God is everywhere in Ghana. His proclamations are stenciled on the rear windows of trundling taxis and tro-tros; His grandeur is recalled in the names of chop bars and canteens; self-styled preachers shout His verses in the quiet of rising dawn; every Sunday morning, His people flow through the streets, all wildly coloured dresses and finely tailored suits, off to glory in his name. In a country of big men, God is surely the biggest.
It follows that there is celebrity in his service. There is wealth and adulation. In the physical absence of God, it is the pastor who is exalted.
Promises of such dizzying stature are sure to attract rogues, cheats, and charlatans, and the country has been experiencing a wave of pastor-perpetrated crime, especially against women.
Vaginas are beset by evil spirits, and only a righteous penis can cleanse them. Or righteous fingers. Or, for that matter, tongues. Sometimes, there isn’t any such pretense, and pastors rape both minors and adults. One pastor conned an exorbitant sum from a British national, telling her, quite simply, that she would die if she didn’t hand it over. Another pastor was caught smuggling a young girl from Accra to Ivory Coast.
It goes on. At length.
So now the debate: Does government have legislative responsibility? Should it establish a regulatory environment and deploy a monitoring agency? Or is this something religious institutions should address? Can their own licensing and recognition apparatus snuff out the wave of come-lately churches these pastors call pulpit? It’s a collision of rights: life and religion; association and cruel, degrading treatment.
Some people in the human rights community – like Amnesty International Ghana or the National Council on Women and Development – don’t seem especially interested in the debate. You ask them for opinions, and they offer none. Others, like the outspoken Human Rights Advocacy Centre, are calling for regulations. Religious freedom, they say, is not synonymous with pastoral predation.
But the clergy has not necessarily followed suit. The chairman of the Christian Council of Ghana did so in the media, but he wasn’t joined by the Pentecostal or Charismatic movements. The latter believes existing institutions should be strengthened, and government’s only role should be public support of their licensing and training systems.
Meanwhile, the public itself has to develop more church savvy. One rogue pastor pulled a flock of almost 10,000, a staggering number compared to the 3,000 or so claimed by seemingly more legitimate bodies.
Regional relativity aside, Ghana is a poor country with a lot of desperate people. They want travel visas. They want children and stable marriages. They want jobs and money. They go to church thinking these things can be obtained in the pews, and at the pulpit they find a jewel-encrusted miracle-worker who promises them the same.
Trickery reigns. One Ghanaian said some pastors mic their pews; people pray out-loud, in rushed voices, and their wants are transmitted to the pastor’s ear-bud – call it Divine Knowledge. And then there are the small victories, a smooth talking pastor who reconciles husband and wife, thus ensuring the woman, whose economic potential is vastly devalued, saves not just her marriage, but her house, food, and clothing. Never underestimate the devotion of gratitude.
It’s interesting to note that, at least according to media stories, the law does work. Pastors commit crimes. They are caught, arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed. In many ways, it’s a testament to a police service often criticized for corruption. But these machinations are reactive. They don’t seem to be slowing the production of victims.
So the central question is this: Can the church be trusted do deal with this on its own? Maybe. But that didn’t really work with the Roman Catholics, did it?