Protecting the Poor from Religion

Here’s something we should hear more of in church: stop exploiting the poor. I don’t mean that the church should tell other people to stop exploiting the poor; I mean the church itself should stop exploiting poor people.

The social situation in rural Africa is the closest we get today to the situation that existed in first century Palestine, when Jesus was teaching. And Jesus’ message – among other things – was that the religious leaders were exploiting the poor, and needed to stop. In fact, Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for the religious leaders of his day. He called them “white washed tombs” and “blind guides”. I wonder what he might say to many African church leaders who seem to be mimicking the message and methods of those first century religious leaders.

There’s a reason Jesus was so opposed to them. Religion – as Karl Marx most famously pointed out – can be a drug for the poor (“opium for the people”), sedating them and distracting them from their desperate lives. At one level, that could be a good thing. The problem is that this too quickly turns to exploitation. Fundamentalist religion does this by offering eternal security and certainty of a better life (either now or in the future); and then demanding sacrifice today in response. Its best form produces solid citizens who will work hard and contribute to society self-sacrificially. The worst form, though, produces crusaders and unloving – and unlovely – cultish disciples.

A more sinister religion, though, emerges out of a “wealth and health” based religion. It promises cures for diseases and riches on earth. This is the religion peddled in rich countries through the 24-hour Christian broadcasting networks that ask viewers to contribute financially in exchange for holy water, prayer mats, blessed items and other tat. Mostly harmless, but most certainly idolatry. It is almost always for the benefit of the leader.

It’s when this religion meets the poor that things get nasty. This past weekend in Ghana, a stampede for special anointing water blessed by Africa’s most high profile fundamentalist Christian leader, Prophet TB Joshua from (I am sure you guessed) Nigeria, resulted in at least four deaths and thirty serious injuries. TB Joshua has courted controversy many times, including recent incidents in Ghana where his security guards illegally detained journalists covering his “crusades” in Accra. His Facebook page continues to spout testimonies of the power of the anointing water (from an Indian student who passed his school exams to people finding employment and cures for all sorts of diseases) – but no mention of the disaster in Ghana, except that this coming weekend’s crusades have been cancelled.

There is a form of religion that really would be good for the poor. Sadly, much of what is happening in Africa right now is not that form. And the poor need to be protected from it. When people die, hopefully there is an opportunity for truth to shine through.

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