Blessed, but not by God: Scholars want to reclaim #blessed

The hashtag “blessed” has taken on a new meaning on social media sites, becoming synonymous with local young women travelling to exotic overseas destinations, most likely paid for by wealthy, older men who get sex in return.

These men are the modern day blessers.

With this traditionally theological notion of being blessed having taken on a warped new meaning, theologians and religious scholars are calling on the Christian church and its leaders to take a stand and speak out on the “wrongful popularisation” of the term.

Professor Beverley Haddad, one of the speakers at a conference on Religion, Gender and Sexuality in Africa, that took place last week, was one of those who took issue with the label.

“For me the question is why is a theological notion such as ‘blessing’ being popularised to symbolise financial blessing acquired through transactional sex?

“To my knowledge, no systematic work is being carried out on the subject despite the fact that the theological notion of ‘blessing’/blesser’ is obvious. Yet the church has been strangely quiet on the matter,” she said.

The conference was held by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics and brought together 65 gender and sexuality scholars and activists from around the world to interrogate how religion intersects with gender and sexuality in communities.

Haddad, an associate professor in the school’s theology and development programme, charged: “There has been little consternation in the public realm, let alone prophetic witness and action by the church on the ground [against the perversion of the use of the term blessed].

“Feminist African women scholars of religion and theology are not surprised. The church has shown little interest in addressing gender concerns within its own patriarchal practice, and has been mostly quiet in the South African context of intimate partner violence.”

Just this week, a social-media storm reignited a heated debate around the blesser/blessee phenomenon after popular Instagram model Faith Nketsi was dragged into allegations about pimping young women through her management agency, Feline Management.

Nketsi – who has a reputation of frequenting high-end Johannesburg nightclubs, travelling overseas and posting racy images of herself – was accused of having older men finance her lifestyle and of bringing in young women into her circle, one of whom anonymously claimed she was raped.

Nketsi released a statement rubbishing the claims, categorically denying hiring out young women out for sex, and explaining that her company was legally licensed and sought to “empower female talent” and “build them through social media”.

But that didn’t quell the voices of those speaking out against the dangers of young women engaging in transactional sex for overseas trips and gifts.

In her presentation, Haddad referenced the Old Testament’s book of Genesis, chapter 12 verse 2, in which the term blessing was understood in a communal sense.

“Blessings came as a reward of faith and a reward that was to be used for the good of the community. But the rise of the prosperity gospel has individualised the meaning of being blessed,” she said.

“The hashtag blessed community of young urban women epitomises the values of neoliberal capitalism in its most extreme forms. They choose to harness the tools of prosperity theology and link their desire for material wealth with the unmediated power of God, who intervenes and takes the wanting out of waiting. In so doing, they cover their actions in spiritual sanction,” Haddad stated.

Haddad argued that the African women’s theology community, and the church at large, needed to look into the prosperity gospel’s impact on the values and ideologies of young women.

“We [the religious community and scholars] perhaps haven’t been bold enough in speaking out against false prophets who commodify Christianity and thus provide a conduit for sacral consumption,” she said.

Professor Sylvia Tamale, a leading African feminist and teacher of law at Makerere University in Uganda, spoke about religion’s powerful role in reinforcing social constructs based on gender and sexuality.

Referencing American Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon on the “power of love” at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle last week, Tamale said it made powerful intersections between religion, gender and sexuality and was a “not so lightly veiled” message on social justice.

“Too many times we’ve heard the people of God abusing the power of the pulpit by preaching hatred, intolerance and division. They promote fear and propagate violence in our communities particularly against people with non-comforming sexualities,” Tamale said.

She challenged people to “think hard” about the intersectionality of gender identity and religion and how they foster experiences of privilege and oppression.

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