Three days after interviewing Pastor Biggie Butale, I emailed him two follow-up questions. Was he afraid, I posed, that the church could be losing its influence in the Botswana society; and secondly, does he foresee the West European scenario ÔÇô where churches are closing down ÔÇô being replicated here?
His response was prompt.
“Dear Mesh,” came the response, “I don’t think the church is losing influence in the society; on the contrary I think the problem is that the church is unaware of its awesome influence and responsibilities in our society. The church is a sleeping giant. I also think that if the church misses the opportunity to speak into issues of national concern once too often it runs the risk of relegating itself to uninterested shareholder status.”
Our conversation the previous week had centred on the voice of the church on issues of national concern. Pastor Butale is one of the most outspoken figures in the Pentecostal church movement. The positions he occupies as National Vice President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana (EFB) and Senior Pastor at End-time Ministries also make him among the most visible of his peers. He is known to pull no punches when he feels circumstances demand it. Today is one of those when he raises his soft voice. We are discussing the church’s response to the recent suggestions that perhaps the country should move towards making commercial sex work legal, as well as allowing abortion on demand.
“The church believes righteousness will uplift a nation,” he says. “The scripture says that. A nation that is sinful will reap reproach and shame. Sin will bring a whole nation down. What people believe, accept and practice will give the moral temperature of the nation. If the nation goes down the path of moral decadence, as some leaders have advocated for, we know what will happen. It will bring a curse upon the nation.”
Aware that his strong views will not make him popular among the liberal circles, he likens the church to a watchman, who has to raise the alarm when a threat lurks around regardless of whether such action makes him unpopular or not.
“If a watchman sees danger coming and keeps quiet, what kind of a watchman would that be?” he asks. “It is our duty and calling to raise the alarm about the impending danger.”
Without mentioning names, he says it is admission of failure for someone who has been at the helm of the economy and failed to create jobs to now turn around “and say, ‘Eureka, let’s legalise prostitution’.”
“It’s a confession of failure to suggest that now our daughters, sisters and mothers can make us money [through prostitution] and we can become the Thailand of Africa. It is mindboggling. These proposals defy logic. There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t abort our unborn babies. For one, we are such a small population,” he says.
Butale finds the call for abortion on demand to be a contradiction of the previous message of safe sex.
“If we believed in the message, then there wouldn’t be the need for abortion,” he states. “Pregnancy is not inevitable. We can’t tell our sisters that there is no way they can avoid being pregnant. The thought that we can say that as a nation is too ghastly. We now want to behave like animals.”
He points out that the church cannot tolerate abortion because it is considered an act of murder. If abortion on demand were to be legalised, he compares it to the nation as a whole agreeing to sin ÔÇô and he warns of a curse such an act would attract.
He dismisses as not justification enough to point out that Botswana is not unique in exploring this option, and that even the more advanced nations of the West have gone the same route.
“Those civilized nations are barbaric,” he hits back. “It’s not even modern barbarism. As a nation, we should say we don’t want this barbarism. It’s demonic barbarism. It is against our culture.
Children are a blessing to Batswana. To us, children represent wealth. We never had it in the past where people worried that there were too many children. On the contrary, when there are many children we are happy. Even when there is famine and hunger, we don’t kill our children. Let’s retain our humanness.”
He is equally dismissive of the argument that an unplanned baby might derail the mother’s education or career. He describes it as the height of callous selfishness. He warns that once a human conscience is numbed, it could lead to unanticipated calamities.
“Once we kill our conscience a little bit, we won’t stop there,” he says. “The holocaust didn’t start with Hitler killing six million Jews. It was something that had built over time. We might say let’s start with [killing] the mentally retarded, then the disabled. Then where do you draw the line? Some of our leading lights in sports, academics, politics, business and every other field came from poor families. Had they been aborted can you imagine how many good leaders and great personalities we would have lost? Every baby is precious. Every single one of them.”
He questions the motive of those in leadership who entertain the thought of allowing commercial sex work.
“If I became a proponent of legalised prostitution, do you think I would be thinking of my three daughters or sister? Of course not. I would be thinking of an unfortunate soul elsewhere. We want to burden the overburdened,” he says.
Perhaps the church is far removed from the times and realities of society?
“It’s not,” Butale answers. “We don’t need to turn into a Thailand. We don’t have to. Just because one man says for 40 years I led you astray and could not offer solutions to your problems, shouldn’t make us go that route. We are too few in this country to think of killing our babies.”
I ask him if in a secular state people don’t have the right to sin ÔÇô if indeed abortion and commercial sex work are sins.
“People can sin if they want to and nobody can stop them,” he says. “But we cannot institutionalize sin as a people and a nation. That would bring drastic consequences.”
One radio host once asked Butale what his attitude would be if one of his children were to be gay. I pose the same question.
“That would be the saddest day of my life,” he replies, “but I would accept them provided they don’t champion and publicise it such that it causes a rift between us.”
How then would he approach a member of the flock who opens up to him that they are not attracted to the opposite sex?
In response, he states that for him, this is no longer hypothetical. He has had some congregants step forward to confess their sexuality, and he prayed with them.
While he accepts that some people may be born with a particular sexuality that does not fit in with the accepted norm, he maintains that to engage in sexual conduct that contradicts biblical teaching is sinful. What he says is that to be gay per se is not sinful; one crosses the line when they become actively gay, as in to have a partner of the same gender.
He uses this analogy. A kleptomaniac who does not engage in the act cannot be arrested, but they break the law the moment they practice it.
So what is a gay person to do?
“They can lead a celibate life,” Butale answers. “But if their sexuality is so important that they cannot lead a celibate life, then that will be a parting of ways.”
To further explain his point, he states: “Let’s put it this way. If I say I support BNF and at every election I vote BDP, where am I? Regardless of what I say, I would have already shown where my heart is.”
He states that Christians should be prepared to stand for what they believe in by withholding their vote from politicians whose pronouncements contradict Christian ethos. He wants to see this happen in the next general elections.
“The next question would be, what if all parties support homosexuality and abortion? Well, the church is not stranded. We will find a way,” he states.
But even with such strong views, he does not advocate the idea of a Christian party. His view is that the church as an institution should keep away from politics because it is divisive. His ideal situation is what he describes as a healthy relationship between the church and the state that is not too far, but not too close either.
While some brethren have gone as far as to suggest that we are a nation that has lost its moral compass, Butale says it’s really not that bad.
“I don’t think we are totally gone,” he states. “But if we don’t do something we will be gone, and to rebuild and reclaim our moral fibre will be more difficult. People think if we let morality go, it will just affect one sphere [of life]. If you tell your children that it’s ok to steal sometimes, then you are opening the gates of hell.”
And will Botswana churches suffer the fate of the European congregations?
“All societies can reach the European spiritual low levels if there is no diligence on the part of the church and Christians,” he warns.