Victims? Or people conscious in their choices for religious freedom?
– Is our claim of others as victims and abused not attesting our intolerance-
It can be argued all if not most traditions we uncritically treasure today immanent in religious expression were at some time in our past considered strange, unacceptable, inhumane, and abusive as first practices. It must perhaps first be accepted that the practising of a faith persuasion or religion imbibes the notion of gullibility and acceptance of what is considered strange if not untenable for others.
We are back here and it appears we have learnt very little from the previous incidents of 2015 The most recent incident of a 24-year-old Pastor from Limpopo who sprayed congregants and those who visited his Mt. Zion General Assembly service with doom as a means to demonstrate demon exorcising brings us again to engage what we perhaps thus far have been avoiding.
Today we are increasingly confronted with the fundamental question of who decides for people they are abused or render them victims in ignorance when they exercise their right to freedom of association as it relates to an association with a specific religion?
Let me then in the beginning nail my colours to the mast, off course I am dead against spraying people with doom, like I am against instructing people to eat rats, snakes, grass or drink petrol. No different to allow people to lay flat and have a ‘prophet’ walk all over them. I am equally against many other accepted practices in all religious formations that have come to define church in the 21st Century. Some of them uncritically accepted and seldom questioned.
We have seen an ever-increasing series of occurring incidents or shall I call them ‘first practices’ that may over time become full practices, despite our collective outpouring of disgust be it from human rights or theological tradition premise, these practices flair up from time to time. Our collective condemning of these incidents remains challenging particularly when constitutional rights diaphragm of freedom of religious association is made to stand. We thus find ourselves vacillating between constitutional rights, norms and unacceptable practices / traditions that we as society have come to accept over time.
In each of the incidents recorded since last year the CRL has been rightfully very vocal, yet notwithstanding the vocal condemnation, the CRL finds itself almost having to beg “victims” to come forward.
What does this tell us, it perhaps tells us despite the CRL’s condemnation and inviting of ‘victims’ to come forward, notwithstanding all the passionate requests none has come forward, to lend the CRL its constitutional power in mandate to act against an individual or religious leader that instigate the crime.
Perhaps the CRL as I have said in November 2015, must attempt not to be seen to be blindly preoccupied with the Christian Faith and its new or foreign expressions, but consider the practices, traditions, and norms of others within the Christian and every other religious expression in order to appreciate a considered opinion on what is acceptable and why. We must desist the knee-jerk reactionary responses and perhaps make the time to consider the religious plateau of SA in traditions and customs.
Not so long ago social media was abuzz when some felt it not right to have anyone pay R4500 per person to attend a single service of a USA based Bishop TD Jakes. Some expressed grave reservations and disgust at the organisers for charging people to attend an ordinary church service. There was an outright uproar in claims of the people are ignorant, abused and victims. One person who had paid for his ticket confirming he was going to attend the event put it cogently ‘I am not spending your money, why are you worrying that I am abused, I do this knowing what I am doing and I can spend my money anywhere I would prefer, I do not dictate where you spend yours.
This mouthful said two things for me, one the person was definitely not ignorant, did not see, or regard himself abused or a victim. Instead he was exercising his rights in consciousness therefore emphatic in not needing a self-appointed champion, however defined to protect him from a claimed greedy abusive bishop or organizers. This person made this choice not as so called rural uninformed and lack in intelligence frame. What was indisputable was that nobody was forcing him to spend this kind of money on an event attendance.
Not so long ago we had another case when Pastor Alph Lukau from Alleluia Ministries put up an event for single women in which they had to pay an amount to attend. Their paying of this fee was seen as a ‘seed-offering’ for a future husband. Again the media had coverage on this in which many condemned this as a moneymaking racket in which the single ladies were abused and thus rendered helpless victims. Yet many women interviewed who live in upmarket Johannesburg as educated, self-supporting and economically active individuals expressed the same sentiment as the gentleman in the Bishop TD Jakes case event.
I still hold the view that the people in both cited instances must be respected for their conscious adult choices and we must desist the temptation of trying to act as self-appointed adjudicators even overbearing parents of others equal to us in treating them as helpless children, who are susceptible to abuse and victimhood at the turn of every corner.
As the earlier cases highlighted, we dealing with confirmed consciousness on the part of those who were willing to pay, why can’t we respect the consciousness of those who participate in these practices strange for us yet normal for them.
It’s here that we have to ask some tough questions. Can we really call people victims in this instance, what is the legitimate frame for this victim claim? Who determines their victimhood? Or should we not accept they practice their freedom of association immanent in religious practice consciously? If not consciously according to us, who and what determines the premise for arguing these believers are being abused? Are we also going to attempt to police in claim of victims and abuse people the rights of people to give their money to their religious structures, programmes, initiatives?
It is clear we haven’t learnt there exist a dialectic tension between what we understand our constitution presents itself in rights, in this instance the freedom to associate in religious practices, and what we as citizens often find unacceptable as norms with ourselves as the base for such assessment. It appears those who raise their voices against this actualization of a human right uncritically assume the people who participate in these ‘unconventional practices’ are not in sanity making these choices, but are victims therefore helpless as abused, illiterate, incapable to rationally think as individuals, when they eat grass, drink petrol or have them sprayed with a pesticide.
We claim the people who got sprayed with doom had their human rights violated, we claim their lives are at risk and they are being put in harms way. Perhaps the harms way may be true if we accept that doom is poisonous, yet we do not accept they made these as conscious choices.
A close examination of most religious practices across a broad spectrum of faith expressions quickly leaves us almost hypocritical when we can accept the practicing of equally untenable and life threatening practices in some faiths without raising an eyebrow.
Permit me to cite a classic example of such, namely fire-walking which was also practiced in classical Greece, India and China, a religious ceremony practiced in many parts of the world including the Indian subcontinent Malaya, Japan, China, Fiji Islands, Tahiti, Spain etc, is practiced also in South Africa. Equally we have religious practices that see people having their tongues gravely pierced with needles and pins as a means of their faith persuasion.
There are many faith groups who practice the handling of poisonous serpents, scorpions, and other reptiles as a key aspect of their faith. They extract these from their sacrosanct Scriptures in which it is categorical one may pick up these with no fear they that they may harm one if you have the faith for it. We normally refer to these groups as sects, yet every mainline church today was at some time in history considered a sect.
Some religious persuasions compels the eating of blood, at the slaughtering of an animal, for others an absolute no. These practices naturally would fall into the category of inflicting pain, harming the body and could bring about even death. Can we place these as acceptable traditions, which pose no threat to the lives and human rights of the individuals who participate in such? If these are accepted as normal, not offensive and no hullabaloo is made of it, why do we find comfort in them and fail to fulfil the same vocal custodian role of self-appointed adjudicators over the participants choice.
Not to belabour the point other faiths have baptisms, be it in sprinkling of water (rantizo) on infants or the submerging of the full soma (baptiso) of adults, often these take place in swimming pools and rivers, where we see people drown. Baptism for that particular faith persuasion presents a cardinal aspect of their faith, yet baptism by itself presents the possibility of loss of life and poses thus a threat. Have we ever questioned why frankincense as used by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Israelites and numerous cultures as religious rite is used at funerals in a modern society where bodies are embalmed. Off course the argument will be made its harmless, as an aroma with many other benefits, yet that is not the subject, the subject is the practice of waving it in church may have been in its historic ontology be seen to be offensive and strange even unorthodox, yet we over time have come to accept that as standard for some faiths. We must ask how we have come t accept these practices which today are century old tradition and norms that are seldom questioned. Fasting is practiced by most faiths and often people are subjected to 21 – 40 days of fasting, we have had casualties in this regard. Are we to consider fasting a violation of the human rights of those whose religion prescribes it? Annually Muslims who can afford leave on a holy pilgrimage for Mecca where they amongst others participate in the throwing of stones at the devil. That may be questioned for some as not intelligent behaviour, yet more so we have seen people die in Mecca because of the stampede. How will we deal with these are human rights practices?
I guess I am trying to argue, do we not miss it when we rush to conclude congregants of these church formations evidenced in what we term strange practices are abused, therefore victims and necessarily must be helped because they are not exercising their conscious choices but are misled? Are we not acting as self- appointed adjudicators over the religious practices and traditions of others in which we afford ourselves the right to want to think on behalf of them from the comfort of our own uncritical religious prisms?
Can we not honestly interpret the fact that not one individual despite the many calls thus far has come forward to complain, as a sign and confirmation of their conscious choices in participating in these practices? If we are a true democratic and constitutional society why are we so intolerant to others out of our understanding of what is an acceptable religious practice, norm and even a tradition.
By what power do we feel it our inalienable right to want to direct them when we have over time come to accept religious practices that equally may prove challenging in threat of harming and life.
Does the state, or the organs of state such as the CRL therefore have a right to prescribe what this victimhood and abuse in a religious practice entails- if so how? Do we need a hegemony of understanding on what the right to religious freedom of association entails, if so why? Are we not perhaps seeing for the evidence of a glaring disjuncture between the aggressive egalitarian constitutional expression of SA’s immanent in rights in clash and contest of the reality of a society that is still seeking to free itself from a role of chaperoning and guiding others in their rights from the upkeep of a dominant vocal group almost in an apartheid or colonial sense?
It would seem if we take serious the subject of protection of human rights, we will to attempt to prove consistent in challenging equally the very ones we have come to embrace uncritically our of a history of traditions or for which we turn a blind eye.
It also seems for me unacceptable that outside the frame of denominationalism some what was formerly termed mainline churches can assume it their right to adjudicate others when their own practices are not questioned or subjected to scrutiny.
On the subject of money, every major and minor religion has money as an integral part of its faith expression. The believer are taught they must love their God more than anything meaning they will be willing to give for their religions evidenced in a multiplicity of causes. No place of worship in edifice, welfare programmes or ministries of help for the needy are possible without the giving and receiving of money from the believers in a religious context. Yet a vocal percentage of our citizenry condemn Christian pastors for upholding a biblical instruction of receiving tithes (10%of income) and offerings for the upkeep of the church and those who labour in such. They do not question the fact that Jews practice the very same and give to their religious society graciously at both individual and business levels. Will we therefore let the vocal percentage determine the rights of others where and how to spend their income, in a form of parental control only because we assume them victims of unscrupulous religions and religious leaders?
It seems we as citizenry have not yet understood and grown in our appreciation of what these our constitutional rights of freedom of association means. We the public are outraged in parental sense at the acts of such claimed insanity yet those who are participating in these are doing so in full consciousness of choice, and have no objection to the practices that plausibly over time may like all others become traditions.
We dare not deceived ourselves in not accepting that religious practices norms and traditions are seldom fully free from claim of challenge of unacceptability.
One can appreciate that the majority of CRL cases will have perhaps an unintended Christian base, out of its natural dominance in our society as informed by a our last census. Yet it is exactly here that I wish to reiterate my caution to the CRL again to not be seen to be obsessed with the Christian Faith, but to attempt to appreciate the gambit of the evolution of all traditions of all religious formations as sharing ontology of questionable strange, unorthodox and unconventional practices. It at times appears the CRL with its current narrow focus is yet to appreciate the scope of religious practices for the multiplicity of faith expressions and religious formations in SA. It appears there is perhaps a need to research the evolutionary track of how we arrive at religious traditions and exercise the CRL for is mandate may consider a necessity if it seeks to educate the SA citizenry on tolerance of others in religious expression.
Instead we have seen an over eagerness to rush for regulating. We have heard mutterings and even threats of regulating of religious practices, in perhaps knee- jerk reaction around the public making of these practices. I am one of those who are vehemently opposed to the notion that the State or its organs can direct people in regulation of their faith. It will make a mockery of the claim of a democratic state and the State will be ill advised to pursue this path. Thus the CRL must attempt to straddle the proverbial grey areas of law, rights, and traditions, and must be seen to firstly understand or be educated on the latter. The CRL must also free itself from an uncritical look at formerly mainline churches practices as the standard, and therefore attempt an open mind to appreciate the forming of traditions. I would assume that the CRL’s role of educating and informing as one of the pillars of its mandate in this season warrants finding a confirmed conscientious footprint in our discourse.
I concur with the CRL on the mushrooming of many church formations aligned with the Christian faith. I also concur we cannot afford visitors to our country on visitors visas to overstay their visits and form church expressions in SA as means to earn and income. It must be the work of the Department of Home Affairs and all security cluster sister departments to develop the systems and means and implementation to tighten control and let the sovereignty of SA in visa control count with the unapologetic ejecting of those who have overstayed their visits. Yet that does not militate against the right of individuals to associate in exercising of their constitutional franchise.
I therefore am not pleading for people to be abused, their lives placed in harms way or be rendered victims by any means, whilst I am equally pleading for us to respect these congregants of their respective faiths to be exercising their conscious choices in which they nowhere appointed us or the State and its organs to speak on their behalf.
We must be vigilant that our so-called care for people is not perceived as rooted in the bedrock of encroaching on their rights out of our intolerance for their conscious choices.
Bishop Clyde N. Ramalaine
Writer, and commentator