The title of a local movie, the Fake Prophet, that was distributed in Nigeria as part of the campaign against child witchcraft accusation in the country, made me curious. Those behind this project had the best of intentions- to educate and enlighten people regarding the fraudulent claims by witch branding pastors. They wanted to expose the tricks of self styled men and women of God, the manipulations of clerics who claimed to have supernatural powers and employ such pretensions to deceive, abuse and exploit gullible folks.
Still that the title of this film did not sit well with me and constantly agitated my mind. Too many times I queried: What does a fake prophet mean? Is that not a tautology? Which prophet is not fake?
Are there genuine prophets and prophecies? Can one really make a distinction between fake and genuine prophets?
Recently, I have had to contend with these similar questions in trying to understand South Africa’s ongoing efforts to tackle bogus pastors and the commercialization of religion. South Africa has gone to the extent of setting up a commission to curb these dangerous practices. Take note, by South African definition, commercialization of religion is a harmful enterprise. In pursuant to this project, church leaders have been investigated and sanctioned for reckless and irresponsible religious claims and practices, or for violating the rights of their members. One of such pastors sprayed insecticides on the congregants during prayers.
So I totally concur with the President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who has recently urged a conversation about how to deal with bogus pastors.
But the problem is: how does one define a bogus pastor? To curb the commercialization of religion or to hold rogue clerics accountable, it is important to explain what is meant by commercialization of religion or a bogus pastor.
As in the case of the Fake Prophet, there is lack of clarity in the usage and application of these terminologies. And this conceptual vagueness or ambiguity needs to be dealt with in order to adequately situate, understand and address dangerous religious practices in the region.
First, on the issue of commercialization of religion, South Africa wants to combat religious profiteering. The country is trying to curb the exploitation of vulnerable people or better, the mercantilist religious schemes of pastors who promise blessings or miracles at a fee. This is quite commendable. But how far can South Africa go in fulfilling this objective? How does South Africa differentiate commercialized from non-commercialized forms of religious expressions? What are the assurances that this project is not a form of witch-hunt, that only targets some pastors, prophets and churches and not others?
This is because commerce has been the main driver of religious growth in Africa and the world. While presenting itself as a charitable or humanitarian program, religion has always been a commercial enterprise, that profits religious establishments. In fact, traditional, Christian, and Islamic religions are transnational business empires and have thrived by marketing blessing, prophecies, and prayers. Religious business mainly thrives on bogus supernatural claims. Christian churches and mosques owe their enormous wealth and money to the sale of religious goods and transcendental schemes.
While President Ramaphosa of South Africa was right in urging a discussion on bogus pastors and their dangerous practices, the problem remains: What does he mean by bogus pastors? What are the criteria for determining rogue clerics and their questionable religious claims? It must be recalled that Ramaphosa made this remark in reaction to the controversy over Pastor Alph Lukau’s resurrection claim.
Now let’s take a closer look at this Lukau’s case. In a widely circulated video, Pastor Lukau claimed to have brought a dead man back to life. He was seen telling a man in a coffin, rise up! And in reaction to this incident, Lukau has been widely mocked and criticized. In fact another South Africa prophet has challenged him over the resurrection claim urging Lukau to go raise the late Nelson Mandela. Many other South African pastors and prophets have made very bizarre and controversial religious claims.
Now let’s not forget, stories of resurrection and other counter-intuitive notions exist in Christianity and constitute the pillars of various religious traditions. Regarded as articles of faith, these claims are rarely called to question or subjected to critical examination as in the case of Lukau. Mainline priests, bishops, sheikhs, imams, and ulamas are not challenged for promoting these Lukau-like ideas and performances. They are usually not pilloried for promoting dubious questionable religious claims.
Whilst African Christians believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead or that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they are ready to mock and dispute the resurrection claims of Lukau and other African prophets, designating them as bogus and fake.
In fact how does the idea of a fake resurrection claim make sense to anyone? Is there any resurrection claim – including that of Jesus – that is not fake? Out of deference to their faith or others’, Africans are unwilling to challenge established Christian or Islamic
resurrection/revelation claims. Africans seldom mock mainstream Christian or Islamic versions of fake, dubious and stage-managed resurrection, ascension and revelation narratives. This amounts to a
double standard and could undermine the credibility of the campaign against dangerous religious practices in South Africa.
To succeed in tackling rogue pastors and commercialization of religion, South Africa must advance a clear and unequivocal definition of bogus pastors and commercialized religions. The country should apply these definitions to all clerics (self or other styled) and to all religions in the country without fear or favour.
South Africa should not privilege some bogus pastors/prophets/imams over others; some fake resurrection/ascension/revelation claims over others; some religious exploitative and extortionist schemes over others.
South Africa must be unbiased in combating both mainstream and fringe forms of commercialization of religions and religious skulduggery.