Opinions Sat, 23 Mar 2013

The media and the ecclesiastical black market

Peddling ungodly merchandise: the media and the ecclesiastical black market

In Ghana today, everyone is cashing in on our religious zeal-politicians, businessmen, priests, psychics, juju men, you name it. Our media are no exception; it's where a tangled web of prophesies and miracles is played out, along with the sordid misdeeds of priests.

Pastors have become the black sheep of the ecclesiastical family-and they make great headlines: Kumasi pastor uses Schnapps and eggs to curse bishop. Takoradi pastor arrested for defrauding five men. Married pastors sleep with prostitutes. Darkuman pastor assaults woman in guest house after spiking her drink. Pastor entreats river god to kill collection thief. Pastor sentenced to 10 years for raping 10-year-old daughter. And another pastor has done this and another pastor has done that.

On the face of it, one would think the Ghanaian media are fulfilling their watchdog role in the community. Not quite; they are mostly driven by their own interests and, sometimes, by convenience and sheer sensationalism. Invariably, these are stories supplied by the police or sourced from the courts, not from or in addition to any serious, independent investigative reporting. The likes of Anas Aremeyaw Anas are the exception, rather than the rule.

It's become something of a cliché to say sex sells. The Ghanaian media, like the media across the globe, know that sex sells, along with money and drugs. And when pastoral misconduct is thrown into the mix, you can be sure of nothing short of media frenzy. Of course, these are the stuff of tabloid journalism which, in essence, is what the Ghanaian media practise in varying degrees, apart from one or two quality outlets. So the pastor bashing continues in news, from newspaper coverage to online reporting.

But aren't we complicit in the ungodly behaviours of these pastors? We've demonstrated to them that we have a soft underbelly; a weakness they can exploit. So anyone with a silver tongue is donning clerical robes-and taking on a string of titles ranging from "overseer" to "bishop". The devil, as they say, can cite scriptures. With one hand on the altar and the other in the till, they are revered and worshipped by us, including our media, until they are caught out. But beneath the facade of scandal exposure and salacious tales are deeper, underlying issues about the way we as a nation approach religion-issues that hardly receive any serious attention in the media; or in our community. I will come back to this in a moment.

Ghana's numerous pastors have become very savvy at using the media. They court the media as much as the media court them. Every word of the so-called men of God is reported as gospel. In one moment, the headlines prophesise that our president will die unless an all-knowing pastor intercedes; in the next, we are told miracles at a Kumasi church have made many lame people walk and blind people recover their eyesight.

Organisations such as the Ghana News Agency report some of these supposed miracles as true, based on the testimonies of church members, not on the eyewitness accounts by their reporters ("Pastor Kumuyi performs miracles in Kumasi" GNA 4 February 2013). And the GNA prides itself on its motto "Speed, accuracy and objectivity." Speed, maybe. What happened to the enquiring minds our journalists are supposed to cultivate? The media have a responsibility to not help peddle bogus claims.

The nation's secular media and Ghanaian pastors enjoy a symbiotic relationship. In fact, I'm not sure whether there's any such thing as secular media in Ghana; it's hard to work out where to draw the line. Flick though our mainstream TV channels any day and you would be forgiven for thinking you were watching denominational TV. Not a big deal, you might say. After all, Ghanaians are a religious people. But that is precisely the problem. Everyone is taking advantage of our religiosity. Our overly religious bent has clouded our judgment of reality and coloured our assessment of many things done in the name of God; things that should be brought under scrutiny and not swept under the carpet.

We see our pastors, their activities and their lifestyles through rose-coloured glasses until a scandal hits them. Even then, we try to protect them as they fall from grace. Some of our journalists, as members of one or the other worship centres that litter the country and neck-deep in their own beliefs and faith in their pastors, fail to separate fact from fiction. To criticise, they go for easy pickings, like the wayside pastor who swindles his pregnant wife and disappears with the money.

Often the gloves are off when it comes to political debate in the media. By contrast, debating serious issues of religion that are fundamental to where our nation is heading seems to be off limits. Here, our media seem to practise self-censorship. The few dissenting voices about our unhealthy religious ways often come from the priests themselves or rival pastors, in addition to lone voices from concerned citizens. Our churches are a no-go area for criticism. Few dare stick their neck out for fear of a backlash from powerful religious groups and their influential leaders, or because you do so at the risk of alienating friends, colleagues and family members.

In a society saturated with religious activity and where believers wear their religious heart on their sleeve, it is easy to be labelled as the Anti-Christ, an infidel or a kafir for questioning things religion. But it might be in the interests of our nation to know, for example, the impact of excessive religious activity on the productivity of our workforce. How can a nation be productive when workers use working hours and the work premises for prayer meetings and worship, in addition to doing their "all-night" outside working hours and spending much of their weekend attending funerals? Are we giving to Caesar what is Caesar's? How often have the media set the agenda on this? Of course, it is too controversial, not news-sexy and, perhaps, news reporters don't appreciate the key role productivity plays in lifting a nation out of poverty.

Church noise is another matter. I was encouraged by the Daily Graphic's editorial on the recent action by the Accra Metropolitan Authority to demolish a church building in Accra for noise nuisance ("Let the axe fall on more culprits" 15 Feb 2013). In many cases, the noise generated by certain worship centres can only be described as noise pollution. In Accra, only a few residential areas are not drowning in this latter-day Tower of Babel. Isn't it about time the siting of churches and the enforcement of the relevant by-laws became a major subject of debate in our community and in the media? But, no, we simply complain in silence.

I want to go to church without being a nuisance to other people who, for one or the other reason, are not in my church. They may be shift workers having a sleep in the morning after night duties; they may be people having a rest before going to work the next day; they may be non-church goers because they profess other faiths or are agnostics or atheists. But they all are Ghanaians and the children of God. We must respect their rights and their peace.

What about a serious debate on the touchy issues of paid preaching and the church and money? Of course, churches and other worship centres need money-to maintain church facilities, pay for water and electricity, hold events, help the needy, and so on. But at what point does the soliciting of church member contributions and donations, as well as payment of pastors, amount to greed and a rip-off of a congregation?

Do we sometimes get it wrong when we "give"? I know giving is an age-old tradition in all religions, but haven't we turned our churches and pastors into money-hungry businesses and businesspeople in the name of God's work and, in doing so, taken the focus away from the spiritual and material wellbeing of the people? There's no doubt that many places of worship are modern-day Herod's Temple, where church leaders "make my father's house a house of trade" and "a den of thieves". Are we waiting for Jesus to come back to throw them out?

Consider these two men of God.

The first has worked throughout his adult life to earn his livelihood by honest means. With a degree in Economics and French at taxpayers' expense, he gave back to his country through many years of secondary school teaching and humanitarian work with an NGO, where he helped alleviate poverty in Ghana, Mali and Chad. While in Mali and Chad, he did forego his entitlement to thousands of dollars' worth of international education for three of his four children so the money could be invested in education and healthcare projects in poor communities. Alongside teaching and NGO work, this soft-spoken man preached the word of God. In retirement, he has chosen to minister to inmates in Ghana's squalid prisons, rather than set up a church in a posh neighbourhood where money can flow in under the guise of God's work. He has never courted the media other than the attention his previous projects attracted while working for an NGO.

The second man has a degree in the applied sciences, also at taxpayers' expense. Being articulate in the Christian fellowship movement at university stood him in good stead when he set up a church shortly after graduation. He attracted many a moneyed man and woman. His economic future and that of his family were assured by regular tax-free cash and in-kind donations. Before long, he had acquired huge land estates in Accra, Tema and Kumasi where he built imposing chapels and mansions. He extended his reach overseas, with branches of his church spread across several locations in the western world. His kids were sent overseas for their education. In his fleet of cars you could count several names associated with automobile prestige-from Mercedes to BMW. On his globe-trotting missions, he doesn't pull any punches when he talks about how rich he is-it is all due to God's blessings, he says. He urges everyone to donate cash handsomely for his cause, often specifying how much each should donate and using various tactics to get people to commit to donating. At home, his words are newsworthy-the media report on every prophesy or miracle that he claims to have made.

The first man was my French teacher at Nifa Secondary School, Mr Sam Asare, and a person I consider to be my role model. His example has taught me a lot and raised questions about paid preaching-questions that in my view call for national and international debate. He has shown that you can earn your livelihood doing mainstream work and, alongside, preach the word of God for free. Has paid preaching outlived its usefulness? The second example is hypothetical, but I know a few 'men of God' who fit that description. People like him have turned preaching into a gold mine.

Contrast this to yet another Man of God I know overseas; in fact, a God-in-man. He worked hard, retired on his meagre pension which he shared with the needy, and devoted the rest of his life to God's work. As his mission grew, he made sure its accounts were independently audited. He had strict instructions to the mission accountant to return any money to followers who gave more than they could afford after investigating their personal circumstances. Sometimes out of devotion or, like the biblical casting of bread upon the waters, because of expectation of future reward, people would give when they could hardly afford to put a meal on the table for their family. This God-in-man also instructed the accountant to decline donations from non-members or members whose donations could not be matched to their income-earning capacity.

I wish we had more examples like this, but what do we see? We continue to hand-pick well-heeled men and women to chair our Kofi and Ama church "harvests" and we don't want to know whether they are drug smugglers, corrupt government officials or armed robbers.

Like other social institutions, religious organisations have the right to use the media to communicate their messages. But when our journalists are on the church beat, it is important that they are a bit more critical. It is not enough to swallow whole the narratives about prophesies, miracles, healing, tithes and charity work.

Part of the media's watchdog role is to ask questions, including those about transparency and accountability. Where does all the money from the congregation go? Is there an independent audit of the church's accounts? Who decides how much church leaders are paid and on what criteria? Are the church rank and file given information about the organisation's income and expenditure and the balance sheet? Of course, you can expect the pastors to be irritated by such questions, but any pastor who courts the media and has nothing to hide should be ready for the grilling that sometimes comes with media interviews.

You might say, what is all this fuss about-after all, people will do what they want to do anyway. That may be the case; however, the open discussion of such issues allows people to share or learn new perspectives that may influence the way we approach our faith and become a basis for positive change. I believe religion still has an important role to play in our society. Surely, there are some pastors, churches and religious groups that are doing a great job in meeting the spiritual and physical needs of our people, but their good work is overshadowed by the litany of priestly misbehaviours.

As a nation, we are increasingly seeking divine intervention for every little problem that may otherwise be tackled with a bit of mental effort and physical exertion (and sometimes we do so to conceal our ineptitude as political leaders). As a result, some clever ones see an opportunity there to make money-or love, evident in the exploitation of vulnerable women-by fishing in troubled waters. They emphasise that our problems require divine intervention and donations. They create fear in us so we do their bidding. We then give money, body and soul in the hope that our prayers will be answered. But our problems deepen and we are caught in a vicious circle. Of course, I'm not discounting the fact that over the years poverty and lack of affordable health services due to bad governance and corruption have conspired to encourage many desperate people to seek alternative help, often with disastrous consequences.

We have a choice to either play ducks and drakes by presenting a happy face to the world or wake up to reality and do something about it. The media have an important role to play in facilitating education around these issues. Its agenda setting function shouldn't be limited to shaping political reality in our democracy; they should also be directed at other issues fundamental to the general wellbeing and prosperity of Ghanaians, even if that means stirring up controversy. As former Australian Prime Minister Gough William once said, "When nothing is controversial, when everything is beautifully coordinated, it must be that nothing is changing".

In Ghana, the challenges we have with religion are deeper than the fake pastors and pastoral transgressions that often receive coverage in the media. If we believe God created us in his own image, we have the God-given power to have faith in our own ability to solve our problems, while asking for God's guidance, rather than placing our destiny in the hands of wolves in sheep's clothing.

By Dr Kofi Ansah

Australian Capital Territory

Email: kbaansah@gmail.com

March 2013

Columnist: Ansah, Kofi