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Serving cross-culturally in the age of COVID-19

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. Arthur’s role at TAFES is a coaching one: it’s all about bringing out the strengths that are already there. We look for local solutions and local theologies before offering our own.

That’s the theory at least. The rise of COVID-19 around the world is putting that to the test.

The first case in Tanzania was announced by the health minister today but people have been speaking about it for days. Christians are no exception.

There are various “prophets” on the continent claiming 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 hand-washing 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 the video below shared over and over again.

Its basic claims are:

  • Christians have nothing to fear from Corona virus.
  • 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!

And yet, is this my place to say? Charles Kraft argues that while there are critiques to be made of world-views 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 video actually achieves. That might be different from what it says. You see, everyone who has posted it has made a comment about fear. Remember, 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 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.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. Great post Tam! I have sent it on to the rest of the Exec team. We met for almost 4 hours to discuss how we will manage the situation in our school. There are a number of families who would hold similar opinions as the local people in Der.

    Meredith Lockery
    Executive Director – Teaching and Learning | Bachelor of Applied Sciences (Physiotherapy), Bachelor of Education, Master of Special Education, Certificate of Individual, Couple and Family Therapy
    Mobile: 0437522527

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  2. Tamie, this is a great write-up reflection, and a great response!
    Interested also in the perlocutionary nature of Swahili – it’s also strongly present in Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic – less so in Greek, I think.

    1. I’ve just read a great ethnographic study of a group of believers in Iringa that opens up this issue. You might want to check it out. It’s by Martin Lindhardt. ‘If you are saved you cannot forget your parents’: agency, power, and social respositioning in Tanzanian born-again Christianity’ from Journal of Religion in Africa

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