One of the things I want to say from the outset is this.
Regardless of what you think about the Mortlock’s and the Tamaki’s, they are genuine. They believe what they’re saying, I’ve got no doubt about that. They believe they are blessed by God; they believe God has given them a mantle to lead, they believe that the Divine has granted them favor, and by preaching what they do, and asking from their people the actions they ask of them, they are doing the will of the Lord.
No one is the villain in their own story.
And treating Peter Mortlock and Brian Tamaki as callous snake oil salesmen, misses what’s at the root of all this.
These men believe they are acting on behalf of God.
Calling them names, degrading them, dehumanizing them as if they are intentionally seeking to cause harm to people is unhelpful. They, like anyone else, are still image bearers of the Divine, and I feel it is important that even in these hard conversations, we conduct these in Love. Loving the person, even if we must strongly challenge the ideas and belief’s that person holds.
And it is these beliefs that are the real issue.
What is dangerous about these church communities, is not the leaders who lead them per se, but the theology that is shaped around them.
This idea of the man of God.
This idea that God chooses a specific, chosen, Anointed One. That from him the blessings flow down, from the Father, through the Spirit, to the Anointed Man of God, to his wife, and his leaders, to the men in his community, to their wives, to those who follow the Anointed One, who serve him, his church, his community, and thus serve God.
Alongside this often comes another idea. That a sign of God’s anointing is the Man of God’s success. His wealth. The size of his church. The power of the car, or the motorbike he drives.
Wealth is seen as a measure of God’s acceptance and anointing, a sign that what he says is true.
And so, when you look at the man of God, and he’s wealthy, and you’re not, and then he say’s tithe x amount, and you’ll receive double xx back “pressed down, shaken together, and running over”, you think “that must be true, look at how wealthy he is.” And when he than goes on to say, “don’t just tithe, but give offering’s also”, when he starts to teach you that giving money to the church, to God, is about planting seeds to unlock your blessing, you think, “well, it obviously worked for him, so what he says must be true”. So you give, you plant seeds, you hope that if you just give enough, believe enough, that God will bless you, that the Divine will open the flood gates, and this poverty you’re expierencing, it’ll just get washed away.
What I’ve just described, is in part what we talk about in Christian circles as the prosperity Gospel. Basically, the idea that God’s desire for all those who follow him is to be financially wealthy, and that this wealth can come about through faith, speaking into life what you want to see in your life through positive self-talk (naming and claiming) and giving generously to your church community.
But, what makes it even more damaging, dangerous even, is the manner in which it is often paired with this idea of the Anointed One that we have discussed. Within these Christian circles, people are taught that in order to receive these blessings you must be under the covering of the Man of God.
In these protestant, charismatic, Pentecostal circles, the language that is used is often that of a spiritual Father. People are taught that you must be under the covering of the anointed one, and you do so by following his teaching and his instruction, serving at his church, giving your tithes and offerings, listening to his instructions.
When you don’t, if you question his teaching, or don’t give your offering’s, or don’t serve him and his community, you step outside of his covering. And that is when things can get a bit off.
Outside the covering of the Anointed One, a person will of course not receive any blessings, in fact you might even receive the opposite. For the covering of the Man of God, doesn’t just provide you with blessing, it provides you with protection. God’s protection. From attacks of the enemy, from spiritual, physical and spiritual attacks that could harm your health, wealth or those you care about.
Now for someone struggling financially, expierencing poverty, or illness, that is something you want to avoid. So, you cling to the Word the Anointed One gives you, you double down on what you’re taught, you give, serve, listen, obey.
This is how we develop a culture in these communities of protecting the Man of God, and those closest to him, his chosen leaders. This is how we develop a culture, where what the Man of God says, is to be trusted. For he doesn’t just speak for himself, he speaks to us, from God Himself.
And this is how we have gotten into a situation where the word of a pastor, holds more weight than all the scientific evidence, and research in the world.
Because, in these communities, we are taught that ultimately, the man of God is to be trusted.
Questioning the man of God is discouraged.
It is seen as divisive, harmful, and we are warned that if we do so we may just remove God’s covering from us.
And so, when the man of God starts questioning the science that outlines the dangers of the virus, or when he begins creating doubt around the value of the vaccine, and using the rhetoric of fear, throw’s shade on the Government and the Media, hinting at a worldwide conspiracy that just might be behind this pandemic, and just possibly is the beginning of a one world socialist government hell bent on taking over the world, you find yourself having to believe him.
I know it all probably sounds fairly far fetched at the end there, but these are the sorts of idea’s that exist in these church communities.
Now, it’s probably easy to read all this and think, flip these people are crazy. But that misses the point. Once again, I want to recenter us. These people believe this stuff. Even Brian and Peter think, and sincerely believe, that what they are saying and doing, is for the good of others. So, when we are engaging in these conversations, what is at stake is not the facts, or the science, but the question, who do we choose to trust?
And I suspect, if we were all a bit more honest, it’s probably the same for the majority of us. How many of us really understand the science? How many of us have really read all the research? How many of us could even understand a proper research article on this stuff, if we even knew how to get our hands on one in the first place?
My bet, a fair few of us.
We choose to trust medical experts, we choose to trust health professionals, we choose to trust the Government and their advisors to interpret the science for us.
This conversation is not about the facts.
It’s not about the science.
It’s about who we choose to trust.
Acknowledging this point is vital if we are going to move this conversation forward.
Rather, than throwing sources, and facts, back and forth at one another, our time might be better served asking each other the question, is this source of information trustworthy? And if we believe so, why do we believe that? What makes us think that they have the knowledge, experience, wisdom, needed in order to make such a judgement?
This I believe, is the pathway to helpful dialogue, and hopefully the sort of constructive conversation that might just help us find a way forward, together.
As I end, I want to encourage you, stick with the conversation, don’t give up on each other, keep loving, keep wrestling, keep talking. Our communities, our families, those we love, they are too precious to be destroyed by misinformation, to valuable to be cast away as a result of this virus. Covid19 has taken so much from us, it should not be allowed to take our relationship’s either.
I get that these conversations are hard.
But they are important.
No one ever changed their perspective, grown, moved on from an unhealthy idea, by being shamed, ostracized, and abandoned to their echo chamber.
We cannot become a society that discounts the humanity of those we disagree with, just because we disagree.
We must bear with one another in Love, choosing to Love each other, even in the midst of this critically important disagreement and debate.
For in the end, at some point in the far distant future, this virus will be gone.
It will have done its worst.
And what will be left is us.
And whatever is left of the relationships we have been able to maintain.
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also a an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.