Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

“Delbert Africa (center) glares at deputies as he and Chuck Sims Africa leave court at City Hall during their 1979 trial for the murder of Officer James Ramp.” Chuck Sims Africa was released from prison in February 2020. (Photo: PRENTICE COLE/Daily News)

defining religion (2)

building a “cult”

What we’re reading/listening to

We’re wrapping up our discussion of this book (and also the semester), but for members of MOVE, these issues are still very much ongoing.

Demby, “I’m from Philly. 30 Years Later, I’m Still Trying to Make Sense of the MOVE Bombing”

“Philadelphia’s police had killed nearly a dozen people and, in the process, leveled an entire swath of a neighborhood full of middle-class black homeowners. Neither the mayor who approved the bombing nor the police officials and officers who executed the bombing ever faced any official repercussions.” Gene Demby, NPR

I just…my grandmother lived in West Philly her entire life. Every single K-8 class trip was to Philadelphia. I’m not sure I can fully explain the mindfuck that is growing up so close to this and not learning the police burned down 65 homes — that they DROPPED TWO BOMBS on the city — until five years ago.

Evans, “Conclusion”

CW like whoa for some extremely descriptive language about the decaying bodies of MOVE members murdered by the police.

For six months the bodies of the MOVE people killed in the MOVE Bombing decomposed in a city morgue. Their bodies had been left out in the rubble at Osage Avenue for days, and the remains were not carefully removed. (Evans 2020, 255)

Ugh, impossible to read this and not think of the bodies of the Jonestown dead. This is heartbreaking.

To MOVE people, John Africa’s body, once dead, was not special. Like all living things, it was a collection of carbon that would, over time, decompose, then recompose into new Life — all part of God’s cycle of existence. But the life that had once inhabited that body had been special. That life had transcended the mundane. It had escaped the System. The life that once inhabited that body could rightly be called God. So the death of that man, John Africa, was both ordinary and unimaginable. His death was the death of a god. (ibid.)

It would be interesting to consider the MOVE perspective on death with that of Father Divine’s Peace Mission. How are they similar? Do they differ in important ways?

The kinds of groups, beliefs, and practices [religious studies professors] usually teach and write about tend to look like MOVE. MOVE has a sacred text that attends to ultimate concerns — life and death, good and evil, being and transcending. MOVE people revere a prophetic leader. They maintain a set of practices — bodily discipline, aesthetics, diet — that they understand as religious in nature. In light of this evidence, it is tempting to conclude that MOVE was, in fact, a religion. But MOVE was not a religion; or, more precisely, MOVE was not allowed to be a religion. (Evans 2020, 259)

What does Evans mean by “MOVE was not allowed to be a religion?” What does this assertion tell us about how religion gets defined and by whom?

“We see, in MOVE, people striving toward what they believed was a better world and grappling with what it means to be authentically human. We see the voiceless and the marginalized believing in their own agency. All of this — the pain and the joy, hypocrisy and commitment, violence and peace, despair and hope, life- giving and death- bringing — is precisely what religion is.”

(Evans 2020, 260)

Evans, “Building a Cult”

“MOVE did not ‘transform’ into a cult in the 1980s. What changed was the way Americans thought about religion.” (Evans 2020, 177)

I know most of you haven’t started Butler’s Parable of the Talents yet, but when y’all get there, let’s come back to similarities between calling John Africa “the Coordinator” and Olamina “Shaper,” (Evans 2020, 177). The titles don’t reflect equivalent understandings of the divine, but there are some interesting overlaps, I think.

Classifying MOVE as a cult allowed people inside and outside of the group to understand MOVE within an invented historical context of other religious groups including the Unification Church, the Worldwide Church of God, and the People’s Temple [sic]. But it also allowed people to infer that the characteristics associated with other groups classified as “cults” applied to MOVE. The new cult typology allowed people to imagine that MOVE people suffered from mental illness, that MOVE was especially prone to violence, and that John Africa had brainwashed his followers. But the cult typology also gave people a way of thinking about MOVE as a religion. (Evans 2020, 178)

When and why did people outside MOVE start calling the group a cult? What does “cult” imply in this usage?

To the Personal Freedom Association, letting MOVE exist was courting danger. MOVE could lead to a “Jonestown- type incident.” (Evans 2020, 190)

You’ve probably noticed the frequent references and comparisons of MOVE and John Africa to Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. What do we make of these comparisons? What do they tell us about how America defined religion in the 1970s and 1980s?

There is, to be clear, no such thing as a cult. The category “cult,” like a number of other religious categories (fundamentalism, sect, superstition), does not reflect an empirical reality. There are no charges that can be leveled at “cults” that cannot also be leveled at things we call “religions.” The category “cult” is what Robert Orsi calls a “nomenclature of containment” — it is an implicit argument about what the observer imagines “true religion” to be. It is a way of policing the boundaries of the category of religion, of deciding which beliefs and practices are legitimate and which are not. We call groups “cults” if they seem to be too controlling — as if real religions are defined by individual autonomy and free agency. We call groups “cults” if they strike us as especially dangerous — as if real religions do not engage in violent or threatening behavior. We call groups “cults” if their teachings seem outlandish — as if real religions are true. The cult typology served an important social function for Americans in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It allowed Americans to believe that their own religious beliefs were fundamentally rational, while the beliefs of those who joined the new religions were irrational. It allowed Americans to imagine that their own religious beliefs had nothing at all to do with their emotional fragility. And it allowed them to believe that their own religions were incapable of violence. (Evans 2020, 195)

What does Evans mean when he says “there is…no such thing as a cult?” This is important, so take some time to think about your response.



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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults