By Primus Tazanu*
It is late February 2019 and a pastor based in South Africa hits it big when he resurrects a dead man. Pastor Alph Lukau brings Elliot (real name: Brighton Moyo) back to life but it does not take long before the pastor admits the resurrected man was, in fact, not dead. But this is not the point I will pursue in this article. I am interested in highlighting the fact that a miracle-hungry public in Africa has pushed the narrative of the miraculous which in turn places pastors (mainly male) under enormous pressure to perform miracles by all means necessary.
A pastor hits it big when he attracts attention to himself; a video of his performance is circulated on the media which in turn exposes him to the public. A miracle that hits big is one of the surest ways of gaining more followers and thus, resources. Even as Pentecostal practices of miracles in churches have been normalized in Africa, images such as pastor Lukau’s resurrecting a dead man are seen as extreme by any existing standards.
Come to think of the plethora of distractions on social media that are generally ignored and then this: countless comments – supportive and critical – on an image when a pastor performs a miracle. These comments indicate that people have deep emotional and psychological investment in what goes on in the churches. They are interested in what the pastors (can) do in a tightly competitive religious market where the leaders gain attention, recognition and contempt by how they succeed in making the unseen ordinary. And the results must be visible to the human eye.
Now, the race is on for them, while competing with other pastors, to prove they can venture into the supernatural and seek solutions for people’s expectations. Seen from this angle, the contemporary miracle pastors are a product of the society. They are produced because society needs them to instantly perform the unusual, through accessing supernatural in ways that are humanly far-fetched. Arduous as this task may be, the miracle pastors take the challenge to alter or control the future. It is all about the future, the unknown, and the impossible. Whether they deliver the expected results is a matter of speculation but come to think of the significance of the bodily displays in deliverance and healing scenes as well as the positive (and sometimes, praising) testimonies about a powerful Man of God – a title indicating the pastor’s apparent proximity to God.
Staging miracles is one of the ways in which the pastors stay relevant to their followers. We learn from watching the images of miracles and the testimonies that the Men of God are invested with the task of making the ordinary mystical and the mystical ordinary. Images depicting miracles – healings, deliverances, resurrections, writhing bodily movements of possessed individuals – are a demonstration of the pastors’ feat in accessing the supernatural realm. And with this comes the belief that miracle pastors in Africa are the indispensable connectors between the suffering human and a God that must be invoked to serve man.
This is how we can partly explain why the pastors have gained enormous power within certain religious circles and the society at large. And they do not hesitate in displaying this power opportunistically: intruding into their followers’ marital life and businesses, frightening politicians by doing political prophesies, engaging in all forms of sexual pleasures ranging from extramarital affairs to sexual harassments and rapes, rationalizing the wealth they accumulate at the expense of their followers, etc. For anyone familiar with Pentecostal Christians, especially in West Africa, it has become an accepted practice for pastors to act as consultants, validating the activities of dedicated followers from bedroom to the boardroom.
Men of God in Africa operate in spaces that are loosely regulated. Whether for fear of God, the churches, the pastors or their followers, the deeds of these Men of God are largely unquestioned and unchecked by most governments in Africa. It is only when controversial practices come to the limelight that these government join the public to voice their opinion as is the case in South Africa where the president wants the churches to be regulated. Because of this lukewarm position of the state, the pastors are emboldened to accumulate enough power to frighten just everyone. And some followers are prepared to defend Men of God at all cost, drawing arguments from an assumed superiority of the sacred.
In the aftermath of the resurrection controversy in South Africa, the activities of Men of God once more became public debate. Particularly in connection to the misconduct of two renowned pastors (one accused of rape and the other for money laundering), some of the clergymen argued that a secular government does not have powers to regulate the church: the sacred is more powerful than the secular, so to speak. In fact, when the two pastors accused of misconduct were facing the law, i.e. at the time they were being tried, many people wrote on social media that they believed only God, not man, could judge these Men of God.
This narrative suggests a different standard of justice for the pastors, the seemingly purer members of the society. The reverse thinking would mean the Men of God should be the ones making judgment on the society. One must thus not doubt why they consider themselves superior and often display traits of insubordination; their claims and practices are partly supported by the society that provides a foundation on which they stand.
It would be enlightening to shed more light on why states in Africa are reluctant in regulating the burgeoning churches/pastors: the churches and Men of God perform palliative roles for citizens within a context of socioeconomic and political downturn. Leaders who are unable or unwilling to provide better conditions of living for their citizens are more than pleased when a large chunk of the population turns to the church and pastors for socioeconomic remedies.
Scholars have generally looked at the narrative and performance of miracles, healings and deliverances as a prosperity gospel package: pastors basically exorcise individuals of any malevolent forces that forestall their socioeconomic advancement. A large proportion of those who subscribe to the prosperity gospel live in a world where their painful struggle to stay alive is contrasted by, say, the massive wealth and symbols of success that their pastors display. Doesn’t it sound logical that such successful men could provide a means for anyone who is desperate to access wealth?
To conclude: new media technologies are changing the ways in which we access miracles performed in churches. The technologies and techniques of capturing and disseminating the miracles are aplenty and pastors avidly use these technologies to reach a wider audience. And because the Men of God are produced by the society and operate in spaces that are hardly regulated, we just have to wait – on social media – to see when one of them hits it big by performing the next (bogus) miracle.
*Dr Primus M. Tazanu is a senior Guest Researcher at the Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Some of his key research focus is on the digital media, trans-nationalism, Pentecostal representations