As Zambia continues to reduce its HIV/AIDS rate and improves on its diagnosis, treatment and care, there has been, however, a worrying increase in the number of defaulters - people with HIV/AIDS who have stopped taking their medication. Zambian newspapers have carried reports of a worrying trend amongst some mainly self-styled and self-appointed preachers claiming to be able to cure HIV/AIDS and after praying for healing, telling followers to stop taking medication or even to burn it to prove their faith, so that God will heal them. See Report on ThinkAfricaPress site.
Throughout Africa, the Church is growing and Pentecostalism in particular has exploded. Unfortunately, alongside it, so too, has a non-affiliated, almost cult-type, of quasi-charismatic-pentecostalism with its emphasis on the 'prosperity gospel', 'health-and-wealth gospel' and the 'faith gospel' - which claims faith and donations will be rewarded by God here on earth. The idea is that God wants to bless his followers, and that these blessings can be 'unlocked' through prayer and by demonstrations of faith, which giving large sums of money as an offering to the church. This dogma smacks of the return to indulgences and clerical rapacity to my rather orthodox reformed mind.
The preachers in question are so-called prophets “anointed by God”, making them untouchable and unchallengeable to their mainly poorly educated and discipled congregations, so that any doubt, complaint or criticism against the preacher is a hand raised against God. Telly-evangelism has much to do with the growth of this ‘prosperity gospel’. In Zambia we have Trinity Broadcasting, One Gospel and Rhema, Real Christian TV that are widely watched, since they are free and an alternative to the State-Broadcaster. These channels broadcast programmes 24/7 with an over-emphasis on giving and then receiving ten-fold, healing miracles and exorcisms.
The TV evangelists from these stations have become celebrities in Zambia, attracting followers because of their fame, fortunes, influence and life-styles and clergy from all denominations try to emulate them, also in their style of preaching and praying. For many a career in the Church is such, it is not a calling but the road to status, professional and economic advancement. A Kenyan source reports that over 90% of Kenyan clergy have no call at all. They became ministers because a better career could not be found elsewhere.
What then should be the response? Those who claim to be healed need to be retested, restart medication if necessary and find an HIV-competent and supportive Church. Some patients will still say the machines are lying or have been told by preachers that they simply did not pray hard enough or give a large enough offering to the church, so they refuse to go for re-testing.
Destroying ARVs is illegal and can lead to arrest and imprisonment. Surely encouraging HIV+ people to stop taking life-saving medicine is a form of murder? But people are reluctant to speak out against 'men of God'.
Community-based education regarding HIV/AIDS by health workers who provide home-based care, regular visits and the formation of support groups is being piloted. The Zambian media both print and broadcasting have a duty to raise awareness and warn of these "merchants of death" in churches.
Another initiative being tried is with the District AIDS Task Forces and Ministry of Health, engaging with church leaders to discuss healing and the Bible in a non-confrontational way.
In a Choma Church every Sunday before the Preaching of the Word, the preacher makes the following announcement. "There is not, and has never been, a cure for AIDS. If you are HIV positive, you can take medication called ARVs... Some people claim to have found the cure for AIDS and they want to sell it to you. It is not true. If you are HIV positive, take ARVs."
This article is in no way belittling those who stress that healing is part of the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ. This can be clearly seen in the lives of ordinary but godly people, as well as in more prominent Christians honoured by God. But I also know, having myself prayed earnestly and believingly for a dear friend, that special healing will not always be granted but that God’s will shall be done. Even St Paul prayed three times for the thorn to be removed but was told to glory in his infirmity. This is an equally authentic Christian testimony as are the signs and wonders accompanying the Ministry of the Word. We need to pray for a spirit of discernment for believers to be able to judge rightly between the true and the false, and seek to be like those who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb5:15)