Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Miracles for Sale: A Review

I've just been watching Derren Brown's TV show "Miracles for Sale" where he tackles the scam of fake healers who gain considerable financial reward from their so-called ministries; not surprisingly, most of these come from America, where there is also a "prosperity gospel" which also elicits vast amounts of money from Christians. As Derren says:

"It's a huge business based around the prosperity gospel which says that if you give money to your pastor or church, then you will be rewarded financially. The pastors are billionaires and it is absolutely foul. It's quite important to me that if I have a knowledge of these areas - and really all these 'healers' are doing is a nasty scam - then I want to communicate that."

Derren and his team spent six months training a scuba diving instructor called Nathan to "heal" the sick, under the name of Pastor James Collins, with a fake web site set up at: http://www.giftsofthespiritministry.com  
What came across very strongly was Derren's anger at what these faith healers do:

"You have the despair of all those people who are no better - and it's despair because they're blaming their own selves and their faith for it not working," he says. "And then you have these hordes of people who are following these healers round America; chronically ill people going from gig to gig to gig - and it just never happening, so there's that wake of despair. And then there's the money side of it."

The top healers earn more than Hollywood A-stars, virtually have the local police in their pocket to protect their privacy, and because it's religion in the USA, it's all tax free. When the team visited Ken Copeland's church, the local sheriff appeared and gave them a caution that if they came back, they would be arrested. The power, finance, and security involved in these high powered preachers was quite grotesque, yet people believe that they can help, and may sink their life savings into these preacher's pockets in their desperation for a cure.

If I may digress, having a son with autism, and seen other parents, I know how desperate parents can be, and how they will try anything, and how the slightest improvement (which may happen anyway as autistic children get older) is seen as a sign that the therapy works. One introductory "taster course" in London cost around £1,000 around 2003, and from reports I have heard from those I know who attended, it is clear that the participants are worked upon as if in a revival meeting, with enthusiasm and belief whipped up by charismatic speakers. I myself was always suspicious of these kind of autistic therapies, but I have seen how the sheer desperation of parents for help leads them that way; what I think is needed, is more support in coping psychologically with the impact of what is akin to a perpetual bereavement and with decent respite care and support services. It is the lack of those proper resources which sends people off seeking a cure for autism.

The ethics of creating a fake act surfaced at various times during the production. They decided, correctly, not to use a PR company because that might have had a serious impact on those people's livelihoods by deceiving them. And the end of the actual healing performance, where Nathan is on stage in Dallas, Texas, was very carefully presented not to damage people's faith in God, but to end (at the moment when usually the plug would come for money) to warn them that God would have nothing to do with fake healings, and tell them about the deceivers in their midst who are making themselves rich at the expense of sick, ailing and desperate souls, who had nothing to do with God at all.

As Derren Brown said: "This is not an attack on God, or faith, or any of those things. It's about a scam, a greedy scam that has nothing to do with God apart from the fact they mention his name a lot."

What the programme didn't do, which time constraints and its focus meant it couldn't tackle, was the fact that there are far more ethical healing groups around, certainly in Jersey.

One example is the "The Universal Healing Group" which was formed in 1977 in Jersey:

On the 15th August 1977, a meeting of five healers under the leadership of a gentle, white-haired, moustached man named Evan Jones, formerly inaugurated the first healing association in Jersey, UK - The Universal Healing Group. The aim of this voluntary association was, and still is, to "bring together in full co-operation, healers of all denominations in order to offer a free Healing Centre to the Public." The other attendees at that initial meeting were David Henley, a Methodist lay preacher, George Mathys, a retired naval commander and two other local healers, Raymond Newall and Albert (Bert) Salter.

It describes healing in the following ways:

All healers accept that the healing energies come from a central source, be that God, Cosmic Intelligence, Universal Life Force, etc and is channeled through the healer by their focusing on purposeful intent and human empathy.

Healing is a natural energy therapy. It complements conventional medicine by treating the whole person - mind, body and spirit. Healers act as a conduit for healing energy, often described as 'love and light' which relaxes the body, releases tensions and stimulates self-healing. The benefits of healing can be felt on many levels, not just the physical, and the effects can be profound.

It is not Faith Healing, because the recipient has no need to believe in a deity or a religion. Faith by the patient is not required and healing can help people regardless of their religious beliefs.

And unlike the kind of scam involved this complements conventional medicine and in no way seeks to dissuade people from medical advice. I'd refer people to the full code of practice given on their website, which states that:

Members of the Universal Healing Group are bound by a Code of Practice which sets standards for practicing healer members and which acts as a reference on those standards for the public good.


The most significant matters, in connection with the "Miracles for Sale" in the code of practice are the way in which it is made very clear from the start that this healing does not make the same kind of claims as the USA preachers about "miracle cures", and in no way seeks to dissuade the patient from seeking mainstream medical help; in fact it makes it absolutely clear that patients should also be seeking medical diagnoses as well, and taking any medication prescribed by doctors.

In "Miracles for Sale", Derren was rightly angry and also filmed Christian groups in the USA who are also opposed to these kind of scams; these people told tales of patients who had been told they didn't need medication, and if they failed to be healed, it was their fault, and of the suffering this caused.

The Universal Healing Group code of conduct, by contrast, is diametrically opposed to all and any of these malpractices, as these parts of their code of conduct make quite clear:

Healers shall at all times conduct themselves in an honourable and courteous manner and with due diligence in their relations with their patients and the public. They should seek a good relationship and shall work in a co-operative manner with other healthcare professionals, whether they perform from an allopathic or alternative/complementary base.

The relationship between a healer and the patient is that of a professional. The patient places trust in a healer's care, skill and integrity and it is the healer's duty to act with due diligence at all times and not to abuse this trust in anyway.

Healers must never claim to "cure". Possible therapeutic benefits may be described, recovery must never be guaranteed.

Healers should ensure at all times that they themselves are medically, physically and psychologically fit to practice.

Discretion must be used for the protection of the healer when carrying out treatment with patients who are mentally unstable, addicted to drugs/alcohol, severely depressed, suicidal or hallucinating. A healer must not treat a patient in any case which exceeds their capacity, training and competence. They must seek referral, where appropriate, to a qualified medical practitioner.

Healers must ask patients what medical advice they have received and be advised to see a doctor should they not have done so. In the case of Notifiable Diseases, the healer must insist the patient see a doctor and
must not permit them to come in contact with other people. This advice needs to be recorded for the healer's protection.

Healers must not countermand instructions or prescriptions given to a patient by a doctor, nor advise on any particular course of medical treatment.

Healers must never give a medical diagnosis to a patient in any circumstances. This is the responsibility of a Registered Medical Practitioner. Any "intuitive" feelings of dysfunction in the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual aspects of the patient may be mentioned with the advice that the patient sees a doctor for a medical diagnosis. Such advice must be recorded.

Advertising must be dignified in tone and not contain testimonials or claim a cure or mention any disease.

But does healing "work"? Well, it depends upon what is meant by "work". Jersey also has an affiliation with "The Guild of St Raphael", a healing guild within the Anglican Church, at St Brelade's Church. A brief history of this is as follows:

The Guild of St Raphael, founded in 1915, is a Christian organisation dedicated to promoting, supporting and practicing Christ's ministry of healing as an integral part of the life and worship of the Church. Originating from within the Anglican Communion, it has expanded to include members from other Churches and is now ecumenical in outlook. It is also international in scope with over one hundred branches throughout the world.

On the Guild website there are a number of articles, but I found the one by the (aptly named) Reverend Stephen Parsons to be most in tune with my own thinking on these matters:

From my perspective there is no doubt that such 'natural' gifts of healing exist. Whether they go deep into helping a sickness or other cause of distress or merely promote a sense of well-being, the fact remains that a certain amount of good is often achieved in such techniques.

Natural' healing may belong to the immense of range of realities that occur whenever people relate to one another. The fact that we do not understand it or are able to classify it does not make it less real. Love is a reality which spans the emotional, physical and spiritual levels of human functioning and we do not withhold love because we do not understand fully what it is. I feel that Christians need to learn to be far more generous towards things and phenomena that they do not understand, and see that we live in a world that is full of mysteries which transcend our understanding whether from a scientific or 'Biblical' model.

While I certainly accept scientific models of causation, these are models, not reality itself, and I am not prepared to rule out other kinds of causation which are not properly understood, and for which the language itself may be making use of metaphorical terms in order to try to grasp a reality which is at present beyond our comprehension. Just because the language may be inadequate, I think that it would be a mistake to thereby simply write off these kinds of healing as impossible.

This may, of course, turn out to be a reality which a future science would understand; it is always a mistake (as the history of science itself shows) to use the current understanding of science as a procrustean bed upon which to measure all our understanding of the world. After all, to a scientist at the time of Newton, modern science would, as Arthur C Clarke has noted, seem like magic.

But equally, science is a human endeavour, despite its success in understanding the world, and there may be inherent limitations built into our own understanding, the way in which our minds work, which may limit its scope, just as (by way of analogy) there are known limitations to the completeness of mathematics (as Gödel demonstrated).

Regarding alternative medicine in general, Parsons takes what might be called the Gamaliel argument (""if it be of men, it will come to naught, but if it be of God, ye will not be able to overthrow it; lest perhaps ye be found even to fight against God") that Christians should not automatically assert some kind of monopoly on healing. Instead he makes the following point:

If we are to identify and discriminate properly in the area of alternative medicine as well as the area we have identified as 'natural healing', we need two things. First we need to suggest a fair and realistic model of the way that such practices could become objectionable or evil; secondly we need to know what Christians think they are doing when they pray for and minister to the sick so that the comparisons and contrast with something wholesome and good may become more apparent.

His conclusions are very pertinent in the aftermath of Derren Brown's "Miracles for Sale, as he identifies the chief evil lurking in the healing process as the abuse of power in its various forms, which Derren's show has done a good service in exposing. As Parsons says:

We need nevertheless to recognise that there are evils lurking potentially in the healing process. The chief of these is the abuse of power. Such abuse can pollute every form of healing whether medical, Christian or otherwise.

This abuse of power may involve finance, sexual or emotional exploitation or simply a distressing experience of being used by another person. Sadly abusive practice among Christian healing methods has come to light over the last few years and we need to be aware of this fact. I am sure that such evil also exists among alternative healing practitioners as well, though in most cases professionally trained practitioners are equally alert to ethical issues as Christians. For Jesus, the naming and identification of power abuse was a major aspect of his ministry and indeed it was the issue that aroused his anger in a way that nothing else did.

The Christian response to and understanding of alternative healing cultures has been dogged by an unhealthy obsession with wanting to associate it with the occult. That has been, I believe, a totally unhelpful approach. Christians have been thus blinded to the real issue of evil within healing practices, including their own, which is the use of inappropriate and abusive power to damage and hurt individuals. Jesus himself recognised the existence of power structures that devalue and dehumanise people as a great evil and so should we.

A true evaluation of alternative healing will want to see it, not as evil, but as being good as far it goes, but nevertheless subject to the same potential for corruption as any other form of healing.

Derren Brown has done a singular service in exposing these abusive power structures, and it should be noted that some healing groups, of much lower key than high powered preachers, have clear ethical guidelines to prevent such abuses of power. Their techniques will not be showy, or produce instant (and fake) miracles of the kind exposed, and they will not claim a definite cure, but they may well help people considerably, none the less. There is a lot of counterfeit money around, but as one of the characters in G.K. Chesterton's remarkable play "Magic" remarked, that does not rule out the possibility of genuine money:

You were saying that these modern conjuring tricks are simply the old miracles when they have once been found out. But surely another view is possible. When we speak of things being sham, we generally mean that they are imitations of things that are genuine.

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