Choosing Your Jesus. Religion in Zim’s Experience of Corona Virus

By Takura Zhangazha*
This last weekend, the religious among us had to change, somewhat their approaches to what they would call ‘praise and worship’.  Understandably so.  In the wake of the corona virus (Covid-19) and government directives about public gatherings, pastors, imams and the like had to reconsider their direct physical relationships with their proverbial ‘flock’.
In particularly Christian Zimbabwe (and Southern Africa) a number of churches announced cancellations of their physical church services.  Also with some of the Pentecostals deciding to go virtual in some of their rescheduled services.  But in the main the primary message to worshipers was that they would pray at home.  Though there will still some churches that proceeded with services particularly in the poorer urban areas.
There have of course been caustic and sarcastic jokes about why supposedly ‘men of God’ are unable to stop the spread of Covid-19, let alone heal it.  This after some of them have generally laid claim to being healers or being able to precisely prophesy events (good or bad) that will happen. Such conversations have in part led to the slight demystification of fervent and at times illogical promises of faith by ‘prophets’ and their followers.
But what is clear is that religion was always going to have an impact as to how Covid-19 is perceived here in Zimbabwe.  And this is in three respects.  Firstly from the perspective of religion as being ‘functional’ to our societies.  Secondly as a result of the increasing individualism of acts of ‘faith’. Thirdly on the still ubiquitous basis of class and an attendant anticipation of material wealth.
In the first instance I have referred to a well-known sociological term, as coined by Emile Durkheim that refers to the functionalism of religion in society.  Our initial proclivity toward religion, and in our geographical case, Christianity in particular is a result of how it serves to stabilize our societies in one form or the other.  Acting as part of a systemic whole, religion/churches tend to help control our behavior in what would be considered modern society.
So the more orthodox churches serve this role where when for example the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference announces that it is suspending church services and physical activities at its premises, it helps to reinforce a government directive.  Which in turn helps the functions of the police, the judiciary and other sectors of society.
The only uniqueness to our situation with regards to Covid-19 is that religion also appears to have gone slightly beyond the functional.  A development which brings me to my second key point about the role that religion is playing on our perceptions around the pandemic. Which is the act of faith as increasingly an individualism exercise.  Instead of religion retaining its functional role via its institutions, it has also become a highly individual act.
Full of perceptions of ‘anointing’, being chosen ones and a very strong sense of Pentecostalism, religion has made a number of worshipers believe they are the chosen ones.  Individually.  Or if they are not, they at least individually belong to that church that most gives them greater opportunities at personal wealth.  It is an individualism that will lead some to believe, unfortunately, in a false individual invincibility.  In the name of their religion.  Or their respective church leaders to seek cheap publicity opportunities about prophecies and the like.  It is also an individualism that then fits in cruelly with neo-liberal economics and what has been ably described by Comaroff and Comaroff as ‘millennial capitalism’ where religious fervor intersects with gambling and high levels of individualistic materialism. All at the expense of a welfare state.
The third consideration is that of religion and class.  It may appear moot but where there is greater anticipation of ‘miracle’ cures is not really in the affluent sectors of Zimbabwean society.  Miracles are anticipated by the poorest. So you will probably find that the churches that closed earliest were those that catered for the rich or middle classes. Instead it is the urban and rural poor who would be more inclined to trust what their bishop or pastor says with regards any turn of events.  Hence in part it was largely in poorer Zimbabwe that church services continued sporadically after the government decisions to stop them.
And again class aspirations come into the mix.  Where we look at a believer from the peasantry, a key anticipation is that their prophesied success resides in eventually either them or their children getting a job/sustainable income in the urban/ peri-urban areas (with the possibility of a car to come with the success). Where we look at the working class urban believer their aspiration is to move from the ghetto, via blessings, to the middle income suburbs and own the equivalent lifestyle property (land, car, smart gadgets).
The middle class believer wants to move further up the ladder and join the comprador-bourgeoisie in the likes of affluent Borrowdale Brooke or its equivalent.  While the comprador-bourgeoisie would probably like to own property in international destinations such as Sandton in South Africa.  Again, all via faith.  What unites these classes is a materialist perception of religion which while borrowing from the Protestant ethic, is more rabid in its consumptive materialism.
To conclude, religion will invariably play a part in helping all of us find solutions to Covid-19.  Especially by way of perception and the modification of our human behavior.  It must however be noted that its materialist element(s) need to be redesigned from individualism to the scientific public health interest of all of us.  Where it fails to do this, it will return us to a non-progressive past.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)