Tue | Jun 18, 2019

Religion & Culture | False preachers and the black community

Published:Sunday | February 24, 2019 | 12:12 AMDr Glenville Ashby - Contributor
Religious leaders
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The false preacher replaces the delinquent father/husband, the incarcerated father/husband, the murdered father/husband, and the poor father/husband.

Black communities have their fair share of Christian preachers, leaders presumably anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring good tidings to the troubled soul. In New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Chicago and elsewhere, churches – small and large – have become the most notable fabric of inner-city life. The same holds true in parts of Cotonou and Ouidah in Benin, West Africa. In fact, evangelism is arguably the new cultural zeitgeist on the continent.

For blacks, this title of religious leader carries significant weight if only because of our deep spiritual roots. But it’s a characteristic that makes us vulnerable to charlatans. I have written extensively about the endemic deception and criminal activities that have infected black evangelical churches. ( Prayer of Salvation: Dangers in the Black Church, Jamaica Gleaner, Dec 9, 2018).

I have written about the dangers of prosperity theology that pervert the letter and spirit of biblical teachings. ( Prosperity Christianity – A Perversion of God’s Word, Jamaica Gleaner, March, 13, 2016).

Let’s now examine the psychological construct of these false preachers and those who sheepishly follow them.

These notorious figures, known for almost cult-like followings within the church, share common attributes. For one, the majority are men. More important, they are narcissists.

(Lately, there is the tendency to flippantly wield the word ‘narcissist’ at those we consider selfish, manipulative and egotistical. Arguably, we are all narcissistic in varying degrees and as some psychologists have noted, not all narcissistic traits are destructive).

There is a distinction, though, between persons exhibiting narcissistic tendencies and those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NDP). An NDP diagnosed person is structurally dysfunctional, so damaged, that the likelihood of rehabilitation is slim. In layman terms, they are born con artists. This well describes our false prophet.

We have encountered the narcissist in the financial sector; in government; they are our chronically philandering husbands and liars; they are everywhere. Sadly, they have also weaselled their way into the church.

The sole attention (libido) of narcissists is turned inward for self-preservation.

PSYCHOLOGICAL SURVIVAL

Their interaction with others is vampiric. They use others for their own psychological survival. Psychically stuck at the pre-oedipal phase (the most primal stage of childhood development), they are unable to give or share themselves with others. Relationships are self-serving.

This explains the narcissist’s antipathy and disaffection. Displays of caring and compassion are contrived and artificial, nothing more than a means to an end. The false preacher, thus, is not tormented by guilt when he steals from the church and manipulates the poor to fork out their last penny under the guise of some biblically sanctioned edict. Neither does guilt surface when he fornicates with gullible congregants. He is glib enough to justify his actions. He is, in psychological terms, fixated at the phallus stage of development. Usually traumatised by abandonment as a child, he is insecure. He masks this insecurity by dominating and conquering as many sexual partners as possible to validate his relevance and worth.

Not unexpectedly, the false prophet is plagued with anxiety and fearful of losing his grip on his congregation. It is fear of reliving the traumas of the past. He must then outperform his rivals in prophesying and healing, buttressing the cult of personality that he has cleverly weaved.

Although psychologically and emotionally infantile, the narcissist usually possesses a high cognitive and intellectual quotient, making for a highly deceptive and potentially combustible and dangerous individual. They are well known for their persuasiveness as their oratorical skill is effectively employed to the hilt.

The $64,000 question remains: how can seemingly rational and capable individuals fall for the ruse of the narcissist?

Prosperity theology and the false preacher go hand in hand and tellingly flourish in black communities. In my book, The Believers: The Hidden World of West Indian Spiritualism in New York, I examined the importance of ‘spirit’ in the everyday life of our people. Immigration matters, divorce, education, employment and business are inextricably bound to incantations and the spiritual gift of the obeah man or the preacher. His word is law. In economically challenged communities, churches flourish because they bring comfort amid the harsh reality of their surroundings. With prayer and tithing their burden could well be lifted. It is a gamble they are willing to take, and is music to the ears of con men that peddle their snake oil.

REVERED BY THE COMMUNITY

Eloquent, sartorial, educated and ‘God’s chosen,’ false preachers are unconsciously elevated to a revered position in black communities where the positive father figure has been eviscerated by an ongoing war of attrition against the black male imago.

The false preacher now replaces the delinquent father/husband, the incarcerated father/husband, the murdered father/husband, and the poor father/husband.

Some congregants have themselves experienced fragmented backgrounds and have a skewed understanding of love, oftentimes conflating love with sacrifice and pain. This creates the environment for manipulation, abuse and the inability of congregants to disengage themselves from their leaders even when faced with irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing. If the preacher falls, their world, too, crumbles. Their willingness to forgive him or project culpability elsewhere is almost existential.

Sadly, there have been too many indictments, incarcerations and scandals in the black church for us to ignore. We must be aware of the root of this toxicity. It is insufficient to place the blame squarely on the false preacher. It is about time that we reflect on our own shortcomings.

Dr Glenville Ashby is a graduate of the Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies and the International School of Applied Psychoanalysis, Montpellier, France.