Faith is rarely the place to begin an argument, at least one between two mortals who want to build two smug Socratic premises and a conclusion. Arguments are typically debated over records that are (or are assumed to be) without blemish or bias. But debates also ignore the adherent’s own personal reaffirming experiences that are unshared by the disputant. I try to avoid these debates especially as mine, the Christian faith, has some uneasy history I try to ignore: one of God’s prophets, Elisha watched bears maul forty-two human beings to death after he cursed them for mocking him, and I still consider the Judaic theory of punishment pretty extreme from a God who created people with advance knowledge of their frailties. Again, there is the idea of hell for people who die without knowledge of a monotheistic redeemer. These conversations could be awkward.
The New Testament, which birthed Christianity, suggests that there should be some rigor and reason to faith. It also urges the believer to study scripture like the best researchers and warns against false prophets. Yet faith is by definition, confidence in the unseen, the supernatural. Like many Christians, I hold myself to that definition and to a relationship with a God I can pray to, or as Richard Dawkins has described it, a delusion. But his description doesn’t bother me, I think – I often jest about being contentedly brainwashed by the church attendances of my childhood. I find that Chinua Achebe’s 2012 memoir best reconciles my thoughts on the Christian God: ‘a struggle with the certitude of Christianity’ not its accuracy; and unease of the acerbity of what it means: ‘the lack of options for the outsider, the other’. This impossibility of a win-win, a mutual contentment, is sometimes unsettling for my optimistic notions of world peace.
It is this unease that makes me less inclined to form an opinion on what people believe in, whether a God who made heaven and earth in six days, or of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or a deity that demands libation in the morning. I hold off judgment in recognition of my own insecurities rather than what Dawkins considers as condescending regard for the need of the masses, presumptively less bright and who desire a security blanket being unable to think through issues for themselves. This uncertainty – something I hope is more of an attempt at empathetic libertarianism than dainty self-absorption – is also a shield for my cowardice and laziness. It probably takes courage or something deeper than conviction to be certain of the absence or presence of ghosts and God. I neither have the courage nor strength to make that decision. In fact I find this stance admirable in my friends who happen to be atheists, those assured of the non-existence of the supernatural; as in my theist friends who are confident of the God of the Holy Quran or the Bible.
Cowardice shouldn’t be shameful and people should be allowed to do and feel as they please. However where the failure to push and to speak up causes harm to oneself or other people, cowardice becomes inadequate justification for the consequences of the harm done. It becomes shameful like the way we watch crime happen and do nothing. We owe society because we take from it. Even the recluse sometimes needs a community to ignore; others need one to love, hate, envy or be amused by it. Perhaps it is only fair that we protect that community. People should be allowed the right to believe and disbelieve in whatever they please, to air solicited and unsolicited opinions while leaving to others, the right to ignore these views. Priests should be allowed to give comfort to their congregation and the latter, the right to receive it, if they choose to. And the state shouldn’t interfere with these rights.
It is the old argument of public and private morality. The freedom to believe in a stone should be as sacred as the right to refuse to believe until the stone commands the worshipper to throw pebbles at the heads of other people. Similarly, the State, government and the rest of us do well to stay away from how religious services are conducted until it hurts us or our community. So when preachers use untaxed income to purchase private jets, we (that helpfully ambiguous responsibility-shirking pronoun) should say something.
Saying ‘something’ is reminding the preacher and the saved that flamboyance was never Jesus’. He and his followers were largely working-class. Jesus was a carpenter’s son; his disciples were hardworking fishermen who may not have been particularly successful as defined by today’s monetary version. Scripture records how Jesus once helped them make a great catch. The Christ also expressed disdain for earthly treasures, urging believers to sell their possessions and give to the poor. In another instance, he told a prospective devotee to sell his property and give to the poor for a pass to heaven. Further, the Book of Luke records a parable of a ‘rich fool’ who died the night after an arrogant review of his investment portfolio. Wealth wasn’t a primary motive for the Jesus of the Bible.
Yes, things changed after Jesus’ death. The Church grew as all who believed in eternal life through the risen Christ joined in. Letters in the New Testament cautioned against showing partiality to those with ‘gold rings and fine clothing’. It also set out principles for slaves and slave owners. Church people were successful but while a form of socialism was encouraged, moochers were ostracised.
There is a lot of history that runs through the early Church and Christianity in Nigeria: of slavery, missionaries and a country. There is more history on the evolution of the Nigerian Pentecostal brand of faith. Yemisi Ogbe’s insightful essay explores the latter, beautifully outlining the role of the Nigerian preacher as a superstar. The modern day preacher is wealthy and lives amidst poverty. And the Church doesn’t seem to mind very much.
The conventional rationale for a saviour is the poor’s despondency and the need for supernatural help. It is an easy explanation for the growth of the Church in a country that The Economist describes as the worst place for a child to be born in 2013. There is corruption, poor governance and dire economic inequality. However, The Economist’s desktop research hardly covers the range of church-going Nigerians. A fair number of believers are the growing middle-class and the wealthy: business people, bankers, lawyers, and traders, nearly everyone who isn’t Muslim. Presidents, governors and politicians are also vocal believers, who attend services and crusades. One of the reasons given by the constitutionally secular Nigerian legislature for the anti-homosexuality Bill is religion. It is more socially acceptable to steal public funds than refuse to go to Church or fast during Ramadan.
So the Church and its priests are relatively rich for reasons beyond the point that the poor often give a disproportionate part of their income. Those at the upper end of the equality gap give, perhaps to seek redemption or protection from the poor who live seconds away or like the biblical Lydia, to share with God’s people.
There is also a chance that the rich and poor as well as the rest of church-attending believers enjoy what James Andreoni described ‘a warm glow’, an enjoyment from the act of giving itself. Professor Andreoni’s economic theory had developed for donations to charity in the late 1980s, a concept that found that people may give for less altruistic reasons. This theory may apply to faith based giving. In many Pentecostal churches, offerings are heralded with mini-speeches and testimonies of the benefits of giving to the Lord. Some even urge congregants to wave envelopes of cash and cheques to the Lord in prayer and praise. Believers may therefore derive some form of utility, an enjoyment of being the sort of person who gives and give for that reason. This may explain why some steal and others are accused of stealing to give to Church.
It does not help that oddities are rarely considered so in Nigeria: a telecommunications company with less than stellar services offered a plane to encourage subscribers on its network; former dictators stand for office and convicted criminals are described as patriots; people purchase candles for power right next to those who buy the scented versions for spas. In this context, hearing that believers consider the purchase of private planes for preachers as expedient isn’t out of place.
With this wealth that abounds in the name of God, I suggest that preachers and the Church be protected from themselves. The appropriate biblical injunctions to keep from away from doing God’s prophets harm suit this purpose. Harm in this case is the unchecked power of a superstar (Ogbe’s theory) with wealth that is not accounted for. A church that outlines plane purchases on its website while describing its history should be protected from itself.
The idea is not to pauperise the Church. Wealthy isn’t unhealthy. King Solomon’s wealth helped to build the first temple in Jerusalem and the Book of Proverbs refers to the good man who leaves an inheritance for his grandchildren while the sinner’s wealth is passed to the righteous. The Church despite its spirituality is like other not for profit organisations, bothered by plebeian requirements. It needs money to carry out its mandate and play a role as the ‘light of the world’. Even so, anyone who serves a God who created heaven and earth and who ‘can do all things’ should not be impoverished. But in the steps of the good Lord, I suggest that the Church enhance accountability by paying or filing for taxes. There should be public records for its finances.
This proposal is not innovative. The Vatican, the home of all things pious will pay taxes on non-religious property from 2013. Clearly there will be cases where the Church will be unable to make any payments; the Lord’s work is not a business venture. However removal of a tax-exempt status would allow for transparency and a semblance of accountability. A preacher and its congregants could purchase what they wish in the name of faith but they can do so after they have contributed commensurately to the social pot in respect of their own Caesar.
I have heard adherents and preachers refer to discretionary income made from books and recorded messages, materials over which the preacher enjoys copyright and the right to derive income. This point is often pushed as to oppose criticism of flamboyance in the Church. First, I think there is an argument to be made to tie that income as the Church’s. General legal principles would describe it as income ‘derived from employment’. People typically pay for messages because the messenger is God’s. Second, pastors really should pay taxes on their own income, just as professors do. One vocation is as revered as the other.
Until the laws are passed, churches could begin with self-regulation, setting an example. They should place their financial information on the same websites as announcements and those pictures. The Christian religion could show how much of a light it is in the world by setting a standard for itself. If we urge public officers to declare their wealth, these men and women who represent God in our eyes should do so too. This piece isn’t about how taxes have been administered but how the Church should be financially accountable.
I have written reluctantly, as a woman who clings to faith in God and her country. I have avoided the more complex exploration of the Christian as a proselytist. Here is the message: the five thousand didn’t feed the Christ, and Caesar needs the Church.