Rights commission formed to investigate abuses in SA religions
In 2015, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (the CRL Rights Commission) began its investigation into the commercialisation of religion and other abuses happening in religious organisations in South Africa. Their investigation report was submitted to Parliament in June 2017. The report states, ‘Recent controversial news reports and articles in the media about pastors have left a large portion of society questioning whether religion has become a commercial institution or commodity to enrich a few’ (CRL Rights Commission, 2017: 4). In this article, I take a look abuse and corruption taking place within churches.
It was not surprising that the Commission encountered resistance from religious groups that did not want to discuss how they are being run. Some religious groups are self-regulating and strive to adhere to high moral standards. They have better reputations. As a result, the Commission did not investigate certain religious groups, but focused on those who were raising red flags.Legal expert adviser to the Commission, Shadrack Gutto (2017) explained that our South African Constitution ‘provides for the rights of people belonging to a religious community to enjoy their religion and “to form, join and maintain religious associations”, but not “in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.”’ This is the critical aspect – we have many freedoms, but they must not trespass on the rights of others and go against laws protecting all parties in various aspects of social, religious and economic life. In some cases, religious leaders are unpaid volunteers, and others receive a modest living so that they can devote themselves fully to the faith and to helping people. Many religious leaders choose theology out of a strong desire to help others. However, the too close association between money and some religious leaders is troubling.
Gutto (2017) further says, ‘The idea that the words, revelations and instructions from the gods, whatever they may be, are above the Constitution and laws of the country is promotion of theocracy that, sooner or later, may turn into movements similar to that of past crusaders and present-day fundamentalist groups.’ This can lead to dangerous situations. The Commission warns against extremism and its report details examples of this in South Africa. At the hearings, one person said, ‘The church wants to give us money. These devils [the commissioners] are standing in our way’ (CRL Rights Commission, 2017: 25). Enquiries into how churches are run were thus sometimes very unwelcome and the Commission met with considerable resistance.
The commissioners noted that pastors arrived at the hearings in very expensive cars and even had a number of bodyguards, as though they were celebrities. There appears to be a commercialisation of religion, particularly a form of ‘Christian consumerism’ or, in some cases, obvious exploitation. Some groups sell blessed items such as holy oil for moderate (R40) to exorbitant (over R1 000) prices. Certain groups work only in cash for obvious reasons. Promises of fixing personal problems are made in exchange for payment. One woman was asked for R250 000 to help her have children (CRL Rights Commission, 2017). There is still a worryingly popular saying in Africa that, ‘If you want to make money, start a religion.’ Dr Motshine Sekhaulelo (2014), a researcher in theology in South Africa says that, ‘By promoting false hope about the prospects for overnight success through prayer and tithing, some of these churches take advantage of a vulnerable congregation that is often desperate for an improvement in their economic circumstances.’
Jacobs et al. (2014) explain how a type of ‘bidding’ system for blessings is conducted. An amount is named by the pastor who asks people to come forward for a special blessing if they have it. In one example given this was over R6 000. The pastor then reduces the amount and people come forward as they can, depending on how much money they have and how much they want the special blessing (Jacobs et al., 2014). This obviously shows favouritism for the rich, but places pressure on all the congregants. It creates the belief that only by paying the pastor or church can they be blessed which is contrary to the teachings of Christianity. A number of Jesus’ teachings show that this is unchristian, including the story of the poor widow pointed out by Jesus (see Mark 12: 41-44).
Why the Commission was formed
The religious sect in the Eastern Cape called ‘Mancoba Seven Angels Ministries’ was actually the reason the CRL Rights Commission’s investigation was started. The leaders told followers to take their children out of school because the Devil was controlling schools and a disturbing reason for this was later revealed. At the Commission’s hearing early in 2016, they said that education is wrong and that it was Nelson Mandela who allowed education to be taken over by the Devil. The leaders also said that they are angels, not people (CRL Rights Commission, 2017: 21-22). This is obviously very extreme, but it was only the beginning of this story.
A leader of Angels Ministries explicitly stated that our Constitution is driven by Satan (CRL Rights Commission, 2017: 21). So they feel they are above the law, and their actions clearly show this. The leaders kept women and girls between the ages of 12 and 21 as sex slaves, and there were over 100 of them (Pather, 2018). Likely this is what happened to the female children who were taken out of school. This constitutes serious abuse by religious leaders of their most vulnerable followers, particularly the underage girls who were kept in shacks and not allowed to go out. They were finally freed by police in February 2018, but this could have happened sooner (Pather, 2018). The Commission warned authorities as they could see this particular cult was dangerous and major problems were afoot. Angel Ministries started to run out of money, and seeing themselves above the law, they stole weapons from the police, probably intending to use them in robberies, and they were involved in ATM bombings as well. A shootout with police followed and a number of people were killed including five police officers (Pather, 2018).
Although the Hawks began a criminal investigation, the CRL Rights Commission has lamented their not taking stronger action sooner. Commission Chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said they made Parliament aware of their concerns about the cult, but no strong action was taken: ‘This has been a ticking time bomb. We said either these people are going to commit suicide or something else will happen… No one listened to us. This could have been avoided’ (Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, quoted in Pather, 2018).
This illustrates just how far people can be manipulated in relation to religious beliefs. Considering their findings, Chairperson Mkhwanazi-Xaluva also said ‘we cannot have a sector that is not regulated’ (Pather, 2018). Regulation of religious organisations is important because of such exploitative practices. Practices by religious organisations may sometimes be more subtly abusive while others may not necessarily do any harm to followers. Goods such as holy oil or religious texts sold at a low price do not seem particularly problematic. It can be instructive or serve a purpose in helping some people feel secure in their faith, having something tangible to hold onto, while also ensuring that the organisation can maintain its buildings and so forth at a decent standard.
‘Pastorpreneurship’: Do jets and Jesus go together?
Nevertheless, some practices can go against the spirit of faiths such as Christianity when they are marketed in a commercial way to people as a ‘cure’ for all their problems, and when it brings in undue profits used by church leaders to maintain an extravagant lifestyle. Jacobs et al. (2014) note that, at one time, churches ‘offered scholarships, gave free books and teaching aids… food, clothing and shelter to those deprived of these necessities… Pastors saved money for social development projects by living modest lives usually behind the church, riding bicycles and working their own farms in a clear example of storing up treasures in heaven as the Bible recommends.’ Such sincere ministers did not use church funds for themselves. This is the type of spirit that should still characterise churches and their leaders.
A few churches have genuine welfare schemes, but a growing number are hardly about the congregants. In some churches, such as ‘Incredible Happenings Ministries’ and ‘Winners’ Chapel’, congregants are funding all manner of excesses including multichannel TV broadcasts, additional ‘organisations’ such as publishing houses and private schools which are run as businesses for profit, flashy cars and private jets (Jacobs et al., 2014). Besides fleets of expensive cars, even more shockingly, several religious leaders personally own more than one plane, including Bishop David Oyedepo of Winners’ Chapel who has four jets! Oyedepo, who is known as ‘the Pastorpreneur’, has not been able to account for how he funds his abundantly materialistic lifestyle, and he is not the only one of his kind (Arbuthnott, 2012).
Jacobs et al. (2014) say, ‘In a bid to please “God” and achieve the elusive breakthrough parishioners squeeze themselves dry to contribute to various projects… The more they give the poorer they become and the richer the church.’ Paradoxically, poverty ravages those churchgoers who attend ostentatious buildings run by pastors in expensive suits. Jacobs et al. (2014) thus question whether the modern church has abandoned the good works of the old church which at one time served and cared for its followers. It certainly seems that way. The highly controversial Universal Church has been banned in some countries, but is still widely popular in South Africa. Researcher Dr Ilana van Wyk risked her life to expose this church’s Durban branch in her 2015 book. Rather than emphasising spiritual growth and community good, Van Wyk (2015) shows how the Universal Church encourages obsession over materialism; operates through sensationalism, gossip, bullying and cajoling; makes use of business strategies for profit; and diverts attention to a frightening ‘spiritual warfare’ of demons and witchcraft. It further impoverishes the poor by promoting the idea that God’s favour can be bought, and it makes no charitable or philanthropic efforts. Sermons are mere fundraising events.
Another example is Pastor André Olivier who is all for Christian consumerism and whose sermons at Rivers Church in Sandton are openly financial in theme. He says that money is an integral part of Christianity and that ‘Capitalism is a biblical system endorsed by the Bible’ (Olivier, quoted in Whittles, 2017). Pastor Olivier has even written a book called The Principles of Business Success. At the Sandton branch, there is a multipurpose centre for church services, worship and shopping. ‘The trade centre resembles a mini-mall’, containing franchise stores as well as family-owned food and drink shops and a Christian bookshop (Whittles, 2017). This is hardly the Christianity of the Bible! Jesus was against trade at a place of worship and it is portrayed in the Bible as a type of corruption. He drove merchants out of the temple in Jerusalem (see John 2: 13-16). Businesses should not be operating at a Christian church, regardless of whether they are candid about their commercialism or not.
It is not only a few rich pastors who are guilty of exploiting parishioners or promoting materialism, however. Smaller cults run by families for profit are still a popular way of making a living in Africa. These cults, such as Angels Ministries discussed above, typically target the poor, uneducated, sick and disillusioned with promises of wealth and success – for a price. Sometimes this is not money. Food, labour and sex are also traded. A similar scheme for attracting and swindling vulnerable individuals is used by many small fly-by-night churches. Some researchers, such as Dr van Wyk (2015), have made efforts to expose these methods and thus raise awareness and prevent exploitation.
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