O ye of little faith

A few years ago, the Treatment Action Campaign, in true David-like fashion, took on and slew the giant that was the ANC government’s AIDS-denial policy. During that battle, the TAC brutalised the late Manto Tshabalala Msimang’s assertion that maintaining a healthy diet (characterised by eating significant quantities of beetroot and garlic) would do more for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS than Anti-Retroviral drugs. For some commentators, this was evidence that the TAC had firmly nailed its colours to the mast of conventional pharmaceuticals to the detriment of homeopathic or other remedies that cannot readily be scientifically proven.

Recently, the TAC’s preference for provable science has come to the fore once again in a new battle, this time against the monolith of miracles that is the Christ Embassy Church. On 22 November 2009, the TAC lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”), in which it complained that a programme produced by Christ Embassy’s Healing School, which was broadcast on eTV in November 2009, had violated the Advertising Standards Code (“the Code”). The TAC argued that the programme was an advertisement as defined in the Code, and further that the claims being made in the programme violated Appendix F of the Code, which provides that advertisements should not make or offer products, treatments or advice for any of a number of listed illnesses or conditions unless the recommendations accord with a full product registration by the Medicines Control Council (MCC).

The first question that the Advertising Standards Directorate had to answer was whether or not the Healing School’s programme was an advertisement as defined in the Code, because if it was not an advertisement, the ASA would not have jurisdiction to decide the matter. The Directorate accepted eTV’s submission that the programme was an advertiser funded programme and not an advert. As such, the Directorate declared that the ASA had no jurisdiction, and that the TAC would have to reinstitute its complaint in the appropriate forum, which is the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa.

The TAC appealed this ruling on the grounds that it was poorly written and it unnecessarily fettered the ASA’s jurisdiction and amounted to merely passing the buck. In the media, the TAC further suggested that eTV’s position in the matter was motivated by the desire to protect the mega-millions that Christ Embassy had paid it for airing the programme. The appeal was upheld when, in February 2011, the Advertising Standards Committee (“the Committee”) overturned the decision of the Directorate. The Committee ruled that on a proper interpretation of the term “advertisement”, the programme complained of was an advert, in terms of the Code and further that it was in violation of Appendix thereof. Furthermore, the Committee held that although the programme had already run its contract, the ruling will apply in respect of the actual content of the programme or the repetition thereof in subsequent programmes and even in terms of a new programming contract.

In coming to its decision, the Committee made a number of interesting findings that will have significant impact on the modern practice of one of the most age-old of Christian duties, that is, evangelism.

Evangelism is motivated by what Christian theologists call “the Great Commission”, which is based on the command issued by Jesus, in Matthew 28 verses 19 to 28, to “Go therefore and make disciples of all men.”  The great commission is a vital and central part of the practice of the Christian religion. According to an article written by Harold S. Martin entitled “The Biblical Basis for Evangelism”,  evangelism refers to making known message of the gospel. He quotes John R. W. Stott, at the Berlin Conference on Evangelism (yes, there actually are international conferences on the topic) who said;

“We engage in evangelism, not necessarily because we want to, or because we choose to, or because we like to; but because we have been told to. The church is under orders. The risen Lord has commanded us to go, to preach, and to make disciples, and that is enough for us.”

Historically, Christians have always taken this commission very seriously. Since the death of Jesus, first the apostles and then the Catholic Church and after that a variety of Protestant missionaries, have been carrying forth the evangelistic torch into dark and uncharted pagan lands. Indeed, missionary zeal is credited with opening the gateway to the colonisation of Africa. I remember reading a very clever bastardisation of the Christian missionary song “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, which went thus:

“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.

Spread the joyful tidings where trade can be done,

Spread the peaceful gospel with the Gatling gun!”

Since that time however, there has been a radical shift in the way Christians evangelise. The wonders of broadcasting technology have meant that modern missionaries need not undertake treacherous journeys to strange lands at the risk of catching some rare tropical disease or being devoured by an unrepentant tribe of cannibals. Nowadays, evangelism has migrated to the television screen and a multi million dollar industry has been created which is appropriately titled, “Televangelism”. It is this modern form of evangelism that may be severely affected by the Council’s decision, because if evangelism is generally considered to be advertising, this would affect the manner in which televangelists package and conduct their programmes in an effort to entice the proverbial “lost sheep” into the Christian fold.

Of particular significance is the Committee’s finding that the message that is communicated to audiences/viewers, is that joining the Christ Embassy or its Healing School, or associating with it or attending its “faith healing sessions”, will lead to its Pastor(s) transferring God’s healing powers to anyone who suffers from the list of diseases that are read out or announced in the programme. According to the Committee, “this is not a general message to the community to promote faith and Christian faith in particular. It exhorts direct association with the Christ Embassy. This falls squarely within the definition of advertisement.” Other relevant findings in this regard are that Christ Embassy’s programme:

• “appeals for” and/or “promotes” joining the Christ Embassy in order to realise the healing of one’s diseases and touts its Healing School as a place to receive miracles from God;

• promotes faith as dispensed by the Christ Embassy as a proven means to cure illness and disease; and

• claims that many people have been cured of diseases when healing hands were laid on them by its Pastors.

Most televangelical programmes typically include most, if not all, of the activities mentioned by the ASA Committee above. In its essence, televangelism contains advertising-like messages in which viewers are  exhorted not merely to repent in order to find their way into heaven, but rather are invited to particular sects wherein their earthly problems will be solved. An important aspect of this is the “healing ministry”, which invariably involves the touting of miracle cures of various illnesses, especially those that conventional modern medicine has no cure for. These messages are then backed up by footage (sometimes archival, sometimes live) of miracles being performed, as well as testimonies by congregants about how they have been healed by the Lord through the intercessory prayers of various plenipotentiaries of the organisation.

Now that these activities have now been put under intense scrutiny by the ASA Committee, broadcasters will have to ensure that religious programmes that feature all such advertisement like testimonies and miracle scenes comply with all the provisions of the Advertising Code. In addition, the finding that Christ Embassy is offering a service or product to the viewer/audience may also have far-reaching consequences on televangelism and the way in which the protagonists present their claims of healing.

If Christ Embassy is indeed appealing this decision (and I do not think it has any option but to do so), it may well base that appeal on the unconstitutionality of proscribing the religious freedom of Christians in the way in which they carry out a fundamental duty of their religion. However, this argument will have to be weighed against the real problem that the TAC is complaining of, that is, ordinary people who are afflicted by HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses being swayed from proven conventional treatments to “faith-based quackery” (in the words of the TAC), whose effectiveness is at best dubious and at worst deliberately faked.

It should make for a very interesting constitutional debate.

Simba Takuva

Comforter of the afflicted and afflictor of the comfortable

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