I recently saw a video of Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy denouncing those who line up to get the COVID-19 vaccine rather than lean on their faith to keep them safe from the virus. I wasn’t shocked because it was true to form. Earlier in the year, he had repeated ridiculous claims about how the virus was created by the ‘deep state’ and how the vaccines to follow would be used to insert chips into people and control them.
The UK has fined him N85 million (£125,000) for spreading a false conspiracy theory on his TV station that 5G signal causes and spreads the vaccine. Not to be outdone by his namesake in making ridiculous vaccine assertions, Chris Okotie, popstar – turned- pastor, came out with “one of the things the vaccine will make you do is to become a vampire who needs to drink blood for sustenance.” These two pastors are not alone in encouraging vaccine hesitancy for whatever reason. There are videos floating around Oyedepo, Sulaiman and others. All this would be laughable if these men didn’t have massive followings and COVID-19 wasn’t a dangerous virus ravaging the globe, and Nigeria didn’t already have an abysmal health care system.
I know pastors like these and how much damage they can cause. Check Naija Twitter and read of people failing to convince their elderly parents or vulnerable relatives and friends from getting the vaccine because those people they are concerned about are listening to people like these pastors asking them not to get the vaccine. Years ago, I was visiting a friend who was ill but she refused to take any form of medication because her church in Enugu did not believe in medicating. What she did believe in was the efficacy of the ‘Amen’ she painstakingly typed at the end of prayers sent to her by her fellow church people.
I knew someone else whose ‘faith-based’ church (what are all the other churches based on? Gas?) led her sooner rather than later to her death. This woman had cancer diagnosed by a doctor, but once her pastor ‘cured’ her, she binned all her pills. The evening I met her- I had been invited to a celebratory dinner on her behalf by a mutual friend who went to her church- this woman looked frail and far from cured to my untrained eye. She looked terribly sick. I was very uncomfortable being a participant in what was so obviously a farce and left soon after I arrived. Even allowing for her desperation for a miracle, it was hard for me to understand how anyone could convince her she was cancer-free when it was obvious she was deteriorating. When she died, her pastor gave a long sermon on the devil and the world and wavering faith. Apparently, he had healed her but in a moment of doubt, she’d let the devil in and allowed him to win.
Another pastor I know socially told me that he could raise the dead because Jesus did so and Jesus had given His disciples (of which he was one) the power to do everything He could. The multiple ironies that he was telling me this while we were on a flight from Nigeria where he’d gone for a funeral seemed incredibly lost on him. Brother pastor, you didn’t raise the dead in your family, you didn’t raise the one you went to bury and you’re flying rather than transfiguring. You think you’re Jesus? While in Nigeria, he’d traveled with police protection because he was worried about his security. And he believed he could raise the dead? What a joke. It was obvious to me back then that this man did not believe what he was selling his congregation or trying to sell to me. He couldn’t have, he knew the limits of his abilities and that was why he didn’t try to resurrect the family member that had just been buried. It is also clear to me that Oyakhilome doesn’t really believe he has the powers he claims to have. If he did, he’d not be ranting on TV and repeating claims of what he is able to do, he would have gone to any of the hospitals surrounding him and healed all those dying from COVID-19. Amen? Oyakhilome , after all, built and donated a health centre to a community in Adamawa. He himself goes to the hospital when he has to. He knows that seeking medical help is not evil, so why the hypocrisy? And surely, Okotie can’t believe that the vaccine turns anyone into a blood-sucking vampire anymore than he’d believe me if I told him the jerry curl he’s worn for years transforms him into MJ at midnight. It is this hypocrisy that also makes me suspect that while these pastors are telling people not to take the vaccine but to depend on the power of their prayers, they may already have gotten the injection themselves. Whatever else they are, they are certainly not fools.
Not like some of their fellow pastors in the US who made the news for declaring themselves somewhat immune to the virus , defying all social distancing rules and packing their churches full of vulnerable congregants and then succumbing to the virus. This tendency to pitch science as the enemy of religion is odd. It is not one or the other. One needs faith to believe in science just as one needs faith to believe in God, abi? There were those in the past, scientists who were also super religious who didn’t treat the two as polar opposites. In fact, insulin therapy for diabetes and the genetic basis for Down’s Syndrome were both discovered by two very religious men. Saint Giuseppe Moscati (1880 – 1927) was a doctor whose published research led to the discovery of insulin treatment in diabetic patients and he is today considered a pioneer of modern diabetology and endocrinology. The geneticist, Jérôme Lejeune (1926- 1994), who discovered that Down Syndrome was caused by an extra chromosome, is expected to be canonised at some point by the Catholic church.
This current tension between religion and science, which has some religious leaders discouraging their parishioners from taking a global pandemic like COVID-19 seriously, is problematic. In a society like ours, especially, where just calling yourself a ‘Man of God’ is enough to make people hang on to your every word, religious leaders have a duty of care to their congregation. If they had any sort of conscience, they’d take that duty seriously.