Monday, July 14, 2008

Of God, Mugabe and HIV/AIDS

The music was mostly in the category of dust. So, after two or three numbers from Nelson Mandela’s June 27, 90th birthday concert at Hyde Park, I switched off the BBC. My thoughts drifted. Aids, which was central to Mandela’s charity work. Mugabe. And God. Over the same weekend, Egypt would host Africa’s big men, including a freshly “re-elected” Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. For several weeks before the summit, a defiant Mugabe had spurned all his critics and vowed that only God could remove him from power.

On the eve of the ballot, a BBC correspondent asked an exiled Zimbabwean woman at a Methodist church in Johannesburg whether she thought the election would bring change. She replied that there would be change if God answered their prayers. So you have Mugabe daring God, and this woman begging God to intervene in Zimbabwe’s crisis.

With or without a white beard (Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rendition is sometimes disputed), God must be the luckiest magician in the universe. First, He has the option of answering your prayers in a rational way; like delivering good rain after a long drought and widespread starvation. People will then thank Him for His mercy. He is not required to account for the dead.

Two, God can ignore any prayers without penalty. One of His attributes is that He makes decisions at His own pace. There is always the odd chance that He might one day act, so you pray even more passionately.

Three, God can act in the most brutal way and still earn the following response: God is just and must have had a good reason, but we do not understand His ways; which of course is a contradiction in terms. Oddly, the faithful never fear that God may find more good reasons to hand out even more pain. So they continue praying, hoping that He would find a good reason to reverse a brutal regime.

Therefore, when God does what pleases us, we fully understand Him. Our comprehension of His ways diminishes as we progress towards undesirable experiences. This is absurd. You either understand God or you do not. The alternative is that you are a superstitious wishful thinker.

Now, let us suppose I understand God; like Elijah, I talk to Him regularly. This is the divine message to the Zimbabwean exile in Johannesburg: "The election did not bring change because God is dedicated to Zimbabwe’s white people. God is still punishing Zimbabwe’s blacks because they supported the independence struggle and Mugabe’s seizure of white people’s land. Mugabe is now preserved as a tool of God’s justice. That is why, in Cairo, it was not Mugabe, but Zambia’s President Mwanawasa, whose heart God whipped, so that Mwanawasa’s planned attack on Mugabe might be foiled! Thus says the Lord."

Alternatively, God cannot handle Mugabe. When Mugabe finally goes, there will be other explanations that are more tenable than divine intervention. Similarly, God seems to have been exposed by the Aids test.

I see no reason why a god said to occasionally enable the miraculous healing of various conditions, including polio and blindness, should suddenly become impotent in the face of HIV/Aids. Yet, apart from outright thieves--witchdoctors and some of our born-again Christian pastors--virtually all other religious people agree that there is not a single recorded case where prayers have reversed a positive HIV test reading. Does HIV then enjoy divine protection?

Probably not; but because the infection attracts intense interest and submits to scientific diagnosis, a false divine healing can always be easily exposed. This implies that even with other conditions, any supposed divine healing is probably an arrangement of tricks and lies; at best the deployment of skilful human manipulation, but with reference to the patient’s brain disorder and/or socio-environmental contexts, rather than the intervention of an active God.

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