Of a truth, Brotherhood of the Cross and Star has come to destroy custom and tradition. (--Olumba Olumba Obu)
It is a characteristic of sects arising within a traditional culture that they are simultaneously both radical and conservative. (--Bryan Wilson)
Olumba Olumba Obu (1918-) is the charismatic founder and leader of the fastest growing, religiously and socially dynamic new religious movement in contemporary Nigeria. Officially known as the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star (BCS), the movement is also known to members as Christ’s Universal Spiritual School of Practical Christianity. According to the movement’s teachings and ideology, both appellations are intended to stress that it is not a church but rather a spiritual school where Christianity is not only taught but also practiced. To members of the movement, Obu is »God in human form. He is Jesus Christ back on earth.« Obu is also referred to by his devotees by more than 99 other divine onomastic designations and titles. The little village Biakpan, where Obu was born, is now variously called the New Jerusalem, the New Eden, and Paradise Regained.
A 1950s’ prayer-cum-Bible-study-group, the movement has today grown into an international body with well over a million adherents, drawn from all levels of the social strata in Africa, the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, Australia, India, and the West Indies. Members say that their central doctrine is »love one another« and that the movement’s raison d’etre is to demonstrate to the world how that doctrine can work in practical terms in human affairs and relationships. They attempt to achieve that aim through their healing ministry and extensive social programs.
Although it does not consider itself to be a church, the movement does lay claim to Judeo-Christian foundations and uses the Bible, supplemented by Obu’s constant flow of additional revelations. Basing his ideas on those revelations and his unique interpretation of the Bible, Obu is in the process of developing a system of doctrines which orthodox Christians find different, if not completely strange, and therefore un-Christian. For instance, Obu teaches that God is pantheistic, pluriform, good and evil, and (like human beings) bisexual. God, human beings, and all things in nature, both animate and inanimate, are biospiritually interconnected. Jesus Christ failed because he had sinful propensities and consequently could not reach the pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment. Christ has reincarnated eight times and is now on earth in his final incarnation under the name of Olumba Olumba Obu. The entire Old Testament and most of the New are obsolete. The Holy Spirit (now on earth) and the Holy Ghost are not one and the same being. Marriage is an evil and sexual abstinence has great spiritual meritoriousness. Salvation is both by grace and through good works. Death is an illusion. This essay attempts, therefore, to show how Obu straddles apparent acceptance and obvious rejection of some African traditional religio-cultural beliefs and practices.
One of the areas of apparent continuity between African traditional religions and the teachings of the BCS may be observed in the anthropologies of the two. Obu’s anthropology is strikingly reminiscent of belief in totemism, according to which every person is believed to maintain a certain totemic relationship with certain objects or beings in nature such as trees, animals, mountains, etc. According to that belief, a person’s other soul (ukpong) may inhabit some animal or tree in the bush. That other soul is called literally bush soul (ukpong ikot) in Efik. Thus, the soul in the bush becomes the person’s double. It is forbidden to kill the animal or cut down the tree in which a person’s double is believed to dwell. It is because of that belief that Obu preaches vehemently against eating meat, stressing that »if you eat meat of any animal, do you not know that you have eaten man?« Indeed, he could not be more emphatic on this point than when he says:
Brethren, I have told you that animals and birds are human beings. Any time you kill a he-goat for food, somebody must surely die somewhere in the world. You have therefore killed a man… All the fishes killed daily represent the number of human beings who die daily in various parts of the world. No matter how small a fish may be, he is a human being.
Having incorporated some aspects of totemism into his teachings, Obu goes on to speak of the multiple sources of human origin. Some human beings have their origin in the sun, others in the moon, still others in animals, fishes, trees, water, heavenly bodies, and so on. According to that doctrine, a person’s physical behavior in this life invariably reflects his or her biological origin. Obu even draws on a metaphor once used by Jesus when he referred to the Jewish people of his time as a »generation of vipers« (Matthew 3:7). In that remark, explains Obu, Jesus was referring to the bestial origin of the people addressed therein. Obu tells his followers never to drive away any creatures that might stray into their houses or places of worship. He believes irrevokably that such creatures might, in fact, be totems of human beings visiting them and should be welcomed cordially.
Another practice in the BCS which closely resembles its counterpart in African traditional religions is the Brotherhood rite of feasting, particularly the symbolism in oath taking. As practiced in the BCS, the feast (like the early Christian agape feast) symbolizes the oath which binds members in a kind of covenantal obligation. In African traditional religious systems, oath taking between two individuals or groups of people is to avow that neither party will consciously harm or plan any evil against the other. In order to seal a pact between any two individuals or communities, a common covenantal meal or drink is shared, usually from a common dish or with a common food item (popularly the cola nut) by the parties concerned. The meal or drink itself signifies that neither party will harm or think evil of the other. If one violated that covenant, they would offend the gods and ancestral spirits and consequently would be punished by those supernatural beings.
That is exactly the way Obu interprets the significance of the Brotherhood feast. For example, he says ». . .you eat the same bread and drink from the same cup... and so if you think ill of another you will suffer.« Further stressing the social dimension of the feast as an integrating factor, Obu states:
Do not underrate this feast. It brings you new life and binds you together. There should be no division in the bethels. Realize that you are members of one family.
Any member of Brotherhood who thinks evil against another is bound to face hardship and problems; that is, all who haveparticipated in the same feast. The feast is another way of saying that we are one.
It should be eaten with a clear conscience, that is, after one has confessed all of one’s sins to God and resolved all misunderstandings and ill feelings towards one’s neighbors.
Although it may be seen as the ritualization of social relationships, a Brotherhood feast is not merely a social event: it is first and foremost a religious rite. A feast is usually recommended in circumstances in which a particular member is in search of employment, promotion at work, children, recovery from ill health, protection against evil powers, success in examinations, etc. It may also be recommended in celebration of having received such blessings or in fulfillment of a vow. In the former case the feast represents a kind of sacrificium salutis; in the latter, the feast becomes a sort of votive offering. A Brotherhood feast is believed to provide those who partake of it protection against the evil powers of dangerous spirits or malevolent persons.
Some occasions for feasting require only the presence of children up to age seven, supervised by an adult or two. If childless couples, for instance, are in search of children, they are usually advised to make a feast, the belief being that the souls of the children at the feast will attract children from the spirit world to the couples making the feast. In Brotherhood cosmology, as in African traditional cosmology, children are seen as spirits of those who no longer physically walk this earth and are therefore spiritual beings in human flesh. Or they are regarded as beings who have been to the spirit world and returned.
All children born into this world are but the dead come alive through natural birth, through women. In worldly vocabulary, this process is called reincarnation. Without death there would be no birth.
That view of children can be traced to Nigerian traditions where there is a saying among Cross Riverians that »children are spirits« (Nditonwong edi ekpo). Obu reiterates that saying when he remarks »…children, they are all spirits.«
During a feast, angels and beings from the spirit world are also thought to be present.
…during the feast in Brotherhood, angels, elementals, and other beings participate in addition to man. In every feast, all the participants we see are not human beings. Some people taking part are from the abyss, Atlantis and other planes of consciousness. They have to borrow human bodies in order to identify themselves with man with whom they have to associate.
In fact, the primary motive behind the institution of the feast is to solicit the help of those spiritual beings whenever one has a problem requiring urgent solution. The feast is basically a thank offering to the spirit beings, whose presence is both visible (in the children) and invisible, in anticipation of the solution or help sought from them, both before and after the help is received. »Celebrate… feasts… often. They work wonders. Angels are many and they must feed in order to work.« (Even the devil, or the »destroyer and his hosts,« is believed to participate in Brotherhood feasting. Therefore, he and his minion are also bound by the covenantal obligation and »have no adverse mind against the members for they have taken a common vow.«)
What is of interest here to the sociologist of religion is the potential capacity of the rite to promote among members of the movement solidarity, trust, and good will: the rite cements the movement’s members together as a social group in an ever-strengthening bond of love and brotherhood.
Among Brotherhood beliefs that clearly reflect aspects of African traditional religious beliefs, one might mention the belief in the pluriformity of spiritual beings. Obu teaches, as is also believed in native African religions, that God can appear to people in a variety of forms such as a rat, cat, dog, bird, sick men or women. That belief is but a carry over from traditional belief in the ability of such spiritual beings as witches and sorcerers to take the forms of different creatures of their choice. Obu’s familiarity with such a belief is evident in his abundant references to such elements as magic, witches, wizards, witchcraft, sorcerers, mermaids, juju shrines, charms, talismans, oracles, and the like. Hardly a sermon or Bible class of his is delivered without mention and condemnation of those phenomena. In fact, Obu seems to be conversant with the methods and workings of certain aspects of witchcraft such as techniques for bewitching a person and making him or her go insane. He describes the procedure vividly as follows.
…when a fellow wants to charm another fellow to become mad, he always looks for the hair, nails, clothes of a mad fellow to use in preparing the concoction. When the charm and the incantation is (sic) done, the person to be charmed is always hunted by the spirit of these mad fellows. The spirits of mad fellows will overwhelm him.
The Cross River State of Nigeria is notorious for witchcraft and sorcery. Perhaps Obu heard stories about the techniques of those practices in the environment in which he grew up. Moreover, because of the frequency with which he alludes condemningly to witchcraft and its cognates, one cannot help wondering whether some of his followers might indeed be engaged in such practices. Indeed, Obu’s frequent references to and his awareness of its techniques have led his antagonists to »attribute the powers of Brotherhood leaders« and »the successful expansion of the church to the practice of witchcraft.« But we have no empirical evidence for such allegations.
Underlying Obu’s obsession with sorcery and witchcraft are certain basic assumptions in traditional African belief systems. First, a person’s death or misfortune demands specific explanation. Second, human beings can injure or harm (charm) each other without any physical act. Third, it is possible for someone (a human witch) to be responsible for the death or suffering of another human being. Fourth, oracles or divination can reveal truth when other means fail.
One of the cardinal beliefs in African traditional religions which appears in the Brotherhood is the belief that the dead are still alive among the living. Obu teaches that the living dead are very much members of Brotherhood congregations and participate actively in their worship services. He states unequivocally:
Do you know that all those people whom you declare dead long time ago, are still here. They go to morning and evening prayers and are washing and doing every bit of thing. During Pentecostal Assembly all of them attend. They take part in all activities.
Clearly, Obu is articulating the belief in the ancestor, which is a conspicuous feature of African traditional religious thought.
One final religious practice in the BCS that reminds one of a similar African native religious practice is the use of the so-called holy oil and holy water for purposes of healing, warding off evil forces, or for allegedly obtaining good fortune in one’s daily undertakings. Apparently, members of the BCS put so much faith in the efficacy of those two items (to the exclusion of private prayers and fasting) that Obu sometimes regrets having introduced the elements into his cultus. He hopes, however, that some day his followers will be so spiritually mature and enlightened that the use of oil and water will no longer be necessary.
The preparation of Brotherhood oil and water is said to be the exclusive responsibility of Obu: no other person in the movement has the kind of spiritual powers that, when infused into the oil and water, make them as powerful and effective. Obu himself says that »God is the maker of the holy oil« and that as such members should worship the Creator of the oil and not the created element itself. Obu also says that the holy oil should not be toyed with or handled lightly because it is »the blood of Christ.«
Members demonstrate daily their faith in the efficacy of the oil and water when they queue up at the movement’s headquarters, large containers in hand, to receive their share of the holy wares. Members even come from other countries to receive them. The official hours for distributing the holy oil and water are between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. daily except Thursday (on which they stage day-long »dry fasting«) and Sunday (their official day of general worship).
The use of the holy oil and water is not peculiar to the BCS. The same practice may be observed in many other Nigerian new religious movements, and its origin may even be traced to non-African religious traditions, including some versions of Christianity. We prefer, however, to trace the use of those items to the same practice in Africa because they are closer to the religio-cultural experience of members of the BCS who see the oil and water as objects of protection in much the same way that practitioners of African indigenous religions regard such objects as talismans, amulets, rings, etc.
Having thus far discussed some of the practices in the BCS that have their origin in African primal religions, or resemble similar practices in those religions, we now turn to a discussion of those practices in the native religio-cultural background which Obu condemns.
Even though Obu is very much aware of the reality of witchcraft, even in contemporary Africa, he often denies the existence of that phenomenon. He declares, for instance, »I have said before and now repeat that there are no ghosts, witches, wizards and the like; they do not exist.« Or he sometimes avers, »If any person tells you that elementary spirits exist, that person is a liar.«--that, in contradiction to Ephesians 6:12 which specifically calls Christians’ attention to the reality of such spirits. In the true spirit of a faith healer, Obu admonishes his followers
Whenever you are encountered with (sic) care and trouble, seek our Lord Jesus Christ, and discard the invitation of the native doctor, the fetish and juju priests because they are devoid of salvation and power.
Where people consult oracles and indulge themselves in the preparation of charms, concoctions and talisman, the Spirit of God cannot be found there.
But such denials are hardly convincing. In fact, one can only see in such denials Obu’s attempt to discourage his followers from being enticed and tempted to look in the direction of witchcraft for help. Indeed, he might be saying to them that he himself has something better and more powerful to offer--a more effective way of dealing with the supernatural. He is really claiming to have access to higher spiritual powers which enable him to achieve more effectively what witches and priests of African traditional religions promise through the invocation of lesser spiritual forces or beings. Obu puts down the powers or effectiveness of other traditional religious practices in order to promote his own.
Indeed, it would seem that the greatest threat to the existence of the BCS comes not so much from Christian churches in Nigeria as from Nigerian traditional religions which many professed Nigerian Christians are still apparently irresistibly attracted to and fascinated by. As Lamin Sanneh has recently observed,
…in spite of the public appeal of the new factors clamouring for allegiance, African religions have continued to fill a failsafe role when the other options had been tried and had failed to cope with personal problems.
The propelling force behind a pluralistic search for effective spiritual power is always »practical efficacity,« not »logical coherence,« a phenomenon duly reported by J. D. Y. Peel in west Nigeria.
This is reasonable behavior, for they want clear and well-defined this-worldly goals, and they pursue whatever means they have any reason to suppose effective; the sources of spiritual power are manifold and none need be rejected.
Obu demands that before people are accepted into full membership in Brotherhood, they should renounce their membership in or association with traditional religio-cultural societies such as Obon, Ekong, Ekpo, Ekpe, Obgoni, etc. He still makes such demands even when the state and federal governments see and encourage participation in those societies as essential for the promotion and revival of the country’s cultural heritage. At a time when some Nigerian theologians »have come to emphasize the goodness of indigenous culture and its compatibility with Christianity,« Obu simply does not agree. Rather, those elements of African traditional culture which are not consonant with his religious perceptions are condemned in the sharpest terms and summarily dismissed as »demonism« or »the yoke that weighed down your fathers.« He condemns the action of some of his followers who apparently still avail themselves of the services of the traditional religious specialists.
When you go to the soothsayers, sorcerers, black magic priests, what do you see? It is these tongue-tight idols. You are asked to bow to them… you dishonour yourself and stray into a wrong path. This is the cause of all your troubles and woes. All the churches of Christendom are idolatrous, since they promote and support culture… What a shame to see a preacher, a bishop, a priest, or minister of religion preaching idolatry and encouraging it from the pulpit, and calling it »traditional culture.« How can they escape God’s punishment!
Yet another traditional African social and cultural practice which Obu condemns in no uncertain terms is polygamy. Unlike some other African new religious movements which encourage this practice, Obu teaches that marriage itself is a great impediment to spirituality. He believes, in fact, that »99 percent of the troubles in the world emanate from marriages.« As such, marriage should be shunned as often as possible. He strongly suggests celibacy as the ideal condition for a truly spiritual life, an ideal which he considers a prerequisite to being counted among »the 144,000 virgins.«
In that context also, Obu lambasts the African traditional socio-cultural practice of giving and receiving bride-wealth during marriage transactions. He classifies it as »the work of darkness« which, he says, he is bent on destroying.
My first assignment on the earth plane is to uproot all those things that were not planted by God. All the things God knows are bad for His children are what He has come to destroy. You will all see what I will bring about at the close of the age. You will never pay any bride-price. . .because love is the bride-price. . .Brotherhood of the Cross and Star has come to remove that heavy burden that your grandfathers could not carry which you are struggling to bear.
Such teachings are without doubt revolutionary. In the African traditional religio-cultural philosophy of marriage and the family, celibacy is frowned upon except when practiced for ritual purposes by a called few. Otherwise, celibacy is considered to be »an incomprehensible upsetting of the social and religious order.
One final African traditional religio-cultural practice which Obu kicks against relates to the ceremonies and rituals conducted during funerals. He particularly condemns them not only because of what he considers to be unnecessary financial burden and waste but mainly because, according to him, they involve heathen practices. »...wake-keeping, funeral celebrations, memorial services, revival of traditional culture are all idolatry.«
Indeed, Obu even forbids his followers to mourn or shed tears over the death of their loved ones. Such an expression of sorrow over the dead, he says, shows lack of understanding of what death is all about. People do not really die; they are merely »on transfer« to some other place on earth to continue their lives there. When they finish their God-given assignment there, they will surely come back through the process of reincarnation. It makes no sense, therefore, to mourn them since they will come back in due course. That doctrine is a departure from African cultural notions according to which anyone who goes to a funeral home or burial ground and shows no sign of sorrow over the dead is considered to be inhumanly hard-hearted and terribly wicked. In certain cases, such an individual might even be suspected or bluntly accused of possibly being in some way responsible for, or at least being aware of the cause or source of, the death.
It is clear that many of Obu’s teachings are definitely anticultural or culturally iconoclastic. At a time when contemporary Nigeria is advocating cultural revival as a significant factor for national self-identity and development, one may describe him as being revolutionary. That point is worth bearing in mind when one comes across writers on African new religious movements who tend to give the mistaken and misleading impression that all of those movements are »revivalistic« or »nativistic« in the sense of consciously attempting to review every element of native African cultures.
Every new movement, religious or non-religious, emerges out of an existing cultural environment and from its inception is in direct contact with that environment. Sometimes such contact results in consort, at other times in conflict between the environment and the new movement. What determines the longevity and uniqueness of a given new movement, ultimately, are its selective as well as its creative capacities to adapt into its systems of thought and worldview elements from the host milieu. It incorporates elements considered meaningful and beneficial to its very existence. It rejects those elements considered antithetical to its conceptions of reality, and it creates its own unique ways of looking at the world.
What we see in the case of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star is that through the twin processes of selection and adaptation, it has successfully functionally synthesized in its teachings and philosophy elements from the African indigenous religio-cultural and ideological substratum while rejecting, through those same twin processes, others which it views as irrelevant to its attempts to grapple with the meaning of human existence and order. Because its beliefs and teachings are colored predominantly by the Christian worldview, which historically remains antithetical to African traditional worldviews, the BCS has rejected much that is pivotal, indeed indispensable, to the existence, health, and longevity of traditional African cultures and religions. The consequence of that position is that the BCS leans more heavily on the side of Christianity, thus encouraging it to continue its war against the vestigials of African native religions.
By standing à cheval between both African indigenous and Christian traditions, consciously or unconsciously, Obu faces an unavoidable dilemma: he cannot Africanize Christianity completely, neither can he baptize or Christianize African indigenous religions completely. He adopts, in resolving that dilemma, the sometimes wise approach of selection and adaptation, demonstrating that he is in many ways a true syncretist.
…a man who sees some good… in his traditional religious practices and beliefs, identified as such, and attempts to synthesize them with new beliefs in a harmonious religious system.
1. Revelation of the Holy Spirit: Special Release for Christ's Week (Calabar: Brotherhood Everlasting Gospel Centre, 1981), p. 27. Unless otherwise indicated, all Brotherhood publications are published either by their Everlasting Gospel Centre or the Brotherhood Press, both located at the movement’s current headquarters in Calabar, Nigeria. Henceforth, only the titles of the publications will be given, followed by the date of publication, when known, and the page number referred to.
2. Bryan Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 105.
3. Umoh James Umoh and Asuquo Ekanem, Brotherhood of the Cross and Star: Facts You Must Know (Lagos: W. & H. Commercial Arts Practitioners, 1979), p. xvii; see also p. 2.
4. The Supernatural Teacher, Book 2 (1980), p. 93.
5. Ibid., pp. 145-146.
6. The Supernatural Teacher, Book 4 (n.d.), p. 150.
7. Minutes of the Spiritual Council of Churches (SCC Minutes), 25 April 1976, p. 10.
8. SCC Minutes, 30 December 1978, pp. 10-11.
9. Eifiong Orok, Mysteries in Brotherhood (n.d.), p. 54.
10. Ibid., pp. 59-60.
11. Interview with Apostle E. K. Ukpai, 16 March 1982.
12. The Supernatural Teacher, Book 4, p. 74
13. Orok, op. cit., p. 52. Cf. Obu, The Supernatural Teacher, Book 4, pp. 151-152.
14. SCC Minutes, 29 August 1981, pp. 8-9.
15. Orok, op. cit., p.54.
16. Father’s Prediction for 1981 (n.d.), pp. 55-57. Cf. The Supernatural Teacher, Book 4, pp. 34-35, 41, 98.
17. The Supernatural Teacher, Book 4, p. 69. Cf. Anefiok E. Bassey’s testimony as recorded in Biakpan: Paradise Regained (n.d.), pp. 13-14.
18. In the context of Brotherhood ideology and organizational structure, it is at the present time incorrect to use the title ‘leader’ in referring to any member of the movement other than Obu himself, who is recognized in the movement as the ‘Sole Spiritual Head’ and only leader. Probably the title ‘officers’ or ‘ordained ones’ would be better substitutes. One realizes, however, that in some sense the movement’s officers are, ultimately, ‘indirect leaders,’ sociologically speaking.
19. M. F. C. Bourdillon, ‘Pluralism and the Problem of Belief,’ Archives de Sciences Sociale de Religion, 54:1 (1982), p. 27.
20. The Supernatural Teacher, Book 4, p. 151. See also The Supernatural Teacher, Book 2, p. 74.
21. Gospels (n.d.), p. 26.
22. SCC Minutes, 28 April 1979, p. 23. See also The Prophets’ Handbook (1965), p. 7.
23. Kenneth Enang, Salvation in a Nigerian Background: Its Concept and Articulation in the Annang Independent Churches (Berlin: Verlag von Dietrich Reimer, 1979), pp. 264-268.
24. SCC Minutes, 22 March 1975, p. 20.
25. Revelation, op. cit., p. 101.
26. Ibid., p. 104.
27. From Cross to Star: The Glorification of the Holy Spirit (n.d.), p. 73.
28. Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (London: C. Hurst & Co., 1983), p. xvi. See also E. Geoffrey Parrinder, ‘Traditional Religions and Modern Culture (Africa),’ in Proceedings of the XIth International Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Vol.1, The Impact of Modern Culture on Traditional Religions (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), pp. 105-106, 110.
29. J. D. Y. Peel, ‘Syncretism and Religious Change,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, X:2 (1968), pp. 129-130. Babalawo is a Yoruba word for the traditional religious specialist or medicine man. Cf. J. K. Parratt and A. R. I. Doi, »Some Further Aspects of Yoruba Syncretism,« Practical Anthropologist, 16:6 (1969), pp. 252-256, Ibid., p. 129.
31. Joseph Kenny, »Religious Movements in Nigeria, Divisive or Cohesive: Some Interpretative Models,« Orita: Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies, XVI:2 (1984), p. 126.
32. Gospels, op. cit., p. 33.
33. Revelation, op. cit., p. 23.
34. Gospels, op. cit., p. 30.
35. See Enang, op. cit., pp. 14-20.
36. For example, the Aladura group of movements, the Celestial Church of Christ, God’s Kingdom Society, and Elijah Masinde’s Dina ya Msambwa, to name but a few.
37. Revelation, op. cit., p. 117.
38. Gospels, op. cit., pp. 1-17.
39. Revelation, op. cit., p. 17.
40. Ibid., pp. 17, 18-19, 21.
41. Dominique Zahan, Religion. Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa, trans. Kate E. Martin and Lawrence M. Martin (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 10.
42. Gospels, op. cit., p. 32.43. Peel, op. cit., p. 129.