Whenever he appears on TV, the head of Christ Embassy, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, has the air of a man committed to a cause. He shows he’s determined to pass onto others what he believes in. In those years when he held ‘Atmosphere for Miracles’, it was obvious he believed there was nothing that couldn’t be dared. This man is focused on the contents of the book he carries, hardly venturing into issues that aren’t linked to his faith. If he does, he dwells on it with such noticeable delicateness and brevity that it’s clear he avoids distractions.
Oyakhilome was in the news lately. The PUNCH newspaper reported that he wasn’t pleased religious leaders like himself agreed with the government to have places of worship shut because of coronavirus. I read what Oyakhilome reportedly said. In it, I see once more a man whose whole focus is the founder of his religion. All he was saying was that it wasn’t right that people weren’t allowed to gather and worship the founder of his religion. His comment indicates that in spite of coronavirus outbreak, he doesn’t see any threat to anyone who gathers to worship.
However, I think there are a few things Oyakhilome overlooks. One, there’s the need to obey authority. No one has forbidden anyone from worshiping. The instruction is that people should worship in their houses for now. Knowledgeable professionals said a lockdown was what would keep people from becoming victims of coronavirus. Does Oyakhilome want people to disobey and thereby expose themselves to danger? The last time I heard of a person who deliberately exposed themselves to danger while claiming religion, it was about a man who reportedly broke into the zoological garden at the University of Ibadan to confront a lion. He was devoured. I doubt if Oyakhilome expects people to put their faith to the test that way. But it’s what the displeasure he expresses about people not being permitted to gather and worship during the pandemic amounts to.
Another thing he overlooks is what religious leaders like him say they hear from the founder of their faith regarding the pandemic. There were those who said in the first month in 2020 that they were told the world would go on holiday. If they heard that there would be a holiday, I reckon Oyakhilome wouldn’t expect them to go contrary to what they said they heard. This raises the question? As a pastor, did Oyakhilome too hear about the pandemic before it happened? If he heard the same message that other religious leaders like him heard, did it mean he was bent on disobeying what he heard? Does he want other religious leaders like himself to disobey what they say they hear? I’ve never heard Oyakhilome on TV teach disobedience to the instruction of the founder of his faith. But that’s what his comments about gathering during the coronavirus pandemic seem to be suggesting.
It’s easy to see why Oyakhilome thinks he can dare. Not everyone can. But I suppose he’s been so focused on his calling that he doesn’t take note of Nigerians he expects to dare the coronavirus by gathering when the government says it’s risky to do so. If he does, he probably would have made those comments privately to his closest lieutenants, rather than publicly. Sometimes, we get so cocooned we don’t realise what’s going on beyond our immediate environment. When I want to remind myself of what is happening around us that I might have overlooked, I tune the TV to where I could watch what is going on in local communities. I was with a friend one day watching an event in a local community on TV when he turned to me, surprised, and said, “So people still do this?” I said of course, pointing out to him the consequences of being shielded from certain realities.
We aren’t the kind of people Oyakhilome should expect to dare coronavirus. Yes, many gather in places of worship. But take a look around and you see the people who make a show of religion, defending it by insulting others even. Lately, Pope Francis urged people to desist from engaging in a “culture of insult”, especially against people belonging to other ethnic groups. He was talking to the same people Oyakhilome thought should gather and stare coronavirus in the face. I’ve pointed out several times on this page the apparent contradiction between claiming to have religion and our tendency to harbour hatred for members of ethnic groups other than ours. This can only happen among a population where pretence is accepted in religion.
If Oyakhilome forgets that everyone is not like him, I advise he tunes to TV programmes where anti-graft agencies show the looters they drag to court. There, he can check out a people he expects to gather to defy a ravaging disease. The dishonesty all around is such that it makes one wonder where to turn next. Place people over your business and they wreck it. Place people in charge of the public till as public officials, and they loot it empty. The figures shock: $2.5 billion, $2.9 billion, $3.6 billion, N7 billion, $43.4 million, N13 billion, N40 billion. All those who take what doesn’t belong to them occupy front rows in the places where Oyakhilome expects people to gather and dare. Everywhere you turn people who put their religion in other people’s faces man gates as bribe collectors. The other time, I was discussing an issue with the person who fronted for an establishment. Come and see smooth and mannered talk, as well as the false humility common among those who claim to have religion but religion isn’t in them. Everything about this woman indicated the religion she belonged to and how she must be an honoured person where she worshiped. But she openly insisted on collecting a N200,000 bribe ostensibly on behalf of her establishment which name indicated the religion they were linked to.
Not long ago, a religious leader said the conduct of many members of religious organisations was disgraceful, but their religious leaders shouldn’t be blamed. I pointed out at the time that such a narrative shouldn’t come from someone whose career and wages were tied to the membership of the same adherents with disgraceful conduct. Such adherents are the ones Oyakhilome wants to dare coronavirus.
Some did say they would like to gather, just as Oyakhilome advocated. I’m afraid such an attempt might have ended with many drinking their lemonade as lemon. Yet, we’re a people who don’t like to be reminded of who we are. We like it when you name-call faceless ‘government’, accusing it of causing all the problems in Nigeria. But call attention to what we, as individuals, do that sabotages Nigeria, and you would be told that you write what is “painful”, a “piece of rubbish” not worth “toilet paper”. Those who hate being reminded of who we are identify with the group Oyakhilome expects to dare. With his comment, what Oyakhilome would have ended up doing was make many do what the man who dared a lion at the University of Ibadan zoological garden did.
What each person knows he is would indicate to him what he should dare, and what he mustn’t. Why do I make this argument? It’s common sense that it’s what a person gives his heart to that he believes in, and it’s what will work for him. We know who Oyakhilome is. But a majority of us in this country cannot afford to call the bluff of anything stronger than chewing sliced bread laden with margarine. As such, it’s better that everyone plays safe and stays indoors rather than defy a pandemic.
As for some who express the wish to do as Oyakhilome suggests, such a talk amounts to a non-swimmer jumping into the sea without being kitted to float. A deadly disease is not a phenomenon for the display of bravado.
In my view, with the manner everyone mouths religion but our nation is the way it is, government through the lockdown has saved religious institutions and a majority of their followers massive embarrassment. Otherwise, coronavirus would have, like the ‘teller’ on a fishing line, exposed pretenders for who they are as the lion in the university zoo exposed the man that dared it.