They prostrated themselves on the tarmac, tears streaming down their faces, their hands in the air, chanting, proclaiming, begging and pleading.
“I want my daddy,” one congregant cried out. “I am here to fight for my father, Major 1, who rose my father from death,” declared another outside the Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in Pretoria last Friday.
To outsiders, the mass outpouring of support for self-proclaimed prophet Shepherd Bushiri (35) from followers of the Enlightened Christian Gathering appeared fanatical. After all, he and his wife Mary had been arrested on charges of fraud, money laundering and contravening the Prevention of Organised Crime Act.
Last week, many people labelled the church a cult. But is it?
Eugene Botha, a specialist in theology and religion, says: “A cult is a countercultural or religious institution that lays claim to having a special knowledge that normal culture or religion does not. They find that current culture or religion is flawed and so create this alternative reality that they understand the world through. Often, the leader will claim that they are directly connected to God or, in some instances, that they are Jesus himself.”
Botha, a former professor of theology and religious studies, says it is this connection Bushiri’s followers yearn for, but the Enlightened Christian Gathering is not, he says, a full-blown cult.
“In a cult, adherents are supposed to extract themselves completely from society and normal life. It becomes a new family for them. Bushiri doesn’t command a full-blown cult because his drive is not just religion, but making money,” he says.
“Also, he doesn’t live with his followers. In real cults, leaders create their own communities that pit themselves against the rest of the world.”
In an article in the Stellenbosch Theological Journal in 2012, titled The risk of overestimating and underestimating “religious cults” in South Africa, expert Stephanus Pretorius expanded on the criteria used to classify cults.
“Members display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader. The leader’s belief system, ideology and practices are viewed as the truth; as law. No questioning of doctrine or doubt is tolerated and dissent is discouraged or even punished,” he says.
“The group displays an elite mentality. This means that it claims a special, exalted status for itself, its leaders and members.”
However, classifying a group can be difficult. Pretorius warns against labelling a group as a cult simply because the interpersonal influence of the leader is “harmful”.
“It is understandable that relatives or friends affected by a loved one’s involvement in a particular group are at times desperate to protect them against harmful activities. The question that needs to be asked is whether the person is in a life-threatening situation. If not, a cautious and informed approach is advisable,” Pretorius says.
One of the hallmarks of a cult leader, Botha says, is that they often consider themselves “prophets”.
“Say, for example, that President Cyril Ramaphosa wins a nomination as ANC president during the week. That Sunday, the leader will say that they had predicted that last Sunday. So they create their own ‘miracles’,” he says.
“Also, there needs to be some aspect of healing – this is when you hear testimonies from congregants that they believe their leader healed them. This is one of the techniques they use to create a following.”
Added to this, their lifestyle and wealth is displayed to signify God’s blessing upon them.
“Life is tough. People go for things that give them hope and are sometimes exploited. It happens all over the world,” Botha says.
However, the line between a “normal” religious group and a cult is sometimes blurry.
“In a proper Christian religion, the leader does not posit himself as a conduit to God. Adherents are not expected to change their lives completely to follow their leader or isolate themselves from society. I think Bushiri may have created an opportunistic cult, but not a full-on religious cult,” he says.
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