Essay concerning the New Religious Movements of Nigeria, particularly the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star

29 Apr

Religions are multiple and packed. From a sociological point of view, what typology can we elaborate in order to analyze and realise the diversity of organisations and contemporary religions movements in one or two African countries?

Religion in Africa is a complex subject. Most Africans are adherents to Islam or Christianity, whilst there is also a great presence of African traditional religions, which are often practiced alongside one of the two Abrahamic religions. It was estimated by Abraham McLaughlin that in 2000, Muslims formed 45% of Africa’s population whilst Christianity accounted for 40.6% of the total . In this piece however, I wish to consider the New Religions Movements and the contemporary religions organisations that exist on the African continent.

When I comment upon New Religious Movements I am considering ethical or spiritual groups, or faith-based communities, of recent origin. I agree with Nigerian thinker Friday Mbon that for a practical purpose, to refer to these movements as New Religious Movements is an informative and accurate description. Cardinal Francis Arinze, of Nigerian origin, describes New Religious Movements as those “born through contact between universal religions and primal religious cultures” and this gives us an idea as to the sorts of origins these groups develop from.

The title Independent Churches, which is often used to describe such groups, gives us a rather limited idea of their character, and indeed the word ‘church’ does carry connotations of a historic, Western religious structure which is not applicable in these cases. I feel the use of the term ‘movement’, however, underscores the dynamic nature of these agents of social change. This term conveys the relevance of these groups to the lives of Africans. They offer a simpler Christianity which can be in-cooperated into all aspects of daily life, as opposed to Western forms of teaching and praise which can leave Africans feeling estranged, and which can offer them little on a day to day basis.

I feel that the title ‘sect’ can also carry problems, and I feel it would be helpful here to clarify my understanding of this term, and why I reject it as a typology to elaborate to aide understanding of the diversity of organisations to be found in Africa. A sect typically refers to a small break away faction from the bigger body of a large religious group, in general the Christian church. I feel that the term is problematic mainly for the reason of interpretation; in the West the word has a rather pejorative connotation, whilst in the far East religions are often called sects with no negative meaning attached. Between both of these situations is Latin America, where the word is often applied to any non-Catholic group. Often with referral to a Christian group, a sect can be identified as a movement which have other “revealed” books or ‘prophetic messages,’ besides the Bible.

With regard to further labelling of the New Religious Movements, many end up with brandings which either merely identify the causes for their inception (one could consider separatist or sectarian groups in this bracket) or which attempt to place focus on the main features of the movement (charismatic would be an example here).

I feel these two methods of classification are inadequate, or even unhelpful for various reasons. Primary among these reasons is the fact that any such term can do little more than place a focal point upon one such aspect of a group and will ultimately fail to convey the true character of a New Religious Movement.

I agree with Harold Turner’s suggestion that for a classification we need to search for “A typology of tendencies and emphases rather than of individual religious bodies or movements.” However Turner himself also reinforces the idea that the motive of a religion’s formation offers us the “profoundest clue” to enable a religious understanding of these movements. Whilst I agree that it may help our understanding to consider the origin of a New Religious Movement, to characterise it according to its origins – as I have mentioned above – would, I feel, only hinder or limit our comprehension.

As Turner suggests, it is far from easy to delve into the study of the diverse phenomena found in the religious world of Africa without applying some kind of classification. Whilst there is no established system in place to study this phenomena, there are many thinkers who have contributed terminologies and logies to enable us to understand better the current religious climate in Africa.

Turner does however take care to point out two potential problems with applying typologies to the religions of Africa and I believe they deserve reference here. He begins by suggesting that it is dangerous to establish a system of classification without considering all new fields of study, and adapting according to developments.

As I have stated, for Turner it is best to think of a typology of “tendencies and emphases, rather than of individual religious bodies or movements” and this is fairly self-explanatory. He realises that the initial typology can only by hypothetical, and this depends on whether it agrees with, or is denied by, the phenomena which it is applied against. If a typology is in general correct, it may well serve to oversimplify an incredibly complex and nuanced genre, and therefore inhibit our understanding. And clearly, if it is substantially incorrect it will only lead us to misunderstand our comprehension of the field of study and will disfigure our outlook. South African anthropologist Martin West explains the problem with clumsy typologies; “It must be questioned whether the various typologies have in fact added significantly to our knowledge of the independent church movement: too often they are like Leach’s butterfly collecting, where information is pigeonholed and the terms of reference are inadequately explained.”

Turner’s second main issue with the use of typologies to study this particular area is that the notion of a typology is a primarily Western way of thinking and is therefore not applicable to the study of African religious movements. Whilst I believe that perhaps the usage of Western typologies may to some extent manipulate and affect our understanding of the African religions we apply them to, I do not believe that they are completely irrelevant. I have talked about how a title such as ‘church’ may allude to a certain way of thinking, however, I believe that certain terms and expressions can help us arrive at an understanding of the emphasis and/or direction of a religion outside of their context within a certain classification, and can enable and encourage comparisons as well as a deeper appreciation.

I feel it would be helpful to begin my specific study by giving an account of the place of these New Religious Movements within the context of the African continent and the Abrahamic religions that dominate there.

Africa presents us with many interesting case studies, and in this piece I will consider the New Religious Movements of Nigeria. Nigeria interests me particularly due to the religious diversity to be found there. The population is almost evenly split between Islam and Christianity, with a further even split between Catholic and Protestants within the Christian regions, and a Sunni dominated north with a significant Shia minority in the Islamic north. Nigeria also boasts strong traditional religions, particularly the Yoruba spirituality found in Yorubaland to the West of the country.

Between 1960 and 1969, 34 (35 if one counts the apartheid South Africa as liberated) African countries gained independence; in the eight months between January 1 and August 18 1960 alone, sixteen new states emerged and took their place on the international political scene. This development brought with it a great religious development to the area, as the traditional religions of the African tribal peoples were brought into contact with the Christian religion brought into Africa by the influx of Western culture. Islam had been an influence in the Northern and South Eastern regions of this continent long before this point.

I feel it is important to consider also the role of the Christian religion in the subsequent development of New Religious Movements in sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity was originally introduced to the African continent by the recently liberated black slaves who arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone as early as April 1787, and was then subsequently developed, initially by the work of Western missionaries, and afterwards, by African evangelism.

We can say that compared to major world religions, New Religious Movements account for only a small percentage of the world’s population. However, since the late 1960s, David Barrett has observed the development of over 6,000 new indigenous churches on the African continent.

There are two main types of New Religious Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa: there are those that have rejected the original mission-oriented churches and are referred to as separatist movements. Whilst they may have developed and adapted their theology, there will still remain clear traces of influence from their mother church.

I am however, particularly interested by the second type of New Religious Movements, those founded independently of a mother church by enigmatic characters, they are often referred to as spiritualist and frequently focus a great deal on pneumatology, or the doctrine of spirits or spiritual beings. In this piece I wish to explore one such organisation, the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, which began in South-East Nigeria in 1958 and is currently the “fastest growing, religiously and socially dynamic new religious movement in contemporary Nigeria.”

The Brotherhood sees itself as a mediator between the two dominant Abrahamic religions in Africa and describes itself as an all embracing movement of the spirit, as opposed to a church. Founded by Olumba Olumba Obu, the group centres itself around the New Testament and particularly Jesus’ words, instructing us to ‘Love one another’

The title ‘Cross and Star’ is important and in itself helps us to learn about the insights and the motivations of the movement; the cross represents the self-sacrifice that each of us must make in leading a like akin to that of Christ, whilst the star draws reference to the ‘morning star’ of Revelations. This represents the power of God’s kingdom and His brightness. The Holy Spirit is of great importance to the Brotherhood, and they describe the contemporary world as the ‘third age’ where the Holy Spirit, breaking down the divisions that exist between various Christian denominations and various world religions, acts as a revelation of God.

Whilst considering itself to be a spiritual school, teaching and practicing Christianity, as opposed to a church, the Brotherhood, as I have mentioned, does centre itself upon Judeo-Christian foundations. These foundations are, however, augmented by a stream of additional revelations provided by Obu. It is these additional revelations, and Obu’s unique interpretation of the Bible which particularly opposes the Brotherhood to orthodox Christianity, and they go a long way to forging the very distinctive character of his movement.

Harold Turner, who I have already referred to in this piece, defined organisations such as the Brotherhood as those “founded in Africa, by Africans, and primarily for Africans.” This point of view seems to me to be very short sighted, and indeed when we consider the theology of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, they themselves claim to have a worldwide mission; their official web site states that their aim is to “spread the gospel of our lord Jesus Christ from house to house, city to city throughout the world.”

Similarly, I feel we can reject the views of Kofi Appiah-Kubi, anthropologist and theologian, who observes an entirely African body to these New Religious Movements. Whilst having African origins, these religions see themselves as in no way confined to Africa, nor ought we to consider them merely as only African religions.

In South-West Nigeria, few messianic movements have developed. The great exception is the Aladura Church which was begun by Dr. Josiah Olunowo Ositelu in 1930. The Aladura Church, as well as the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star vehemently reject African Traditional religions, and indeed the charismatic Obu even stated this as a truth evident about his church. Both churches conform to the observation of Bryan Wilson when he suggested that a major characteristic of sects developing within a traditional culture is that at the same time they are both conservative and radical. Obu has in fact created an identity for the Brotherhood which sits atop both Christianity and traditional African religions. Whilst appearing radical at a glance, the New Religions Movements actually have some close links to the traditional African religions. This is a point I wish to elaborate as I feel that it is vital for any attempt to apply and develop a typology appropriate for the New Religious Movements of Africa.

Obu’s teachings are concerned a great deal with the nature of God, who he views as good and bad, pantheistic and along with humans and the rest of nature, “biospiritually connected” , views which could be seen as influenced by African traditional religions. Despite this however, African traditional religions, described as “the culture of their great-grand parents” are widely condemned within the Brotherhood and people who still adhere to them are described as being “tied to the apron strings.”

All religious movements develop from their surrounding cultural environment and as such, are inherently connected and influenced to that environment. Whilst Obu on the surface appears to deny and condemn his cultural mileu, he in fact in-cooperates a great deal from his social surroundings into the theology of the Brotherhood. It is a decision observed among other such groups, by Peel, in his 1968 work, “…a man who sees some good… in his traditional religious practices and beliefs, identified as such, and attempts to synthesize them with new beliefs in a harmonious religious system.”

It is this process of selective in-cooperation which may allow the Brotherhood to be considered as a sort of syncretism – this is indeed a classification of a New Religious Movement which has been applied to the Brotherhood. I will give some further examples of the relationship between Obu’s religion and the traditional religions of Nigeria before elaborating my point of view.

When we closely consider the anthropologies existing between the Brotherhood and traditional African religions, the connections between the two become more apparent. Emile Durkheim, for example, focused a great deal on the study of totemism during his studies with Australian aboriginal tribes and indeed I feel that Obu’s anthropology has a great deal in common with this religious belief.

Totemism is the belief in which “every person is believed to maintain a certain totemic relationship with certain objects or beings in nature such as trees, animals, mountains, etc.” Obu advocates vegetarianism within the Brotherhood and strongly teaches against the eating of meat. For him, animals and birds are humans and therefore when someone kills an animal to eat it, they are simultaneously killing a man. His logic is that a person’s other soul may inhabit some animate or inanimate object, and becomes that person’s double. This dynamic creates a relationship between members of the Brotherhood and the natural world, and it is clearly akin to certain traditional African religions, and particularly the traditional religion of the Yoruba people and their spirit deity Olódùmarè.

A focus on symbolism also draws parallels with African traditional religions and noticeably the oath taking, popular among the Brotherhood at their ritual feasts. Work by anthropologists such as V.W. Turner has shown that symbols possess “great semantic richness and depth” and they certainly have a huge influence and role in the indigenous African religions. The feast symbolizes the oath which connects members in a kind of covenant of mutual conviviality, a feature present in many of the systems of Africa’s traditional religions.

Reincarnation is another cornerstone of the faith instructed by Obu and is intrinsically linked to his views on spirits as I have mentioned above. This can also be traced to Nigerian traditions, and particularly a saying in the Cross River State that “Children are Spirits”, a phrase often employed by Obu. For him, children are viewed as the spirits of those who can not longer be as humans on the earth, they are therefore considered as spiritual beings in the physicality of a human. The children born are therefore the dead who are made alive again through birth.
Whilst notions of reincarnation can be seen in Nigerian traditional religions, their by-products when one considers death and mourning differ greatly between their understanding and that of the Brotherhood. The traditional religions of Nigeria encourage people to grieve openly after a death and people are free to show their sorrow. Were someone to visit the house of a deceased person and not show sadness or sympathy, they would not only be frowned upon, but might also be considered complicit in the person’s death.

For the Brotherhood, death is a messenger of God, and to mourn and regret death is to fight against God’s will. Therefore, Obu calls members of his movement not to attend the funerals of their dead relatives, nor to carry out funeral rites on their behalf. Indeed, death, for the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, is necessary in order for birth to occur, making it a moral necessity as well as a biological and procreational necessity.

As with many native African religions, the Brotherhood also believe in the countless forms of spiritual beings. For them, God can be manifested in any number of animate objects. This idea is a clear follow on from the views particularly common in the Cross River State of Nigeria, the traditional beliefs concerning witches, and their ability to make themselves manifest as other things.

In general, Obu vehemently condemns many similar phenomena with association to African traditions although it is hard to ignore the parallels and the influences that exist between his movement and traditional African religions. Here I have referred to just a small number of overlapping features, although there are many more areas on which the two disciplines converge.

As Friday Mbon points out, it is important to avoid the action taken by many contemporary writers commentating on these New Religious Movements. Many writers claim that the religions developing now are all ‘revivalistic’ or ‘nativistic’, that is to say they desire to continue, restore or revive the local traditions and the culture. There are certainly many cases of such religious movements in Nigeria; the Ijo Orunmila religion and the Ogboni cult for example, both expressively include the use of traditional religious symbols in their worship.

It is clear that it is false to label the Brotherhood as a revivalistic or a nativistic movement, indeed, Obu’s teachings are clearly anticultural and as I have presented, he goes a long way to criticise and attack local cultures or beliefs with his words, despite also appearing to be influenced by them. Mbon makes the excellent point that whilst Nigeria is proposing a cultural revival as a way of stirring some national identity, Obu is doing exactly the opposite, and could perhaps be seen of as a revolutionary. He is unlikely, however, to be considered as revivalistic.

Despite criticising local beliefs and cultures, I feel I have displayed that within the Brotherhood there is a great deal of theology in common with traditional African religions. Via the processes of selection and adaption, Obu has added to his teachings elements of African local culture and beliefs, whilst at the same time rejecting others. This syncretism has seemed to favour Christianity though, as the Brotherhood has rejected many elements of traditional African worldviews which are incompatible with Christian theology. This leaves Obu in rather a difficult position, as the Brotherhood stands between the two traditions; his process of syncretism has selected and adapted certain material from the theologies of them both to create the theology of the Brotherhood.

Mbon stresses the importance of identifying the syncretism of the Brotherhood, and indeed, it is important that if this is to be an enlightening typology it is to be understood clearly. A key factor of the syncretism employed by Obu is that it is “implicit rather than explicit” this is to say that he in-cooperates the influences of the traditional African worldview subtly and without open admittance to this fact. This creates an element of tension within the movement as there is the problematic dynamic between both the Christian elements of the religion and the indigenous African elements, and also between Obu’s rejection and criticism aimed towards the African world view and the Brotherhood’s own usage of certain features of African religious traditions.

George E. Simpson writes about the South-western city of Ibadan, where he found an absence of new, religious symbols being introduced into the Yoruba worldview. He identifies a certain connection between the practical lives of the Yoruba people and the various beliefs and practices promoted by the various indigenous religions of the region. I feel that this point of view may explain why Obu has been unable to sever the ties he holds with Africa’s traditions and why he in-cooperates them into the Brotherhood’s outlook despite showing outward disdain for them, creating this syncretic religion.

Whilst branding the Brotherhood a syncretic religion works up to a point, I feel that ultimately it is unsatisfactory as a typology to help us to truly understand the nature of the movement. This is because it only really considers one aspect of the religion, and fails to take into account some of its other important features.

I am indebted to Friday Mbon and his offering of the term ‘protectionist’, as well as the argument he presents supporting this term as the best classification to impose upon the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star as well as Africa’s other New Religious Movements. Olumba Olumba Obu’s religion provides us with a brilliant case for studying and expanding this term to better understand both the causes for the inception of the Brotherhood, as well as giving context to some of the other typologies that may be applied to the movement.

Protectionist has been chosen, as for Mbon, it is the ultimate aim of protection which can be found in all of Africa’s New Religious Movements, regardless of their methods and our perceived perception of them. Mbon suggests that initially, people join these movements seeking protection from something or other, the group offers a refuge from any number of potential dangers threatening a person. Whilst people may form groups to find communal protection against a political enemy, they may also come to churches seeking personal protection as individuals.

I have already written of the Aladura church of West Nigeria and they too have witnessed the perceived fear of evil spirits encouraging large amounts of people to their authority and the refuge the church offers. Indeed, many people join religious organisations as a resort to combat sickness and evil spirits, Protectionist does seem like an apt term for these religious groups.

I have mentioned the Brotherhood’s views on spiritual beings and forces, and I feel that on the African continent this great fear of witchcraft or persecution at the hands of spirit forces which can lead to misfortune or ill-health has also attracted many people to the Brotherhood. Obu confirmed this in his piece Those who will go to Hell when he suggested that Brotherhood membership is greatly augmented by those seeking healing or protection from supernatural forces.

I would suggest that the syncretism is prevalent in the Brotherhood has meant that it has easily taken the place of African’s traditional religions as the ‘solution’ for Africans in fear of witches and evil spirits. Western Christianity has rejected the position of a medium within the religious structure and this Orthodox structure left no place for the solving of these situations. In acknowledging the place of the spiritual world, the Brotherhood has allowed Nigerians to have Jesus in their lives alongside protection against their fears.

In 1970 J. Akin Omoyajowo wrote of the techniques of the Aladura Church to deal with the situations that arise when people come to the church with problems of this nature. According to Omoyajowo, people seeking refuge receive messages from the Holy Spirit, offering them solutions, as well as “incense to chase away evil powers and blessed-water for healing purposes.” This means that the follower is received into an environment which caters for their personal issues and fears. I find Cardinal Arinze’s summary of the appeal of the New Religious Movements particularly appealing,

The NRMs seem to them to confront these existential problems openly and to promise instant remedies, especially physical and psychological healing.

It is this aspect of their make-up which sets them apart from Western Orthodox religions.

As further justification for the utilisation of this term, I feel it is interesting to explore some of the other typologies that have been placed upon the New Religious Movements of Africa. A brief glace at some of these other motivations or key features of the religions do little to hide a key theme of protection which connects many of these groups.

I have briefly touched upon ‘revivalistic’ and ‘nativistic’ religions above as religions that are classified by their motivation. These are titles for New Religious Movements aiming to continue, restore or revive the local traditions and the indigenous religions. Whilst I do not class the Brotherhood in this typology of religions, I feel that they all appear to have the ambition to protect their ‘indigenous cultural values’ from the growing influence of the West, or at least to perpetuate their presence in the modern world.

When we consider religions classified according to their key features, as opposed to the motives behind their inception, I feel that the theme of protection is still present. Africa’s ‘therapeutic’ movements, for example, concentrate on health issues and healing. Followers of these religions can be seen as searching protection and security against ailments of the body and mind. We could also consider Messianic movements, which focus on the hope for a saviour who will come and end the unhappiness of the world, thereby protecting those who follow him from evil.

I believe that these two examples show that it is not only the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star which is forged from a desire for protection which can be seen as Protectionist; therapeutic and messianic religions also display, in my opinion, a desire for protection from something or other. I agree with Friday Mbon when he argues that ‘perfectionist’ is a useful classification for Africa’s New Religious Movements as it both indicates the motive for the religion’s existence, but also helps us to arrive at a clearer level of understanding concerning other labels that may have been given to a religious group, as well as the religion itself. The term perfectionist helps us to expand and understand the tendencies and emphases which are commonly found in many New Religious Movements, including the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star and its syncretic religion, and I feel it helps us to analyse and understand their diversity.


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