The sinister inner workings of a charismatic church
A CHURCH OF STRANGERS: THE ?UNIVERSAL CHURCH OF THE ?KINGDOM OF GOD IN SOUTH AFRICA ?by Ilana van Wyk (Wits University Press)
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian-founded church with branches worldwide — including a number set up in South Africa — is one of the most controversial new religious movements today.
Banned in some countries, it is condemned by most “mainstream” Christian denominations, including many Pentecostal charismatic churches, as nothing more than an elaborate money-making scheme that uses elements of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity to serve its goals.
It has been examined, and often condemned, by theologians for its practices as well as by sociologists and anthropologists of religion, and regarded (somewhat unfairly, I think) as “typical” of the pernicious nature of religion in general and of charismatic Christianity in particular by secularists of every stripe.
Cape Town-based anthropologist Ilana van Wyk draws on extensive field research (conducted initially for a doctorate) at the church in Durban for this new and important study of the church’s activity in South Africa. Though her approach is secular and academically rigorous, with the intention of understanding rather than condemning it, her explorations reveal an institution that few outside it — whether one is religious or not —can do anything but condemn.
Through the conventional methods of secondary research, interviews (often obtained with difficulty) and participant observation, Van Wyk takes the reader into the theology and practice of the church’s Durban branch.
At the core of the church’s thinking is the idea that God can ?be “bought”: wealth, health, social harmony and happiness are available to members willing to sacrifice large sums of money to the church. Although “prosperity” has been a phenomenon in some Pentecostal charismatic churches since almost the inception of this form of Christianity in the late 19th century, where this church denomination differs radically from the norm is in its practical rejection of many other aspects of Pentecostalism.
There is apparently very little interest in a spirituality of personal relationship with God in Christ that has been a hallmark of the best of Pentecostalism, very limited concern about mutual support among church members — indeed, socialising among church members outside the services (which is characteristic of mainstream Pentecostalism) is minimised.
There is also no charitable or activist dimension to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God to speak of — once again in contrast to a long-established practice in the Christian Evangelical tradition, whose 19th-century antecedents were among those at the forefront of opposing slavery, promoting popular education and establishing welfare for the poor.
Drawing on her participation in a number of the Durban Universal Church of the Kingdom of God services, Van Wyk recounts how Brazilian and local pastors bully and cajole members into donating funds to the church in return for the promise (more often than not, not delivered) of material wellbeing.
These services, as she describes them, are not so much sermons and worship as a cross between motivational seminars and rousing fundraisers, cleverly couched in what I see as profoundly sinister religious discourse.
How is this discourse sinister? For one, it is obsessed with demons and witchcraft, seen as the cause of members’ misfortune. Leaving aside debates about the reality of such phenomena, it is worth noting how manipulative such discourse is, particularly when the majority of church members — in Durban mainly poor, unemployed or underemployed black people, many of whom believe strongly in spirits, demons and witchcraft — believe in this. Being poor is reduced to being “oppressed by demons”.
Failure to gain wealth is a sign of lack of faith (in other words, failure to contribute to the church) and any exercise of financial prudence (in other words, using income or social grants to feed one’s family or educate one’s children) is regarded as “unfaith and possible demonic possession”.
In addition, through interviews with low-ranking officials in the church, Van Wyk notes how a rigid social and gender hierarchy is maintained. Foreign-born clergy enjoy more status (and income) than local clergy; women occupy generally lower ranks than men; office bearers are expected to pay for their uniforms; even such matters as who one marries is subject to higher authority. Religious outsiders are also unwelcome: members are discouraged from interaction with them, even when they are family members.
Van Wyk has done us all a great service in this book. She has contributed a major work in English to the study of this church, the study of cults and marginal religions, the political economy of religion, and by extension, the psychology of marginalised groups. In addition, she highlights a tension emerging in contemporary South Africa: between secularisation on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other.
In many respects, this is one of the most disturbing books I have read in recent years. Though written coolly and dispassionately, as one would expect from an anthropologist, who tries to see the Universal Church in South Africa as a reflection of the wider society and its success as a mirror of economic desperation and marginalisation, one cannot but be horrified by what she recounts.
In presenting these comments, I must declare certain clear “prejudices”: I am an ordained Catholic priest trained in non-Pentecostal Christian theology with a strong interest in ethics. I have also worked for many years in the fields of history and political science. Though not an expert, I know enough about the Pentecostal charismatic tradition (admittedly mainly in its Catholic form) to be aware that the Universal Church, as Van Wyk describes it here, is by no means a reflection of the Pentecostal mainstream. (Nor indeed, I must add, is snake-eating and petrol-drinking!)
What I see (drawing on the field of political science) is rather a ruthless form of manipulation, a kind of brainwashing. On an ethical level, the Universal Church practices Van Wyk describes are immoral: the deliberate manipulation and exploitation of poor people, and the misuse of popular beliefs and fears. In short, this is religious abuse.
And though I readily concede to my secular friends that abuse is a reality, a dark underside in all religions, what we see here is religious abuse taken to new levels. It poses the questions: What is to be done? And what role do mainstreams religions (including Pentecostal Charismatic churches) have in challenging dangerous “religious” practices?