Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

Flames shoot skyward at the MOVE compound in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Defining religion

the MOVE bombing

“They just spit all over our religion like our religion didn’t count.”

Gerald Africa (as quoted in Evans 2020, 7)

This one feels personal, friends. As you know, I do a lot of work on new religious movements. You might not know that I’m also from Philly. And despite both those facts, I didn’t learn about MOVE or its destruction by law enforcement officers until 2015, when Gene Demby published the piece you read or listened to for today.

Evans’ book is brand new — it just came out in June. So I’m learning with y’all on this one.

What we’re reading/listening to

We didn’t watch Let the Fire Burn (Zeitgeist 2013), but I definitely want to check it out for next time. Thanks to Dr. Weisenfeld for the recommendation!

MOVE Timeline

Okay for starters I didn’t realize that MOVE was originally the Christian Movement for Life. I can’t believe it’s taken so long for us to get a religious studies take on this group.

(1972) John Africa and his group advocated a radical form of green politics and a return to a hunter-gatherer society while stating their opposition to science, medicine and technology.

It’s important you read “opposition to science, medicine, and technology” in the context of medical racism in the US. Surely you’ve noted by now how many of the movements we’ve covered this semester focused on healing. In large part, that’s because the American medical establishment did not (and does not) prioritize the health of Black people. Keep in mind that Black, Native, and Latina women were still being forcibly sterilized by the state at this time as well — people of color had and have good reason to distrust “science, medicine, and technology.”

As John Africa himself had done, his devotees also changed their surnames to Africa to show reverence to it, which they regarded as their mother continent.

How does this reflect practices of earlier religio-racial movements?

On May 13, 1985, after the complaints from neighbors as well as indictments the Philadelphia Police Department attempted to clear the building and arrest the indicted MOVE members. An armed standoff with police happened.

Police Chief George Sambor then ordered that the MOVE house be bombed. From a State Police helicopter, PPD Lt. Frank Powell proceeded to drop two one-pound bombs. The resulting explosions ignited a massive blaze that eventually destroyed approximately 65 nearby houses.

Just feel like we need to underline this.

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, “Introduction”

“Religion is a category of privilege, the ramifications of which, in MOVE’s case, were literally life and death.”

(Evans 2020, 11)

John Africa had told them days earlier that the System was coming to kill them, just as in their dreams, with bullets, bombs, and fire. Their dreams were real, premonitions, prophecies. (Evans 2020, 1)

Can’t help but think of these dreams in conversation with Nat Turner’s prophecies.

What is it about this group — which never numbered more than a few dozen — that inspired the US government, at all three levels, to spend hundreds of thousands of man hours, and millions of dollars, working toward its destruction? What was it about this man’s teachings — the Teachings of John Africa — that would inspire people to such awe- inspiring, life- destroying levels of devotion? What is it about this group of people that holds them together today in the face of an unrelenting history of oppression? Above all, I wondered still, how could this have happened? (Evans 2020, 5)

What was so compelling about this group’s worldview? And why did the state find MOVE so threatening?

The Teachings of John Africa were the exclusive truth, the path to redemption, and the ultimate reality. MOVE, to those inside the group, was a religion. To many people outside the group — including the police, the court system, MOVE’s neighbors, and other religious groups — MOVE was anything but a religion. (Evans 2020, 7)

Why does Evans argue that MOVE was a religion? Why does it matter that MOVE was a religion? Why would it matter that people outside the group insisted MOVE was not a religion? Why does defining religion matter? “How” — in the words of theorist Talal Asad — “does power create religion?” (quoted in Evans 2020, 8).

Religion is a category of social life carved out from the rest and set aside. It is a legal category that bestows certain privileges (and protections) from the state. And religion is a category that, in MOVE’s case, has very little to do with a group’s characteristics. Even though MOVE had all the recognizable hallmarks shared by groups typically classified as religions — a sacred text, a set of beliefs about ultimate things, a set of practices that they described as religious, even a prophetic leader — and even though MOVE people, themselves, were certain that MOVE was a religion, MOVE people still found themselves classified as secular. MOVE is a religion that cannot be fully understood apart from debates over their classification. That MOVE people believed themselves to be a religion simply did not matter to those with the power to define lived experience as religious or secular. (Evans 2020, 8)

How is Evans defining religion here? Again, why does defining religion matter?

The MOVE Bombing, I argue, makes sense only when we see it as the logical extension of secularism; as the secular state preempting “illegitimate” religious violence with “legitimate” state violence. (Evans 2020, 10)

If you recall, this is precisely where we started our conversations this semester.

Reconstructing MOVE’s relationship to the category of religion confirms what scholars of religion have long maintained — religion is constructed. But the history of MOVE shows us that we must not mistake religion’s constructedness — and at times its capriciousness — for meaninglessness. (ibid.)

And this brings us right back around to social construction. Just because we made a category of social organization up (like race, or gender, or religion) doesn’t mean that category doesn’t have real world weight and consequences.

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, “Policing Religion”

CW for state-sanctioned violence

As we discussed previously:

Law enforcement agencies have, at times throughout American history, exercised the power to define religion — to demarcate what is “true religion” from false, to conclude when someone’s beliefs and practice are authentically religious and when they are mistaken, and to decide which groups should flourish and which should be suppressed. As the contributors to The FBI and Religion have shown, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was invented to “establish racial, ethnic, economic, and social order” — a task that frequently pitted them against mostly Black religious groups deemed threatening to this order. (Evans 2020, 124)

How did surveillance shape MOVE? How does the surveillance of MOVE reflect broader law enforcement attitudes toward religious innovation, especially racialized religious innovation?

One effect of the preemptive policing of religious groups — surveillance, infiltration, and subversion, before any crimes have been committed — is to place them outside the boundaries of true religion. (Evans 2020, 148)

Why does it matter that law enforcement helps define religion? What are the consequences of law enforcement defining religion?

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