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Stopping Death Cults: The Necessary Limits Of Religion

Seventy kilometers from the popular tourist destination of Malindi, Kenya, upwards of two hundred people belonging to the Good News International Ministries (GNIM) Church committed mass suicide by starvation in April 2023, allegedly at the behest of their pastor, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie.[1] Over six hundred cult members are still missing.

GNIM is an apocalyptic, deeply anti-Western and anti-Catholic new religious movement with spiritual links to Branhamism, a branch of fundamentalist Christianity associated with an American pastor, William M Branham, a pastor obsessed with so-called End Time Prophecies.[2] Mackenzie, a former taxi driver from Nairobi with a history of issues with the law, established his church – or cult – in 2003.  One of his most recent brushes with the law was in 2019, when he denounced Kenya’s new biometric identity cards as ‘satanic’, the ‘mark of the Beast.’[3] The mass suicide started to come to light when a Nairobi man alerted local police about the disappearance of his family. When police arrive at the GNIM commune, they found corpses and starving people, who apparently had been ordered to fast indefinitely so that they might ‘meet Jesus.’[4] Mackenzie, under arrest at present, seems totally unconcerned by what happened.

Naturally, as the news broke, religious communities expressed their horror at the incident. Many religious observers quickly distanced themselves from the cult, insisting that there was nothing ‘biblical’ or ‘theological’ in the rhetoric of GNIM and its ‘pastor’. Kenyan President William Ruto has denounced the incident as contrary to Christianity and set up a commission of enquiry[5] and has initiated plans to set up a religious self-regulation framework for religious leaders.[6] Some countries go further, putting the case for state regulation of religions, rationalized by claims that some religious groups are at best elaborate schemes to defraud the gullible, at worst window-dressing for extremist violence. Observers of strange cults are divided between those who endorse such actions and those who consider such behavior as at best futile, at worst dangerous to religious freedom.

The problem does not admit of an easy answer, whether political or moral. But some options seem worse than others.

The worst option is regulation. Apart from the traditional liberal arguments in defence of the separation of ‘church and state’, and the fact that ‘established’ religion seems to be the kiss of death to religious practice,[7] there is a danger that religions become organs of the state and their doctrines not subject to theological ‘authority’ but state expedience. Even if, as President Ruto seems to be suggesting, the regulation of religion is devolved to religious professionals, there is a real problem of gaining religious consensus (over doctrines and interpretation of scriptures between different branches of a religious community) and a complete obliviousness to internal religious pluralism within a religion or denomination. Not everything a religious authority declares is what ordinary believers believe; a state regulatory model in such a circumstance seems to undermine the freedom of ordinary believers to believe what they believe – and turns such a society into a kind of ‘legislated multi-confessional state’.

Beyond these concerns, the closer a state gets to a religion the less easy it is for the religion to adopt a prophetic stance against a state when the state goes bad – which it all too often does.

So if regulation, by state or some kind of ecumenical-interfaith committee of holy people, is not a good idea, how does one deal with crazy, dysfunctional and destructive religious communities?

My first proposal revolves around theological education. We need good, intelligent theological education – directed towards seminarians and laity alike – that above all challenges Fundamentalism in all its forms.[8] And here we must neither stint on this, nor pretend that the struggle to develop a more nuanced faith is easy. The greatness of the missionary enterprise is how deeply the Bible has gotten into the soul of many people, especially in Africa; the tragedy is how literally it has. (So too with the Catechism – a text that is memorized and repeated and believed almost blindly, or simply rejected, with little critical appropriation in between). We must beware of blind belief.

Theological education is further complicated by the level of internet penetration of religious consciousness, but without proper formation in critical appropriation of what one encounters. The Internet presents websites, varying in ideology and levels of inaccuracy, that confront the average believer with a computer or smartphone in a culture where critical reading – indeed where proper, discriminating pursuit of reliable and original sources – is blurred by accessibility and priority in financially-manipulated search engines. We have all become online relativists and few – outside those thoroughly trained in less financially lucrative fields like history and literature – have the skills to discern what is sane and reliable. But we need to form people against this trend. We need ‘critical believers’ who see through religious flimflam and superficial traditions to get to the truth.

My second proposal is that we need to advocate a view of religion that embraces at the same time principles of universal human rights – even if those rights seem to contradict ‘absolute’ truths about our beliefs. Pluralism is a value we must accept, even if we are religious exclusivists who believe those outside our religious ‘language game’ are damned. We need to learn to leave the ‘Others’ to God (who may or may not conform with our dogmas), rather than try to convert or destroy them. This is no easy matter in societies where religion (Christianity or Islam) blurs into secular states and ‘traditional’ cultures that have often internalized religious beliefs/prejudices to the point where the latter is indistinguishable from the former. In short, we must make religion a part of society – even in religiously homogenous ones – and subject to human rights. This entails the paradox of respecting all convictions, while subjecting all beliefs that enjoin actions that could risk people’s lives to the limits of the law.

My final suggestion touches most specifically on the discipline of moral theology, in particular its method. Good moral theology engages with four basic sources – Scripture (critically understood, it goes without saying), Tradition (in all its complexity as it develops over time), Reason and Experience. I shall add a fifth source too, Spiritual Discernment. The sources remind us that we should not trap ourselves as Christians in any one area of the life of faith at the price of others. We must learn to question all our presuppositions, not to question ourselves out of faith but to question ourselves out of embracing lunatic beliefs and manipulative leaders, who might seek to infantilise, exploit or at times kill us.  Holding these sources in balance, and in tension, helps us to realise that our religious perceptions need to be questioned. And discernment should help us to see beyond the religiously obvious and dogmatically required. This, like much of moral theology, is dangerous – it forces us to question.

But questioning the rantings and assertions of a religious lunatic could save our lives.



[1] . ‘Kenya starvation cult death toll climbs to 201’ Al Jazeera 13 May 2023,

[2] . Weaver, C. Douglas. The Healer-Prophet: William Marrion Branham (A study of the Prophetic in American Pentecostalism). Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000.

[3] . Charles Lwanga, ‘Pastor Paul Mackenzie in Trouble again’, The Nation 19 April 2019

[4] . ‘Number of bodies exhumed from suspected Kenyan cult graves jumps to 47’ Hindustan Times 24 April 2023.

[5] . ‘Kenyan president sets up inquiry into religious cult deaths’, Al Jazeera 5 May 2023.

[6] . ‘Ruto Seeks Dialogue With Clergy For Self-Regulation Framework To Weed Out Rogue Preachers’, Capitol News 30 April 2023.

[7] . In my defence, I offer the cases of ‘confessional’ states like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Italy. In non-Christian environments I am tempted to add a country like Iran, though levels of actual Muslim belief and practice are hard to establish conclusively.

[8] . Although quite old, the best source here is: James Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM, 1981) (1977). For those being formed for ministry familiarity with ‘The Fundamentalism Project’ series is essential. See: Martin E Marty & R Scott Appleby (eds.), Fundamentalism Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Pres, 1991); Ibid., Fundamentalisms and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Ibid., Fundamentalisms and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Ibid., Accounting for Fundamentalisms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).