Is it time to regulate religious practice?Monday, October 25, 2021
Poisonous ritualistic behaviour which led to the deaths of three people and the injuring of others at Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Montego Bay a week ago has shaken all Jamaicans, but more particularly Christians.
It's easy to dismiss what happened as being the result of a cult turned evil or, at the very least, destructively deranged.
However, available evidence suggests that for years church members and the wider Montego Bay community considered Pathways International to be an organisation devoted to Christian worship and, further, that the leader, Kevin Smith, was a man of God.
We say that even while recognising that there should have been red flags, especially because of a seeming complete lack of accountability — financially and otherwise — on the part of the church leadership; and a reported tendency towards manipulative and egomaniacal behaviour.
In the aftermath of the bloodshed and the arrest of Mr Smith and some congregants on October 17, there has been widespread condemnation from Jamaican church leaders.
We are told by the International Council of Pentecostal Bishops (ICOPB), which it seems had previously embraced Mr Smith, that it has severed ties with him.
Archbishop Dr C Lloyd Battieste, chief prelate and president of ICOPB, told the Jamaica Observer that, “We have known the leader of that church for quite some years and have never seen or known of any of this kind of behaviour or false belief systems…”
This newspaper agrees that cultist and socially deviant behaviour by people and organisations claiming to be part of the 'Body of Christ' is not new to Jamaica. But, surely, there has been nothing quite this bad in living memory.
We see parallels — though obviously not at the same scale — with the Jonestown massacre of 1978 when more than 900 men, women, and children, followers of the Rev Jim Jones, died in a mass murder/suicide in the Guyanese jungle.
Similarities are stark, including an all-powerful, charismatic leader, an absence of transparency/accountability, and proactive manipulation even to the point of having followers separate from family and friends.
Inevitably, there are suggestions there needs to be some level of regulation governing religious practice in Jamaica.
That's easier said. The Jamaican Constitution insists on religious freedom, which, as we understand it, allows anyone to start preaching or to set up church.
In July, following a spate of reports alleging scandalous sexual misconduct by pastors, this newspaper carried a strong call from church leaders for some sort of regulatory regime and code of conduct.
“Every single church in Jamaica should be properly registered or incorporated by an Act of Parliament,” said chairman of the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches (JUGC) Reverend Dr Peter Garth. The JUGC was said to represent more than 90 per cent of Jamaican Christians.
“I am very nervous when churches do not want to be registered and want to stay under the radar, and doing it in the name of religion… We need to take a serious look. I would rubbish any argument that being registered impinges on religious freedoms. We must put ourselves in a position that we can be scrutinised,” Dr Garth said.
It's difficult, but it seems to this newspaper that 'time come'.