Intellectual Latitude

The intellect is one of humans’ greatest and most priced assets. But the fact that humans, more than animals, are gifted with the power of intellection does not irrefutably mean that this asset is fully developed in every individual. The more I listen or read certain individuals defending and supporting certain irrational actions and inactions within the Christendom the more I understand how uncommon common sense really is. I have never quite understood the logic of calling any kind of sense – which is a product of an intellective imagination – common, and there is no sign that I’ll ever do.

Over the course of the past two months I have had different kinds of discussion on the vicissitudes and transient nature of life than I care to tell you or share on any social media platform. I have also seen people display the most unimaginative defence and support for causes common sense – to use an over flogged cliché – would have enable them to understand better. But the one discussion from the many I have had over the same period that I care to tell you and readily incline to share on any and every social media platform is the one on religion. Not about every kind of religion, but about Christianity and it adherents – or to put it more appropriately Christianity and its zealots in Nigeria.

I chose to write about Christianity as a religion because it is the religion I have had the closest association with and the one I can authoritatively say a thing or two about. Most people are Christians today not by choice but by orientation. The same can be said of many religions across the world. Families are constructed in such a way that children growing up are only exposed to one religion, and that is the only choice they will ever have. They don’t get the opportunity to make their own choice from two or more alternatives. I’m not, as yet, saying if this practice is a good thing or a bad thing, I’m merely stating an obvious reality.

Beside the fact that I chose this subject because of my association and some understanding of it, I also chose the subject because I’m of the opinion that it is long overdue for me to add my voice to the few voices working assiduously to see a restructure to the way and manner Christianity is constructed in Nigeria. What will be said about Christianity and its zealots in Nigeria is arguably true in many other countries, even though with slight variation. The choice to limit my coverage to Nigeria is deliberate, necessitated by the fact that I have seen and experienced the things I intend to talk about firsthand.

I would have chosen “Christianity and its Zealots” as the title of this piece. But I decided to reserve that for a different writing on Christianity and its adherents that is more appropriately fitting for the title. My choice of the title “Intellectual Latitude” is necessitated by the fact that there are Christians who think that pastors/clergies are immune to criticism regardless of what they do, how they do it, and when they do it. And because this attitude in the practice of Christianity is gaining an increasing ascendancy, the prescription of the Holy bible has been twisted and contorted by the leadership of some economic-based and economic-conscious churches established to exploit and extort the gullible many who are able but still find it unnecessary to read between the lines. Some even think it is a heresy to question any action or inaction of pastors/clergies. This imaginary immunity freely and unquestionably given has resulted in many things going wrong, and now threatening to go worst if nothing is done to reverse most people’s comprehension of the situation.

As this write-up progresses an attempt will be made to point to specific scenario(s) where the actions or inactions of established churches or pastors/clergies were called to question and some individuals felt it was petty and unnecessary. After some of the stories are told here every individual has the freedom to be the judge. You can decide for yourself whether such criticisms are petty and unnecessary. But to judge I will employ you to use your intellective powers. There are some, I’m almost certain, that will ignore the facts and arrive at the conclusion they will arrive at even before they made an attempt to look at the facts. This crop of individuals will be the subject of my next piece on the Christian faith – “Christianity and its Zealots.”

I will never speak or write about the Christian faith in the manner of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dannett, Sam Harris, et cetera. These individuals see, speak, and wrote about God, the Christian faith and most religions from an atheistic perspective. Before you crucify me for being critical of the actions or inaction of some pastors/clergies let me state categorically here that I’m not an atheist. I haven’t seen reason to make me one. I believe in the existence of God the Almighty Creator. And because of my Christian faith I believe in the biblical account of creation. With all the supporting argument for Darwinian Theory of evolution I still believe and have faith in the Holy bible. Not because it is more expedient for me to do so, but because it is the most rational and sane thing to do. My critique of the Christian faith however is inspired by a reformist drive. As one who wishes that the cultivation or practice of Christianity is not turned into an instrument of exploitation by individuals who are privileged to be gifted with the seductive art of words, it’s only sensible that I write about it. We are at a time when preachers need to be preached to.

We have the intellectual latitude to question things when they go wrong. And we also have the intellectual latitude to call things out for what they are – and when necessary name and shame the people who are behind making things go in an opposite direction for their sole benefit (which the piece on “Christianity and its Zealots” will attempt to do in a separate writing). But for now let’s focus on the issue under discourse: and the issue under discourse is our freedom to say things the way they are be it on religion or any other subject.

Christianity is big not just in Nigeria, but across the world. Available data as of 2015 shows that Christianity has more than 2.3 billion adherents out of about 7.5 billion people in the world. The fact that the faith represents one-third of the world’s population makes it the largest religion in the world. Of the top ten countries by largest number of Christians, Nigeria ranks sixth, only behind the United States of America (1st), Brazil (2nd), Russia (3rd), Mexico (4th), and the Philippines (5th). Some figures put the number of the adherents of the faith at 80 million, others at 92 million. Some figures also have 52 as the percentage representation of Christianity in the Nigerian population, while other figures put it at less than 50 percent. But regardless of these varying figures, one important point to note is the fact that the Christian faith potent huge consequences for us both as a people and as a country – for good or for bad reasons – depending on how we utilize its transcendental and beneficent essences.

I have no doubt personally that Christianity is a force for good. But because certain individuals have hijacked it most priceless essence, some writers, researchers, atheists – and not least I – can now argue that Christianity is also a force for “evil”.

There is no doubting the fact that Christianity today has gain enormous recognition by its sheer ability to command stupendous wealth: wealth that largely comes from tithes, offerings, donations, sales of books, CDs and DVDs, et cetera. As a result most of these pastors/clergies can afford to buy luxurious cars, private jets, and leave in genteel duplexes. While the increasing wealth has made many pastors/clergies well-off materially, the same cannot be said of the large Christian followers.

I can understand the backlash coming from pastors/clergies and laity against writers, researchers, and journalist who are critical of them. Even when people who are critical are berated for being “ungodly” people, what we should have in mind and appreciate is their courage to speak out against the exploitation of followers through several means but especially tithing. I do not expect them to take these criticisms without comments intended to defend their actions or inactions – and unsurprisingly they will even quote the bible in their defence. But such criticisms, if well received, have the potential to threaten the very foundation of their “big-time businesses.” But the failure of the followers to accept the veracity of these messages of liberation which intend to liberate them from the claws of prosperity theology points to the scale and how deep rooted this problem is. Nevertheless, we must all be committed to freeing Christians from the clutches of their manipulating pastors/clergies.

I couldn’t have agreed more to a Facebook post that “the two most successful industries in Nigeria are politics and religion. The sad reality is that the people are the commodity.” I suppose the use of ‘industries’ to describe politics and religion is deliberate. No doubt ordinary people have been manipulated for political and religious gains. These two are the quickest and easiest money making avenue in Nigeria today.

On September 11, 2019, I read this post on Facebook: “Men of God kept their private jets while Air Peace volunteered to airlift Nigerians in South Africa. Who is the good Samaritan?” I will reserve my answer to this question for later. But in this case who should have easily been the Good Samaritan. Again, I will reserve my answer for later. However, because of the enormity of this post I decided to share it. After I had shared it I got this particularly interesting response from a friend I had known for over ten years: “But this is petty and unnecessary. The average private jet carries 10-19 passengers. But most I see in our airfield should carry like 10 passengers. When we have hundreds of Nigerians registered to return, how many trips? Does that make any sense? If the writer is really keen on shaming the men of God, he/she should come up with something more reasonable. This is just too petty.” To pick the key words from this response: petty, unnecessary, reasonable, sense. If my friend cares enough to read this piece, she will see what is not petty and unnecessary; what makes sense and what doesn’t; and what is reasonable and what isn’t.

When after the xenophobic attacks against Nigerians (and other nationals) in South Africa, the Chairman of Air Peace offered to airlift distress Nigerians who were willing to return home free of charge, many did not quite imagine it was a role that could or should have been graciously taken up by the big and established churches. It took the philanthropic gesture of a profit making establishment to arouse the thinking remnants of most people’s minds. Even after such arousal, very few could speak up against the inaction of these big religious institutions.

Few days after Air Peace had announced its willingness to airlift distress Nigerians, there was news on the website Information Nigeria starting that the general overseer of Omega Fire Ministries, Apostle Johnson Suleman, had promised to cover the flight cost of 20 Nigerians in South Africa that wants to return home. Throughout this period I did not read or hear any statement or criticism which says Apostle Suleman’s contribution was insignificant. But even if there was, common sense will tell us that it was irrelevant. The more so because 20 lives taken out of distress and misery is a reduced burden; plus the fact that these lives were worth saving too.

If big churches had committed five private jets to airlift 10 persons each (for those who want to be conservative with the number a private jet can carry) we would have had the burden of 50 distress persons reduced. Again, if ten other big churches without a private jet had committed to offset the flight cost of 20 distress persons, that would have been another reduced burden of 200 persons.

The problem with us as a people and as a country is that we are never taught the value of a unit, but we are expected to know and appreciate the value of hundred units or more. It has affected us (and is still affecting us) politically and religiously. But doesn’t the Holy Scripture of the Christian faith teach this? It surely does. Hence shouldn’t the adherents of the Christian faith know better?! I expect they should. But if they do not; certainly then something is wrong with the teachings they get. Some individuals have argued that to expect a church or any pastor/clergy to commit a private jet to saving the lives of 10-19 lives is meagre and unnecessary. It’s, sadly, laughable to me when I hear or read comments like that. While we encourage these pastors/clergies to think their contribution toward our lives’ courses are unnecessary when it goes beyond preaching the gospel, they bemoan their members inability to take out 10 percent for their tithes from their meagre salaries. It’s heart-rending to discover that some churches now have record book to document those who have paid their tithes and those who haven’t.

Now to answer the two unanswered questions asked earlier: “Who is the good Samaritan?” and “who should have easily been the Good Samaritan?” The Good Samaritan is the one who understood and appreciated the moral sanctity of even a single life and is not only compassionate when such life suffers and in distress, but also committed to seeing that such suffering is mitigated. The Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Mr Allen Onyema; and the founder of Omega Fire Ministries, Apostle Johnson Suleman proved to know this value better than most individuals. In this case therefore, the Good Samaritan was Air Peace’s Allen Onyema – a profit making entity that sacrificed its profit making mission to come to the aid of distressed but worthy lives; and Omega Fire Ministries’Apostle Johnson Suleman – whose act lived up to the biblical teaching of compassion.

With the believe that prosperity is a sign of spiritual blessing from God, there is little wonder therefore that an increasing number of Nigerians over 80 million Christians are followers of prosperity teachings. Since the early 1990s there has been an increase in the popularity of churches that mostly have ‘prosperity’ as the central theme of their teachings week in week out – with millionaire and billionaire pastors leading the sermons. The key message most of these churches preaches is that financial prosperity is a sign of God’s favour. While they argue that prosperity is an integral part of the gospel, they seem almost oblivious that prosperity has now become the dominant message from the gospel they preach.

Leo Igwe of the Nigerian Humanist Movement described these churches as “big-time businesses being managed by entrepreneurs.” While it is true that the attitude of most churches solicit criticism such as the above, it will be very wrong to have such a broad-brush description of all the churches in Nigeria. As much as we know that many of these churches are out to exploit their gullible followers, we should not fail to acknowledge and appreciate that there are some few good ones. I have a few I look up to for inspiration to live a holy life and whose messages of salvation I deeply relish. I also have stories of the good things done by a few too – even if it’s just a drop in the ocean.

Forbes list of the richest pastors in the world in 2018 has four Nigerian pastors in the top ten. In the list Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith Church is the first; Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Believers Lover’s World is third; Pastor EA Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God is fifth; and Prophet TB Joshua of the Synagogue of All Nations occupy the ninth spot. In Nigeria the top ten richest pastors, stating from the least are: Pastor Lazarus Muoka, Bishop Mike Okonkwo, Pastor Gbenga Oso, Pastor Chris Okotie, Pastor Ayodele Oritsejafor, Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, Prophet TB Joshua, Pastor EA Adeboye, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, and Bishop David Oyedepo.

The financial success of some of the churches we have in Nigeria have enabled them to establish other ventures most notably the founding of universities. There are about 80 approved private universities out of the over 170 universities in Nigeria, and about 39 of which are church owned/affiliated – with over a dozen more in the pipeline. But the establishment of these universities have come with a handful of criticisms from many Nigerians. The hues and cries that emanates from the Nigerian public is not merely the fact that these universities were established, but largely because the followers of these churches – majority of whom are poor and from the lower echelon of the Nigerian society – who had played and are still playing a huge role in the establishment and sustenance of these universities are nowhere close to being able to afford them. Even the least expensive of these church owned/affiliated universities are out of the reach of the majority of these people.

For example, Covenant University owned by the Living Faith Church/World Mission Agency charges over 800 thousand naira. Nigerian Baptist Convention’s Bowen University charges between 500-1,700 thousand naira. Redeemers University owned by the Redeemed Church of God charges between 500-800 thousand naira. Ajayi Crowther University of the Supra Diocesan Board of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) charges between 195-600 thousand naira. Madonna University founded by the Catholic institution charges between 200-900 thousand naira. Mountain of Fire’s Mountain Top University has a fee pegged at 520 thousand naira. Babcock University of the Seventh Day Adventist Church charges between 600-900 thousand naira depending on the course. Joseph Ayo Babalola University founded by the Christ Apostolic Church charges between 200-800 thousand naira. Crawford University owned by the Apostolic Faith mission charges between 400-600 thousand naira.

To the well-off these fees might look small, an amount not enough to spend on their satellite subscription. But to the majority of the followers of these churches the sums are huge. It will not be surprising to hear that most families would not be able to come up with the least of those fees even if they decided to save all their annual earnings. It was surprising for me to discover that members of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) are still asked to make a yearly contribution/donation to support the church owned Bingham University – a university that over 90 percent of the members cannot afford.

To the zealots these issues may sound unreasonable, petty and unnecessary, but the reality in most Christian homes they are not. These families on a weekly basis are confronted with the challenges of financing their needs even before the closing prayers are made in these religious houses. In most of these Sunday services they are stared in the face by pastors who deliver hypnotic homily about seed sowing, and giving and tithing, et cetera. To hide their shame and to buttress the genuineness of their membership, they take out everything they have and sow it as a seed in the hope of a blessing from God. They go back home only to be confronted by the twinge of hunger, misery, destitution, and the lack of hope. The endless circle of sowing seeds year in year out in the hope of a messiah solving all their problems – even only with just a prayer without work – has become almost like a demon they are unable to exorcise. So monstrous is this demon that after they had sowed a seed, they lost hope in the seed they had sowed even before the closing prayers are said, and begin to ask themselves if they had done the right thing by sowing those seeds even before they exit the church door. They are conflicted because of the incongruity between the message they receive and the result they get. These results are reflected in most families outfits (which introduces poverty); or in most families pot of soup (that stares at one in its nakedness); or in the pot without a soup (that daily hopes for the experience of a fire).

While we recognise and accept the fact that operating an institution of higher learning that meets required standard is expensive, we must also recognise and accept that operating a standard institution of learning is lucrative and profitable. Churches which already have university are in an ambitious move to establish more. More is good and reasonable if the mission is truly to educate the great mass of the public. But of what importance is more when more doesn’t benefit the greater mass of the people.

We do not need to employ an incisive analysis to understand the scale of the problem. A little application of our intellective powers will not only put anyone who cares in a position to feel ashamed of the situation but also to begin doing something to reverse the trend. The trend and the vulnerability of our religious houses – a place which should be the holiest of sanctuaries – have made it possible for them to be described as big-time businesses being managed by entrepreneurs. This criticism and many like it is the result of the church undoing. This undoing should elicit some intellectual latitude in speaking and writing about the faith and its custodians viewed from the facts available to us. The custodians are the shepherd while the million of followers are the sheep. But that does not mean that we become sheepish in our reasoning and attitude. The shepherd should lead the sheep in attaining, first and foremost, spiritual/eternal salvation; and then secondly, the material salvation which liberate the majority from the deadly claws of poverty – the salvation of bread, milk and honey. They cannot lead us to greener pastures only to end up being the only ones who feasts on them. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The prevailing atmosphere of desperation in Nigeria today has contributed to fuel the situation. The political failure with the consequential result of economic and social breakdown has increase poverty and desperation. Poor people who lack solution to their myriads of problems have now lost hope – with the only solace they have being turning to the prosperity teachings of most of these churches.
We are in a hurry so much that we forget that in the early days of Christianity in this country the church was at the front and center of most developmental strides, with the result that people were made better and not worse off as a result of their association with the faith. Common sense should, ordinarily, tell us that the success of the church should be seen in the number of lives touched and changed for the better – in both spiritual and material well-being. We should not forget what the bible teaches on both riches and compassion, and if we have not cared enough to read these bible verses we should do so: Psalm 35:10; 12:5; 9:18; 72:4; Luke 6:20; and 1 John 3:17

With Nigeria being described as the poverty capital of the world, it behoves everyone to speak up against all the forces which have combined to worsen people’s condition. With Nigeria less than a quarter of India’s population, it is sad to hear an announcement by the World Poverty Clock that Nigeria has overtaken India as the country with the most extreme poor people in the world. In fact India has a population seven times larger than Nigeria’s. To put the issue into perspective, “the 86.9 million Nigerians now living in extreme poverty represents nearly 50% of its estimated 180 million population.” This is not only disappointing; it’s shameful.

Lastly, there is no doubting the fact that Nigerians have been failed by the country’s political leadership. At this momentous period in the country’s bitter and painful experience, we need a third force in our desire for salvation – perhaps something spiritual, transcendental or revolutionary. And if a spiritual solution to our problems is anything possible, then we cannot expect it from anywhere else than from our religious sanctuaries. We cannot allow them be in danger of failing us. We have a moral obligation of guarding against their being used for purposes which fail human beings and displease God. If nothing else, we have the intellectual latitude to say something when we see something going wrong. We cannot afford to do otherwise. We must speak up and speak out. And there is no better time than now.

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