CHRIS ROPER: Mogoeng’s vaccine apocalypse
There were many deranged elements to the chief justice’s speech last week (divine mining, anyone?) but the worst of it was that it made the Covid-19 anti-vaxxers think they’re not untethered from reality
Let us do chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng the disservice, disguised as a courtesy, of pretending to believe that his God and his devil are real. Many of us, thanks to the super-efficient propaganda machinery of what we could amusingly term Big Religion, have at least a vague idea of who the Christian God purports to be. But God’s inseparable companion Satan, the Morty to his Rick, if you will, gets far less press.
But first, why do we care about Satan? At a Gauteng government event held at Tembisa Hospital last week, God’s chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, offered a public prayer which went like this: "I lock out every demon of Covid-19, I lock out any vaccine that is not of you. If there be any vaccine that is of the devil, meant to infuse 666 in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA … any such vaccine, may it be destroyed.."
But wait, that’s not all ...
"Any legalising agent, Lord, for wickedness in this nation, for wickedness in Africa and across the nations of the world, Lord God almighty, send your angels, send even your angel of the media, send all the angels of fire, the angel of judgment, the angel of the wings of the Lord, to enforce your will. In the name of Jesus, no more suffering, Lord. No more suffering."
I’m not sure who Mogoeng is referring to by "angel of the media", because even the media’s most passionate fans, when prompted for a feathered simile, would probably go with vulture instead.
And what are we to make of this bit, where he asked God to: "Revive the economy of this country. For you have told us, Lord, there are many hidden minerals still that will only surface when righteousness emerges."
Perhaps Mogoeng’s "hidden minerals" are akin to the Mormon Dream Mine, which was started in Salem, Utah in the 1890s by John Hyrum Koyle. He prophesied that the mine would become profitable "just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ".
Work on the Dream Mine ended in the 1960s and, needless to say, the mine hasn’t produced anything valuable. But Koyle’s followers still keep the mine going, and the company’s board reported that, as of 2018, 7,500 active stockholders still trade shares, in anticipation of the Second Coming. All in all, it’s a pretty apt metaphor for the Christian privileging of belief over evidence-based science.
While some of Mogoeng’s prayer is in the great tradition of protesters everywhere (Don’t like the vaccine? Burn down the hospital), several people brought up the fairly reasonable objection that our chief justice should not be using a government platform to enable anti-vaxxers and religious fundamentalists. Or, indeed, any platform.
Reacting to the backlash with the same indignant appeal to freedom of religion that characterised his defence of his surreal pro-Israel stance a few months ago, Mogoeng defended himself.
"I’m crying unto God, whether you call it political or not, and I won’t stop. If there is a vaccine with 666, I want God to destroy it. If there is any vaccine meant to corrupt the DNA of people, I’m asking God to interrupt it. Any clean vaccine, they must produce it quickly. People need that for their own health."
He added that he won’t stop praying against Satan and against "corruption on the DNA" irrespective of criticism. "You can’t say we must, as Christians, just fold our arms and say ‘whatever people come with’ is fine. No. We can’t … I’m not a scientist. I’m a prayer warrior and I’m encouraging prayer warriors to pray."
Now, Mogoeng’s Satan is pretty much a Christian construct. In Elaine Pagels’ classic study, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, she describes why Christians needed to invent their particular Satan. Though there are angels in the Hebrew Bible (though no "angels of the media", as far as I can tell) Satan is, Pagels tells us, "virtually absent."
When we get to the New Testament, however, "Mark deviates from mainstream Jewish tradition by introducing ‘the devil’", and then starts to characterise Christianity as a struggle between God and the demons who belong to Satan’s kingdom. Lest we forget, Satan was originally one of God’s angels, but a fallen one, who decided, in the words of Milton in Paradise Lost, that it is "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n."
Pagels argues that Christians created Satan so they could demonise their enemies, chief of whom were the Jews, who were blamed for the crucifixion, in what is generally accepted as a rewriting of history for political ends..
It meant any enemy of Christians was characterised as doing the work of Satan. Protestant founder Martin Luther, for example, "denounced as ‘agents of Satan’ all Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, all Jews who refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, [and] all who challenged the power of the landowning aristocrats by participating in the Peasants’ war."
So when Mogoeng tells us that it is possible that there exists "a vaccine with 666", and that it is brought by Satan, he empowers fundamentalist Christians to refuse to be vaccinated, based on their understanding of Satan as the enemy trying to destroy them.
And the harm done is not just to the hardline crazies.
"In 2019," Daily Maverick tells us, "the World Health Organisation said vaccine hesitancy was one of the top 10 threats to global health. A study published in The Lancet found that confidence in the importance of vaccines, rather than their safety or effectiveness, was the strongest single determiner of uptake."
What is 666, you might ask, and where does CJ Mogoeng’s hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia actually come from? It’s a reference to Revelation 13: 16-18 — that book of the Bible that reads like it was crowdsourced on a primitive social media platform.
It’s the last book of the New Testament, and it suffers from the same narrative flaws as the last season of Game of Thrones, in that it is apocalyptic, overwritten, and spends too much time on the dragons.
The star of Revelation is a beast who "causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six."
Revelation was written, the learned tell us, to either give succour to Christians being persecuted by Nero, or to push a certain branch of Christianity over another. It is, like the concept of Satan, a tool to further the aims of Christianity.
Back in 2014, I wrote about Mogoeng in the Mail & Guardian, commenting on a speech he gave at the Law and Religion conference that year, in which he said: "I believe that we can only become a better people if religion could be allowed to influence the laws that govern our daily lives starting with the constitution of any country."
I wrote in response: "The fundamental problem with trying to infuse the laws of a secular state with the prescriptive moralities of religion: secularism is designed to protect religious freedom, whereas religion is designed to oppress other religions."
We have a chief judge, I fulminated, who believes "that two books cobbled together over the centuries by a selection of politically driven chancers, deranged mystics and church clerks is a better arbiter of human rights issues than the constitutionally driven government of SA."
To be clear, nobody is denying Mogoeng his right to believe that there’s the possibility that scientists will develop vaccines that carry 666, the mark of the beast, and that praying to God will stop this happening.
He quite clearly states, "I’m not a scientist. I’m a prayer warrior and I’m encouraging prayer warriors to pray."
But what we are saying, is that he’s feeding the beast of stupidity. In the same way that the Christian construct of Satan facilitated a biblically righteous oppression of the other, Mogoeng’s notion that prayer warriors know better than scientists allows the crazies in his camp to ramp up the disinformation.
A prayer warrior, in case the term isn’t familiar to you, is a staple of dominion theology, the same belief system that Mogoeng alluded to in his 2014 speech — a theology that wants government laws to be based on the Bible.
Prayer warriors see themselves as frontline combatants in the war against Satan. To quote christianity.com, "Your enemy is Satan, the highest-ranked of the fallen angels who rebelled against God. Satan is your adversary, accuser, tempter, and deceiver. He works by trying to convince you to doubt God’s truth and believe his lies instead."
By this definition, one has to wonder if Mogoeng’s blessed gift of religiously sanctioned uncertainty to the anti-vaxxers isn’t the work of Satan himself, trying to get us to doubt the truth of science and believe religious fables instead.
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