“There is neither truth nor goodness nor knowledge of God in the country; only perjury, lies, murder, theft and adultery, with continual bloodshed. That is why the country is in mourning with all who live there wasting away; the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, even the fish are dying. But let no one apologize or accuse the other, for it is you, priest, whom I single out!” - Hosea 4:1-4.
In 2004, a BBC report noted that Nigeria is the most religious country in the world. “Over 90% of Nigerians said they believed in God, prayed regularly and would die for their belief.” A year earlier in 2003, a study carried out in more than 65 countries and published in the UK New Scientist magazine reported that Nigerians are the happiest people on earth (even though the World Happiness Report recently indicated that Nigeria’s place has dropped). For many years, Transparency International corruption perception index has put Nigeria on the list of the most corrupt countries of the world. Nigeria is also one of the world’s poorest countries. Forget about the rebasing of the economy hoax, a 2013 National Bureau of Statistics report observed that 120 million Nigerians are living below the poverty line. That is simply a recipe for disaster. It reminds me of the verdict passed on the Nigerian economy in October 2015 by Walter Carrington, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. He said: “Nigeria is confronting one of the most confounding contradictions in development economics - growth without development.”
But more puzzling for me has been the barometrics. How can a people be simultaneously poor and happy? And how can a nation be very religious but also very corrupt? For the discerning, these contradictions defy any rational explanation. With churches springing up by the day right across the nooks and crannies of this country, poverty and corruption continue to walk freely on the streets. The sad part is that religion, as it is currently practised in Nigeria, has lost its capacity to generate a sense of moral revulsion and prophetic outrage against the ills of society. Rather than help to confront our myriad national challenges, religion has sometimes taken a backseat, and at other times a willing collaborator to the collective oppression of the people. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen today, not just in the open society but also in houses of religion, where the poor are made to serve as puppets to rich patrons.
In the last few years, despite claims of being a growing economy, the standard of living in Nigeria has continued to fall dramatically. Interestingly, this fall in the human condition seems to have created a fertile environment for the emergence of the kind of deep religious spirituality that has ironically placed our country on top of both the most religious and corrupt nations of the world. One would ordinarily expect that in this environment of widespread moral degeneracy, religious leaders would rise up to their prophetic responsibility of not only speaking truth to power and working for the enthronement of a just social order, but also of showing good example in the manner in their personal conduct. But this is not the case. In a nation where millions of people go to bed hungry every day, some of today’s acclaimed preachers have ridden on the crest of our collective social dysfunction to financial stardom.
Add to this phenomenon the rise of nouveau riche prosperity gospel preachers who continue to feast on the ignorance and gullibility of the people, capitalizing on their socio-economic condition to rob them of their faith and money. Through the prosperity gospel, the hawking of miracles, signs and wonders, the advertisement of God-induced financial breakthroughs, and the crave and craze for hedonistic materialism, the public face of religion in Nigeria has been so battered and badly disfigured, such that if Jesus Christ were to come back today on earth, he would be hard pressed to recognize our version of Christianity as what he bequeathed to us.
Just take a cursory look at the lifestyle of some of today’s acclaimed men of God. Their highly materialistic way of life is a brutal affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They lack every iota of modesty, frugality, and simplicity.
Today, the Christian gospel has become so reduced to financial inducements and promises of wealth and power. In today’s religious geography, God is more or less a first-aid box, a quick fixer and a money doubler. Because today’s version of religion has made it look as if life is all about material accumulation and financial prosperity, people are willing to cut corners, cheat, and exploit others just to make it. And then they bring fat pay cheques to their pastors and churches in thanksgiving for what, they claim, God has done for them. We hardly hear religious preaching that focuses on emphasizing the virtues of honesty, integrity, truth, sacrifice, frugality, selfless service, and righteousness. These are a few symptoms of the collapse of societal values and how religion has fast-tracked the descent of our nation into the abyss of moral and spiritual chaos.
In October 2014, a New York-based online media survey revealed that five of the top ten richest pastors in the world are Nigerians. While some religious leaders worldwide are serving humanity by providing spiritual and moral guidance to people across religious and social divides, others are becoming very rich through their churches and investments. In October 2014, Vanguard newspaper also published the report of a study titled “Rich Churches, Poor Members.” In that report, the authors drew serious attention to the moneymaking venture that religion has become in Nigeria and how some preachers are becoming multimillionaires at the expense of their flock. They questioned the propriety of making and hoarding such stupendous wealth in a vast ocean of misery. The report mentioned one pastor who is running a business empire, and who owns four luxury private jets with a combined $98.3 million.
Yet only a few critical observers are questioning this trend. The vast majority are quick to canonize such wealth as God’s special blessings, arguing that the God of their pastor is not a poor God. No wonder that in order to protect themselves against the Devil and his agents these super-rich men and women of God now ride in expensive bullet-proof SUVs and employ the services of gun-wielding soldiers, mobile policemen and bodyguards wherever they go. One is tempted to ask: which God are these multi-million dollar pastors worshipping when they are getting richer and their members are getting poorer? Is it the God of Jesus Christ? How come we have found ourselves in this compromised situation where the Christian gospel has been drained of its transforming power? Where are the Christians that Jesus referred to as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”?
At a time when the political and religious leaders of Israel revelled in corrupt practices and robbed the poor of their goods, the Prophet Amos arose to warn them of the impending doom that God will visit upon them. Through the prophet, God exposed the injustice in the political and economic structures of the society, and denounced the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who not only fail in their duty as shepherds, but are also often tools in the hands of the political rulers for the maintenance of unjust structures (cf.Amos 8:4-7).The stern warnings of the prophets and their denunciation of moral corruption are strong messages to today’s religious leaders, not to compromise with evil wherever it exists and whichever guise it assumes. To reclaim the values of kingdom religion, all honest, and God-fearing Christian leaders must wake up from moral lethargy and forestall the further depletion of our moral and spiritual capital by enemies of God, those false prophets who have chosen to compromise with Baal.
This piece is written by Father Emmanuel Ojeifo, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja.