Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pastor Adeboye's private jet

MEDIA reports that the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) has purchased a private jet worth almost N4 billion (different news sources have quoted different figures) for its General Overseer, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, have provoked a minor public storm. I am of the opinion that the matter ought to be utilized as an opportunity to bring to the table and open up for discussion broader issues centering on the relationship between religion and society in Nigeria.

In proceeding, I think it is only fair that I declare my bona fides: I am, of course, hardly a believer, but as a student of society, especially its postcolonial African type, I take religion very seriously; and like many African public intellectuals, especially those of a humanistic temperament, I am genuinely alarmed at the way in which Pentecostal Christianity has run riot in Nigeria. If religiosity in general comes with the capacity to numb the intellect, the brand of Christianity that has been on the ascendance in our country for the past decade and more fosters a certain incuriousness that borders on total intellectual surrender. Beyond this piece therefore, my project is to see how we might begin to advance the cause of intellectual skepticism in our country, with the ultimate aim of reclaiming the public sphere of critical deliberation, and our common understanding of public morality, from the forces of religious superstition.

So, what are the issues that, I suggest, demand our attention? The first critical issue, to my mind, is what both the decision of the Redeemed hierarchy to purchase a private jet, and the Redeemed Church itself as an institution, tell us about both the Nigerian state, and the state of things in Nigeria. For the truth of the matter is that in its practices and dynamics, the Redeemed Church itself has become an expression of the Nigerian state. In the current configuration, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Adeboye, operates more or less like a megaphone of the state, and these days, it is no coincidence that he is more likely to be seen mixing it with the political elite (governors, ministers, the vice president, the president), than with ordinary members of the Nigerian public. Such is the social proximity between the Redeemed Church and the state elite that the Redeemed Christian Church of God has virtually become the Redeemed Christian Church of State. Pastor Adeboye, in a dynamic that works quite well for the state and serves the ends of holders of political power, attends their (office holders') birthday ceremonies, blesses their respective families, and, at the end of each year, unfailingly prophesies positive things for the country they so spectacularly misgovern.

How has it come to this? How did we arrive at a situation where a man who was (and in some quarters, still is) widely respected for his personal austerity and moral courage, has now become the handmaiden of political power? And why does he now acquiesce in a decision to buy a N4billion private jet in a country with 80 percent youth unemployment, and where the majority of the population (including most of his own congregation) continues to wallows in absolute immiseration?

Part of the answer-and this is my second point- has to be found in the evolution and transformation of Nigerian Christianity in general, and the Redeemed Church in particular. I think it is fair to say that both are actually imbricated, and that to a large extent, the transformation of the RCCG from a backstreet church to a global brand (yes, brand) mirrors key developments in the evolution of Nigerian Christianity. The crucial milestones in the development of the Redeemed Church, and the important role played in it by the mathematician-turned-pastor, Enoch Adejare Adeboye, are now available in the public domain, so I will not allow it to detain me here. For the sake of clarity and because of its centrality to the argument I am trying to make here, I want to highlight the (Redeemed) Church's passage through three distinct, though quite inseparable, moments.

The first was the early period when the Church was literally under the spell of the austere pietism of its founder, the Reverend Josiah Akindayomi. During that period, the Redeemed Church, with its emphasis on a rigorous, no frills personal regime for its members, was very similar to what the Deeper Life Bible Church was- and still largely is. The unflattering apothegm, Ijo Elekun (literally, the church of the grieving) is recalled here as a testament to the perceived doctrinal severity of this early period. This image was to change with the ascendance of Pastor Adeboye in 1981- and the Church's rapid transition into a new era. The significance of Pastor Adeboye's ascendance lay in the departure from this somber model and the development of a new, less abstemious, theological outlook for the Church. We now live in a critical third moment in which that model has apparently triumphed.

The problem of course is that in taking its message to the world, the Redeemed Church has also, almost predictably, taken in a considerable part of the world. Today's Redeemed Church, with more than 6,000 parishes worldwide, is no doubt a successful religious brand, but like all brands, it has had to forge all sorts of shabby accommodations with corporatist 'sponsors' and 'the rulers of this world'. This is why, today, it has become difficult separating the leaf of the Church, from the soap of the world it was established, and still purports to, transform. Obvious material success, and a fatal conflation of ethos with corporations and politicians means that the Church that redefined Biblical economics (at least in this part of the world), is now in clear danger of being consumed by its creation.

But this is not just a problem that is unique to the Redeemed Church alone, and it is imperative- my final point- that we properly understand the broader formation in which the Adeboyes and Oyedepos of this world, and other members of what, elsewhere, I have described as a 'theocratic class', are produced by, and themselves reproduce, the logic (and illogics) of the postcolonial Nigerian state.

Because space is at a premium, I will flag this issue by posing a single question: Where did the RCCG get the money (N4b) to buy a private jet? Partly, no doubt, from the sale of the Redeemed 'franchise' and the fruits of its amorous affair with the state elite. And where does state money in Nigeria come from? Oil of course. So, the point is that the material preservation and sustenance of the political elite and the theocratic class in Nigeria are traceable to the same source, and to the extent that oil extraction in Nigeria is subtended by the logic of plunder, the (Redeemed) Church in Nigeria is directly implicated in it. It partly explains why the religious elite (with a few distinguished exceptions) is loathe to antagonize the state, and it comes as no surprise that, as in the current instance, the leading lights of the Pentecostal class, have adopted one of the worst aspects of the political elite's rampant consumerism.