Cult scene: New Zealand and Africa

 Images Jtr9 08-A Brandou-1

"Medication" by Andrew Brandou, from his Jonestown paintings

Guestblogger Arthur Goldwag is the author of "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more" and other books.

Some people use the word "cult" as a pejorative, a catchall for sects whose beliefs and practices fall out of the mainstream of organized religion. I use the word as a social scientist or psychologist would, to denote a coercive or totalizing relationship between a dominating leader and his or her unhealthily dependent followers. As I wrote in Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, "what makes a cult cultish is not so much what it espouses, but how much authority its leaders grant themselves--and how slavishly devoted to them its followers are."

Robert Lifton, the distinguished psychologist and author of many books, including Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China (1961), defined cults in a 1981 letter in the Harvard Mental Health Letter as an "aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or fundamentalism." Cults, he continued, can be identified by three characteristics: 1) A charismatic leader who makes him or herself an object of worship; 2) A process of "coercive persuasion or thought reform" ("brainwashing," it is sometimes called); and 3) Economic, sexual, or psychological exploitation of members by the cult's leadership. The chief tool of coercive persuasion, Lifton writes, is "milieu control: the control of all communication within a given environment." When a guru forbids new recruits from communicating with their families; when members are urged to make extravagant donations; and when a guru declares themselves infallible, either God's chosen messenger or God Himself, warning flags should go up.

In the last couple of weeks, I flagged news items about two cults -- one in New Zealand, one in Africa.

Twenty five members of a cult that forbids its members to eat cooked foods were recently arrested in Uganda for trespassing on privately held land, according to this article in the October 25th New Vision ("Uganda's leading website"); a similar group was arrested last summer and sentenced to a year in prison. Uganda's crackdown on cults began in 2000, when 500 members of a cult based in Kanungu commit suicide.

The death count was actually much higher-possibly more than 1000. And they weren't suicides, but murders. The victims were members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a Mariolatrous doomsday cult led by a former Catholic school administrator named Joseph Kibwetere and Dominic Kataribaabo, an excommunicated priest. In the early 1990s, they merged their group with one run by a seeress and ex-prostitute named Keledonia Mwerinde, who also received visions from Mary and Jesus; in 1997, they claimed to have 4500 followers. Members sold their possessions and donated the proceeds to the church. While they awaited the apocalypse-which was predicted for midnight, December 31, 2000-they lived in compounds, wore uniforms, worked twelve hour days in the sugar fields, and fasted two days a week. Sex was forbidden, as was speech-members communicated with each other in sign language. The cult's scripture, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times, which records the leaders' visions, was studied carefully. When Doomsday didn't arrive on schedule, church members grew restive; some demanded their property back. On March 17, 2000, more than 500 members-men, women, and children-were locked into a church that was set on fire; in the weeks that followed, a number of mass graves were uncovered. Click here to see the story from the April 1, 2000 Newsweek.

Warrants were issued for the top leadership of the church but they were never located. There were rumors that Mwerinde had murdered Kibwetere and Katariabaabo and fled with her family and the church's fortune; Kibwetere's wife later told authorities that he had died well before the fire, in 1999.

A New York Times article from March 19, 2000 provides an essential piece of context that helps explain why the Movement's millenarian message found so many receptive ears: "The church is 25 miles north of Rwanda, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide, and 10 miles from Congo, where armies of six African nations have been drawn into a civil war." Some 5.4 million people were killed in that war; Uganda, of course, endured Idi Amin's bloody regime until 1979.

And then there's this, from just last weekend:

Newspapers, TV newscasts, and blogs in New Zealand lit up after 700 new members of The Destiny Church swore an oath of personal loyalty to its founder, Bishop Brian Tamaki, which reads: "To you Bishop we pledge our allegiance, our faithfulness and loyalty. We pledge to serve the cause that is in your heart and to finish that work. Success to you and success to those who help you - for God is with you." According to NZTV, "Mark Vrankovich from Cultwatch, says the covenant contains the type of mechanisms by which cults go askew. 'The pattern is the risk,' says Vrankovich who is upset that Tamaki seems to claim to be the mouthpiece of God. 'Destiny Church is not a Christian church following Jesus Christ. It is a church following a man by the name of Brian Tamaki who claims to be the mouthpiece of God.'" Tamaki's organization also sponsors New Zealand's ultra-conservative Family Party. In 2004, Tamaki said "I predict in the next five years, by the time we hit our 10th anniversary - and I don't say this lightly - that we will be ruling the nation."

It wasn't so much the oath that roused the furor as the document which accompanied it, entitled Protocols and Requirements Between Spiritual Father & His Spiritual Sons, which takes, Garth George of The New Zealand Herald noted, "1300 words to describe in jaw-dropping detail how the 'spiritual sons' shall behave towards their 'spiritual father.'" Sons are instructed to always speak of the Bishop and his wife "in a favourable and positive light" and cautioned to treat them with respect and dignity. "Even though he is very sociable and open--remember who he is!" Followers must rise when the Bishop enters the room and may sit only after he is seated. They must never criticize the Bishop or his family or the church themselves and should not allow anyone else to do so. "You are not only to stop them in their tracks but warn them that they criticize you when they criticize Bishop."

Tamaki, a high-school dropout, grew up on a farm and became deeply involved in a succession of Pentecostal churches in the late 1970s. He launched the Destiny Church in a warehouse in Auckland in 1998 with 20 members; today it claims 9000 members throughout New Zealand (and has opened a branch in Australia). Destiny Church has a close relationship with the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia; Tamaki calls its pastor Eddie Long his spiritual father.

Appropriately enough, Tamaki preaches the Prosperity Gospel, which has by all accounts worked very well for him and his family. Members tithe to the church; they also provide an annual "first fruits" gift to the pastor and his family, amounting to $300,000-$500,000. According to the New Zealand Herald:

Bishop Tamaki's six-figure salary is paid from church revenue, through the Destiny International Trust. He also receives revenue raised by the church's Proton Bookstore - where his messages can be bought on CD or DVD for between $10 and $20 - and Proton Gym.

Bishop Tamaki and Hannah are the sole shareholders in the Proton Trustee Company Ltd. The couple are also shareholders in Tamaki Productions Ltd and Tamaki Investments Ltd.

They own a $1.2 million clifftop home with views of the Hauraki Gulf, which is now for sale, and a $100,000 boat and expensive cars and motorcycles.


  1. Something a professor once told me: cults may or may not have a clear idea of what “god” is, but they always have a very clear idea of who or what “the devil” is.

  2. A leader who makes himself an object of worship, a process of coercion, a pattern of economic exploitation? Sounds like every company I’ve ever worked for.

  3. Lessee here (licks end of pencil)…

    Survives on donations from members – CHECK
    Has a human mouthpiece who claims to be a direct conduit to God – CHECK
    Has rules as to how members are to relate to that personage – CHECK
    Leader lives in opulence while believers live in squalor – CHECK


    Sounds to me like Bishop Tamaki just needs to hire some pedophiles and he’ll give the Catholic Church a real run for it’s money.

  4. “If you want to get rich, start a religion” – L. Ron Hubbard

    On a related note – there’s very little difference between groups like this, and a lot of the popular fundamentalist chistian groups. Which probably won’t surpsise anyone here. What’s more surprising is that a lot of the pyramid schemes are also pretty much the same.

  5. My rule of thumb to distinguish a cult from a religion: is the founder dead? If not, it’s a cult.

    If nothing else, it raises the bar for anyone thinking of starting a religion.

  6. Lifton’s work was seminal but people moved on from his theories, which sprang from his work on Thought Reform in Chinese P.O.W. camps, to things more like Dr. Singer’s work. This was along the lines of envisioning relationships in cults to be the multiple player versions of The Boyfriend/Husband From Hell.

    There was initially something there, during the seduction phase of the relationship, but now it’s clear that the relationship is very one-sided and abusive. Leaving is, however, very difficult due to: the kids, the financial considerations, the shame of admitting that you were once weak enough to get suckered into this mess; and the fear of retribution (up to and including homicide) if you repudiate the Head Jerk or go to the cops.

    I remember one apostate telling me that, after fleeing the group’s compound and going on the lam, he found himself in a falling apart diner in the ass-end of the universe. The Senior Citizen waitress thought that he looked like one of the more troubled refugees to this Borderland of Entropy and asked him if he was in some kind of trouble. Never having had the opportunity to honestly talk to anybody about the cult life, he spilled his guts and told her all about the horrors thereof.

    She asked him why he hadn’t split a long time ago; say back when things had only gotten 50% as awful as they eventually got. He started to say “Well, have you ever been in a bad relationship with some guy who…”.

    “Say no more,” she interjected. “I get’cha.”

    Shameless plug: One truly excellent source of information on things cultish is Canada’s very own specialist library on the subject –

    I don’t represent them in any way but merely think highly of them and especially of their longevity in the notoriously high-turnover world of anti-organizational organizations.

  7. Thanks for bringing Brian Tamaki and Destiny Church to this blog. As a New Zealander, this is one of the things that bugs me the most at the current time. Destiny Church is getting more and more cult-like as time goes on. Their most disgraceful action was a mass-march against the civil union bill that was passed here a few years back. No surprise, but Brian Tamaki believes gay people are abominations and insists there are no gay people in his congregation.

    Destiny church have a large percentage of Maori and Pacific Island members in their congregation. Many are the disenchanted and down-beaten who are lured to Destiny by the parenting classes and counselling for marriages. That’s where the brain washing begins, and soon these generally poor people and giving most of their money to the church.

  8. “Since the 1960s, there has been a burgeoning not of governments but of independent entrepreneurial groups that go into the mind-manipulation and personality-change business. Myriads of false messiahs, quacks, and leaders of cults and thought-reform groups have emerged who use Orwellian mind-manipulation techniques. They recruit the curious, the unaffiliated, the trusting, and the altruistic. They promise intellectual, spiritual, political, social, and self-actualization utopias. These modern-day pied pipers offer, among other things, pathways to God, salvation, revolution, personal development, enlightenment, perfect health, psychological growth, egalitarianism, channels to speak with 35,000-year- old “entities,” life in ecospheres, and contact with extraterrestrial beings.

    “There is truly a smorgasbord of spiritual, psychological, political, and other types of cults and cultic groups seeking adherents and devotees. Contrary to the myth that those who join cults are seekers, it is the cults that go out and actively and aggressively find followers. Eventually, those groups subject their followers to mind-numbing treatments that block critical and evaluative thinking and subjugate independent choice in a context of a strictly enforced hierarchy.

    “The wisdom of the ages is that most manipulation is subtle and covert. When Orwell drew on this wisdom, he envisioned the evolution of an insidious but successful mind and opinion manipulator. He would appear as a smiling, seemingly beneficent Big Brother. But instead of one Big Brother, we see hordes of Big Brothers in the world today. Many of them are cult leaders.”–Margaret Singer, from CULTS IN OUR MIDST

    I have posted extensively on my own blog ( about James Arthur Ray, the so-called “sweat lodge guru” who is being investigated for a triple homicide in Arizona. Ray preaches an updated version of New Thought or Mind Science that’s hyped up with the trappings of Amerindian and Eastern religions; a mix of prosperity gospel, Noetic Science, and Rich Dad/Poor Dad motivational cheer-leading for greed. Whether or not his business (which some anti-cult types characterize as an LGAT, or Large Group Awareness Training enterprise, a la Werner Erhard’s est and Landmark Forum) constitutes a cult, there’s no question that he fits the profile of a cult leader to a “T”–narcissistic, greedy, insensitive, manipulative.

    Someone once wrote that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. A religion is a cult with lots of money, an organization, and a long history–but even the most mainstream religion can be hijacked by a sufficiently grandiose leader, and most of them have been at one time or another.

  9. Somewhat mixed on the subject of the Destiny Church. They do actually do good work with the poor, and keeping kids out of criminal gangs. The problem is their leadership – I don’t know what Tamaki actually believes in a religious sense, but I certainly can’t respect a leader who takes money from some of NZ’s poorest, and uses it to live a life of luxury.

  10. Bizarrely both Garth George and Cultwatch are known for being extremely right-wing christians…if they say something is loopy then you’d better believe there’s something wrong with it.

    I remember going to the anti Tamaki protest over the whole civil unions thing, really really creepy.

  11. Arthur Goldwag, can you stick around here for more than two weeks? I’m really digging your posts. The one thing I’ve always said I’d do if I ever came into a cash windfall would be to go back to university to seek a masters in cultural anthropology. What you write about is what I’m interested in. I’ve never been a participant in organized religion, only an observer. This sh@t absolutely fascinates me: the adherents, the leaders, the enablers, the invented cultures. All of it.


    1. You’re welcome to drop by my own blog any time you like. So glad you’re enjoying the postings! The commentary on this one is a little less, I don’t know–fractious?–than the ones on 9/11 Truth and Birtherism.

      1. Yeah. Cults are not a happy mutants around BB. Check out some previous postings on L. Ron Hubbard’s money maker.

        I’ll definately have to add your blog to my repetoir.

  12. “I use the word as a social scientist or psychologist would, to denote a coercive or totalizing relationship between a dominating leader and his or her unhealthily dependent followers.”

    So, the Pope then?

    Only differences between “cults” and “religion” are the size of the bank account and the amount of time it’s managed to stick around. Nice post though.

  13. Suggesting that the Pope is coercive or that he has a totalizing relationship with Catholics, or that he dominates members or the church, or (as a previous poster suggested) that he claims to be a direct conduit to God, is to show a complete lack of familiarity with the Pope’s position and function and a complete lack of knowledge of the Catholic church. People should educate themselves before flinging the feces of ignorance.

    That said, I do find issue with the provided method of recognizing a cult:
    three characteristics: 1) A charismatic leader who makes him or herself an object of worship; 2) A process of “coercive persuasion or thought reform” (“brainwashing,” it is sometimes called); and 3) Economic, sexual, or psychological exploitation of members by the cult’s leadership

    1- Christ was a charismatic leader who is his followers object of worship. 2- He was a bit coercive: Believe what I’m telling you or you’ll burn for eternity. 3- And he had his apostles give up all their belongings. (No evidence that he exploited those belongings, but in having them left behind he certainly gave his followers a stronger imperative to follow him lest they starve.)

    So are you saying that Christianity is a cult that outlived it’s founder? Whether a person is Christian or not – even if they are an ardent atheist – it’s not often somebody actually considers Christianity itself to be a cult. (Certain offshoots of it, certainly, but not mainstream Christianity.)

    On the other side of the coin, consider Pastafarianism – the worpship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s a parody religion, created purely as satire. But it outlines a set of beliefs. It has no real leader, and certainly no leader who has made themselves an object of worship. There is no coercion or brainwashing. And nobody gets financially exploited. Yet, it is conceivable that a person could make the decision that the teachings of the FSM embody the traits of the person they would like to be. Such person could convince their friends of the same thing, and together they could work to commune with the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Such a group would undoubtedly be considered by most to be a cult. Especially if it’s activities (rental of a meeting hall, maybe a local rally, whatever) are paid for by donations from it’s members – even if no member of the group claimed leadership or kept a penny of those donations. Yet it meets none of the three indicators given.

    It seems to me that other indicators are needed, or else the definition of a cult becomes nothing more than an excuse to persecute religion in general.

    What are those indicators? I don’t know. You certainly have a more extensive background in these matters than I. But just as it doesn’t take a good actor to recognize a bad one, it doesn’t take a theological genius to notice that a definition of a bit of theology is lacking.

    All that said, I enjoyed your article. It had many good points, and I think raising cult-awareness is good for society as a whole. These groups do terrible things to their members and to those who love a member, and their activity must be curtailed. Public awareness is a major factor in that curtailment. But the way we define a cult must avoid persecution of religion in general lest the anti-cult activity become guilty of being anti-religion.

  14. Eating Media Lunch, a satirical NZ news show, did a piece on Destiny/Brian Tamaki and its “Family Values March” a thinly (or not at all) veiled anti-gay protest:

    Best bits:

    1) The Destiny Church members who had “seen the Matrix one too many times”.

    2) Asking supporters what Jesus would have thought of the march “if he were gay” and watching them struggle with that concept.

  15. Groups like Cultwatch define cults firstly on the basis of their heterodoxy, second on the basis of their leaders’ misuse of power. To them, a cult poses risks not just to its members dignity or pocketbooks, sanity or physical safety, but to their eternal souls. By their lights, the Mormons and the Jehovah’s witnesses are as cultish as either of the groups I wrote about here(they use the word almost as a synonym for heretical).

    By my agnostic, non-committal lights, any belief system (especially one that I don’t subscribe to) is going to seem odd in one particular or another. An anthropologist from Mars would think it weird that some Christians “eat” their Lord’s body or that Jews and Muslims cut off a piece of their children’s genitals. That’s part of the nature of religious belief–as Kierkegaard put it, faith is by virtue of the absurd.

    I don’t consider the Pope a cult leader (though Papal infallibility is not an idea that particularly appeals to me), but there are Cultish aspects to Catholicism. As has often been noted, Opus Dei numeraries (full-time devotees) live lives that resemble those of cult members–not only are they required to discipline themselves corporally, but their comings and goings are monitored, their mail is opened, their reading and movie viewing are censored, they turn over their income to the movement, and they are required to confess weekly, reporting their own and their fellows’ lapses. The same could be said of monks and priests and nuns of course but critics of Opus Dei point out that its members are recruited from the laity, often in colleges–and that they are urged to cut off contact with their families.

    All of which is a long-winded way of admitting that you won’t get a “theological” definition of cults from me, precisely because I don’t want to cast too wide a net–or make parochial judgments. Religion and faith are highly personal and irrational (supra-rational might be a less offensive term) by definition and the Second Amendment rightly protects a wide range of beliefs and practices. As far as the courts go, the way to stop the next Jim Jones is by recourse to RICO prosecutions, I think, for specifically defined acts of criminal behavior–sexual abuse, extortion, fraud, etc. But I’m neither a lawyer, a theologian, or an anthropologist–I’m just a writer.

  16. Arthur,
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Exclusive Brethren as well, who have a long history in Australia and NZ. They call their leader the “Elect Vessel”. Hell, what about God’s Supreme Voice on Earth, Supreme Master Ching Hai as well while we are it?
    Me, I’ll stick with the Cthulhu Cult…

  17. I literally picked two cults out of a hat to write about. Destiny had been in the headlines, as had the unnamed African cult. I was disturbed that I didn’t know about the The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments–I really feel like they should have been in my book; a lacunae I will fix if there is ever another edition.

    If you’re curious, there’s a guru-rating website run by a Bhagwan Rajneesh devotee that has so many names on it that the mind fairly boggles: The vast majority of these guys aren’t (or weren’t–a lot of them are dead) cult leaders. But it provides impressive testimony to how much more religion there is than what you find in mainstream churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues.

  18. Good work – Destiny church is scary.

    Definitely check out Exclusive Brethren, but also the super rich Hillsong out of Sydney.

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