Long Read: When did the Nigerian church become scandal central?

Church

Pop singer, Timi Dakolo ensured the month of May did not go by without the expected dose of scandal. For the Christian community in Nigeria, these occurrences, each one steeped in mud and more outrageous than the last, barely raise eyebrows save for the blog related drama. Which pastor did what? It happened in what church?

Taking to his social media handles where he has built a considerable following- Dakolo has over 1.6million followers on Instagram alone- the big voiced talent who first seized the attention of the entire sub-continent back in 2009 when he contested and won the sole production of the reality television show, Idols West Africa, went straight for one of the shiniest and most polarizing figures in the Pentecostal branch of the church.

Taking care not to name any names but generous enough to avoid any ambiguity, Dakolo accused a certain high-flying pastor of emotional terrorism, sexual misconduct and even rape. He didn’t stop there, hinting at a culture of toxicity that enables other church leaders and congregants who are very much aware of the situation play the role of enablers- both passive and active.

READ MORE FROM WILFRED OKICHE: The rise and rise of beloved yet problematic entertainer, Teni

First of all, these accusations, despicable as they sound, were far from surprising, especially to the church body. Dakolo just happened to be the biggest (and latest) voice to cry out. It wasn’t the first time that a victim would accuse this particular pastor and if there was anything truly shocking about Dakolo’s claims, it was that some of these sexual activities were allegedly non-consensual.

Naturally, these posts created an avalanche on social media- but also offline as well- that had other victims step forward to describe their own experiences at the hands of not only this particular fellow, but other men of the cloth. But if it seemed like for the briefest of moments, the Nigerian church was ready for its own #MeToo moment, or at least some kind of reckoning with itself, until the push back that followed Mr Dakolo’s announcements, and made him double down on his assertions the next day, proved otherwise.

No matter the depth of the depravity or significant the trail of souls crushed for their chosen beliefs, the church in Nigeria simply isn’t engineered to self-correct, or at the very least admit wrong doing. Catholic dogma defined at the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1869-1870) decreed the infallibility of the pope but the entire Christendom- from orthodox to non-orthodox churches- appears to have adopted this doctrine and applied it to every (male) position of power or influence within the church.

For reasons best known to the gatekeepers invested in protecting the exclusivity of the house of God, much of organized religion is set up to stand as opaque as possible, where strife, disputes and yes, scandals are managed in-house. ‘Managed’ is of course used loosely to describe what passes for sweeping grievances and grudges under the carpet in a twisted bid to maintain the sanctity of the house of God.

The Roman Catholic church has practiced this strain of damage control far longer than most as years and years of groundbreaking reporting by dogged journalists from around the world have uncovered not only sexual abuse involving minors and women serving within the catholic church and financial impropriety among the clergy but elaborate cover up mechanisms that go up to the highest levels.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80 million persons identify as belonging to one of the numerous Christian denominations, making Nigeria the largest Christian population in all of Africa. No surprise as organized religion has been the biggest and perhaps most influential legacy left by colonial powers on the continent.

Christianity has contributed greatly to the development of the Nigerian project. In education, in health, environmental sustainability and human development, the church has and continues to loom large. But the church also casts a large, obstinate shadow that has knowingly or unknowingly done untold harm to the national psyche.

Church nation

A visit to Calabar, the capital of Cross River state presents a realistic picture of what has become the church’s legacy today. It is no exaggeration to state that there is a at least one church in every street corner. This figure tends to go higher depending on what part of the city you find yourself and on Sundays, the entire city bursts into a cacophony of sounds, each one striving to be heard louder than the next.

The city’s landscape is dotted with billboards and posters advertising a crusade, revival or miracle getting event. Cross River happens to be the only non oil producing state in the South South region and a focus on seasonal tourism by previous administrations has kept the state in business. A rough feel of the capital makes it quite clear that if there is any real business thriving and growing in bounds, it is the church.

Nothing is wrong with a thriving church culture of course but this development would be more interesting were it to be complemented by a similar blossoming of development. While Calabar still retains a clean patina, it has not kept up in terms of development, commerce or infrastructure. The town still feels like something out of colonial era Nigeria with quaint bungalows and low growth shrubbery decorating the landscape.

Due to no fault of theirs, the population that should be driving the state’s work force through industry have found an alternative within the walls of the church, praying fervently, fasting and hoping for things to get better. Just as the pastor recommends. This ignores evidence from the Pew Research Center that outlines that wealthy countries- save for the United States of America- simply do not have a prayer culture. Development has always been the result of a deliberate application of knowledge and industry.

The church isn’t explicitly responsible for the state of the economy or the uselessness of the political class but the church has been known to exploit the peoples vulnerability by offering hopes and dreams to a people who have been battered into submission by the realities of their existence. Instead of inspiring radical thought, cutting edge research and an alternative education system that can actually make a difference, large swathes of the church have chosen to keep the bar as low as possible, selling dreams and enslaving the young and promising minds in a never ending cycle of mediocrity and herd mentality. While this has ensured that Sunday services remain filled, work spaces and opportunities have continued to be elusive. Why go through the rigor of research and mental labour when there is a God to hand all problems to?

Scripture may be divinely inspired but it is for this same reason that scholars and faithful alike came to a consensus that the Bible be interpreted in most cases, as literally as possible. Literal translation of chosen excerpts from the scripture, shorn of historical context, lies at the heart of the challenges facing core Christianity today. Perhaps because both Christianity and formal education are imported constructs, the depth of penetration has not been as thorough as we like to think. This has been a fundamental limitation to how Christians respond to the Bible.

Spirituality is an individual journey requiring loads and loads of self-reflection and examination but the Nigerian church body is guilty of abandoning these intellectual and spiritual exercises, unchallenged, to mortals who may or may not have been prepared adequately to shape thought and beliefs at a level as far reaching as what the church has assumed for itself. Biases; personal, spiritual, cultural and even political seep in and so unchallenged, occasionally dangerous rhetoric soon becomes law. The word of God, as dictated by men and women with vested interests.

Women’s rights and human rights.

At the heart of Timi Dakolo’s cri de Coeur is the very hot button issue of the female gender and autonomy of the female body. Even though Jesus Christ was famously progressive on women’s rights and empowered the women in his circles, the church has managed through the years to unroll many of Christ’s antecedents with misogynistic and downright suppressive teachings. The catholic church still refuses to ordain female priests and Pope Francis has admitted to a previously hidden sub culture of priests sexually abusing nuns.

The Pentecostal revival on face value appears to be more accommodating, with women occupying leadership and influential positions but this hasn’t stopped the discrimination and double standards that pervade both church and society. Nowhere else is the woman’s body more policed than within the walls of the church where committees routinely sit and dictate how women should present.

 

Only days ago, a video of House on the Rock’s Pastor Ifeanyi Adefarasin sermonizing, made its way to the Internet and promptly went viral. In this cringeworthy video, Adefarasin one of the most visible female leaders in the Pentecostal movement, took it upon herself to shame young, single women who made it a point of duty to dress or behave in ways she had decreed were unworthy of the house of God. In her moment of righteous indignation- she was wearing a designer ankle-length maxi gown- pastor Adefarasin managed to slut shame single ladies and at the same time, encourage the men in her approving congregation to be dismissive of them as play things. It didn’t occur to the good Pastor that deliberately or not, the very brand of her church, one of the biggest in country, was built on the basis of the youngish, well-groomed Lagos crowd she seemed to be castigating.

Passages like Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Corinthians 7:5 have long been wielded as tools by the patriarchy to oppress women. These dangerous teachings are internalized across generations and even reinforced by women who bear the brunt of it. And even the most revered church leaders are guilty of this. Pastor Enoch Adeboye, leader of the Pentecostal movement has become (in)famous for his teachings on marriage where he dispenses gems like ‘’If you get your wife through Facebook, you’ll lose her on Youtube’’ that are so far removed from reality, it is a wonder anyone takes them seriously.

As it is for women’s rights, so has it been for sexual rights. Nigeria is a conservative society and so for fear of offending members, churches aren’t even prepared to open up discussions on non-binary gender identities or sexual orientation. The internet is rife with accounts of people who have gone to church with the hopes of “praying the gay away.” Suffice to say that these conversion therapies never work yet they continue to be popular. While the global church has been inching gradually towards acceptance, Nigeria’s Christians are still holding on to misbegotten colonial era values that have no cultural basis.

‘’Touch not my anointed…”

Anyone who has so much as breathed a word of criticism towards the church is likely to have come across Psalm 105: 15, one of the most misquoted, misinterpreted and misapplied bible verses ever. Lazy proponents of a criticism proof church regularly use it as both defense and weapon, to excuse bad behavior and muffle dissent almost as quickly as they arise.

This has been the go-to weapon of choice used by lazy men of God to avoid any intellectual or theological conversations that they are clearly not prepared for. Two years ago, when on air personality, Daddy Freeze took on the Pentecostal church establishment with his #FreeTheSheeple movement objecting to the payment of tithes, the response of the church body, comprising of some of the biggest names in the Pentecostal wing was embarrassing.

Instead of elevating the discourse, educating Daddy Freeze and the faithful or adding new knowledge to the existing body, the response of the pastors made it quite clear that they lacked the range to elaborately defend their position. From big guns like Adeboye to scandal prone fellows like Apostle Johnson Suleman, the men of God found themselves cornered into the defensive and by way of response, took turns embarrassing themselves, playing on emotions and laying on threats of generational curses.

The Nigerian church may have the upper hand now, but the democratization of speech brought on by social media suggests that this may only be temporary. The internet has brought the world closer and more knowledge brings about greater empowerment. The Nigerian church may hold on to ancient traditions but it remains a human led institution, as prone to errors and slip ups as the next establishment. But it is entirely possible to exercise faith and maintain objectivity at the same time. No law says faith and curiosity cannot go hand in hand. A society that isn’t willing to question everything, pick apart long held beliefs or seek out fresher ideas simply isn’t ready to grow. And dynamism is key to evolution.

A society that has institutionalized curiosity and the ability to interrogate ideas carefully will have no qualms calling bullshit on the fear mongering evangelical home videos churned out by Mount Zion Faith Ministries International in their prime. This society is also likely to ignore Reverend Ejike Mbaka when he decides to hobnob with his flavor of the month from the corrupt political class, take a step back from the life-threatening doctrine peddled by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and laugh in the face of the pastor who says politicians should be respectful of non-performing elected officials. It will pushback when Helen Ukpabio brands defenseless children and the elderly as ‘witches’ and encourages violence against them.

And as for Timi Dakolo’s allegations- plus the similar pockets occurring in hidden spaces- instead of waiting for that robust reply that never comes or beefing up sexual security around philandering pastors, perhaps Christ’s church will be bold enough to commit to investigating itself and handing out punishment, or justice where it is due.

There is simply no way of fixing what we fail to acknowledge.

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