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Pentecostalism and the COVID-19 Pandemic in Nigeria

Published April 01, 2020 by Christopher Wadibia

Christopher Wadibia is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge (Selwyn College). He is an Honorary PhD Scholar at the Woolf Institute researching the relationship between Pentecostalism and sustainable development in Nigeria through the employment of the development programmes of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), one of Nigeria's largest and most socio-politically influential Pentecostal mega-churches, as case studies.

In times of catastrophe, the ways in which religious communities employ reason to understand why a crisis occurs and how to expedite its apogee vary extensively. An informative and contemporary case study of this argument is found in analysing how Nigeria's Pentecostal pastors leverage the pulpit to voice concerns relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nigeria's Pentecostal leadership responses range from archconservative strands of socio-theological thought that highlight the perceived decay of global human ethics as the chief trigger underpinning the spread of COVID-19 to politico-theological arguments that posit that the best way to overcome the COVID-19 crisis involves adhering to the recently imposed social and public health policies of the Nigerian federal government. These arguments call for social distancing, a ban on crowds of more than fifty people, a cessation of movement in some of Nigeria's major urban centres (i.e. Lagos, Abuja, and Ogun State) and an emphasis on personal agency through renewed individual commitments to high personal hygiene standards (i.e. hand washing, the use of sanitisers, etc.).

To cope with the social engagement obstacles created as a by-product of government attempts to stymie the spread of COVID-19, Nigeria's Pentecostal pastors are creatively adjusting their methods for engaging Nigeria's elephantine populace. In response to the federal government's insistence that no public gathering possess an audience of more than fifty people, a number of Nigeria's Pentecostal churches have moved their services online, though exceptions to this reactionary trend do exist. Consider the leadership response of Pastor E.A. Adeboye, who serves as the head pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), and his rhetorical engagements with the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent online church broadcast, Adeboye argued that the spread of the pandemic is God's way of demonstrating his sovereignty over all human affairs; the pandemic's growing number of casualties from all walks of life implies that no one, irrespective of one’s socioeconomic standing in society, is safe from the virus’s potentially fatal grasp.

Adeboye's rhetoric with regards to COVID-19 provides an important illustration of the ways in which Pentecostal theology and Christian eschatology inform how Nigerian Pentecostals understand the pandemic's global imposition. Notice how Adeboye draws attention to the notion that no one, regardless of their societal position, is safe from contracting the virus. In Nigeria, a country rife with psychologically ingrained ecosystems of sociocultural hierarchies, Adeboye's argument underscores the helplessness that all Nigerians face when dealing with an enemy like COVID-19. Citing the biblical story of Job, Adeboye also articulates a view that God allows some editions of evil to persist, as opposed to the view that all evil originates from Satan, in order to usher individuals and societies into a novel understanding of his providential sovereignty. Ultimately, Adeboye concludes by asserting that Christians are safe from the clutches of COVID-19; in quoting Psalm 91, which directly correlates identifying as a Christian with benefitting from God's protection, Adeboye situates his understanding of the pandemic’s spread on a playing field that straddles between the material and ethereal realms.

Nigeria's number of confirmed COVID-19 cases currently stands at approximately one hundred and thirty, a figure well beneath the confirmed reports of the virus in states like Italy, the United States, and Spain. In a country of more than two hundred million people, this figure suggests that the virus is not primed to rampantly overtake Nigeria's population to the degree experienced by the aforesaid countries. Of course, there is also the issue of testing; because Nigeria lacks the desperately needed COVID-19 testing mechanisms, the public cannot be confident that current confirmed reports of the virus inside Nigeria are totally accurate. Furthermore, Nigeria's notoriously underfunded medical and public health infrastructures suggest that if COVID-19 begins to propagate at an expedited rate that Nigeria stands ill-positioned to tackle the virus effectively. In the event that such grim potentialities actualise, since numerous Pentecostal churches (as well as non-Pentecostal denominations) operate healthcare facilities nationwide, the formation of strategic synergies between religious and state actors to treat infected persons could be an intelligent way forward. In the meantime, Nigeria's Pentecostal churches will undoubtedly continue to disseminate messages of hope to their faithful congregants in an effort to quell mass hysteria and reinstall a religiously inspired sense of trust in the grace, protection, and sovereignty of God.

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