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.