AFRICANGLOBE – The statement, “Religion is the opium of the people”, is one of the most frequently paraphrased part of a speech made by the German economist and philosopher, Karl Marx.
He was giving his own critique of the Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that talks about the relations between civil society and politics.
While it is one statement that has been interpreted differently, with some saying Karl Marx meant that the function of religion was to drug the masses and dull the mind, the general understanding of the statement by a lot of scholars — interpreted from German — simply means that religion consoles and gives comfort to those facing impossible circumstances.
However, last week’s events in Budiriro where members of an apostolic sect, who stand accused of abusing women in the name of religion, clashed with police, made me rethink, if Karl Marx’s statement could have been a diplomatic way of saying that religion indeed does dull the mind.
A normal prayer day for hundreds of apostolic sect members turned into a bloody fight when members of the Madzibaba Ishamael Mufani-led church gave police details a thorough beating after they tried to arrest their leaders on allegations of abuse of female congregants.
The sect was accused of, among other things, denying over 400 children of school going age access to education, severe abuse of church congregants, their families and their relatives.
This was done by not allowing pregnant women to attend to either antenatal or postnatal care from trained medical personnel as this was regarded as Satanic.
Probably most absurd of all was forcing congregants to sell their property to guarantee their entry into what they termed Canaan.
If indeed the role of religion is to console and give comfort, why does it appear as if there is more suffering of congregants than comfort?
Why is there an increase in all forms of abuse in the church?
Choosing a religion is a personal choice, a decision that is often premised on a number of fundamentals that guide an individual, family, clan or group, on what they want to believe in.
Because of its sanctity, religion becomes a difficult issue to discuss, tackle, or advise people on what they should believe in. Our own Constitution acknowledges one’s freedom to worship without restrictions as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
That must have been the decision that legions of female followers of Madzibaba Ishmael took when joining the sect, not knowing that they were opening themselves up to abuse.
The Budiriro incident gives an insight into how abuse has become heavily embedded in some of Zimbabwe’s religious institutions, putting the role of religion under spotlight. Rather than become embodiments of good moral virtues, some religious sects have actually become dungeons of abuse as attested by the increasing reported cases of abuse of worshippers, particularly women.
On several occasions, abused women who seek counsel from the church on how to deal with abusive husbands, are discouraged from reporting to police, but are asked to instead remain vigilant in prayer, hoping their partners would see light on their way to Damascus and repent.
Of particular concern is the abuse of girls through early marriages, sexual assaults by senior members of the church, subjection to virginity tests, denial of education, and the widely practised doctrine of “recovery” where women who were not virgins when they got married are asked to offer young virgins to their husbands as a form of appeasement.
All these ill-advised, dangerous social ills are happening under the guise of religion.
It is because of the growing abuse of women and girls in the church that resulted in the Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, Cde Oppah Muchinguri “declaring war against churches” recently, accusing churches of perpetuating the oppression and abuse of women by men.
While the church had a critical societal role of moulding moral values, they for long have been a structure that reinforces women’s submissiveness to men. But rather than uphold the values, church leaders were now taking advantage of the institutions to wantonly abuse the very people they should be protecting.
Such leadership smacks of sheer hypocrisy, where devious individuals use the Bible or other religious codes as tools of oppression rather than as agents of positive change to feed and free the mind.
While many people who have been abused in the church are not willing to come out in the open for fear of reprisals by the authorities or even their peers, those who were brave enough, give narratives of church cultures that treat women’s bodies as inherently problematic and seductive, and therefore should always be kept under the watchful eye of church leadership, which is usually male dominated.
It is within the same institutions where a woman’s worth is assigned to her sexual purity or procreative prowess, hence some churches insist that women who were not virgins when they married should “donate” a virgin to appease the husband.
It is that line of thinking within some religious sects which question women’s ability to think rationally or make decisions without the leadership of men that same religious leadership that will also blame victims of sexual abuse for inviting the abuse or tempting the abuser.
Women who do not submit to their husbands, or find contentment in their roles as helpers, are shamed, and regarded as social misfits who need to be chastised for challenging the status quo.
This is the position that hundreds of women often find themselves in, in their churches, hence the increase of abuse cases Zimbabwe has been witnessing.
Rather than become sanctuaries from emotional and physical trauma, some churches have become agents of abuse, and that should not be allowed to continue.
While people are entitled to make their own religious choices, it is important to question, scrutinise and even refuse to abide by certain doctrines that border on abuse.
In the pews of every church across the land, there are a lot of women who continue to be abused without batting an eyelid, and perpetuate a culture of silence.
It is for that reason that Robert Martin Gumbura continued to abuse more women, because those that were violated did not want to come out in the open for fear of reprisal.
Sometimes people need to stand up against what is wrong rather than hide under the guise of religion.
Let’s stand up against abuse.
By: Ruth Butaumocho