Thursday, June 4, 2020

‘I hope prosperity gospel doesn’t survive coronavirus’ – Rev. Dibeela

Of the really insightful things that Reverend Dr. Prince Dibeela has to say when (literally) called upon to say a word on the future of prosperity gospel, one line is the most memorable.

“I hope it doesn’t survive,” says Dibeela in response to the question of whether prosperity gospel will survive the coronavirus pandemic.

This is the context: coronavirus will bring Botswana’s economy to its knees, badly affecting a religious business model (prosperity gospel) that has been constructed around the promise of people giving away their money. The analysis of Ndaba Gaolathe, a financial economist who is also the president of the Alliance of Progressives, is that the pandemic will cause Botswana’s worst recession yet and lead to massive layoffs. That scenario necessarily means that not enough money, which is as the oxygen of prosperity gospel, will be circulating in the economy.

Elaborating his point about the fervent hope he holds, Dibeela says that prosperity gospel has no theological justification. Some will remember him as the Botswana National Front Vice President and Umbrella for Democratic Change parliamentary candidate for Molapowabojang-Mmathethe parliamentary. However, as his titles show, Dibeela made his name outside politics. Prosperity gospel is something he would have wrapped his mind around during the course of his theological studies and is an issue he continues to tackle intellectually as the principal of the Kgolagano College in Gaborone.

“The gospel is about empowering people and not exploiting them,” says Dibeela and in response to a follow-up question, adding that prosperity gospel is “exploitative and targets the vulnerable.”

Among those he mentions in the latter group are the unemployed as well as those hoping to get married and have children.

“Prosperity gospel victimises the victims and sometimes blames them for not praying hard enough. It is the opposite of what Jesus taught,” Dibeela says.

He adds that while Jesus promised fullness of life not for himself personally but for those who followed him, prosperity gospel promises the fullness of life “for the so-called man of God.” The latter is a title commonly used to refer to prosperity gospel pastors.

Of the accepted total of verses in the Bible (31 103), the most popular in prosperity gospel is tithing. Dibeela gives an interpretation of tithing that prosperity-gospel practitioners would be too happy about. He describes it not as “taxation” but as a “gift of joy” given to express gratitude to God. As to whether believers should at all tithe during tough economic times, Dibeela’s response is that that depends on whether they have the means. He adds that tithing is not always about “silver and gold” as has become standard requirement under prosperity gospel.

“It can also be in the form of giving in kind and doing acts of mercy and compassion,” says Dibeela, giving a real-life example of the quarantining of some people in Gaborone as an anti-coronavirus measure. These people have been quarantined in a facility that they claim is unsanitary and endangers their lives. Dibeela says that Christian volunteers could tithe by sanitizing the facility as well as by providing food and water to those in need.

“What they would be doing would be equivalent to the actions of someone who tithes in money.”

Some take the view that prosperity gospel thrives because of its adherents, who volunteer to give away their money to people whose real motivation is ever plain to see. In taking a merciful view, Dibeela also blames mainstream churches like his (the United Congressional Church of Southern Africa) for failing to address the spiritual needs of people who end up going to prosperity-gospel churches.

“We should ask ourselves why they go to churches that exploit them,” he says.

His own theory is that that happens because there is desperate need for mainstream churches to rethink the way they provide spiritual guidance to the faithful.

Every cloud has a silver lining, the English say, and in echoing that sentiment, Dibeela says that like any crisis, coronavirus is an opportunity to return to God, to appreciate the gift of life, family, friends and other human beings as well as to pray to God.

Despite its best efforts, the government has not been able to arrest the prosperity-gospel problem. Speaking in parliament in 2015, the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Edwin Batshu, said that prosperity gospel churches were fleecing people. He would later sponsor an amendment to the Societies Act to set a very high membership threshold. This was meant to make it extremely difficult for new churches to spread like wildfire across the country. On another front, the government was deporting foreign prosperity gospel practitioners who behaved unethically. One was Prophet Peter Boluwade who married a Motswana woman and moved his entire operation from Lusaka, Zambia to Gaborone. According to Post, a Zambian newspaper, among those in Boluwade’s flock was a woman with whom he shacked up with for almost seven months.

“He left her five months pregnant, depressed and dangerously hypertensive when he moved out. He wasn’t present when she died in hospital. Nor did he attend her funeral,” said the Post in an article that was part of a three-part series titled “Nightmare from Nollywood”, the latter being Nigeria’s version of Hollywood.

In December 2013, a cast of law enforcement officials closed in on the high-living Boluwade whom they had been investigating for some time. Investigators had discovered P40 million in his church’s bank account and he gave the perfectly reasonable explanation that the money was an accumulation of “offerings” from his grateful flock. On January 31, 2014, Boluwade was declared a prohibited immigrant and deported from Botswana. At this point, he and the Motswana woman had two daughters. For the first half of 2014, he moved around the SADC region and would call his wife from Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique telling her that he was still preaching. The Swaziland gig didn’t go too well because Boluwade was arrested for fraud.

One too many prosperity-gospel practitioners have an irrepressible hornier-than-thou disposition which always leads them to unleash voracious sexual appetite on the beauty-queen section of the pews. They also have a problem with fornication that they are not part of. Considering the broad context of Boluwade’s religio-sexual gamesmanship, “insert” may come off as some double entendre but happens to be the most appropriate to describe how he interpreted the Bible to romantically recruit female congregants. An incident recounted in Zambia’s Post reveals that Boluwade’s knack for inserting scriptural metaphor in the body of a well-constructed pick-up line. When his tongue knocked off, the hands would take over. To a long-suffering woman called Amanda who rebuffed his kiss, Boluwade remonstrated by scolding her: “You silly girl! I am trying to soften your heart which you have hardened. This is anointed saliva I am trying to put in your mouth. Three hot kisses and your heart will melt and you will love again.” Amanda didn’t resist the next hot kiss and the thousand more that followed before Boluwade dumped her. In other instances, women’s hormones reportedly start raging uncontrollably and they threw themselves at Boluwade after he laid his (possibly super-strength Tiger Balm-ed) hands on them. The Swaziland media referred to him as “the anointed sperm/saliva pastor.”

In deporting criminal pastors, the Botswana government may have good intentions but the truth is less easy and putting an issue this complex in a single overarching perspective is unhelpful. Prosperity gospel occurs within an international (and not national) context. The government can deal with pastors who use the Bible to pick the pockets of congregants within its borders but some simply follow errant pastors to wherever they relocate.

There is a good reason why poor countries like Burundi don’t have a prosperity gospel problem. It would be interesting to see what happens when some deeply religious Batswana start living like Burundians after the coronavirus pandemic.

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