Coronavirus and a Korean Cult
‘Cult’ is a swear word. But, as with any effective swear word, it refers to something both nasty and profoundly unacceptable.
Recently, a Korean community was afflicted by, and spread, the Coronavirus. The media immediately called them a cult. I had never heard of this group but some quick research showed their history and beliefs. My investigation showed me that I wanted nothing to do with the group. But it got me thinking about the label: ‘cult’. What identifies a community as a cult? Why is such a negative word used of any community in a multi-cultural society?
Nobody claims to belong to a cult. A cult is always the other group. The group we don’t like, don’t trust, and are afraid of. We fear their passionate difference of lifestyle. We fear their way of life that questions, critiques and threatens our culture. But to ascribe the term ‘cult’ is to accuse the community of depriving its members from making a genuine and free commitment to the group or cause.
Calling a community, a ‘cult’, is a classic ‘labelling’ technique of disapproval and marginalisation. It’s an accusation that the community is controlling, manipulating or abusing members. Even that overused and equally negative label ‘brain washed’, is frequently associated with a cult community.
It is a problem of community rather than religion. While the word has religious derivation and overtones, in reality it refers to any community that practices unacceptable commitments. Nothing could be less religious and yet more cult like than the hazing time in a university college. Any community, from a business to a sporting club, a family or a village, can function as a cult when it coerces its members and deprives them of their personal responsibility.
Those of us involved in leading communities, and community life, need to be aware of the dangers and methods of cults, not only to warn people of cults but also, and more importantly, so that we do not coerce or inappropriately pressure others. Often, the most dangerous cult leaders are those who are unaware of the ways in which they, themselves, are manipulating people.
Part of the difficulty of accurately identifying a community as a cult is that so many of their cult activities are simply distortions of right behaviours. All communities should love their members. Any open community will rightly love and express their love of new members. But yet, there is a common cult practice called ’love bombing‘. This is an excessive expression of affection, appreciation and approval of a newcomer that very effectively, and yet quite inappropriately, encourages the newcomer into a psychological dependence on the community. Many of us are sufficiently secure, sceptical or worldly wise to see through the flattery of ‘love bombing’. But there are some people whose needs for affection and acceptance makes them very open to such a practice. And we fool ourselves if we think we will never be fooled by ‘love bombing’. There are times and stages of life when we are all unguarded. You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. Cults, intentionally or unintentionally, tend to target people in their moments of weakness.
However, ‘love bombing’ is only one illustration of the behaviour of cults. There are other warning signs that we need to self-consciously avoid, and warn others about. Any of these can contribute to the group taking over the life of an individual by diminishing, or even denying them their freedom to think and relate genuinely. These incude:
- Deprivation of food and sleep, especially at conferences.
- Breaking of relationships with family and friends, especially moving out of the family home into one of the community houses.
- Censoring contrary opinions or public media.
- Repetitious, unchallengeable, lengthy teaching sessions.
- Pastoral mentoring that involves too much personal contact, shepherding, spying and protection.
- Requiring obedience, even over small and trivial matters.
- Requiring attendance at all meetings without any reasonable exceptions.
- Threatening exclusion, apostasy, removal of all contacts and friendship.
- Granting guru status to leaders, who cannot be questioned or criticised nor required to keep the same rules as the membership.
In these lists there are some things that are just plain wrong, if not evil; other things which are not evil or illegal but unwise. Still others that are matters of judgement – for example how long and repetitive is too long and repetitive a teaching session? However, when most of these occur together, it is very hard for some individuals to retain their sense of freedom or responsibility.
The worst of cults move beyond these questionable activities into the illegalities of
- Using confession of secrets to blackmail members,
- Sexual, physical, alcohol or drug abuse of members,
- Threatening physical violence or even death for any who would leave or
- Taking money from members without proper accounting transparency.
Inevitably, people who are challenged by the passionate commitment of a community, will look to defend themselves. Calling a threatening community a cult, is a simple explanation and denunciation. Calling a strong leader a ‘guru’ or a ‘bully’, is a simple and cheap assertion; often difficult to define or prove or disprove. Many of the cult activities are practiced by the very people who make the accusation of others.
Yet there are cults, and we need to be able to warn people of associating with them. And there are activities that will deprive our members of the genuineness of their trust in Jesus and we must beware not to practice them.
The response to any cult is not to seek to have them banned or censored. By all means call governing authorities’ attention to any illegal activities they may be involved in, but beware of the censorious power and coercion of governing authorities. Rather we are to expose false teaching that God’s people may avoid such cults. For, irrationality and immorality must be silenced by teaching the truth of the gospel (2 Timothy 3:1-4:5). Remember our Lord’s great statement about his word: “the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
And in our own ministries, let’s follow the example of Paul when he described his ministry to the Corinthians.
“we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).