Time for regulation of the Church?
The recent news of the exhumation by Kenyan police of up to 90 bodies, the majority of which were those of children, near the country’s coastal town of Malindi brought to the fore the, sometimes, toxic issues around religion and faith in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa in particular, and in other parts of the world.
According to the BBC, the shallow graves are in Shakahola forest, where 15 members of the Good News International Church were rescued. Church leader Paul Makenzie Nthenge is in custody, pending a court appearance.
The BBC also said that the state broadcaster, KBC, described him as a "cult leader", and reported that one of the graves was believed to contain the bodies of five members of the same family ― three children and their parents.
Mr Nthenge, it is said, denied wrongdoing, but has been refused bail. He insists that he shut down his church in 2019. He allegedly told followers to starve themselves to "meet Jesus".
In one of the most dramatic mass murder-suicides of modern history, 914 adults and children from a US cult died in the jungle of the small South American country of Guyana on November 18, 1978.
They were led to their death by a charismatic US preacher, Jim Jones, who coerced members of his People's Temple sect into committing "revolutionary suicide", urging parents to give their children poison, while others were shot trying to flee or forced to drink the deadly liquid.
Another of the world's worst cult-related massacres took place in southwestern Uganda's Kanungu district in 2000, where some 700 members from the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God burned to death.
Members of the cult, which believed the world would come to an end at the turn of the millennium, had been locked inside a church, with the doors and windows nailed shut from the outside.
Other examples abound, from the Waco Seige (USA, 1993) to the Solar Temple incident (Switzerland, 1994) and Heaven’s Gate incident (USA, 1997).
Poverty and desperation?
Particularly in Africa, it appears anyone can get up, style himself or herself as a preacher and spout whatever comes to mind, however dangerous or absurd, and be almost guaranteed a following as a ‘man/woman of God’.
A flick through some of the channels on our televisions reveals an unending diet of religious fervour and strange proclamations.
Apparently, buying airtime on TV to propagate one’s message is the way to go for many preachers.
Of course, the stations do not ask questions, so long as one is willing and able to pay for the airtime.
For those unable to buy airtime, the standard practice is to stand by the road with a microphone in one hand, a Bible in the other and a box for collections to ‘do God’s work’ and pay for the fuel that runs the generator to make it all possible.
Of course, many hope to graduate from the streets and hot sun into air-conditioned studios to continue with the Lord’s work.
In this country, we have read many stories of ‘pastors’ taking sexual advantage of vulnerable women, among other sordid accounts.
In many instances, these persons are literally worshipped and their congregation hang on to their every word and edict ― even the ones that do not make biblical sense.
Poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and desperation seem to be fertile grounds on which many of these self-styled preachers thrive in their bid to win souls, and in the process, make themselves rich.
The state, in many parts, is either scared or reluctant to step in and address this abusive relationship.
The irony is that mostly, where the state attempts, however weak, to act, the fiercest resistance comes from members of the church, who would intone the biblical order that ‘touch not my anointed’.
Outside the church and in the general populace, there is a general reference to the constitutional provisions of freedom of religion, with the argument that if a full adult of sound mind decides, for instance, that his or her salvation depends on, among other things, drinking his or her pastor’s used bathwater, then it is not the business of the state to intervene.
Stories such as what happened in Kenya reawaken the discussion about what ― if anything ― the state can and should do to prevent such gross exploitation by religious charlatans.
A few days ago, Prof. H. Kwasi Prempeh, Executive Director of Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), argued on his Facebook wall in the wake of the Kenyan tragedy that the African state's longstanding "hands-off-the-Church" approach is proving to be socially disastrous and no longer sustainable.
His view was that the state is abdicating its responsibility to its citizens by leaving them at the mercy of all manner of persons masquerading as men and women of God and preying on the existential, psychological and spiritual vulnerabilities of the people.
I share wholly in this sentiment.
He recalls further that the existing regulation-free relationship was forged during the colonial period when churches and missionaries combined missionary or evangelical work with charitable social work like building and operating schools.
The dynamics have changed fundamentally, with the proliferation of many ‘one-man churches’ that come nowhere near the work many of these older, better-structured churches did and continue to do.
“The current situation, where there is zero entry barrier to the establishment or operation of a "church", is certainly not sustainable.
Let's begin by doing away with a blanket tax exemption for churches and, instead, subject churches to income tax (a tax on their net income), granting each church tax credits or exemptions only upon auditable proof that incomes have been used to support a missionary or charitable work.
Then, of course, we must use and enforce zoning and noise abatement ordinances, too, to ensure that "churches" do not locate anywhere or behave anyhow in the communities and neighbourhoods where they are located,” he argues.
I find it amusing, for instance, that in Accra, it takes traditional leaders, who are non-state actors, to ensure noise in churches and other public places is kept to the barest minimum for one month every year, whilst the state, with all its coercive powers, literally looks on helplessly for the rest of the year as our eardrums are assaulted in the face of bye-laws against public noise.
Prof. Prempeh concludes, “The African State can no longer stand aloof.
If the State continues to do nothing, the bad apples, who often have the most seductive messages and enticements, will not only outnumber the good (actually, they already have), they will contaminate the whole barrel, sending many believers to their doom and making all of society worse off.
The same "consumer protection" philosophy that underpins laws and regulations in areas like food and drug safety, securities, etc., should be extended to state regulation of the business of winning "souls".
Again, I agree fully with him.
The state cannot ― should not ― be a timorous soul in the business of regulating religion, dancing around churches on eggshells in the name of democracy and freedom of worship.
In countries like the UK, you cannot just set up a church on a whim and get about your business.
The Charities Commission, backed by law, will see to that.
We do not have to get to the level of what happened in Kenya – or even close – to do the needful.
Head, Communications & Public Affairs Unit,
Ministry of Energy,