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July 29, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE KOOL-AID

 

Looking back over my encounters with cults, I like to imagine myself as the main character in a cringe comedy.

 

Meet Fielden (early twenties, naïve, spineless). She’s just moved to Wellington for university. On campus, a random girl invites her to bible study, and Fielden’s weirdo senses tingle, but she’s too shy and awkward to decline. 

 

The bible study starts out perfectly normal. Things are great, she’s making friends, she’s eating the free Tim Tams… It inevitably starts getting weird, but Fielden can’t back out due to her social incompetence. From there everything escalates—til, of course, the episode ends with her slathered in aloe vera, lying in the centre of a candle-wax pentagram, trying to summon the ghost of Katherine Mansfield and pausing only long enough to break the fourth wall and shoot the camera a helpless glance. It makes a funny sitcom, apart from the fact that it actually happened. Minus the Mansfield séance, obviously.

 

Five years ago, I agreed to join what I thought was an ordinary bible study. I was one of a handful of freshers who’d been roped in. We came consistently, but to be honest, I found the study group annoying to fit into my schedule and the teachings a little cracked. But hey! The girls who ran it were lovely, and cooked me food far better than the hostel trough-slop, and besides, this was a new city and I was supposed to be branching out and making connections and becoming independent, right?

…Right?

 

Police investigation began within a matter of months. Those bible study girls, I was told, were not your average joe-blo Christians. They were recruiters for a cult called Providence.

 

Providence, formed by Jung Myung-seok—a rapist currently jailed in South Korea—has since infiltrated schools in Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and Aotearoa. The Providence cult teaches that Jung is the Messiah and that women can only redeem their souls by becoming a bride and “engaging in sexual union” with him. I’m no theologian, but something about that line of reasoning seems off.

 

Fortunately for me, the cup of Kool-Aid was slapped out of my hand before it ever reached my lips. The knowledge I’d escaped a Real Live Cult struck me with a momentary surrealism of the ‘drugs-have-just-hit’ kind, which made me laugh. But then I felt sad. The friend who broke the news said a lot of girls there had been far more invested in the Providence scouts than my mild-mannered self. They felt betrayed—and this, I realised, is where the long arm of cults casts a less talked-about shadow: They exploit the human need for community. 

 

Let’s hit pause long enough for me to make two important distinctions. First: I didn’t write this article for shock value. Sure, if the wacky title and funny intro didn’t reel you in, you probably just went ,“Ooh, cults are so fascinating,” and started reading. Yes, cults fascinate—but let’s never forget they also traumatise and oppress those stuck in them. I am writing this article because my mother was raised in an Exclusive Brethren family.

 

Exclusives are a Christian-based sect, a little like Gloriavale if it were integrated more into society. My mum left the Exclusives in her late teens, became a Christian, and has been one ever since. This indicates that, rather than God or religion being the issue, it’s the spin people put on faith that creates such horrific environments—another important distinction to make.

 

But back to big, bad communities. How can you tell when you’re being exploited? My mum tells me that it’s a real boiling frog-type situation, especially when “there’s nothing to gauge what’s right or wrong because you don’t know any different”. In the Exclusives, everyone has to dress a certain way—always full-length trousers for men because “there’s no glory in a man’s legs”, and always long hair for women, because “their hair is their glory”.There’s no eating with people who are “of the world”, no visiting their house, or inviting them to yours. You must live this way in obedience to God, otherwise you will go to Hell. Fortunately for me, my mum harboured a “spirit of rebellion”. This meant she questioned everything. “I knew that—in their eyes, at least—I was heading to hell,” she says. “It seemed impossible to please God, so I thought I might as well live it up while I could.” Thus, she got out.

 

None of Mum’s siblings have ever left the Exclusives, bar one. To us who inhabit the World, it seems incredible. How could anyone bear living in constant fear of hellfire? Well, my mum says, how could they leave? Imagine losing everything—your family, your friends, your entire support network—for the freedom to navigate life in a frightening and unknown society. When Mum left, she didn’t even know how to order off the menu in a restaurant. “You were like a little island in the ocean,” she says, “and people out here couldn’t grasp what you’d come from.” Yes, leaving is the most difficult act imaginable. I know if I’d been in my mother’s place, I’d now be long-haired, head-scarfed, and pregnant with my eighth child, because it’s easier to stay. Leaving a cult takes enormous strength and courage.

 

Ironically, in a society that worships the individual above all else, cults like Providence and the Exclusives only reinforce a fear of community for us. Part of the reason they fascinate us is because we fear them. I have friends who avoid churches and even social clubs because they dislike environments where “everyone’s the same”, or doing the same thing, or believing the same idea. There’s this weird stereotype that says people can’t think for themselves inside a community—as if by agreeing with someone or having a shared interest, your frontal lobe immediately shuts down and turns you into a drone. 

 

But that’s stupid. Do I even need to say it? Not all communities are cults. We mustn’t confuse the two and freak ourselves out. Yeah, cults are among the most sinister things in existence, but humans are fundamentally social. You can’t waltz through life dodging every social gathering upwards of two people for fear you might end up being sacrificed to a moon goddess or something. Nor can you be completely open to everything, or you’ll get eaten alive. So how do you navigate this? 

 

Remember that cults operate on a basis of fear. In fearing the qualities of community that they typically exploit, you are just as bound as a person living in one. You have a brain. You can think critically, so know that when you find yourself acting solely out of fear—that’s when something’s not right in your social circle. The trick is to be both careful and unassuming—cunning as snakes, innocent as doves.

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