For a long time, the way scholars have associated the connection between religion and physical violence has been with competition between different religious groups where the weaponization of antagonism and resentment in violent clashes served to enhance the power of one group at the expense of the other. From the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India, to the violent struggles between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, violent religion seems to pivot on the sharpening of group boundaries.
Something entirely different appears to have happened on July 11, 2020 when five people were killed in the headquarters of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Zuurbekom, outside of Johannesburg. An armed “splinter group” violently entered the premises, set alight a car with four people on board, shot randomly inside the church building and held large numbers of people hostage until security forces ended the attack. According to the church leadership, this was just one in a series of attempts by the group to literally capture the headquarters and take over the church (which has an estimated membership of three million people). The fights go back to the death of church leader Glayton Modise in 2016 following which struggles over his succession involved the attackers and Modise’s sons. Ever since, nine people have been killed in violent assaults. While surely spectacular and perhaps unique, I suggest these events illuminate some of the broader dynamics underlying religious life in South Africa and the way it has become embroiled with its criminal economies.
Church schisms and struggles over succession are extremely common in South African Pentecostalism and in fact, are one of its constitutive features. As a highly decentralized part of South Africa’s religious field, Pentecostal churches are usually run by pastors who attract followers with their charismatic gifts, such as their alleged capacity to mobilize the power of the Holy Spirit to produce miracles. In a system where positions of authority are not acquired via formal theological qualification but through socially validated “callings”, it is the theological idea of spiritual gifts that allows religious contenders to rise to prominence. These are men who, after being called by the Holy Spirit to serve God, at some point feel they have “matured in the faith”, meaning they are able to open their own ministry and do so by taking part of the flock with them. In my research, time and again I have seen pastors struggling with secession and losing parts of their membership.
Importantly, while for pastors members mean money, most churches are very small and they do not have liquid assets. As a result, they rarely incite the fantasies of predators and conflicts related to schisms remain low key. This is clearly different in churches of the size of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, which has been able to grow more or less constantly throughout the almost 60 years of its existence. It seems clear that the larger the churches, the more likely they are seen as a rent to be secured in moments of succession or schism, as a prize to be seized and capitalized.
Powerfully playing into these dynamics is the fact that in South Africa, religion is more and more viewed as a market by both pastors and believers. Pentecostalism has become something like a lucrative profession, inspiring the fantasies of spiritually inspired men, and sometimes women, to make a living or even wealth by becoming pastors. This has massively increased the competition in a now crowded field of actors who claim to protect their followers against misfortune and evil spirits, the forces seen as blocking their road to a life of abundance. Fueling rivalries among competitors, churches such as the Brazilian Universal Church of the Kingdom of God work to popularize the so-called “Gospel of Prosperity” which promises miracles and wealth in exchange for personal “sacrifices.” Poor pastors in the country’s townships have grown increasing wary of this, as well as of the rise of new—and in their eyes illegitimate—competitors with no spiritual credentials, calling them “mushroom pastors.”
Already in 2015, these developments prompted the governmental “Commission on the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities” to undertake a critical investigation into the commercialization of religion. One central concern of the commissioners was that religious organizations, while being non-profit on paper, were actually profit-driven enterprises; enterprises whose book-keeping they found highly wanting. The upshot of all this is that churches are seen as places for the accumulation of money whose moral status is, in the eyes of an increasing number of South Africans, dubious or at least questionable.
These have drawn religious life into the circuits of South Africa’s illicit economies where they have fostered criminal forms of religious rent-seeking and predatory profit-seeking. Some pastors have been accused of providing spiritual protection for criminal gangs in exchange for money. There are also peculiar links between the world of private security firms and Pentecostalism, with some pastors having part-time jobs as guards to gain access to firearms. What is more, bigger churches have their own heavily armed security teams which operate as militias outside the law. During the hearings of the commission mentioned above, some church leaders entered the venues accompanied by such paramilitary forces parading AK-47s and openly issuing death threats against members of the commission. The suspects arrested after the Zuurbekom attacks include a police officer, a member of the South African National Defense Force and a Johannesburg Metro Police Department official who used their police guns in the assault. The events point to the blurry boundaries between law enforcement, criminal economies and religion. As Abiel Wessie, chairman of the church’s executive council said in a press interview: “They have decided to take the law into their hands.”