TB Joshua was a world famous Nigerian televangelist, faith healer and Pentecostal pastor who established The Synagogue Church of All Nations. Three years after his death a BBC investigation alleges Joshua raped, tortured and abused several of his followers over a period of 20 years. There are allegations of child abuse at his Lagos compound and that he faked his miracles. Nimi Wariboko is a leading theologian and social ethics expert who wrote the book Nigerian Pentecostalism. We asked him about the forces that shape a ministry like Joshua’s and what might have allowed him to abuse his power in this way.
What is Pentecostalism and why is it so popular in Africa?
Pentecostalism is a movement in Christianity that accents the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit in the lives and communities of its members. It traces its origin to the birth of the church on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 of the Bible. Pentecostals believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit poured out to Christ’s followers on that day, and that the miracles the apostles did in the first century still continue. Most Pentecostals believe that miracles are possible today. A good number go to church expecting to receive them.
Pentecostalism centres on the Bible as the true word of God. This does not mean interpretations of the Bible are static. Pentecostals often adjust interpretations to suit their contexts and circumstances.
Many Pentecostal churches are led by “big men” or “big women” – authoritarian leaders who dominate their organisations and are rarely accountable to any human power. Their authority is almost unlimited and they teach or discipline their members not to question them, relying on Psalm 105:15:
Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.
Pentecostals also preach prosperity gospel, a belief that God is in the business of materially enriching believers.
These are some of the ingredients that have made the movement popular in Africa.
What forces shaped the rise of TB Joshua?
When Joshua started out in 1987, he focused on the spiritual and economic needs of Nigerians. He combined the belief systems, practices and doctrines of Christianity, Islam and African traditional religion. He later embraced Christianity fully.
The widespread poverty in the country, the precarity of life and the brutal oppression of ordinary citizens were in sharp relief to his efforts to cater to the economic needs of the poor (which he often televised), his attention to the spiritual empowerment of believers, and the simplicity of his lifestyle. These contrasts endeared him to millions of Nigerians and many more all over the world.
The genius of this man – and, perhaps, the majority of Pentecostal leaders – was his clear focus on the explanation, prediction and control dimension of religion. This means he set out to spiritually explain the causes of the predicaments of ordinary Nigerians. He prophesied what was ahead of them, and demonstrated the power to enact miracles to control or reverse their bad situations.
He was an early adopter of TV and the internet. In 2004, Nigeria banned TV stations from airing unverified miracles by pastors, most likely because of Joshua. This led him to launch Emmanuel TV on satellite TV and then online, out of their reach.
Why do people believe in prophecies and miracles?
First of all, Pentecostals believe in a two-tier world: physical and spiritual. They believe the spiritual controls the physical and that those with charismatic gifts can access the spiritual world to extract information to explain, predict and control outcomes in the physical world. So, there’s a quest for information from the invisible realm. I called this “the spell of the invisible” in my book Nigerian Pentecostalism.
Second, we have to look at Pentecostal epistemology – its philosophy. Nigerian Pentecostals beautifully render it as, “It does not make sense, but it makes spirit.” This means their decisions might seem irrational, but they are all good, reasonable and ethical through a spiritual lens. I address this issue in another book, The Pentecostal Hypothesis.
Finally, there is a deep belief in what I’ve named “the Pentecostal principle”: that the new can emerge amid ongoing social processes. The idea of the coming of the new, miracles that can transform the present situation of believers. We can’t ignore the role of economic hardship and poverty in heightening the vulnerability of citizens to religious charlatanism and authoritarianism.
How did he remain untouchable?
There are three points I would like to raise here.
Firstly, he started a Christian ministry, an independent denomination, which became enormously successful. He was not accountable to anyone. As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Second, the pursuit and seemingly effortless performance of miracles appeared to have excused or covered his frailties. But, in a sense, he was also enabled by the people. This is not to excuse the allegations against him but to say he was produced by a certain kind of Christian community or generation. He easily (and excessively) gave them their fantasy. His excesses were integral to the movement itself.
Finally, the allegations tell us that the Nigerian state has little or no oversight over how its citizens are maltreated, exploited or abused in the name of God. Religious leaders appear not to be accountable to the state or the demands of its laws. Joshua was a friend to many presidents in Africa.
How can Nigeria deal with future abuse by religious leaders?
The government has to hold every religious leader accountable to the laws of the land without usurping their religious freedom. Allegations of abuses must be swiftly and clearly investigated. Laws to properly regulate religious organisations are on the books but the government lacks the political will to enforce them because the churches are so popular and many politicians are also religious. The government must set the example of obeying its laws. The most important thing is for the government to work for the economic flourishing of its citizens.
Nimi Wariboko, Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology