Undue authority of religious leaders is a topic that has strongly featured over the last few years, more so in other countries of the world than in South Africa. Recently the media reported on the South African pastor of Rabboni Centre Ministries of the Garankuwa Campus of the Technical University of Tshwane that instructed his followers to eat grass (Daily Sun, 10 January 2014 – Front page/Mail online UK, 10 January 2014). Photos taken show followers in different positions on a lawn busy eating grass. According to these reports eating grass would not only demonstrate that they are controlled by the Holy Spirit but would also bring them closer to God. Some followers even testified that since they have eaten grass their health have improved. A 21-year-old student reported that she has struggled with a sore throat that was healed after eating grass. Another women, 27 years of age, testified that she had a stroke 2 years ago that resulted in her not been able to walk. After eating grass she regained strength and could walk an hour later. When asked the followers obeying this instruction indicated that they did not believe that eating grass would make them ill. Photos published however, indicated that some followers got ill and vomited after eating grass. One believer of the church withdrew her testimony of deliverance from her blog because she believes that the minister’s instruction to eat grass is a false doctrine. The media also reported on other accusations. The minister allegedly shouted, “sleep” in one of the meetings attended by approximately 1000 people and six fell asleep. Another photo shows the minister stepping on a member busy eating grass. The minister did not respond to the accusations despite a series of complaints that were lodged. On face book he described it as “God at work and that the people are testifying about it – To God be the Glory”.
The case described above must be carefully analysed. Although the media has reported on the church alerting society about the dangers even of religion we need to analyse the situation more carefully. Without evaluating all the detail in the reports it is clear that followers were instructed to eat grass as the pictures show also based on members’ confirmation. In light of that the focus of this post is on the underlying dangerous and undue influence of some religious leaders of which this particular case is a good example.
Although each religion in South Africa is afforded freedom of religion certain aspects of this teaching and occurance warrants serious consideration and evaluation.
The fact that human beings can be moved to eat grass must be a red light to any rational thinking human being. Although religion because of it’s generally transcendental nature and origin is difficult to measure in concrete earthly criteria it may never be abusive or coerce people to do things that they would not normally do. The nature of religion in particular makes people vulnerable for abuse simply because of the belief that if God instructs believers must obey. This absolute authority is abused when a minister or religious leader establishes the belief with his followers that he/she hears directly from God and is representing God. The belief that the religious leader has godly sanctioning will give him or her unlimited authority that will lead to spiritual abuse. It is thus possible that members will do things that is out of the ordinary. When leaders are questioned about certain actions under their watch or leadership they simply justify it as “instructions from God” that they have only conveyed. Thus as mere conveyers of the instructions of God these leaders are exempted of any blame. Despite the fact that many followers are hurt in different religious groups as a result of the instructions of these leaders they believe that no finger can be pointed to them. These abusive leaders will also conveniently hide behind their right to religious freedom. The more important question that must be answered is: what about the rights of the followers that MUST be respected by the religious leader? The South African Constitution art. 15, clearly explains this right but also clearly indicates that participation in the activities of religion must be free and voluntary. The question is further, how free and voluntary can people act overshadowed by the belief that a religious leader holds a godly sanctioning and that disobedience to his/her instructions will result in some form of misfortune? Further, if followers are made to believe that obedience will bring them closer to God and ultimately result in their salvation but at the same time that disobedience will cause them to lose their salvation? This kind of rationalisation is made watertight by the fear-instilled belief that disobedience equals rebelling against God with consequences. From the above it seems clear that followers of some religious groups are placed in the proverbial “catch 22” situation that conveniently ensures unethical control over them not only in their earthly life but even their eternal destiny. This circular emotional/psychological dynamic definitely does not promote the concept of free and voluntary. A free and voluntary choice is based on the premise that a person when confronted with different choices applies his/her own logical, rational and emotional ability to decide. It does not mean that someone else subtly coerces an individual through their absolute authority and overrules individual choice. It stands to reason that religious leaders are viewed as figures of authority in society however this authority is not absolute. Religious leaders should remind themselves constantly of the possibility to abuse authority and put measures in place to ensure that it will not happen.
Can society simply look on while abusive religious leaders continue undisturbed? The answer is, NO! Society needs to be heard and must stand up for those entrapped in these religious groups that as a result of indoctrination and fear are not able to speak out. Society needs to be strong for those that are afraid that something bad will happen to them if they speak out. One of the fundamentals of the South African Constitution is that humans must be treated with dignity. This also applies to religious leaders. They must treat their members with dignity and respect and ensure that their actions never infringe on their members’ rights or lead to undignified treatment.
Facade of cults is misleading to society
Cults and in particular religious cults have an advantage in that their practices that are visible to the public eye display a picture of serenity honesty and happiness. Furthermore most members of society believe that if something has a ring of religion perceived by certain familiar Christian or biblical terminology that it can be assumed as an authentic group above suspicion. Unfortunately such a careless attitude especially of parents has led to many young people getting trapped in abusive religious groups.
It is important to bear in mind that the picture that is displayed of cults on the surface is not the full picture. Members of cultic groups may even confess to the benefit they have received since belonging to the group. Individuals’ experiences in cultic groups will differ depending on their personalities. What is acceptable and bearable for one individual is not necessarily for the next. It is also important to note that members’ reports about cults are influenced by the fear that something terrible will happen to them if they speak out against the deficiencies of the cult and leader. Despite the aforementioned differences in how the practices of cults are perceived knowledge of how cults operate is essential in order to ensure that individuals, your children and loved ones, do not fall prey to such groups.
Cults must not be overestimated nor underestimated. Overestimating a cultic group refers to evaluating or judging a group without the necessary evidence or proof. That happens mostly when people or the media jump to conclusions about the intent of a group based on insufficient evidence or limited knowledge resulting in labeling a group as a cult. To underestimate a cult is even more dangerous and refers to the ignorance of society to the impact of the dynamics of these cultic groups that can be harmful.
The underestimation of cults is conveniently aided by certain aspects they very skillfully employ. (1) Cults deceive society and prospective members in order to recruit and maintain members. One successful manner in obtaining this result is through dissociation and manipulation of members. (2) They display a facade of honesty and respectability by explaining their practices and functioning as authentic expressions of their right to freedom of speech and their right to freedom of religion. (3) Through their practices they progressively isolate members from the outside world and known structures ensuring control over them and creating a dependency on the group. (4) They infiltrate society and hide behind certain front organisations that promote their course and right as authentic religion. (5) Some cults even enjoy a position of influence in the community based on their wealth and are less likely to be exposed by society.
In this context be on the lookout for these groups “if something seems to be too good to be true it is not true”. Test everything even religion!
Generally people believe that religion is a safe and harmless environment. It is a place where people find peace, love and serenity and are spiritually recharged to face the challenges of the post-modern world. Although all of the aforementioned characteristics and expectations of religion seem to be portraying what religion should be all about it is not always true. People can be hurt in any religion where the religious leader misuses his/her authority and position. Religious dynamics unfortunately, further contribute to the susceptibility of believers to be influenced negatively resulting in spiritual harm and suffering. An ideal market for religious groups to proselyte new members is the campuses of universities and colleges. Not only have a great number of the students on these campuses been removed from their known structures and families but they are also energetic and in search of challenges. The prospect of a religion that offers answers and solutions to the challenges of the day that can also bring positive change to the world immediately whet the attention of students. The closely knit community of love in these groups seems to be an ideal interim replacement for their own families.
After young people have joined some religious groups family members observe that previously strong family bonds are deteriorating and the behavior of their loved one has changed, sometimes drastically. When parents of these young people attempt to obtain clarity about the religious group and its activities they are faced with preset answers that seem to be recited in order to address the likely reaction and questions of parents. Parents realise that something is wrong and then look for help and assistance in order to understand what is happening. This aforementioned scenario is the cyclical story of many parents whose children got involve in what is known as alternative religious groups only the names of the people, groups and places differ.
Cultism Dialogue was approached by a mother of a student that got involved in an alternative religion that allegedly functions close by or on the campus of the University of Pretoria known as the World Mission Society Church of God. The WMSCOG is a religious movement that has started in South Korea and has over 2200 churches in 150 countries.
This particular group has a self proclaimed “Messiah” by the name of Ahnsahnghong who has founded the church in 1964. The second coming of Christ according to their belief took place on 14 May, 1948 when Ahnsahnghong was baptised. People can only be saved through Christ Ahnsanhghong and Heavenly mother – that is Ahnsanhghong’s wife. He died in 1985 and ascended to heaven whereafter his wife – Zahng-Gil-Jah became the godly figure that must be worshipped. It is furthermore important to keep the sabbath and to be baptised in order to be saved. Passover is the most important festival of God. All human beings were created in Heaven as angels. The church members seem to believe that they have the only “truth” – all other churches are deceived. Despite this belief they boast three failed doomsday predictions, 1988, 1999 and 2012.
What has become evident through a lengthy interview with the student involved in the group is the well rehearsed reciting of the doctrinal philosophy of the group. Every attempt to direct the person to the standard beliefs of the Christian tradition resulted in circular arguing every time bringing the person to the same conclusion namely that the true messiah is Ahnsahnghong. Although an interview with one member and his parents cannot be taken as a true reflection of the general status of members or the situation in the church it still raises concerns.
The above is only and introduction. Please consult the websites below and others and decide for yourself:
Members of the general public may not be familiar with the term cultism. Cultism broadly refers to a particular phenomenon where an individual or group of individuals make use of certain psychological dynamics in a particular setting (religious or other) to obtain a required result. This influence process is mostly subtle and through the use of certain techniques a person can be moved to do things (radical at times) that he or she would not do under normal circumstance. You may say but that sounds like manipulation that is all around us. You are right and not all manipulation is bad and can be to the advancement of a person. In this case however the manipulation is used to advance another person’s agenda to the detriment of the unaware victim.
It is important to note that any group, religious or non-religious can be applying techniques in a conducive setting that can have a unhealthy impact on the behavior and actions of people. In cultism the focus is specifically on influence (whether will fully or not) that gain unhealthy control over people resulting in dependance on the group or person.
Cultic tendencies have certain pre-investigative pointers that alert about the possibility of its presence. The most common pointer is when a healthy adult person no longer act on his or her own but is prescribed by someone else in all aspects of life. Especially, if the resulting behavior contradicts logic and displays unnatural and radical actions on the side of the person. Another pointer is the persons’ constant reference to a particular authoritative person that must approve any and all of his or her actions. The aforementioned pointers indicate the presence of possible unhealthy influence and control over such persons. Cultism is further characterised by the presence of an authoritative person(s) or body of persons at the helm with either some “godly sanctioning” or a special ability and a charismatic personality that gains respect and submission of people in some cases to the measure where they will follow the person even if it cost them their life.
If there is an indication of any of these features present in someone you know it will be worth your while to prompt for clarity and obtain assistance.
In Bugarach a very small village where only 194 residents live in southern France some believe that an isolated mountain that does not form part of the mountain range provides a safe place to escape the end of the world that will come on 21 December 2012. The mayor informed journalist that 400 policemen will be deployed on the mountain and in the area on the day. Schools in the village will also be closed and nobody will be allowed into Bucharach on that day. Apocalyptic beliefs are part of most religious traditions and it is thus not a totally new belief. Whether 21 December 2012 will indeed be the end of the world is another question. Based on the Mayan calendar this is the day on which the world will end according to this particular belief.
A self -proclaimed “prophet” Faizrakhman Satarov, aged 83, allegedly ordered his more than 70 followers to live in an eight level underground bunker, built underneath his house on the outskirts of the city of Kazan, Russia, for a least a decade. Continue reading
This is the first part of an interview with Steve Hassan, conducted by Tom Smith. Steve has been an active participant in the field of cultism research since the 1970’s. Continue reading