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)

let the fire burn

MOVE as american religion

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

Gerald Africa (as quoted in Evans 2020, 7)

Y’all, I grew up outside Philly and (as you know) I do a lot of work on minoritized and new religions. And despite both those facts, I didn’t learn about MOVE or its destruction by law enforcement officers until 2015.

I’m not alone in this either, as you’ll hear Gene Demby talk about later this week. Even most religious studies scholars don’t spend a lot of time thinking about MOVE. To the best of my knowledge, Evans’ book is the only in-depth engagement of MOVE as religion, and it just came out last June. I haven’t seen the film we’re watching today either — Dr. Weisenfeld recommended it to me last semester. So I’m learning with y’all on this one.

What we’re reading/watching

MOVE timeline

Okay for starters I didn’t realize until last semester 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.

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.

Let the Fire Burn (Zeitgeist 2013)

Don’t forget: we’re live-tweeting this film during our scheduled meeting time on Tuesday. Remember to include the class hashtag (#NUcults) in your tweets so your classmates can follow your responses.

Be sure to think about how Evans helps us better understand what’s happening in this film. Does the director highlight MOVE’s religiosity? How (or how not)? Why does it matter that we think about MOVE in terms of religion?



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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