Thinking with you: Is the church responsible for poverty in Ghana?

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 Source: Kwadwo Agyapong Antwi

This question doesn't land itself to an easy answer as there are several dimensions to it. It’s not often theology and economics collide into such an element of complexity.

The objective of this short piece, therefore, is simply to argue that if we are to develop as a nation, we need to have a serious debate on the impact of our numerous churches in perpetuating the cycle of poverty among our people.

Flipping through the channels on a popular satellite TV receiver in Ghana reveals that many are owned and operated by churches. The religious channels dwarf the educational and informative ones by several factors. Many of the channels, contrary to their original tenets of sharing "good news" intended to inspire and uplift, have effectively become giant billboards for marketing 'interesting products and services' at exorbitant rates to their unsuspecting victims. All tax exempt.

We are a nation of 28 million people where over 71% of the citizens identify as Christian, bringing our Christian population to almost 20 million. As the largest demographic group in the country, the churches have no problem filling their auditoriums with thousands of people daily. Desperation is an economy, and flipping through the channels, it's very obvious that business is booming for many pastors - their expensive adornment easily gives them away.

The sweetest thing we gifted our politicians was making our people believe that the devil is responsible for poverty. The words and actions of many of the pastors should make it obvious for people to realize the falsity of their teachings, but a frustrated mind is more interested in affirmation than scrutiny. M

any of our people are let down by their political leaders and therefore see God, and by extension the dubious pastors, as a last resort of solace. It is widely believed that poverty limits cognitive ability, resulting in sub-optimal decisions. This partly explains why many fall victim to the trickery of the false pastors.

As a Christian myself, I've often wondered why nations who dedicate their time in God's service are often the ones prone to poverty. Does God hate those who worship him? Why are nations who are predominantly atheistic more developed and less inclined to crime? Without a doubt, economic development seems to be a greater means of enhancing morality than religion. It is difficult to be poor and moral at the same time, no matter how religious.

Let me highlight one episode of their shenanigans which was beyond my comprehension and literally had me screaming at the TV. In a public gathering of about 5000 people, a pastor, who claims to specialize in 'catching' witches, shouts for the witches in the gathering to come to the front of the congregation.

Now, the traditional view of witchcraft in our part of the world usually assumes that its practitioners are old women and men. Since these types of gatherings are usually held outside of rural communities, they have almost no attendance by older folk. So you can easily imagine the demography of the people who heeded the pastor's call; over 99% were kids, some as young as 5.

My 'carnally minded brain' wondered what understanding kids that age had about witchcraft, but, about 15 minutes into the display, my suspicions were confirmed; many of the innocent children had been compelled by their adult guardians to heed the pastor's call. Some denied being witches initially but after constant shouting and mind play by the pastor, they admitted to being witches who needed "deliverance". Their young impressionable minds (which had been likely enhanced by the demon-centered local movie industry) did not struggle to concoct many imaginative tales to explain their activities.

A primary school course in Psychology is enough to understand that one could get a bunch of kids to say almost anything under compulsion and in front of a noisy crowd and television cameras. At best, much of the display bothered downright on child abuse. Even worse, the identity of these kids was not hiding.

Should anyone have the right to propagate any kind of free speech, riding on the back of technology, simply in the name of democracy? The principle of free speech is built on the assumption that, whereas the absurd should be allowed to air their absurdity, their voices would eventually drown in the sea of enlightened views from majority of the citizens. Unfortunately, we adopted democracy without building the foundation upon which it stands. Free speech, in the midst of illiteracy and poverty, only perpetuates the cycle of ignorance and underdevelopment.

The state has a responsibility towards the citizens as enshrined in its regulatory authority. As we explore economic avenues to enhancing the lot of our people, it's important we critically look at the kind of informal education they are constantly receiving from these self-proclaimed Men of God. Words are important as they shape perceptions and beliefs which translate into action. I don't see anything wrong with Christianity. I see everything wrong with how many of our pastors are abusing its tenets for their selfish gains, and to the detriment of the nation.

Lost productivity as a result of the numerous church programmes alone should be of concern to the nation. Just because one can afford to dupe people under the guise of free speech doesn't mean that the state ought to sanction it. This important debate should be led by well-meaning Christians themselves, as the fabric of Christianity is being stained from within.

Perhaps, it's time to consider a rational doctrine of operation for these churches. If educational institutions need accreditation to operate, isn't it reasonable to consider issuing some form of 'accreditation' to the churches as well?

In hindsight, aren't they in the business of providing mass education too - to almost 20 million people for that matter? So I don't get tagged as a "persecutor of the church", let me clarify that I'm not calling for wide ranging state control of religion. I'm referring to an initiative led by the reasonable arm of the church itself.

Hopefully, we can go back to the time when churches were seen as responsible 'corporate citizens' who were at the forefront of social transformation. Not only through relevant teaching, but also through provision of educational, health and other charitable initiatives, that enhanced the welfare of the people.

Above all, let us provide our people with decent education and economic opportunities. Enlightenment is the best form of defense against tyranny and oppression. What do you think?

Columnist: Kwadwo Agyapong Antwi