Christian God.
How did we get here? What accounts for the transition from a tradition of sane and solemn Christian service to the current fixation on noisy buffoonery in the sacred name of Jesus?
Religion and the African
By ascribing the best and the worst within himself to powerful external forces, the current African does not view the workings of his mind and heart as primary causes of his successes or failures. This is typical in Ghana and it is seen in the ascription to God of all the factors that ever made a venture successful regardless of the hard work and dedication that went into it. The obverse of this is that harsh and unfortunate circumstances are interpreted as a sign of God’s anger or the devil having had his way. So in the late 70s to early 80s when economic conditions became austere, many Ghanaians never did any soul searching or introspection.
Rather, many reached out for quick-fix answers in religion. What we did not imagine was that our desperate effort to seek divine interventions to our socioeconomic challenges will beget for us, a scary brand of god after our own desperate image.
The demand and supply of hope: how we created a neoliberal God.
One of the major socio-economic disruptions that took place in Ghana and whose repercussions would later influence our construction of God, among others, was the accelerated pace of urbanization. This was mainly due to the Washington Consensus policies of the 70s to the 90s. These predatory policies weakened the productive bases of not only Ghana but many African states. In plain language, our so-called development partners, through a series of policy sleight of hand, cleverly took over and marginalized our governments by reducing the state’s capacity to provide social services and to expand the economy. Consequently, many state-owned agencies and industries collapsed or were sold or privatized. The result was that thousands of workers were retrenched. The private and individual initiative became imperative as each person had to fend for themselves, and hopefully God for us all. This was unlike the case in Europe where the period of rapid urbanization dovetailed into the demands of the industry by absorbing large numbers of the population into factories and mills.
In the place of nonexistent and collapsed local factories, industries and social services, a commercialized view of religion and self-help agencies and civil society organisations gradually emerged. Another effect of this was the accelerated pace of migration by Africans to the global north. Such survival strategies became the economic cushion that absorbed the thousands of jobless and hopeless people both within and outside Africa.
The educational system too wasn’t spared the effects of these policies. Although frequently reformed, it became progressively deformed into a complex binomial equation of x raised to the power 20 divided by the square root of two-thirds of the value of y, where y equals x-10(2 x 0.5). In short, our educational system became a sorry spectacle run by politicians who at best were just as confused and clueless about the education sector. The JSS/ JHS consonant clusters oscillated abnormally between 3 to 4 years or 4 to 3 years depending on which party was having a party in power. As expected, it successfully produced failures in their thousands for our emerging street trade requirements and the growing informal sector.
In the rural areas, the youth, many of whom had dropped out of school or fallen out of love with productive agriculture, felt the economic pinch and trooped to the cities in search of nonexistent jobs. Accra and other urban centres became the hotbed of every social vice and economic crime associated with urbanization and overpopulation.
These factors combined to create a huge social deficit of hope in Ghanaian society.
A heavy cloud of desperation hanged menacingly above the people. Under the neoliberal regime of austerity, religion took on a new meaning and pastors became even more socially relevant as agents of hope. A disingenuous reinterpretation of the Bible helped to consolidate the social construction of a neoliberal brand of God to meet the demands of the times. It provided a self-medication philosophy for the socio-economically depressed. One might as well call this period the beginnings of the “Age of Religious Galamsey”—which saw the emergence of young predator pastors who constituted themselves into a spiritual oligarchy and subsequently colonised the inner sanctum of the Ghanaian soul. They literally mined gold from the soul of frightened people and like consumers in a captive market, many people had no choice but to buy hope at the high price of personal dignity.
For this neoliberal God and his capitalist lust for profit, “money answereth all things” became the scriptural anchor that held in the stormy times. His blessings were conditional on how much money you brought to his alter as seed. This weird give and take casino-type “Jehovah” caught on zealously with the youth and rogue pastors. The church progressively became the most formidable NGO of the soul— exploiting the gap created by the receding state. It used the promise of prosperity and a motivational gospel as a social sedative to calm the anxious souls of the retrenched labour class and the masses of disillusioned youth. Under these circumstances, God became framed as a source of much-needed silver and gold, thereby blurring and blunting the otherwise spiritual dissonance in the merger between the love of God and mammon.
The CEOs of the neoliberal church
The religious industry expanded in grand capitalist and neoliberal style. Like the entrepreneurs, the pastors have become, their billboards projected highly photo-shopped versions of their actual images as we knew them in real life, alongside the various product lines their anointing specialized in.
The capital requirements for entry in this sector was minimal – can you read the Bible and speak in tongues, rap, scream and sing? Just tell the people God appeared to you in a vision or dream where he showed you the ripe harvest and the few labourers and asked if you were willing to “rescue the perishing and care for the dying”.
Of the many called, only a few were chosen. There are two types of the chosen few – the vendor/hawker or hustler type who like the Fulani, roamed long distances to preach and catered for the common people in the markets, the streets and other open-air spaces. Then we have those who seem to be the choicest of the chosen.
These are those who no man can easily see, touch or come any close to. They always went around with an impenetrable wall of security men who assist God in protecting them. They run big multinational churches and other pseudo-Christian organisations and even served on the board of banks and other secular institutions.
These are the powerful CEO/Apostle General cum General Overseer/ arch and mega bishop type. This second-type have modelled themselves after the Jewish theocratic tradition and demand our society and democracy to regard their opinions and voices as God’s unquestionable prophecy to the nation. They have arrogated to themselves, in the words of Kilp, “the power to determine the decisive socialisation processes and, therefore, the power to produce reality”
They tell us what to think and how to feel about ourselves and also how to see the world “properly”. They are the men among the boys who have counted the cost and opened church branches in all the dollar and Euro zones of the earth.
Elsewhere in the capitalist centers of the world where God and mammon have long become cool with each other, their category of neoliberal pastors live the ultimate luxury and fly their own private jets and hobnob with politicians and business tycoons.
Meanwhile, the idea of God’s unconditional love for mankind has long faded into a shadowy vignette as many have outsourced what ought to have been a personal relationship with God to predator pastors. As the political elite continue to capture state power and skew it to serve their selfish needs to the exclusion of the ordinary man, the social deficit of hope deepens. Ultimately, this will play out into the growth of neoliberal tendencies in Christianity. Until this trend is reversed, our young folks will take up the mantle and continue the tradition of serving our people with an odd blend of spirit and schizophrenia packaged as modern Christianity. Under these circumstances, the fall of God is imminent as everyone already feels the writing on their soul’s wall, except perhaps, the divine ostriches amongst us.