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Religion under scrutiny

...of commitment, communes, and cultic behaviour

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, November 17, 2019

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Recent developments in the Bayith Yahweh compound in Paradise Gardens, St James, necessitating State intervention in order to ensure the safety and protection of children belonging to that religious commune, has served to open up once more a discussion about religion, its nature, and its potential for becoming a negative rather than a positive force. Media reports that quote the Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon-Harrison indicate that six children have been forcibly removed from that commune amidst allegations that there are children in the commune who do not attend public schools, are schooled on the premises, and are sometimes beaten after being accused of demon possession. In addition, there are allegations of the children being forcibly married as soon as they reach the age of 16.

The issue surrounding the children having come to the fore, there have surfaced additional allegations from the police and members of the surrounding community of members of the commune being coerced into selling their property and handing over their assets to the leader of the commune, and of being subject to control in a manner likened to a cult. Indeed, media reports suggest that the police 'invasion' of the community was sparked by complaints from the grandmother of some of the children rescued from the commune that the operations of the commune were inimical to the interest of children as defined by national norms and legislation.

Unfortunately, reflection on religion among some people has been handled in very superficial ways. At the same time, some religiously committed individuals and institutions have even been agents for fostering ignorance and a lack of creative and critical engagement among adherents and the wider society. Consequently, the surfacing of religious issues in moments of national debate and focus has often led to emotionally charged responses, cynicism, and condemnation, rather than meaningful dialogue, discourse, and deep analysis.

Certainly, there are those who, under the influence of secularism, modernity, and agnosticism, would advance the position that religion needs to be dismissed and marginalised as a relic of superstition, ignorance, and of an age that is past.

It is in response to some of these perspectives that, while addressing students in one of the church-owned and operated teachers' colleges not long ago, I reiterated my belief and that of my denomination that education which only seeks to prepare people for the workforce, and does not prepare them to be critical and independent thinkers, is not worthy of the name and may better be characterised as training or indoctrination, and may serve the interest of those in various sectors of leadership who can continue to manipulate and exploit our people.

It is true that education is a major vehicle for individual and national development, but education must also seek to help students forge a strong sense of identity as individuals and as Jamaicans, as well as develop as analytical and critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

Against this background, I went on to assert that religion expressed in the classroom, and in the interaction between teachers and students, must function in ways consistent with the goals of education; that is, it must seek to liberate and not imprison, or be an instrument for indoctrination of young minds.

Religious communes are not new to Jamaica. Perhaps the most famous one was that commune which developed around Alexander Bedward in August Town and which is a part of Jamaican folklore. There is no question that Bedward was the unquestionable leader of the commune consisting of a large number of people who sold their property and came to live in his commune. Though labelled as a maniac by the colonial authorities of the day, Bedward was more than a mere madman and religious fanatic. He was one of the pioneering figures in Jamaican history who asserted black nationalism and black pride, and who was a threat to the status quo of his day, although eventually dismissed and institutionalised as a mentally ill person.

There have, however, been religious communes of a sinister nature across the world and within our Caribbean region. One such was the Jim Jones commune in Guyana which existed up to the 1980s. This was a commune which typified what has been defined as a religious cult and possessing classical features identified in the following terms: “A religious or semi-religious sect whose members are controlled almost entirely by a single individual or by an organisation. This kind of cult is usually manipulative, demanding total commitment and loyalty from its followers. Converts are usually cut off from all former associations, including their own families.”

During the days of the tragic events of Jonestown, Guyana, when Jim Jones led so many of his members into a suicide pact, I gave an address to a service club on the topic 'A view of the other side of religion'. Some were shocked to learn that the Christian faith could be used to do such ghastly things. What was equally disturbing was the fact that many were very uncomfortable focusing on the distortions that can take place in the realm of religion when adherents and others do not engage religious phenomenon and their religious affiliation and commitment with their critical faculties.

This should raise an alarm bell for those who have come out of a family experience of religious commitment and who decide that they will not expose their children to participation in religious activities, but will leave it to them to decide when they come of age. The reality is that if parents fail to expose their children to healthy religious expression, then they will not have the foundation for making healthy choices later in life. Indeed, there are parents who have had a marginal relationship with their religious tradition of birth and who are shocked when their children affiliate with extremist religious expressions when they come of age.

What, then, are some of the danger signs for which one should look when seeking affiliation with a religious group or when assessing the integrity of a religious group or institution?

• Are members controlled almost entirely by a single individual or by the organisation? Often such a leader is a charismatic figure who is able to attract and foster the allegiance and loyalty of the followers or, in the case of the organisation, the control of the group.

• Where the religious group is led by a single individual, is there affiliation to any judicatory authority to which the individual is answerable, or is he or she the ultimate authority in all matters?

• Are there signs that the members are not free to question the beliefs and practices of the leader or the organisation or, is there evidence of a culture that is manipulative, demanding total commitment and loyalty from its followers to beliefs and practices with which the individual is not comfortable?

• Is there evidence that converts are pressured to sever their connection from all former associations, including their own families?

Developments in the Bayith Yahweh compound in Paradise Gardens, St James, have attracted national attention and have caused us to ask questions regarding the nature of religion and its potential for expression in distorted ways. It has also raised serious questions regarding the point at which the State may interfere in the practice of religious liberty by citizens. At the same time, it would be nave of us to think that this is a singular expression of such potential for distortion, and that its membership may be the sole expression of allegiance to a religious leader and/or institution which manifests distorted aspects of the religious life and phenomenon. It may be that these developments call us once more to reflect in creative and critical ways on our own religious commitment, or the lack thereof.

Howard Gregory is archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, primate and metropolitan, as well as bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.


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