The shiny suits who exploit the desperate are a growing norm – not just in religious circles but in every sector, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.
Johannesburg - Over the past year or two, a few “miracle pastors” and their flocks have invaded our slumbering national consciousness, shaking our beliefs and theories about religion and humanity.
Out of the corners of our eyes, our generation has, from time to time, followed the pranks and the stunts of the “men of God” and their congregations – half-believing, half-doubting, while half-cursing ourselves for being condemned to the role of witnesses and for being burdened with the deep human need for making sense of these times.
Quite honestly, I would rather be writing about something else, but here we are, in 2015, 21 years after democracy, having to make sense of pastors who get their adherents to strip naked during worship.
We must try to probe the complex theology of worship that lies behind the widely reported request by one pastor for his woman congregants to come to church without panties as a form of self-dedication.
We must plumb the depths of our minds to try to understand what kind of faith drives beautiful young South Africans to stampede like cattle to grass, to jostle for a gulp of petrol, to nibble on live rodents, and to open their mouths wide as they are fed reptiles by “men of God”.
It is required of us to appreciate the “miracle” in seeing apparently hypnotised human beings being trampled upon, ridden like a donkey or touched inappropriately.
We must make sense of the nature of the god who delights in his faithful literally eating the hair off the heads of fellow human beings – a god whose worshippers become instant martyrs when poorly and hastily constructed buildings collapse on them.
All of us must try to understand this miracle-working “god” who teaches his forsaken creatures that humiliation is the way to salvation and demeaning oneself the way to prosperity.
For agnostics, atheists and adherents alike, some religious rituals and symbols are hard enough to make rational sense of.
But what we have been witnessing in our country appears to be way beyond the limits of rationality.
It is, of course, possible to argue, as some have done, that the antics of Penuel Mnguni, the tricks of Lesego Daniel, and the things that Paseka Motsoeneng, otherwise known as Pastor Mboro, does with his long-nailed fingers in his church are, in the greater scheme of things, insignificant and in any case none of our business.
If anything, some have argued, we should take pity on the poor rodents, the helpless reptiles and powerless insects the members of these churches abuse by eating them alive.
Since we are a democracy and religious freedom is enshrined in our constitution, we should respect the rights of adults to be gullible if they so choose and to worship how and whom they will.
But shouldn’t we distinguish between the individual’s alienation of rights masquerading as consent and the exercise of one’s rights?
Shouldn’t we be wary of the wanton violation of the rights of the bamboozled, the ignorant and the vulnerable, camouflaged as consent? While appearances may be deceptive, some of the reptile-eaters and human mats trampled upon by miracle pastors – as seen in pictures and video clips on the internet – appear to be young, even underage.
Others argue that since the pastors are called by God and validated by congregants who recognise the work of God in them, what right and what competence has the state, or anybody for that matter, to pronounce on their qualifications or their spiritual activities?
These churches, we are told, are private associations for members and, as such, they are free to be and to do what they wish.
The notions of priesthood, calling, church and membership implied in this argument are at least debatable, if not bonkers.
The last time I checked, jumping up and down on top of a fellow human being was called assault.
Feeding people with petrol and rodents is to expose them to serious biological damage.
By these accounts alone, the perpetrators should be charged and behind bars. It is not as if these deeds were done in secret. The perpetrators broadcast and publicise these actions on social media, complete with details of their physical addresses and their PayPal-linked bank accounts for donations.
In an article in Drum magazine last year, Ntombizodwa Makhoba describes Pastor Mboro as “a small guy in a shiny three-piece purple suit and a Dobbs hat”.
Makhoba inadvertently has put her finger on part of the underlying problem.
Perhaps many of the so-called miracle pastors have a small-guy-in-a-suit syndrome.
In the story The Mantis and The Moon, published as one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite folk tales, the mantis, wishing to climb up and sit on top of the moon, asks – after trying and failing many times – “How else could one so small be a god?”
Whatever else the snake-eating phenomenon is about, it is initially about the leader, his self-image, self-esteem and vision of himself.
There is something exceptionally depraved in the person who has a need to trample physically upon fellow human beings as a way of exercising leadership.
Behind the façade of shiny suits, Dobbs hats, expensive fleets of cars, luxurious homes and mini armies of bodyguards are “small guys” in permanent denial and in a perpetual battle to ward off truths they would rather not face.
Such leaders just love and need to see their subordinates at their beck and call, fulfilling their every little wish.
Sadly, these types of autocratic and sadistic leaders are not an aberration, they are a growing norm. Nor are they confined to the religious sector.
Look around you.
The small men in shiny suits are in every sector and they all thrive on the fear and the dread they breathe into the hearts of the people they lead.
The likes of Mnguni, Motsoeneng and Daniel simply dramatise, rather crudely, what many leaders in many sectors of life, do daily and in various ways.
There are business and commercial dimensions to warped forms of leadership – whatever the pretentious rhetoric.
In Nigeria, TB Joshua’s hastily and poorly built guest house – which collapsed, killing many people, in September – is an essential component of an intricate business empire.
Similarly, talk of national, corporate and institutional interest can be used to mask the personal interest and greed of leaders.
Desperate attempts to ward off the stranglehold of poverty, ignorance and lack of education, the burden of preventable but deadly diseases that kill at will, the stalking spectre of premature death, unemployment and the constant threat of job loss, all combine to drive people into the vicious hands of unscrupulous leaders.
Nor is the problem confined to individuals. There are underlying systems, processes, and institutional and structural issues.
People need miracles, however irrelevant the miracles may be, precisely because state systems are crumbling, normal processes are neither predictable nor reliable, and institutions cannot be trusted to deliver what they promise or assumed to be fit for the purposes for which they were created.
Technical know-how is no longer sufficient. To “succeed” in anything nowadays one needs technical know-who. If you cannot afford a bribe, rather pray for a miracle that will bring instant healing and instant fortune.
American civil rights activist and sociologist WEB Du Bois was proved right in his prophetic observation that the greatest problem of the 20th century would be racism.
Religion is a serious contender to become the greatest problem of the 21st century.
Some of the things that have been done in the name of religion, starting with apartheid, are pretty ghastly.
Even when religion and ideology were not the originators of tragedy, they have historically, again and again, been co-opted by greedy brutes in their assaults on the vulnerable, the defenceless and the desperate.
Consider today the killings, terror and mayhem visited by Boko Haram upon West Africa, by Islamic State upon Syria and Iraq, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda upon East Africa, and the Lord’s Resistance Army upon Uganda.
Miracle pastors and their congregations are taking full advantage of society’s tolerance, the lethargy of the police, and the silence of church and state.
They are experimenting vigorously. From grass-eating we moved to petrol-drinking. From petrol- drinking we moved to the trampling of the stripping faithful. Then we moved to the banishing of panties and stripping.
Now we are at the snake- and rodent-eating phase.
Our miracle pastors and their followers have basked in the limelight of media attention.
They have experienced the thrill of the shock factor.
Perhaps we should buckle up in readiness for something major from these churches.
Instead of watching disgusting videos of believers munching rodent tails and snacking on crawling insects, we may soon be seeing fellow South Africans being carried out of a tent at a township near you, in body bags.
* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent