I must concede upfront, and paraphrase former Kampala Mayor Nasser Sebaggala: I am not ‘cumbersome’ in matters of religion and spiritual being.
I know very little theology and engage in very limited religious praxis. Over the years, I have maintained a private routine of a short prayer as I get out of bed every morning.
Much like other matters of the heart and soul, faith and spirituality is a fundamentally personal matter that should not be showcased let alone subjected to any form of public approval.
The hypocrisy of religious piety has been on full display in Uganda in the recent past. We have had an explosion in religiosity in tandem with sheer breakdown of the most basic moral fabric that undergirds a society.
While growing up as a little boy in the 1990s, across several villages, there was one Catholic church, one Anglican church, and one mosque. Many people had to walk several kilometers to get to any of these prayer places.
In a spell of less than twenty years, today, there are several churches within five minutes of my ancestral home in Bubulo.
A few young men who only yesterday lived modestly as semi-skilled workers are now highly regarded pastors, performing ‘miracles’ and delivering people out of their problems, including purportedly healing the sick. There has been an astounding if sobering transformation that deserves a carefully empirical investigation.
Yet one must note a solid square-up between proliferation of evangelism and runaway depravity: violent crime, blatant theft, glaring dishonesty, and the sheer absence of the ethos and values that would be expected of a God-fearing people.
This gets worse as one moves to the city, the centre of religious riches and moral bankruptcy. We don’t just have countless religious entrepreneurs, savvy enough to set up houses of prayer or take God’s ministry to a five-star hotel; it has also become impeccably fashionable to wear a born-again badge regardless of one’s actual lived practices and everyday actions.
Now, it’s possible that the breakdown of a moral social order at the same time as runaway religious saturation are two entirely different developments each of which has nothing to do with the other.
But it is also logically possible that the gospel that Christ died for our sins and that all you have to do is openly, and this is the key word, declare that He is Lord and Saviour means that you can spend the night in prayers and the day in debauchery, lying, fleecing, cheating, etc., and then return to the Lord and ask for forgiveness.
This is especially in the religious free marketplace where the Bible is available for convenient interpretation and believers can choose where to invest their spiritual time and money.
The social media buzz this week turned on a self-styled ‘prophet’, Elvis Mbonye. I first heard about him from my wife, as a man of God leading a ministry of prophecy.
Now, in my utter religious ignorance, I have had the invaluable benefit of a partner who is better informed in these matters and has had the grace and patience of keeping up with a questioning man who betrays relentless skepticism. I pressed on about the ‘prophet’.
The ministry was convening in Imperial Royale hotel, one of the most expensive hotels in Kampala. Before long, venue shifted to Hilton, a five-star hotel. Then financial pledge-leafs appeared on Facebook: Shs 100,000 being the minimum.
As if something is not right here! What about poor me of very modest means but would like to contribute Shs 20,000 to the ministry?
Last week, one of Uganda’s finest and highly regarded sports journalists, Joseph Kabuleta, wrote in the pages of The Observer declaring Mbonye a ‘national asset’.
Apparently, with the ostensibly God-given capacity to foretell, Mbonye can help the national intelligence and defense apparatus on matters of war and other crucial aspects of national planning and decision-making.
Days later, a few Facebook pictures riled many, most of all showing someone who looked like Kabuleta in a surreal scene.
Mbonye seems to have moved beyond a ‘prophet’ to a god to be directly worshipped, with followers prostrating and kissing his shoes.
There is the bit of paying for prayer and the splendor of place, attire, and cars, all of which will most likely outrage Christ were He to appear. But Mbonye is on record confessing to have physically met Christ, not just once.
In the free marketplace of religious belief and practice, this is all fine. Some have rhetorically asked of any complainant or if those who flock to the newest ‘prophet’ or buy ‘holy’ rice and water from an old one are not adults capable of making informed decisions. In other words, there is nothing wrong with a prophet for profit.
In the bigger scheme of things, however, there is a moral crisis engulfing us. Mbonye might be attracting the rich of Kampala and can receive Shs 5 million in individual offertory.
Yet there is every possibility that the so-called well-off in fact exist on very shaky economic ground and social foundation, precisely the reason Mbonye is a god to be worshipped. It’s a deep national tragedy that betrays the poverty of our times.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.