Press pause on prophet TB Joshua's power
Prophets come and go. Just ask the oracle at Delphi.
The resident sybils, those drugged priestesses of myth and legend who interpreted Apollo’s messages at the oracle, ran things back in the day.
But before they came along in the eighth century BC, the site was originally a shrine to Gaea, the earth goddess. And several centuries later, the temple decayed with the rise of Christianity.
Yet in their time they advised kings, philosophers and military officers on decisions that would change the course of history.
One famous anecdote relates how Croesus, king of Lydia, tested the oracles of the day to figure out who was the most accurate.
Our girls at Delphi won, so Croesus consulted the resident oracle before attacking Persia. According to Herodotus the prophecy ran: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.”
You’d forgive Croesus for thinking that meant victory was his, but, nope, his was the kingdom that was destroyed. The oracle, cunningly, would have taken the credit either way.
But most of the time the oracle’s priestesses championed causes of action that were largely peaceful, and tried to avoid the disruptions of war.
Several centuries later, we’re not nearly as rational as we would like to believe. The number of astrology columns in magazines and church prophets on the rise suggests we, like the supplicants at Apollo’s temple, are still keen for the inside track on the future. Whoever can claim access to a divine source of knowledge can play into that secret part of all of us that wonders: What if I could see the future?
Nigerian self-proclaimed prophet TB Joshua plays neatly into that desire. His televised ministry includes healings, individual prophecies and his most famous act of all, foreseeing global tragedies before they happened.
Carefully edited videos with snippets of various preaches are available on his website, where his church claims he had foreseen certain events, like the devastating plane crash of Malaysian Airlines MH17, which was shot down over the Ukraine.
He noted Russia’s “charismatic young leader”, a phrase not often used to describe Vladimir Putin, should “take care of his airspace”.
Sounds a lot like those vague statements the Delphic oracle used to make, albeit far less poetic.
No matter. His Synagogue Church of the Nations has 2 000 branches across the country and attracts hundreds of thousands to its various events. African leaders flock to him, including a variety of presidents and opposition leaders, even Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema.
Yet, as the bitter joke goes these days, Joshua did not foresee the disaster of a hostel on his church compound collapsing, killing at least 84 people and injuring over 100 others.
Not that you need to be a prophet to know that adding extra stories to a building without securing the foundation ain’t gonna work.
And let’s not even get into why Joshua couldn’t heal those sick and injured. He didn’t even try. He was away, “praying in the mountains” at the time, and waited two days before commenting on the tragedy, in a sermon that seemed to be mostly about himself and not the people who had died thanks to his church’s shoddy building. Already critics are pointing to how slow the Nigerian government has been to react and criticise Joshua, an enormously popular and politically important figure. It is unlikely Nigerian politicians would want to get on his bad side, given the sway he has with voters.
The intersection between politics and prophets goes way back too.
One theory goes that the priests who attended to the Delphi oracle had a wide network of spies and could “interpret” the murmurings of the oracle to suit the times, particularly in the interest of maintaining peace.
Joshua’s interventions into the political space aren’t as peaceable. He once predicted that an African leader would die and then Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika keeled over two months later. For South Africa he sees bloody protests, chaos and revolts from our youth.
Unsurprisingly, mainstream Christian churches in Nigeria and elsewhere have rejected Joshua.
Which, according to one expert, is no wonder: Joshua is little more than a glorified magician who discovered the power of religion and added it to his bag of tricks.
“He has improved as a performer from when he started many years ago [in 1989],” said Dr Asonzeh Ukah from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Religious Studies, a Nigerian sociologist who specialises in religion. “In the early 90s, his performance could be characterised as that of a magician, an entertainer in the mould of popular street performers. He has refined his practice. Now he can speak for a long time in fairly good English.”
The idea of the prophet is not new. But many of the shamans and self-styled men and women of the gods in the past largely understood their function in society: to use their influence for good and not to harm.
Joshua and his generation of super prophets will have none of this. Numerous reports have emerged of how he tells sick and dying people to stop taking their medication, declares them healed, and sends them home to die of Aids or cancer.
Like we said: prophets come and go, particularly when they’ve stopped serving their function in society. Let’s hope that the hundreds of thousands who having given Joshua his power will realise this, sooner rather than later.