Image credit: @tomdev.
While we all await our chance to say “I told you so!” when the world doesn’t end on December 21st, it’s worth learning more about one particular doomsday cult that’s got Chinese authorities so worried that they’ve so far arrested over 500 people.
‘The Church of Almighty God’, which also goes by the moniker ‘Eastern Lightning’, has tangled with Chinese authorities before, spokespeople for the group claim that over 2,000 followers have been jailed since 1990. While all non-authorised religious groups in China are suppressed to some degree or another, in their recent crack down on ‘Eastern Lightning’ Chinese authorities have demonstrated a level of paranoia and oppression not seen since the suppression of Falun Gong in the late 90s.
However, while its highly debatable whether they merit such a dramatic response from the government, the practices of ‘Eastern Lightning’ do raise some serious concerns.
The cult, which originated in Heilongjiang and teaches that Jesus “has returned as a plain-looking, 30-year-old Chinese woman who lives in hiding and has never been photographed”, has been accused of abducting and brainwashing prospective believers. Reports also suggest that cultists have attacked mainstream Christian churches who would not accept the ‘third testament’ to the Bible written by the cult’s lady-Jesus.
Members of ‘Eastern Lightning’ are typically drawn from peasant communities with low levels of education and generally wholly legitimate gripes against the government, who the group’s message of an impending reckoning for the ‘wicked’ understandably appeals to. According to Protestant group China for Jesus, ‘Eastern Lightning’ has over a million members.
While it doesn’t necessarily justify a violent crackdown, given the country’s history Chinese authorities are understandably wary of apocalyptic religious movements. In the late nineteenth century, a charismatic cult leader claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Jiangsu Province. The resulting civil war with the ruling Qing Dynasty resulted in the deaths of around 20 million people, and was only defeated with the help of French and British forces.
While ‘Eastern Lightning’ don’t have anywhere near the estimated 30 million people who lived in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the cult does explicitly call for the destruction of the Communist Party, teaching followers that the Party is the ‘Great Red Dragon’ that the Bible says Jesus will destroy (and which to mainstream Christianity represents Satan).
Copies of a 67-page manuscript distributed to ‘Eastern Lightning’ missionaries explain the dos and don’ts of conversion. As with many cults (including an American-based one very popular with Hollywood celebrities) the most controversial points of doctrine are hidden from potential converts until they’re thoroughly on side. While the manual emphasises something of a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ approach to evangelism, ‘Eastern Lightning’ seems to have seen a major opportunity in the ridiculous 2012 doomsday scares.
It’s debatable whether or not the cult actually believes that the Mayan’s somehow predicted an apocalypse wrought by a God they had no knowledge of whatsoever. Regardless, cult leaders have spotted a prime opportunity for fundraising and recruitment, preying on the stupid and the scared in the manner of all successful religions. Cult members in Inner Mongolia demanded donations of over 3,000 to ‘save’ people from the impending apocalypse.