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TB Joshua: When stupidity rules

Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.

Our universe hinges on a delicate balance of sanity and stupidity. For centuries, scientists have been trying to determine the optimal levels of each. But, like dark matter or why there's no swimming pool creepy that can climb stairs, this equation remains a mystery. What is now certain is that when TB Joshua’s church in Nigeria issued a statement about its catastrophic building collapse, the balance snapped and a fiercely evil geomagnetic storm of stupid shook the planet.

Like solar winds from that giant fireball in the sky, stupidity usually washes over us with minimal effect. In extreme cases, we may scream in agony at computer screens or television sets, or even throw a coffee cup across a room, but mostly we continue with our daily lives and allow the equilibrium to return over a quiet dinner or a glass of wine. A weekend usually restores the balance.

The higher the exposure, the more resilient we seem to become. Floyd Shivambu flipping the bird at our deputy president in parliament. Kebby Maphatsoe accusing Thuli Madonsela of being a CIA spy, denying it later, apologising for the comment he claims not to have made and then keeping his job. Jacob Zuma saying there is no Nkandla scandal. Steve Hofmeyr. Agang. The invisible winds just keep on blowing…

But when I read the statement issued by The Synagogue, Church of All Nations, about the building collapse, which killed 67 South Africans, it felt like there was some kind of a cosmic event. A rapture of stupid somewhere amongst the stars. I was so furious I felt a little shaky, trying to combine swear words as if that would increase their impact. Journalists tend to be passionate about current affairs, but it takes a lot to reach that point.

The statement began with, “Emmanuel – God is with us”. No problem here. It’s a church. What else would it say?

Then came a brief and clinical summary of the disaster. The one Jacob Zuma correctly called a “heartbreaking tragedy” in a rare address to the nation this week.

The church then went on to peddle its conspiracy theory about a terrorist attack: “This incident was preceded by the appearance of a strange aircraft which flew very low over the building, four times and then disappeared.”

Not poor construction. Not illegal floors being built. Not greed. But a mysterious aircraft that made a part of the church cave in, somehow.

This nonsense was followed by a denial that the church had blocked emergency crews from rescuing people and was refusing to co-operate with disaster management teams, relief agencies, various governments and, well, pretty much everyone. These were “sad and inaccurate reports” it claimed. Despite on-the-record comments from senior diplomats that the church was closing rank.

Of course, there was also a perfectly logical explanation for the collapse.

The church views this tragedy as part of an attack on The Synagogue, Church Of All Nations and in particular, Prophet TB Joshua. In due course, God will reveal the perpetrators of this unfortunate tragedy”.

This was an annoying but not unusual message from a church. A call to release responsibility and accept that God works in mysterious ways. To have faith. To overcome and hold on to your beliefs.

Fine. Whatever. But then came the clincher. TB Joshua’s clan felt it necessary to describe those who died as “martyrs of the Kingdom of God”.


Dozens of people who were crushed to death when a massive (possibly illegal) building sunk down like a sand elephant on top of them. People who had paid a lot of money and flew thousands of kilometres to feel the healing touch of a man who claims to be a prophet, capable of curing anything from cancer to Aids. The same man who sits on the Forbes list of millionaires for selling the equivalent of fresh air.

These people are not martyrs. They are victims of a terrible tragedy, which, in all probability, could have been avoided. And my heart burns for their families. They too are victims.

To spew out a ridiculous conspiracy theory is one thing. Politicians do it all the time. But to then go and describe as “martyrs” those who perished in the name of false hope is insane. In fact, it’s a crime against sanity. A nasty assault on rational thought.

I have never criticised those who believe nor have I questioned their right to faith. I stand firmly for choice, as long as it doesn’t impact others.

But in recent months, the dark side of religion has forced its way into our lives. The monsters in black balaclavas have burnt images into our brains of good men pushed down to their knees and savagely beheaded. Or streams of cowering men paraded before being exterminated – shot in the head and pushed into a river, one by one. Or young girls being kidnapped from their homes and schools.

To claim that those who died in the church collapse are martyrs is not only stupid but also evil. They had no choice. They came to be healed or inspired and will now return home in body bags. If their remains are ever found in the rubble.

The magnet of hope is a powerful one. I get it. And those who wield it are usually secretive. Evangelical churches are nothing new… the poor get rich, the ill get healthy, the dying are cured and the lonely find love. In the rush of holy euphoria, the devoted eat grass out in the gardens. Good for them.

The faithful will not stop flocking to these churches. But maybe this will make us all think just a little about what lies beneath. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev.


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