Lethebo Rabalago, who made headlines recently for spraying insecticide onto his congregants in order to “heal” them of their ailments, represents a troubling and growing trend within the Christian faith.
The trend is that of self-serving ministers who use desperate people to shore up their ministries.
Rabalogo’s unusual antics follow those of Penuel Mnguni who gained notoriety for feeding his congregants snakes and rodents.
These young ministers have turned their religion – which was once a force for good – into a thing of ridicule.
Even the Limpopo health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba has weighed in on the insecticide matter. Last week he said his department would approach the courts to get permission to have Rabalago taken in for psychiatric evaluation. And this week the Limpopo High Court granted an interdict to stop his poison spraying antics.
This young man who is now dubbed the “Prophet of Doom” leads the Limpopo-based Mount Zion General Assembly (MZGA) where he tests his unusual “healing” methods.
These include making people eat powder soup and drink petrol.
Rabalago claims his methods are a testament to the superiority of his faith.
The irony for me is that just as this story hit the headlines I was busy savouring the amazing accomplishment of a young woman from Port Elizabeth who has just qualified as a medical doctor.
Raised by single parent, she is part of the so-called missing middle and had to beg and borrow in order to complete her strenuous and lengthy studies for a medical degree.
Even then her qualification does not amount to an automatic right to practice. Before this young woman is able to start working as a medical doctor she has to register and be accredited by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) – a statutory body that regulates health professions and ensures professional conduct and ethical behaviour.
This body ensures compliance with healthcare standards and is a vanguard against medical quackery.
She also has to take the Hippocratic Oath – which commits her to always act in the best interests of her patients.
Clergymen such as Rabalago however, have no such requirements.
They act with impunity and remain unchecked as they ride roughshod over their congregants’ right to dignity and privacy.
And they tend to be dismissive, not only of calls for them to back up their claims of supernatural power, but of the notion of accountability to the wider Christian community.
In a recent interview on etv Rabalago was asked: “Who mentored you to become a pastor?”
His terse reply was “God”.
To their credit many churches have distanced themselves from the antics individuals such as Rabalago.
The Commission for Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) has now entered the fray.
But regulating religion is a thorny issue, one in which, allow me to say, the devil is in the detail.
The commission cannot simply barge in and curtail religious freedom. The thing about this freedom is that it is essentially the right to believe in anything you wish – no matter how bizarre, illogical or irrational it may appear.
Complicating the issue is the mushrooming of charismatic churches that follow harmful esoteric beliefs.
Similar to cults, these churches tend to be under the leadership of a strong individual who basically engineers absolute control over the members.
Such a leader will style him or herself as a “prophet” who essentially offers a shortcut to God’s favour.
This is often for a fee.
These cultic churches tend to indoctrinate and isolate their followers using a combination of apocalyptic ideas and some sort of spiritual experience. If co-leaders exist they are often receptive acolytes who are only too eager to implement the ideas of the absolute leader.
This was the modus operandi of the infamous US sect leader David Koresh who founded the Branch Davidians. It separated from a mainstream denomination in 1955 and the community of followers lived on a ranch 14 kilometres east of Waco, Texas.
Over the years scandalous rumours began to circulate about Koresh sleeping with church members’ wives and marrying underage girls.
In 1993 the US authorities became particularly alarmed after they learned that the group was illegally arming themselves. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms then issued a search and arrest warrant.
But their attempt to raid the ranch resulted in an intense gun battle in which four FBI agents were killed as well as six Branch Davidians.
A 51-day siege followed.
Eventually, the FBI used tear gas in attempt to break the siege but a fire was lit inside the complex. It killed 77 people, Koresh among them, and 20 children.
Rabalago preaches that people need to be saved. He is absolutely correct. They do indeed need to be saved – from charlatans like him.