Countdown to Judgment Day – global cult stays firm as weeks turn into days

Countdown to Judgment Day – global cult stays firm as weeks turn into days

It’s a story The Daily Maverick has been following for a year-and-a-half. With Harold Camping’s thousands of worldwide acolytes now counting the minutes to 21 May, some of the biggest names in international media are cottoning on. And the unavoidable question is: what if Judgment Day doesn’t dawn on the Saturday after next? By KEVIN BLOOM.

There was something familiar about the billboard. At first sight, it was no doubt the location that confused me – the absolute incongruity of an advert like that in a place like this – but after a second run past the market it screamed its presence. In Praia do Tofo, Mozambique, of all places; a town of backpacker lodges, sunset-viewing decks, dive schools, and barrels of the cheapest and sweetest rum on offer anywhere up the African east coast. “O Dia do Julgamento,” the copy proclaimed, in letters about as wide as a surf instructor’s torso. “21 de Maio, 2011.” Underneath the two-storey billboard, which bore the insignia of, and by implication the words of Harold Camping – an octogenarian from California who’s erred with his End of Days predictions before – stood three oblivious blonde women in sarongs and bikini tops. They were trying on shell necklaces and eyeing the local good-time boys, a crew of dark Adonises that provide a certain service for which Tofo is famed. Behind the women, through the coconut palms, the sun danced on a turquoise sea. It was then about two months to go until Judgment Day.

So will the good men and women of Tofo be pardoned on 21 May, a date advertised worldwide as the time of the Second Coming? Tough to say, although if they are, we might well hear about it – with less than two weeks to go, the global press has finally caught onto the fervor.

On 6 May, the Washington Post, alerted by five recreational vehicles parked outside the Washington Monument, ran a story under the headline, “This time, it’s for real, believers say: Doomsday coming this month.” What rendered the vehicles unique, according to the most influential newspaper in the world’s most influential capital, was their signage: “Have you heard the awesome news? The End of the World is Almost Here!” And the dozen or so people that disembarked from the vehicles were apparently just as unique; their bright yellow t-shirts proclaiming “Earthquake So Mighty, So Great” and their leaflets warning that “Holy God will bring judgment day on May 21, 2011.”

In Canada, the agenda-setting Globe and Mail seemed equally bemused. Focusing on the “Ad blitz [that] warns of Judgment Day,” the national daily reported on Tuesday that the Christian evangelical group has erected some 2,000 billboards around the world – “including 17 in Canadian cities”. What the Globe and Mail didn’t mention, of course, was that one billboard in a sinner’s paradise on the Mozambican coast (and neither did they allude to the hundreds in similarly remote towns across the African continent), but they did get a germane quote from a religious studies professor at Queens University. “If [Family Radio] were asking for money, you’d know they’re a fraud,” said the professor. “And you could call them out on that. By not asking for money, I think they really and truly do believe.” 

The quote echoed The Daily Maverick’s observations from last August, when we followed a group of believers that descended on Johannesburg – or more specifically, the Orion Hotel Devonshire in Braamfontein – to spread the word. At the time, after interviewing the majority of the 28-member delegation, we concluded that Family Radio was a benign cult, an organisation barely worthy of the moniker “cult” at all. “Harold Camping isn’t Jim Jones or David Koresh,” we said. “[When] he was last proved wrong he didn’t demand the mass suicide of his acolytes. Neither has there been evidence of illegal or depraved sexual activity within the organisation; any proof that the act of listening to Family Radio might be harmful in itself has not been forthcoming. Granted, the 28 volunteers that arrived at the Devonshire on Thursday 12 August all came on their own time and at their own expense, but if Camping… is in it for a cut of the donations, there hasn’t been much to back up that allegation either.”

Still, is the group so benign? With 21 May around the corner – less than 11 days to go at the time of this writing – can we say that Camping has done a positive (or at least a neutral) thing for the world? The answer, to be fair, can’t lie in what journalists or other natural sceptics take to be true; it must be found in what’s at stake for the converted. Asked what he’d be doing when 21 May rolled around, Phillip Basi, a former pastor from KwaZulu-Natal, told us: “Carrying on with my preaching. I don’t have any plans beyond that date. This will be the new Earth forever. Satan and his angels will be destroyed. Even Satan knows now.”

Which is fair enough, as long as he accepts sunset on 21 May with equanimity. One can only hope that Basi and the tens of thousands like him (the figure might even reach the hundreds of thousands; there’s been no reliable census as yet) don’t take to the streets in acts of blind rage come Saturday after next. One also hopes, for their sake, that Camping’s acolytes haven’t spent their life’s savings in expectation that today’s financial system will be rendered meaningless at the onset of the Kingdom of Heaven. On 10 May 2011, the Family Radio website seemed neither to be backing off nor offering any practical advice on this score. All it said, in between offering “Another Infallible Proof,” was that “The Bible Guarantees It” and that “We Are Almost There!”

As for the rest of us, the group’s official literature warns that “The Rapture” and “True Salvation” will be available only to believers; everyone else is penciled in for massive earthquakes and five months of hell on earth.

Have fun, y’all. DM

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