Book review: a hard-hitting look at The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God

A replica of the Temple of Solomon, built by the Brazilian evangelical “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God” in Sao Paulo. Reuters/Nacho Doce

This is an excellent study of the South African branch of a globalised contemporary religious organisation, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG).

The author demonstrates, in full, a dedication to the hard core research values of her discipline. This dedication is all the more unflinching and remarkable given her admitted and entirely comprehensible distaste and aversion for her subject and her subjects.

Here we have, seemingly, an “independent African church” based in Brazil that promotes values and practices that contradict all that we thought we have learned about, and come to expect, from such movements in Africa.

Specifically, this learning has centred on the embeddedness of ritual practice and belief in social reciprocity among an exclusive network of congregants. Members accomplish the essential mission of religion, which is to defend the vulnerable self against the defeats of life, through a communion of mutual support. Materially socially, emotionally, and spiritually.

In simplistic terms, African churches are there to enshrine and promote ubuntu (humanity). This is briefly encoded in the proverb:

a person is a person through other people.

The antithesis of communion

The UCKG in South Africa is having none of this. It offers instead a communion of mutual suspicion and social distance among its members. They are locked in singular battles for material and social advancement in life against a host of “demons”, commanded by Satan. The mission of these demons is to invest the believer, body and soul, with evil and misfortune that will prevent their material progress in their earthly life.

The near-oxymoronic title of the study refers to the lack of social contact among church members, a contact that would only serve to promote the contagion of injurious jealousy and demonic contamination.

To achieve their entirely individual “blessings”, congregants had to make regular and significant financial contributions to the church, the purpose of which were to suborn the Almighty into returning the favour by way of good fortune.

It is to the author’s credit that her meticulously researched and argued narrative held my interest without interruption. Perhaps “horrified fascination” is more accurate here than “interest”.

Clearly, given the inherent difficulties in gaining access to and establishing rapport with participants at all levels of the UCKG, the author faced daunting challenges to her ethnographic research project. That she stuck with her objectives and ultimately achieved them through such rich results and finely nuanced analysis and interpretation is to her enormous credit. Ethnography, unlike folklore studies, cannot always focus on people and practices we are drawn to or admire. There is more for anthropologists to understand than is dreamt of in our fondly empathetic documentary philosophy.

Questions remain

Why in particular has this “church of strangers” flourished so remarkably in what we have thought to be the profoundly familial and social environment of values that characterize urban black South Africa?

How has such a deep-seated reverse or anti-ubuntu ideology of magical material practice taken root?

Is this religion in any widely agreed sense or definition at all?

Why have followers of the UCKG given up hope in the ‘blessings’ of social relations and exchange?

How have they come to believe that only through “bribing” God (echoing the purchased “indulgences” of late medieval Catholicism?), and a lonely, fearful struggle against nightmarish “demons” inhabiting their very being, can material good fortune be secured?

Such questions haunt the reader, who discovers that no matter how great one’s faith in the power of black working people to heal the anti-structures of feeling the past has inculcated, South Africa remains another country.

A Church of Strangers: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa, by Ilana van Wyk. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2015, 280 pp.