Opinion  |  

What should I say about COVID-19 when serving in Tanzania?

The rise of coronavirus around the world is testing the commitment of missionaries Arthur and Tamie Davis to look for local solutions in their work in Tanzania for the Church Missionary Society. This week in her blog, Meet Jesus at Uni, Tamie writes:


Arthur and I have sought to operate in Tanzania as people who are slow to speak and quick to listen. Convinced that God is at work among his people here, we try to undo our assumptions that we know better. We look for local solutions and local theologies before offering our own. That’s the theory at least.

Everything within me wants to scream: this is dangerous!

But with the first [COVID-19] case in Tanzania announced by the health minister this week, people have started making various “prophecies”. Some claim to have predicted it, or to have the power to destroy it, or knowledge of when it will end.

I’ve said nothing when I’ve seen these posted: though they are easily shown to be flimsy, they also tend to employ circular reasoning, and most call people to pray, which is a good thing anyway!

There are also infographics about handwashing and hygiene, and one pastor posted a guide for churches about steps to take to slow community transmission.

But the stuff we are seeing get most traction are appeals to the Psalms about God’s healing and protective power. We have seen one particular video shared over and over again.

Its basic claims are:

  • Christians have nothing to fear from coronavirus.
  • God has made a covenant promise to his people, in Psalm 91, that “He will protect you from the deadly disease.”
  • These words are an armour against the disease.
  • Therefore, we should tell people the good news that if they are believers, they can be protected from this disease.

Apart from the outrageous proof-texting, here are some pretty damaging teachings! You could interpret this as, don’t worry about hand washing because you already have an armour! Most of the shares we have seen of this don’t take it to that extent, but the stress is definitely on trusting God, and believing it will not spread, rather than on practical means to apply.

Everything within me wants to scream: this is dangerous! The disease is spreading fast, hospitals are overrun in Italy and other places. There are Christians there too, and that has not protected them! There is no reason to think Tanzania will be any different if we do not follow medical advice!

The problem is …I might not be the most effective person to say it.

And yet, is this my place to say? American anthropologist and Christian speaker Charles Kraft argues that while there are critiques to be made of worldviews and ‘Christianities’, they are most appropriate from cultural insiders: As long as we are outsiders, we are obligated by our Christian principles to take the posture of patience and love as we strive toward understanding (and even after we understand), since we are outsiders and guests in someone else’s home.

I agree with this in theory, but surely COVID-19 is too urgent a case! Something needs to be said! The problem is, and this is what Kraft is getting at, I might not be the most effective person to say it. For example, while I was providing  factual information – the currency of my culture – someone else in the same group appealed to Leviticus, saying that hand washing and social distancing were biblical.

I may want to quibble with the exegesis of certain passages, but his Leviticus quote achieved what my facts did not: people started taking the preventative measures seriously. It was a far more effective way to get people to change their minds.

Later on, there were others who entered the discussion, specifically mentioning prosperity teachings as diminishing people’s remembrance of a suffering Christ or the consequences of the Fall. I was glad I had only said a little. It was far more appropriate for these local voices to bring the critique than for me, and they’re more authoritative too.

Meanwhile, I’m also trying to get my head around what this Psalms video actually achieves. That might be different from what it says. You see, everyone who has posted it has made a comment about fear. It’s important to remember that Tanzania is, in cultural anthropology terms, a fear/power culture.

Being a Christian in this culture means not being fearful, because you know the Powerful One. Fear is therefore to be avoided; and if you take preventative measures out of fear, that is unChristian.

One person in our network both shared the video and then encouraged people to take preventative measures, but with a motivation of trust rather than fear. Sharing this video may be less about assurance that no Christian will get COVID-19 and more about encouraging people not to fear.

A second factor in what this video achieves is that it has often been shared in the context of people talking about the risk. It might have been shared to contradict someone else, to say something like, ‘you don’t have to take these precautions because you’re a Christian.’

But it could have another function too. While we Westerners tend to see words in a fairly utilitarian way – that is, they describe a situation –  Tanzanians are far more likely to think of them as perlocutionary, that is, as bringing about a situation. For Tanzanians, words are powerful, and they have a creative force. (We in the West could do with a bit of this perspective I think!) That means that every time you talk about risk, it’s like you’re speaking that into being. You need to counteract it with words of life.

I’m trying to listen to what they’re actually saying, not what I hear.

I wonder whether that’s part of the reason to be praying and claiming verses that speak of God as healer, especially when discussing the spread of the virus.

I don’t know how much of this is on the money. Maybe I’m drawing a long bow, but what I’m trying to do is to give the benefit of the doubt to those sharing what seems damaging to me, even a health risk.

I’m trying to listen to what they’re actually saying, not what I hear. I’m trying to think flexibly, seeking another explanation, one that might not naturally occur to me but might have resonance in this culture. We wait to see how Tanzania will handle COVID-19, and as it unfolds no doubt there will be more responses from the Christian community.

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