Peter Espeut | Cult and culture
Describing a religious formation as a cult is not helpful, as modern use of the term is really a form of hate speech rather than a technical description. Originally the word ‘cult’ was related to ‘culture’, and referred to a set of religious...
Describing a religious formation as a cult is not helpful, as modern use of the term is really a form of hate speech rather than a technical description. Originally the word ‘cult’ was related to ‘culture’, and referred to a set of religious practices that were established within a society. Ancient Rome, for example, had a ‘Cult of the Emperor’ who was considered to be a god, and ancient mystery cults grew up around sacred stories about life and death.
In my own religious tradition, we happily use the expression ‘the Cult of Mary’ with no pejorative meaning, referring to the legitimate honour and devotion we pay to the mother of Jesus.
In the 20th century, religious groups with unorthodox beliefs were referred to as cults, and the term came to be used to refer to any “religion I don’t like”. The term has become attached to groups practising bizarre religious rituals – including sexual acts – around human and animal sacrifice. One immediately thinks of the mass suicide led by Jim Jones of the People’s Temple in the Guyanese interior, and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians and the fiery siege in Waco Texas.
Cults usually centre on a charismatic figure who is adored by his or her followers, to the point of emotional and even sexual submission. This type of behaviour satisfies a deeply felt need, fills a gap in lived experience, and provides a sense of belonging. It has to do with the search for identity, among a people alienated from themselves and their surroundings. Jamaica, with its culture of weak family structure and substandard formal education, is fertile ground for the emergence of cults with their charismatic cult leaders.
But one man’s cult is another man’s intensely held religion. Many would describe Alexander Bedward (founder of the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church in August Town), Leonard Howell (founder of the Rastafarians), and Imogene Kennedy – Miss Queenie (famed Revivalist healer of St Thomas) – as cult leaders. It all depends on what you believe, what you hold to be sacred. We Jamaicans like messiahs: “We will follow Bustamante till we die!” they sang, and then some decades later: “Jesus died for us; we will die for Dudus!”
FALL FOR ANYTHING
Gully or Gaza? Joshua, the Fresh Prince, or Brogad? If we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything.
In the Jamaican Pukkumina tradition, the shepherd leads the faithful in dancing to the pulsating drums, severs the head of a chicken, and scatters the blood around the room. In good revival tradition, cotton trees and croton bushes are of special spiritual significance, and boiling all sorts of bush and drinking the tea is preferred to seeking medical advice.
Would you call this cultic behaviour: in the 1990s a congregation of a ‘church’ on lower Mountain View Avenue, believing that there would be a huge flood, sold all their belongings and took refuge on the roof.
How about those who believe that the COVID-19 vaccine is the ‘mark of the beast’? And the many who refuse to be vaccinated because the microchip they believe it contains will change their DNA? Isn’t that cultish behaviour? It seems that some of us Jamaicans will believe anything.
In a nation that believes in freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, it is unlikely that there could ever be a ban on cults or cultish behaviour; no political party, no church could pass the test. Religion is about mystery, about addressing profound human issues like the meaning of life, death and the spirit world.
I know that many will dub my own religious tradition – which has both word and sacrament – as a cult. We believe that, following Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, the bread and wine offered up in our assemblies really becomes his body and blood, which is then offered to us as real food and drink. Over the centuries, we have been called cannibals! Cultists!
We believe that the cup we drink is the blood of the New Covenant (taken inside our bodies), replacing the Old Covenant in the blood of bullocks (splashed on the outside). And this is what makes us Christians, we who worship on Sunday, the day of the New Covenant, and for whom all foods are now ritually clean.
There are others who call themselves Christians who choose to follow the Old Covenant, worshipping on the day of the pre-Christian covenant, and following the old pre-Christian dietary laws. Nothing could be more cultic than that, some will say.
Cults abound in Jamaica.
Recent happenings in Montego Bay are shocking because they involve human sacrifice, and may be extreme cases of cultic behaviour; but they do fit in to the overall pattern, and the fact that they have hundreds of followers is not surprising, as this sort of religious belief fits into our culture.
Were critical thinking and philosophy part of our high school and tertiary curriculum, the charlatans among us would have fewer followers. If our families were stronger, and our churches less fundamentalist, we would not be so easily misled by religious and political messiahs.
But then, maybe that is the plan!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is dean of studies at St. Michael’s Theological College. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org