Michael Abrahams | Lessons from the ‘ark’
The tragic events that unfolded at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Albion, St James, are disturbing. At a ceremony on Sunday, October 17, about 144 men, women, and children gathered in the church, violating a rule...
The tragic events that unfolded at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Albion, St James, are disturbing. At a ceremony on Sunday, October 17, about 144 men, women, and children gathered in the church, violating a rule banning movement on that day in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Congregants were summoned by its leader, Kevin Smith, who refers to himself as ‘His Excellency Dr Kevin O. Smith, Jamaica’s Eminent International Ambassador Israel God King 999’. They were told to prepare to board an ‘ark’. The rainbow-themed ritual included two days of fasting. Participants were dressed in white and were told to leave their cell phones behind. However, at the venue, some of the faithful were in for a rude awakening, as those considered ‘unclean’ were reportedly told that their blood had to be shed.
And blood was shed. A distraught member of the flock reported that she was about to sign up her children in the church community when she witnessed the death of a fellow church member, who was sacrificed. Another witness said a senior member of the church stabbed some members after telling them it would allow them to embark on a “heavenly journey”.
Police were alerted and arrived on the scene. By the time the meeting was brought to an end, two church members were stabbed to death, allegedly after their throats were slashed, and another shot dead by the police when they responded to the calls for help. Another three who were injured were taken to hospital.
Several church leaders have condemned the incident, and rightly so, describing the organisation as a cult. They are correct, but some may be failing to see the bigger picture, that any religion, including Christianity, has the potential to generate organisations such as Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries.
The Bible, the book revered by Christians as the Word of God, has many improbable stories. We read about a snake having a conversation with a naked woman in a garden; a donkey speaking to a man; and a man raising his hand and, after issuing a command, having the ocean part so that he and his followers can walk through. Then there is the central belief of the religion, that a virgin gave birth to a son who walked on the sea, brought a dead man back to life, magically multiplied food at a feast, and after his own death, came back to life after three days, and walked around and interacted with others before ascending into the sky.
We are socialised to believe these stories and warned not to doubt them. Indeed, children have been punished for openly voicing their disbelief or challenging the veracity of some of these tales; and even adults have been marginalised for openly expressing their scepticism.
Juxtaposed to this is the belief that the God of the Bible is the “one true living God”, and a loving and merciful God, but that He also drowned and incinerated His own children (who he loved), and also instructed humans to slaughter many others.
The combination of these beliefs makes one susceptible to believing other strange and improbable supernatural stories and concepts, and tolerant of cruelty. The fact that many Jamaicans are survivors of childhood trauma, experience economic hardship, are suboptimally educated, and live in an aggressive, violent and stressful society make them vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous clergy.
As long as religion thrives in this country, incidents like the tragedy in St James are likely to occur, if they are not already taking place. Indeed, psychological abuse exists in some churches, where congregants are shamed for behaviour deemed to be ‘sinful’, shunned if they dare leave the flock, influenced to disown family members, and persuaded to hand over their hard-earned money to wealthy church leaders, while they continue to live in squalor. Once a member of the flock is convinced that the leader is a ‘man (or woman) of God’, and that the doctrine they preach is God’s Word, and that God speaks to them, they will do anything that clergy tells them to, which may include harming others or themselves.
And, we are seeing this play out in the pandemic, as the belief by some church folk that the COVID-19 vaccines are the ‘mark of the beast’ is a contributing factor to vaccine hesitancy in this country. People have told me that they have not been vaccinated because “God has not told them to take the vaccine”, or they are “waiting in God” to tell them what do. All this while the unvaccinated are dying at a higher rate than those who are vaccinated.
In my opinion, this tragedy should not be used to condemn religion, but to re-evaluate our approach to it. The institutionalised religious indoctrination of our children, which has become ingrained in our culture, should be seriously examined, as this is a potential barrier to critical thinking, tolerance and harmony. Churches also need to be monitored, not just their dogmas and their doctrines, but also their activities and how they handle the money they are given by their trusting flocks. We all have a right to our beliefs, but the vulnerable should be protected from being abused, manipulated and taken advantage of.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator, and human-rights advocate. Send feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @mikeyabrahams.