Nigeria vs. Argentina: A True Test Of Faith

by Banjo Odutola

Jesus saves! A pastor declares into the microphone and his ebullient congregation in a crescendo declares: Yes, He saves! This represents the church atmosphere up and down our country on Sundays; this atmosphere is not different from what obtains when adherents of Christian faith gather to worship and praise God. Yet, this same God is supposed to be pre-eminent and jealous because He declares that He plays no second fiddle to anyone or anything.

However, the football game of Sunday, 2nd June 2002 informs us differently. The Christian God now knows His place in the hearts of a majority of Nigerian Christians at home and abroad. A majority of this Band of Christian Crusaders relegated their God in favour of the national team playing against a formidable opponent in the current World Cup. Did I hear you say that those Christians were only patriotic and there is nothing wrong with missing a church service to cheer the national team to victory over Argentina? You may be right but what message is conveyed to new Christian converts and unbelievers?

I am not positing on the rights and wrongs of staying away to watch the football match or the import of the relegation of the Nigerian Christian God in the present dispensation in our country when churches are mushrooming out of control. Most of our people have affiliations with religious organisations of sorts. We are often reminded that they need to fast for days before they declare their intentions for re-election for political offices. One wonders if this God is worshipped out of sincerity or for his benevolence that excludes the obligations He places on the worshippers. If the Nigerian Christian God is not worshipped as He demands, why should unbelievers aspire to insincere worship which indicates that a good football match on the television is greater than the need to attend a call to worship?

My concern is not in the cancelled church services as other faith adherents of every nation on earth would probably do the same were they to compromise for patriotic cheer-leading of their national teams. However, the new razzmatazz in contemporary Christian Movement in Nigeria is suspect and it is time those in authority start to prepare a social service capable of counselling victims of the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of faith claims and the gospel respectively by dubious preachers.

You only need to travel around certain parts of the country to see this new thriving and unregulated religious industry. In this country anyone can wake up one morning and take over a shop or a building; gather people he can manipulate and with a few copies of the Bible and song sheets, he is in Church Business. The name of God is used in many cases to scare and scar. These magnetic, manipulative and unscrupulous pastors continue to be enriched with Sunday and Midweek collection of tithes and offerings as there is no national or religious voluntary structure responsible to eliminate avarices in the House of God. There is no Law nor is there an effective Charity Commission that requires stringent financial accountability to protect the congregation and neither are these men and women culpable for mental and/or emotional abuse of their members when there is a manifest abuse of their congregation. The same is true for adherents of other faiths. After all, the Nigerian Constitution provides freedom of association, worship and religious belief. Accordingly, wolves in sheep clothing can influence whatever congregation they like.

But, that is not the point! If the constitution and provisions of our current laws are silent on this area of human relationship with God via unscrupulous men and women, is it not our obligation to address the issue before the fall out starts? The pity in our country is that the fall out may have already started; like every human endeavour that need proper scrutiny, we pretend we lack foresight or the willingness to confront such issues. Our minds are closed because political implications forbid us to act against this cankerworm that is silently destroying our people and because self-interest lobbyists prefer the status quo; we are best to do nothing. If the current political administration were to enact a law on religious matters, the Moslems will be up in arms and the Christian churches mushrooming all over the place will hide behind other faiths to condemn any attempt to proscribe associations led by unscrupulous clergy.

Before I continue did I hear the cynic in you ask for definitions of unscrupulous religious leaders or is there something in you saying that it is naïve to legislate on religion and it is best that legislation is kept out of religion? Do you know that I agree with you but it is only to a certain extent? Yes! Legislation ought to be kept out of religion. Equally, I agree that the definition of unscrupulous peddlers of religion may also in itself portend the doom of a worthy course of action. But, what is the alternative? Is it a zero-option which is the luxury of an operations researcher or a management consultant? This is not about a management phenomenon, it is about society and by that I mean people: our own people. Your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunties, cousins, wives and husbands are the people who are or may be preyed on by these magnetic fear and prosperity peddling preachers.

As our national infrastructures are fast becoming American orientated, as a nation, it feels at times as if our country is the sick sister of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, a mere state in the American Union. If you do not believe it, check the amount of missions from the USA foraying into Nigeria. Their military is here, so are their missionaries. Their commerce is here and so are their con men. Their government officials are here and so are the officials of their non-governmental bodies. Their central government is here so are their State and City governments. Their churches are here and so are their charities. Their radio is here and so are their raiders. Their television is here and so are their manipulators.

The Americans ought to be welcomed in our country because when a rich nation agrees to tryst with a poor one such as ours, we must count ourselves lucky but we must not engage with the Americans as a dishabille virgin who invitingly presents herself for the inevitable in the hands of a stronger and mendacious man. Let our policy makers stop paying lip service at engaging the expertise of Nigerians living in the USA who have excelled in American institutions. They know the system very well and oftentimes the American officials our government officials prefer to deal with are not as sound as many Nigerians living in the USA. Our government and private businesses must chary of the 419ers amongst these Nigerians; oftentimes, it is not difficult to recognise a Nigerian idler from a distance.

Permit me the place of a raconteur; I must gist you of an anecdote from my visit to Atlanta, Georgia. It was a visit to one of those Nigerian functions where at the registration table, I lost count of how many Nigerian Professors and Doctors were on the queue to register for the plenary session of the meeting. What about Engineers, Lawyers, Teachers and various other professions? They were in abundance! Boy, while on the queue, I was tempted to find a computer to surf the Internet for the most expedient Web-site that could endow me with a doctorate on my credit card before it came to my turn to register. However, as I am neither rich nor clever enough for a doctorate, I gave my details to the registrar in a hushed voice. I am not about those funny doctorate Degrees in Mickey Mouse subjects. I was lucky to acquaint myself with three Professors; all of them have doctorate degrees ranging from Economics, Mathematics and Business Administration; they lecture at top Universities in Atlanta and I am always proud to drop their names when I am engaged in conversations about Atlanta. Sebi, you know that type of Nigerian style of who you know matters! So, as for me I like to shine with my three professor friends’ names.

Now back to these confident tricksters who are stealing and wrecking lives in the name of God. The situation in the United States ought to instruct us of what will soon be happening in Nigeria. Let us review some of the past occurrences in the US. There was Pastor Oral Roberts and his claim that God requested him to raise $8 million Dollars or he would die; Pastor Jim Bakker confessed to an itty-bitty sexual indiscretion with a church secretary; there were Pastors Jimmy and Tammy Swaggart and their persistent ‘God commanded me to ask you for money’; yet their church organisations had investments in real estate, securities and other investments yielding incomes.

There has been a quagmire of sleaze, mudslinging and unscrupulous fund raising amongst these American Christian Churches. Does it mean that we must allow these experiences to be repeated in our country before we are courageous enough to address the impending problems? Like our American friends, we have a crisis-responding culture. Threat of a disaster usually is not sufficient to bring constructive action; the catastrophe has to happen before we act. Sometimes we are able to respond quickly and constructively because others saw the crisis coming. This is evident in the current shake up of our aviation industry after the Kano air crash and reaction to violent uprisings.

Let us take cue and extend what the Americans did to Tele-Evangelism. Responsible leadership of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), the trade organization of radio and television preachers worried for a long time that lightning could strike even if they could not predict when or where. They could see that the electric church had been vulnerable to scandal: all the money, building projects, “yes men” doing the bidding of leaders accountable to no one but “God”. It seemed almost inevitable at a point that someday, someone would stumble badly and that the fallout would cast a dark shroud across the whole of religious broadcasting and it happened. A religious fund-raising scandal outside of the electric church resulted in the creation of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). When it was created, it was expected that the televangelists would climb on board. Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and a few lesser-known television broadcasters did. Falwell heralded the organization as the Better Business Bureau of religious broadcasting. Later he dropped out.

More than 300 organizational members are on board, ECFA has done a lot to encourage better planning, management, and fiscal responsibility among parent church organizations where previously the whims and ambitions of leaders were frequently confused with the will of God. But the electric church organizations did not get on board, offering many reasons for not joining. On the surface, some reasons seemed reasonable. But, in fact, many religious broadcasters could not meet the minimum requirements prescribed by the body for responsible organization, operational auditing and finances.

Furthermore, they did not want to change their oligarchic organizational structures to qualify as members. Recognizing the absence of accountability to be an increasingly untenable position, the Board of the National Religious Broadcasters approved a first draft of a charter to create a subsidiary organization called the Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission (EFIC). The idea for a self-regulatory Board did not sit much better with some religious broadcasters than did ECFA. But NRB leadership pressed forward. The first draft of the EFIC charter lacked teeth. But some members of the Board believed that it was more important to get the Commission established than to risk having it voted down. Once established, they worked to strengthen the Charter. A new draft of the Charter with tougher standards was prepared for approval of the Executive Committee. With the operations of the EFIC, Americans have put their house in order; we should do the same to all religions before bad clerics give the Nigerian God whose name is evoked by both the great and small of our nation for commissions of incredulity and banal utterances.

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