We have become accustomed to the leaders of New Age cults taking their fanatical followers down to perdition, and the mass deaths in Nigeria last week may just be counted among them. But who is responsible?
The blame for the rise of killer cults – at least within the Judeo-Catholic framework that came to dominate the West – could arguably be laid at the door of Martin Luther, or more precisely at the front door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg to which, tradition holds, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
A finger could, of course, alternatively be pointed at the Catholic mother church itself, for not only having precipitated the schism due to its corrupt and fallen nature, but for the very rigidity of its grip on society having forced freethinking men to have embarked on devilish dilettantism such as the high society Hellfire Club of 18th Century Britain, and to have founded the radical mass movements of the Middle Ages that challenged Catholic hegemony such as the anti-militarist Anabaptists and the very militant Hussites.
Either way, the ultimate result of the Reformation was the disestablishment of the Church – the separation of Church and State – in key new realms such as the emergent United States. There, the famous clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” became an article of faith in its own right, allowing pretty much anyone with a vague religious notion in their heads to set up shop as a religion, the tax-exempt status of which made such a proposition very attractive.
So the East Coast became the mother of New World cults, from Mary Baker Eddy’s mid-19th Century Church of Christ, Scientist, to Helena Blavatsky’s contemporaneous Theosophical Society. However, these original, serious attempts at spiritual hermeticism fragmented into ever wilder cults on the West Coast such as Anton Szandor LaVey’s vaudeville Church of Satan of the 1960s, the eugenicist Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s pink-robed, assault rifle-toting love cult of the 1980s (which committed in 1984 the worst bioterrorism attack on US soil), and Marshall Applewhite’s Star Trek-inspired Heaven’s Gate cult which attained eternal infamy in 1997 when its members – including Applewhite – committed suicide in a bizarre attempt to teleport themselves aboard a UFO that was supposedly travelling in the tail of the Haley-Bopp Comet.
The most infamous US-based cult mass suicide was that of Jim Jones’ quasi-socialist People’s Temple which had set up a utopian agricultural commune in the tropical Latin American state of Guyana, a former British colony, in 1974, supposedly to escape institutional racism in the US and the threat of nuclear war, but actually to avoid official and media scrutiny of the legitimacy of the Temple’s tax exemption, Jones’ use of LSD, and allegations of his abuse of members.
Initially Jones was not viewed as a fruitbat: although he had been a Communist Party fellow-traveller during the McCarthy era, supporting North Korea in its “liberation war” against the south in 1950-1953, he had developed a sound reputation as an anti-racist organiser with a track record in racially integrating community facilities, and by the 1970s, had risen sufficiently in reputation to move in swish political circles, hanging out with President Jimmy Carter’s wife Rosalynn. He even adopted his own “rainbow family” in imitation of the multi-racial adopted family of famous black burlesque star Josephine Baker.
In the 1960s, however, his original synthesis of communalist early Christianity and modern faith-healing hallelujah style – called “apostolic socialism,” by which he intended converting congregants to Marxism – had morphed into something distinctly off the charts, beyond Biblical theology, which he increasingly rejected. Reverend Jones started claiming he was the reincarnation of both Jesus and Lenin, and in 1977, he and several hundred followers – two thirds of them black – suddenly relocated to a leased tract of remote and barely arable land in Guyana near the Venezuelan border.
Despite well-intentioned support of Jones in the face of mounting criticism by families of Temple members by the likes of San Francisco’s first openly gay administrator, Harvey Milk, the communist Angela Davis and Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, in the foetid heat of Jones’ jungle paradise, things got ever more murky and the reverend’s grip on reality ever more tenuous. Members were refused the right to leave (though a second exodus to the USSR was negotiated), were beaten for infractions of the commune’s rules, and while Jones outlawed extramarital sex, he himself reportedly indulged in shagging both male and female devotees.
It all fell apart in 1978 (by which time the cult was reputedly worth US$26-million) when US congressman Leo Ryan, on a fact-finding mission to “Jonestown” with a media crew in tow, was attacked by a knife-wielding Temple member. Ryan aborted the trip, taking with him 15 Temple members who said they wanted out – but Jones’ “Red Brigade” opened fire on their departing aircraft, killing Ryan, three journalists and one Temple defector.
That very afternoon, Jones instructed his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced fruit juice. Horrified devotees who escaped the mass suicide, which claimed the lives of 910 people, 303 of them children, later told how parents first poisoned their children then lay down to die alongside them. A tape recording of the horror is replete with ghastly screams and crying. Jones himself – who is heard on the tape demanding that his followers die with dignity – died of gunshot wounds that may or may not have been self-inflicted. It was the worst loss of US civilian life at human hands before 9/11.
On the face of it, other than a tropical location, and a faith healer, Jonestown has nothing to do with the tragedy that unfolded at The Synagogue, Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, last Friday when a four-storey residency at the church’s compound collapsed, killing 67 South African supplicants and injuring many more.
Except that Temitope Balogun “TB” Joshua’s church quite simply is a cult by any definition, given his claims to have cured tens of thousands of HIV-Aids – a scientific impossibility – and given his net worth derived from the pockets of his congregants, including football stars and Nollywood actresses, estimated at US$15 million. That tax-exempt deal, combined with congregants paying tithes, sure is sweet.
Despite attempts to claim a touch of the divine in his birth after his mother’s alleged 15-month pregnancy, Joshua seems to have grown up a regular Bible nerd, who developed a gift of the gab and a taste for white Armani suits. Yes, he did establish a good reputation for humanitarian work, notably by sending a field hospital to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, but his real claim to fame was his “healings” of incurable deformities and diseases and his “prophecies”, especially his supposed predictions of the death of Michael Jackson in 2009, and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 earlier this year.
So what goes on in his Synagogue, other than the usual mass hysteria associated with televangelist faith healers? Well, he is reputed to flog his congregants, possibly as penitence. The nature of those adherents prepared to submit to such abuse says more about him than his own claims to Godly inspiration: for example he has attracted our own fruitbats like Julius Malema to Nigeria (did Kortbroek Malema go to church to get a spanking?). And at least one fellow pastor, Peter Kayode Falarungbon, who was responsible for founding The Synagogue’s chapter in Ghana, has accused Joshua of “stealing” his wife Lola after the couple approached the “prophet” for help in curing their childlessness.
Joshua suggested at his televised Sunday service that a mysterious aircraft flying over the church that may have been linked to the Boko Haram terrorists somehow (miraculously?) triggered the collapse – reminiscent of the paranoia of Jones’ pre-suicide theory that “fascists” were going to parachute into Jonestown to murder their children. But Nigerian emergency response teams pointed to a more prosaic, and far more likely, cause: it seems the prophet had allowed work-teams to attempt to build another two floors onto the four-storey structure – without bothering to reinforce it. In other words, in his greed to pack the paying faithful in, Joshua may have been prepared to forego basic building safety codes.
Ok, so that’s not the same as Jones actually instructing his followers to commit mass suicide, but in its effects, it’s pretty much the same: lure the gullible and vulnerable to a compound in a foreign location where they are dependent on the cult leader’s unchallengeable charisma and discipline, strip the money out of their wallets, and, oh, completely neglect their personal safety, resulting in mass deaths. Unlike Jones, Joshua did not die with his flock. So if the building turns out to have been shoddily built, then The Synagogue is, like the People’s Temple, de facto a killer cult, even if only by default, and Joshua should be indicted for mass murder. DM
** I am pleased to number myself among South Africa’s almost 8-million atheists and agnostics who believe in the rule of common sense, rather than that of the hard-earned cents put into the pockets of fly-by-night pastors and prophets.
Michael Schmidt is an experienced field reporter, with a reputation for producing unique and challenging copy, having worked for 19 years on some of South Africa's leading print titles including ThisDay and Sunday Times before going into journalism training in 2008. He has worked across Africa, Central and South America and elsewhere. He has an interest in extra-parliamentary politics, and conflict reporting in transitional societies. He is a non-fiction author, published in Germany (2008), the USA (2009, 2013), Brazil (2009), and Quebec (2012). He is currently working on six more books, including Drinking With Ghosts: the Aftermath of Apartheid's Dirty War (South Africa, 2014), and a multimedia project on massacre and memory, with Lebanese writer Rasha Salti. He founded the Professional Journalists' Association of South Africa (ProJourn), and The Ulu Club for Southern African Conflict Journalists. Currently the boss at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), he continues to write for both the mainstream and alternative media.
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