Moral responsibility for Omotoso lies with the churches

Dear church leaders

Where have you been since October 8 when the trial of pastor and televangelist Timothy Omotoso began?

I'm speaking to you, "prophets" who have "a word from the Lord" on everything, including telling us, Errol Naidoo, that the Marikana massacre was the fault of feminists and gay people. You, Angus Buchan, who tell men to "take charge" and "have dominion"! You, Gretha Wiid, who tell women that men are kings and women should be submissive.

You gather hundreds of thousands of men and women to preach a gospel of male headship and supremacy and female submission. Where were you when Cheryl Zondi was being cross examined about why she didn't scream? Where were you when Cheryl Zondi gave testimony that Omotoso told her that they had a "covenant" relationship? Have you nothing to say?

No, you have nothing to say because you do not see a link between your teachings and what happened to Cheryl Zondi and the other young girls who were violated by this man of God.

Dear Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, thank you for the statement issued on behalf of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), but what exactly does your statement convey? That you are "appalled" by the revelations of the case and that churches should be "regulated"?

To suggest that this issue is one of "regulation" is an insult to those who have been a part of the so-called "regulated" churches and have experienced this abuse of power (the cases of abuse in the Methodist and Anglican churches which came to light earlier this year are prime examples).

I put it to you that the problem is not regulation of churches – the problem is the regulated teachings within the churches which socialise girls and women to submit to male authority; which promote what the SACC calls the "family fabric" which is ostensibly a heteronormative – "daddy-mommy" family and takes no account of the ways in which power is exerted in harmful ways within families.

During apartheid, the SACC was known to call out churches for their harmful teachings that promoted racial segregation and discrimination. Where is that prophetic voice now, to call out churches for their teachings that promote gender disparity and injustice? We seem to be more comfortable to locate the problem "out there" than in our midst.

I put it to all of you church leaders and even scholars who have commented on the case, that Timothy Omotoso is not the leader of a "cult" – he is not part of a lunatic fringe – but that Omotosos exist in all of your churches, because your teachings allow and promote the existence of Omotosos. I put it to you that there are thousands of Omotosos in this country alone, and that they too are happy to read Psalm 51 after they perpetrate their acts of manipulation, coercion and, ultimately, violence through their invitations to young submissive victims, schooled in your 'BC' (biblically correct) teachings and not 'PC' (politically correct) teachings, as you like to say, "Oom Angus".   

A young girl who subscribes to these Christian teachings is at greater risk of coercion, manipulation, and pressure because she has been socialised to submit to male authority, and she witnesses a church where men and women don't share equally in authority.

I put it to you that your teachings which promote abstinence instead of consent, "bodily belonging" instead of "bodily autonomy", and modesty codes for women instead of "thou shalt not touch" codes for men, make it difficult to talk about power and male entitlement in the church.

Instead of dismissing Omotoso and his followers as a religious cult which needs to be regulated, admit that the log of moral responsibility is in your own eye, since your teachings regarding gender promote rape culture. Your teachings about modesty, purity, lust and temptation which belie your so-called family fabric promotes rape culture – for rape is not about sex, it is about consent and about power.

As long as churches remain environments where men have all the power, then church leaders can use their authority to groom and control women. Patriarchal culture that is steeped in Christian teachings creates conditions that make abuse possible.

The "biblically-sanctioned" teachings that encourage and teach power differentials between genders is what made the Omotoso case possible.

This doesn't mean that rape is always the result, but it certainly creates the conditions that make it "acceptable" and far more likely. As feminist theologian Ann Borrowdale says: "If submission continues to be the 'theory', then abuse will inevitably continue to be the 'practice'." If you want to change the practice of abuse, change your theories and your doctrines!

- Professor Sarojini Nadar holds the Desmond Tutu Research Chair at the University of the Western Cape. She has been researching the connections between sexual violence and religious beliefs and practices for the past 15 years.

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