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Leader comment: Innocence exploited

by
26 January 2024

THE BBC’s exposure of the late Nigerian televangelist T. B. Joshua (News, 12 January) as a charlatan serves as a reminder that faith and gullibility are not very far apart. Coleridge’s concept of the suspension of disbelief applies as much to religion as literature, but such a state of openness and trust makes people vulnerable. It is necessary for individual believers to be knowledgeable and wise — if not as wise as serpents, then wise in their ways.

Anxiety about AI-generated fakery can be tempered with knowledge of how much damage has already been done by someone with determination and a video camera. When the mainstream channels in Nigeria banned the broadcast of supposed miracles, T. B. Joshua’s outfit, the Synagogue Church of All Nations, launched its own satellite and then digital channel, and attracted millions of viewers worldwide. The BBC has published an instructive list of how the fraudulent healings were accomplished. First, the people who came for healing were triaged, in a cruel reversal of real medical care: i.e. the most seriously ill were dismissed, and not permitted to approach Joshua. Next, seekers of healing were told to exaggerate their symptoms, and Joshua’s helpers would suggest that they had more serious ailments. Ambulant cases were wheeled on to stage in wheelchairs. Third, they were pressured to stop any medication: the drugs that they “no longer needed” were fed back to them in drinks, at least as long as they were in Joshua’s compound in Lagos. If these techniques did not provide enough patients, Joshua’s trusted followers would simply find people on the street who were prepared to pretend that they were ill and then healed in a spectacular piece of play-acting — in return for a fee. Fake doctors would issue fake medical certificates to convince people of their having been healed. And, finally, the videos of healings were cut and spliced in such a way that events sometimes months apart appeared to be immediately consecutive.

Civil society has to assume that its members exercise a degree of maturity and self-determination, and the Church’s safeguarding community, having earlier toyed with the concept of “vulnerable adults”, now recognises that everyone has times of susceptibility. When people are unwell and desperate for respite, they are especially prey to wicked influences. The focus of the Church’s safeguarding and discipline regime should be on the worthiness of ministers, ensuring that those who are called to protect innocence do not exploit it. Deacons, archbishops, and the ranks in between are guardians of the faithful as well as of the faith. But a crucial part of that guardianship needs to be a sounder teaching of that faith, and what it reveals about the ways of God and the ways of humankind. People will be better able to trust their own judgement if they are better informed.

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