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"Wash Your Hands and Be Washed in the Blood of the Lamb": Pentecostalism and Corona in Nigeria

Date:30 March 2020
Redemption Camp, Lagos
Redemption Camp, Lagos

While those who identify as secular or non-religious may be unused to dealing with existential crises, many Christian communities - particularly Pentecostal congregations - have been preparing for the End Times for decades. How does Nigeria's most influential Pentecostal pastor make sense of the coronavirus? CRCG Fellow Dr Kim Knibbe investigates. 

“Can I get a ‘Halleluiah’ from you?” asks Adeboye in a Sunday sermon. He is the leader, often fondly referred to as “Daddy G.O.,”  of one of the largest Pentecostal megachurches in Nigeria’s crowded religious landscape. The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) is a “paradigm of Pentecostal power,” in the words of Azonseh Ukah, with branches all over the world. Where on other occasions half a million people might shout “Halleluiah!” in response to Adeboye’s request, this time, deadly silence reigns. He is recording his sermon in the studio of Dove Media, the broadcasting company of the RCCG, located in the Redemption Camp (sometimes called Redemption City) along the Lagos Ibadan Expressway.

Nigeria is not only the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa (it has a population of 198 million), but in terms of religious trends (both in Christianity and Islam), it often pioneers new models of religiosity that are soon followed elsewhere. As such, it is interesting to see what the RCCG, which has long been a trendsetter in Nigeria and beyond, is doing in times of coronavirus. The RCCG is one of the largest churches worldwide, commanding the attention of millions of Pentecostals. Like several other successful Nigerian-initiated Pentecostal churches, it is led by someone who first made his career in academe, and it draws support from the politically influential, the rich, and the well-educated. It plants churches everywhere in preparation for the End Times, so that when these End Times come, people can give their lives to Christ and be among the saved.

Given that even the most staunchly atheist person must admit that a pandemic raises the spectre of the End Times, what can we learn from studying those organisations that have long been preparing for the End of Days?

One of our Kenya-based colleagues, Damaris Parsitau, has already written an excellent overview of some of the responses of Pentecostal churches and leaders, in which she criticises those who emphasize faith healing and refuse to follow public health measures to cancel religious gatherings. Understandably, western and Africa-based media outlets have tended to focus on those churches who do not follow the public health guidelines in dealing with the corona virus pandemic. However, it is important to also note that many churches are following these guidelines, and are themselves active players in providing health services (many Pentecostal churches run hospitals, laboratories for testing, fertility services, and maternity services).

Like many other churches, the RCCG has moved its services online, following government guidelines banning meetings of over 50 people. “Obey the government,” Adeboye counsels, in addition to repeating the advice to wash one’s hands frequently and keep 1.5 metres distance from one another.

Arguably, Nigerians—and Nigerian Pentecostals in particular—have more experience in dealing with a situation that many people in the US and Europe are largely unused to: a harshly unpredictable world where you don’t know when you will be able to move forward again, ruled by forces that are outside of your control. Pentecostalism boomed in Nigeria in the 1980s, when austerity measures imposed by the IMF dramatically reduced public spending and tumbled Nigeria’s economy into a downward spiral, exacerbating the nation’s political turmoil. The so-called “health and wealth” teachings of Pentecostal preachers empowered millions of people to keep their spirits up and remain steady in the knowledge that God wants them to prosper. While skeptical outsiders might view these preachers as exploiting the poor for their own gain, to many the success of these churches and their most prominent members prove that with God, all things are possible. Furthermore, in a society where success seems to go hand in hand with corruption, the combination of holiness and prosperity in the message of the RCCG and other Pentecostal churches models a lifestyle where wealth does not necessarily come from a pact with evil, but rather is possible through giving your life to Christ.

Indeed, in his sermon of March 22, Adeboye mentions that he draws on a sermon he preached in the 1980s (although he doesn’t state what the occasion was). Not surprisingly, rather than the often-prominent themes of wealth and success, this time he preaches on health. Most of all, however, he preaches on the power of God.

The pandemic, he explains, is God’s way of showing his power. That is the reason it strikes the major nations of the world, those nations that boast of their ability to tackle problems. So this is a time to recognize who is the most high, who is Almighty, and to dwell in His secret place. Citing Bible verse after Bible verse, Adeboye preaches that God is above all of us, and that nobody can mock Him or deny Him without consequence. The secret place where God dwells is not in the vestry of the church, but rather His name (a comforting thought in these times, when the churches are forced to close).

Adeboye predicts that the pandemic will not disappear, but it will subside; it will remain in the background, allowing God to show His power again and to remind people Who is most high.

To the public health minded, there is a potential ambivalence in Adeboye’s sermon. On the one hand, there is an affirmation of the public health measures, of the scientific insights that are now being shared at a rapid pace (e.g. the virus will not disappear, but will subside). Generally, the crowd control and sanitation measures of these churches are very well developed. After all, with millions gathering in one place yearly, and half a million monthly during the all night Friday night prayer services, they have to be. As Adeboye reiterates at the beginning of his sermon, handwashing and sanitation are a priority and have been for years at the events the RCCG holds. In the Church’s response to HIV/AIDS, for example, while the emphasis has been placed on morality and on God’s power to heal, the legitimacy of scientific measures has never been challenged or denied.

On the other hand, there is the power of God, with whom, Adeboye states, following Luke 1:37, nothing shall be impossible. "Relax," he tells those who are born-again. "You can shelter in the shadow of the Lord." Might this lead some to conclude they are not vulnerable to the virus?

Here, he tells the story of how he and his wife, after three cesarean births, decided that they could not risk another pregnancy. However, after they became born again and let the message of this Bible verse get through to them, they decided that they would have another child. This was against the advice of medical professionals and many of their friends and relatives, who warned of the dangers. Fortunately, his wife delivered their fourth – and biggest – child naturally without mishap. When a scientist friend challenged him and said that in order to represent scientific proof, the experiment must be replicable, they had another child.  

With regard to the pandemic specifically, Adeboye preaches that God will protect those who are born again and live a holy life. Those who are "washed in the blood of the Lamb," he concludes toward the end of his sermon, will be passed over by the Angel of Death. Not that the church is like a hospital where you can get your healing and go home again: you must become more than a “Sunday to Sunday” Christian. And so the sermon ends with the traditional altar call: if you have not given your life to Christ, now is the time to do so, because you are in grave physical danger.

From a public health perspective, it is important not to mistake a belief in the power of God to heal with an anti-science position (see also my own publication on the tendency of secularist actors to do so). The message, in the end, seems to be a case of both/and, where nothing is certain except God’s power and your own ability to commit to a life in Christ: take precautions, follow the advice of the scientists and the government, AND trust that Jesus has washed away your sins.

This may sound dangerous, but in a way this ambivalence parallels the ambivalence currently experienced by populations in Europe and the US. On the one hand, we practice social distancing, quarantine ourselves, and introduce lockdowns to prevent infections. At the same time, as the scientists tell us, the expectation is that most of us will get infected at some point.

This insecurity is what we must all now live with. It is a challenge that demands new ways of dealing with risk and uncertainty. In many western nations, this comes on top of the mainstreaming of the realization, among even the most denialist politicians, that climate change is happening and can only be mitigated by extreme measures. Echoing Adeboye’s interpretation of the pandemic as God’s way of showing the rich and powerful nations who is in control, environmental activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot puts forward a similar interpretation:

"We have been living in a bubble, a bubble of false comfort and denial. In the rich nations, we have begun to believe we have transcended the material world. The wealth we’ve accumulated – often at the expense of others – has shielded us from reality. Living behind screens, passing between capsules – our houses, cars, offices and shopping malls – we persuaded ourselves that contingency had retreated, that we had reached the point all civilisations seek: insulation from natural hazards."

While Monbiot uses the opportunity to preach about the measures necessary to prepare for the impending climate crisis, Adeboye preaches that the pandemic shows that it always is, always has been, and always will be God who is in control.

Thus, wash your hands; but also be washed in the blood of Christ.