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In God’s Name

By: Aghogho Akpome
 Published January 12th, 2011

Examples, like charity, must begin at home, and it is for this self-evident reason that I have chosen specific illustrations that are as close to home as possible to addressan issue with a far-reaching scope of interest and relevance. As is common knowledge in Nigeria, James Ibori’s reign as governor of Delta State was characterised by high profile legal battles over his election on one hand, and over the sensational and long-drawn-out “ex-convict saga” on the other. When he won one of these numerous battles, the song Ibori chose for his victory dance was a popular chorus in the local dialect whose message, captured in its refrain goes something like: “Who is it that contends or fights with God? That person does not exist.” The indubitable import of Ibori’s song is that his victory was God’s victory. In our country where practically everyone claims to worship God in one way or the other and where people (especially so-called religious leaders) make all kinds of claims and engage in controversial and sensational activities in the name of God, it is never too much for one to ask, again and again and again: Who and what really represents God? This question is particularly pertinent at this material time as we approach the general elections with politicians, opportunists and professional sycophants geared up for action, and seeking every form of advantage – due and undue.

Ibori’s days as governor, especially during the heady days of the “ex-convict” matter saw a lot of spiritual zeal in the state. It is public knowledge that a number of well-known Christians – individuals and whole churches alike, especially from Ibori’s hometown – undertook to pray fervently for the then governor to secure God’s support in his battles. Each one of Ibori’s string of victories was celebrated with elaborate Christian ceremonies – ornate services presided over by high-profile celebrity priests, bishops and archbishops, notable among who were the principal leaders of the Baptist Church and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Delta state. Many of these ministers of God unabashedly took the governor’s side, proclaiming him to be divinely favoured and vindicated, and declaring that his opponents were nothing more than envious trouble-makers and busy-bodies. If you are one of the teeming Christian faithfuls who look up to these ‘men of God’ for spiritual guidance, it is very likely that you must have reached the conclusion that God must have been on Ibori’s side. With the recent realities however, your faith might now begin to shake, and you may very well want to ask if those highly respected bishops and archbishops were being true representatives of the God of truth and justice when they took it upon themselves to ‘spiritually sponsor’ the controversial and much accused politician. Who and what really represents God?

In our strongly hierarchical society, some may argue that the answer to this question is too obvious to be re-stated. Yes, we have highly organised religious systems in place, not only Christian and Muslim, but traditional as well. And we have, within Christianity, our priests, pastors, evangelists, apostles, bishops, presbyters, etc. all so well organised within individual denominations as well as across the different denominations in associations such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). Shouldn’t these people speak for the people of God and for God Himself? But before we answer the last question, we need to ask still: How accurately have the actions of many of these Christian leaders represented the principles of godliness which they themselves preach so eloquently and powerfully?  Alas the verdict is, again,too obvious to be re-stated.

Or is it? Many high profile ministers of the gospel openly flirt with dubious and brazenly corrupt politicians and government officials. Many preachers and pastors not only covet, but shamelessly ask for, and receive polluted gifts from those who loot the public treasury. There are bishops and archbishops who chase after flamboyant cars, unnecessary and costly trips abroad and fake ‘honourary’ doctoral titles. They make themselves willing accomplices of electoral fraud by celebrating with great ‘spiritual’ fanfare those rigged electoral ‘victories’ which ordinary secular courts have been bold enough to annul. Or can we not, for example, point out specific churches and particular pastors who loudly congratulated the now booted-out governors of certain states for their ‘deserved victories’ in the 2007 elections? So-called ‘men of God’ abjure the privilege to speak for God, and make themselves accessories to stealing, 419 and grand theft when they make people with ill-gotten and un-proven sources of wealth chairman of harvests and donors in their un-ending fund-raising ceremonies. Sections of the ‘church’ in Nigeria makes themselves partners with the devil when they confer knighthoods on shady characters in return for huge donations, and submit themselves to be used cheaply to legitimate all kinds of social illegitimacies. And what is most irksome is that it is all done … in God’s name!

The picture is equally ugly (if not more so) when one turns the searchlight into the internal workings of many congregations. There are many leaders who set themselves up before their followers as ‘first-class’ children of God who deserve to live in ostentation and excess, invariably at the expense of the ‘lower-class’ congregation which is often largely poor and beggarly, composed of members who struggle to feed and to pay their children’s fees. I dare say very many church systems will fail basic tests of financial accountability and democracy, due in most part to those at the top of the hierarchical system who claim to hear directly from God and are thus perceived to be infallible. The administrative set-up of these kinds of churches are often very expensive and cumbersome, serving not to provide efficiency and genuine growth, but to massage the inflated egos and indulge the appetites of the big bosses. These bosses often milk their congregations through a variety of very creative fund-raising means including (to mention just a few) book, magazine and CD launches, special dinners and breakfasts, and the reliable harvest which now manifests in an endless list of forms  – juvenile harvest, youth harvest, adult harvest, first-fruits harvest, mid-year harvest, family harvest, etc. All this is in order to maintain an unjustifiable and unsustainable lifestyle, and it is all done … in God’s name!

Was it God that assisted Ibori (and all the others of his ilk) with their “landslide” electoral and judicial victories? Or were they mere manipulators of a warped and compromised system in which truth and justice are almost non-existent? Is it God that ‘makes a way’ (as they say) for a civil servant who earns less than fifty thousand naira a month and who does not have any known alternative source of substantial income, yet donates hundreds of thousands to the church constantly, builds houses, and buys a fleet of cars? Or is he, like Ibori, a manipulator and opportunist in a system in which probity and accountability have died? Is it God that ‘blesses’ the political contractor who doesn’t own an office, practices  no known trade, has no known business or professional experience but regularly furnshes the priest with fuel, food supplies and recharge cards?

Will God really ask the leader of a young, small-sized church in a semi-rural area to obtain a multi-million naira loan to purchase a jeep when the church in question already bought a good working car for the leader? Will the Jesus who chose a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem really do this? Will the Jesus who took his disciples on a retreat in the desert, plunge a congregation into debt so that pastors can retreat in style at posh hotels and resorts?  I must admit I do not know for sure, but I doubt.  Will the Jesus who told the rich young ruler to sell his goods and give to the poor (and endorsed Zacchaeus’ similar action) ask a crooked politician to donate an official car, a mission bus or to build a chapel? Is it really conceivable that the Christ of prudence and simplicity is behind the mindless obsession with over-sized buildings (that reach, like Babel’s tower, for heaven and take forever to complete), exotic cars, extravagant ceremonies and titles that characterises so many parts of the church in Nigeria today?

I dare to say that if Abacha were a Christian he would have had his own band of celebrity bishops and archbishops who would long have made him and every member of his household knights-of-saint-whoever. He would have had a steady stream of fasting and praying squads, evangelists, prophets who would constantly fall over themselves to access fat tithes and offerings, sponsored trips to Jerusalem, gifts of ‘evangelism’ cars and ‘mission’ busses, donations for ‘new church buildings’ and so on.

I must state at this point that the purpose of this piece is not to cast aspersion on Christian leaders generally. Any serious bible-studying Christian is aware that the bible itself is the harshest critic of ungodliness among those who claim to be God’s worshippers and who say they are leaders of God’s people: I do not seek to out-do the Scriptures in this regard. My simple purpose is that in this crucial period of our national history, Christians should – individually and collectively – be constantly aware that our bounden divine duty is to build society and not to contribute to its destruction. We need to be very self-conscious of the social trends we set or re-enforce. We need to ‘watch’ as scriptures say; we need to be constantly on guard, and avoid being used by certain so-called ‘men of God’ who as Paul prophesied long ago are “lovers of themselves, lovers of money” … and “lovers of pleasure” rather than lovers of the God of righteousness whose name is so regularly, and blasphemously, misused.

Aghogho Akpome,

Sapele, Nigeria.

December 17, 2010

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