In the past few days, I have watched several videos of my former pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, rehashing conspiracy theories that linked 5G technology with COVID-19. It has been a deeply embarrassing experience for me, watching him talk so confidently about what he has not even tried to understand. Oyakhilome’s church, Christ Embassy, has many upwardly mobile young people. Some of them work in the tech industry and could have put their pastor straight with some quick education on the different natures of technology and disease. How did they allow him to go on the pulpit and be asking people to pray against vaccines? How did it happen that he could pull up poorly designed charts on a large screen in the church and even share several videos that, although confirmed his paranoia, proved nothing substantial about the danger of 5G technology?
Pastor Chris is (or used to be) a modernist. I attended his church at some point partly because he was a skilled preacher of the Word with dazzling stagecraft, and partly because of their taste for tech stuff especially as it concerns modern gadgets. Part of Christ Embassy’s niche has been an unapologetic deployment of the aesthetic of the novel, their perspicacity to employ newer technologies before their counterparts. I do not think there is any church in Nigeria that has as many digital apps as Christ Embassy currently does. They invest in projects that concern using technology to further church experience on-ground and online. They also host frequent workshops where they brainstorm on how to advance churching with modern technology. Watching him now, I cannot reconcile Christ Embassy’s adaptive attitude to technological advancement with his newfound Luddism.
The advent of groundbreaking technology frequently gives rise to concerns and debates about how far humans should go in the bid to transcend existing limitations, but most of Pastor Chris’ assertions about 5G have been so atrocious that I facepalmed in shock. To think that there was a time that I took his sermons to be the very Word of God, and patterned my life based on his prophetic vision. If he could be so bold about what is clearly out of his range of competence, only God knows how much of what he taught us, his flock, were based on similarly poorly informed ideas.
There is no point repeating Pastor Chris’ paranoia to offer a rebuttal. Trying to deploy facts to sway people who are already taken by conspiracy theories is usually counter-productive. I have not come across a single conspiracy theorist that can be convinced by facts. They will not only chalk down all your arguments to part of the conspiracy, but you will also end up strengthening their resolve. If Pastor Chris and his followers remain sceptical by the counterarguments offered by the Senior Pastor of Kingsway International Christian Centre, London, Matthew Ashimolowo, there is nothing else anyone can say that will move their needle. We cannot do anything about their beliefs, but we can put some ideas out there for the benefit of those who are not sure of what and how to believe.
Of course, Pastor Chris’ cant against 5G technology neatly folds into the history of human reactions against new technology. People have always been threatened by technological changes that change their relationship to time and space because, like it or not, it propels a new way of experiencing the self and the structures of existing relations. The invention of new things from writing to printing, bound books, photography, cars, the telephone, streetlights, the radio, cinema, film, and the Internet has been met with paranoia and moral panic. In the 19th Century, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, people thought it would destroy privacy and social relations. According to one writer, because of telephone communication, “we will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.” Today, people say pretty much the same thing about mobile phones and social media. We now look back nostalgically at the time when the telephone, the same device they said would ruin social relationships, was a far less-threatening means of technologically-mediated communication.
In 1825, when the Stockton-Darlington Railway opened in North-east England, people expressed fears as Pastor Chris and his followers are doing today. They said the railway was unsafe, that people would fall out of the contraption because of the speed at which trains could travel. Some thought the human body would melt if people travelled as fast as they could do through the railway. Some concerned individuals forewarned that women’s uteruses would fly out of their bodies if trains reached a speed level of 50 miles per hour. Today, we know better than traffic in such ideas anymore. Again, when electricity was being introduced into homes in the USA, people also protested. They warned that if private homes were to be lit, women and children would be unsafe because they would be visible to potential assaulters.
Some of the moral panic that seizes people who fear modern technology also happens because inventions make people see the world differently, and that affects how they relate to religious authority. Religious leaders particularly fear scientific advancement because it changes how people understand the Divine Will. We cannot narrate the history of the Protestant Reformation that changed the history of Europe without talking about the significant role that the invention of print technology played in that event. When Galileo started promoting his heliocentric theories in the 17th Century, the Church opposed the range of his vision because his radical claims challenged religious leaders’ interpretation of the Bible. They did not exactly put their anxieties in the apocalyptic language of the “anti-Christ,” as Pastor Chris is doing, but it was a similar threat of the restructuring of their familiar world. I concede that not every technology has been good for mankind, but one would expect someone of Pastor Chris’ calibre to at least do his homework before spewing 5G truthism and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
This 5G conspiracy theory and the link with COVID-19 will not be the end of the moral panic that will seize people. Every day, as science and technology advance its scope of possibilities, people will push back for fear of how it will take the bottom out of their world. They are not alone. There are bioethicists who also make important ethical arguments about human invention, and they challenge inventors to put a moral brake on their enthusiasm as they invent. They urge scientists to be responsible with their vision, and yes, we can be reassured they have our backs. What they do not do, is to ask people to pray against vaccines. That will be illiterate.
Finally, of this one thing I am now convinced: sometime in the future, when the COVID-19 vaccine has been developed and humans have overcome the disease; when the human race- including members of the future Christ Embassy who will inherit Pastor Chris’ church-are doing wonders with 10G technology, they will look back at this time in history and laugh at their founder in the same way we laugh at the wisdom of those who said if God wanted man to fly he would have given man wings. They will be amused at his claims the same way we are when we read historical accounts that tell us that people were once opposed to inventions like the eyeglasses because they thought disabilities were the will of God, and they were not meant to be corrected.
I do not know when that day will be and who will be around to witness it, but I do know that Pastor Chris will be remembered for being the face of 21st Century Luddism in this part of the world. He will be less remembered for the megachurch he built, the scores of young people like me that he nurtured, and even the various healing miracles that he performed. This crass display of ignorance is what will define his legacy. He will go down in history as a prophet, true, but one with a limited vision.
– Adelakun, a respected columnist, writes for The Punch