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Features & Columns
by Michelle Randall

The Opium of the Poor

“Do you believe in the Father?”

"Without faith, it is impossible to please God"
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The videos went viral, the tabloids ran with headlines such as “Holy petrol tastes like pineapple juice!” and the ever-present News24 commenters did what they do best. The behaviour of the grass-eating, petrol-drinking congregation in Ga-Rankuwa is easy to dismiss as foolish, irresponsible and perhaps dangerous, but beyond the initial judgement the story is far more telling... For those not who were not exposed to the media frenzy surrounding the aforementioned church, here’s the story: Pastor Lesego Daniel, leader of the Rabboni Center Ministries invited his over a thousand-strong congregation to drink petrol and eat grass. The warning on the church’s YouTube video that this unusual act of devotion should not be attempted by those unable to turn water into wine, the petrol was first lit on fire to prove its authenticity. Self-proclaimed professor, Pastor Daniel claims that the act was part of the Bible's passage that says “people will do greater miracles than Jesus did.” Following which, church members notably including pregnant women, participated in the unorthodox practice.

American philosopher George Santayana once wrote "out of the context of concrete acts of religious observance... religious conviction emerges." This is a meaningful observance in that, many, and especially those who are not religious, believe that belief is prior to practice. However, Santayana’s sentiments, which are echoed by many religious practitioners, state the exact opposite. First you do and then you believe. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” With this in mind, perhaps the seemingly irrational acts of Pastor Lesego Daniel devout followers are attempts to initiate belief? “Do you believe in the Father?” Pastor Daniel repeatedly asks his congregation. What better way to convince yourself of your own convictions than with an act so extreme? Petrol contains hundreds of harmful chemicals and yet followers who drank the “Iron Brew flavoured” petrol attest to a sudden sense of health and vitality. Our natural tendency as humans is to imbue repeated behaviour with meaning. Repeated enough certain acts take on a symbolic meaning and become rituals. In psychology, the term “ritual” is often used to denote repeated behaviour methodically used by an individual or group to neutralize or stop anxiety.

With this in mind, perhaps the consumption of petrol and grass is simply a ritualised defence mechanism against an uncertain world. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God so I'm going to drink my petrol," said a member of Pastor Daniel’s Rabboni Center Ministries. Although it is easy to label groups that do not follow mainstream practices as “cults” such labelling is problematic in that to deem a group or religion a “cult” is to deem such beyond the scope of socially accepted morality and logic. What exists beyond the often arbitrary line that we as society have deemed “right” is often met with suspicion and distrust. Labels are powerful and indicative of the times. Originally referring to an “act of worship” or “religious ceremony”, the word “cult” has evolved in its meaning. First used as a sociological classification to denote groups that found inspiration outside of the predominant religious culture, today the label “cult” is pejorative and sweeping in its damage, so much so that there have been legal battles regarding the use (or misuse) of the term. Mistakenly assumed to be a synonym for any unorthodox belief, the application of the term is illustrative of the zeitgeist of society.

While the practice of eating grass and drinking petrol is unorthodox and potentially dangerous, Rabboni Center Ministries does not meet the established criteria of a cult. Importantly, members are not forced to attend and the sermons are dictated from the Bible thereby deeming the beliefs congruent with the rest of the country’s overwhelmingly Christian population. However, despite not being a cult, the practices endorsed by charismatic leader Pastor Daniel are not without criticism. In light of the unusual acts, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chairwoman of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission) stated that “They (traditional healers and priests) need to be regulated by their own peers because they understand the field better than anyone else. Right now, I can wake up and say I am selling water, and ask people to eat grass and wash it down with petrol. Right now, it is a free-for-all.”

Legal implications aside, the question remains, why has Pastor Daniel managed to attract such a large following? Drawing increasingly large crowds from South Africa and beyond, is his church’s popularity due to his unusual practices or in spite of them? Regardless of the answer Pastor Daniel doesn’t seem to care.

Despite being subjected to media scrutiny, the young pastor claims that he doesn’t have to answer to anyone adding “You ain’t seen nothing yet. People are going to fly.”

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