In 1901, an anarchist assassinated United States President William McKinley. One of the by-products of crime was that for decades all anarchist groups, some of which were against violence, were criminalized in the United States. As late as 1927 the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for crimes they never committed, a story those of my generation remember as told in 1971 in the song by Joan Baez “Here’s to You”.
Repressing all anarchists because one of them murdered a politician was unfair, but perhaps not surprising. Imagine a different scenario, however. A right-wing extremist and sworn enemy of anarchists could have assassinated the president, saying he deserved to be punished because he was supposedly ‘soft on anarchy’. In that case, any sane American would have agreed that blaming the anarchists would make no sense. Their most radical enemies should rather be blamed.
This is precisely what is happening in Japan after the assassination of Shinzo Abe. The Unification Church founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon is blamed for the crime and its members are vilified in their workplaces and schools, creating a human rights emergency. It would already be unfair if the killer was a member of the Unification Church. No large group, religious or otherwise, should be punished for the crimes of a bad apple. However, Mr. Abe’s assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, was not a member of the unification movement. On the contrary, he vengefully hated the organization founded by Rev. Moon and intended to punish Mr. Abe for sending video messages to two events organized by a Unification-linked organization.
Simple logic indicates that the unification movement is a casualty here, along with Mr. Abe. The psychological evaluation that is now being conducted may easily indicate that Mr. Yamagami is a psychopath, but true paranoids have real enemies. His weak mind may have been stirred up by the hate campaigns against the Unification movement carried out by some Japanese media, fueled by “anti-cult” organizations and lawyers.
Media reported that the killer’s mother made large donations to the unification movement, which ruined the family and caused Mr. Yamagami to hold a grudge against the group. However, these donations ceased several years ago and Mr. Yamagami killed Mr. Abe this year. It is far more likely that what prompted him to act was the recent violent media campaigns against the Unification Church.
Donations to the Unification Church have been portrayed by the media as something sinister, especially when they take the form of purchases of artifacts at prices that include a donation and are tied to their spiritual value. rather than material, or to spiritual practices intended to alleviate the condition. of deceased relatives in the afterlife. Journalists aren’t required to study Unification Church theology, but they don’t understand that similar giving programs exist in many religions.
In fact, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation and split Western Christianity into two separate branches following the controversy over the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church, that is, promises that a soul may ascend to heaven in the afterlife following a gift from his friends and relatives. . Similar practices still exist in several major religions. Voluminous theological treatises have been written on the spiritual significance of gifts, challenging the caricatural interpretation of unbelievers that sees them only as something that feeds the greed of pastors, monks and priests.
Speaking of greed, most Japanese and international media took at face value press releases and statements from an organization called the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Selling. These lawyers, using standard anti-cult arguments, seek out Unification Church donors who have left the movement and can be recruited as clients and sue to recover the amount of their donations. Lawyers have won some cases and lost others. Interestingly, one question the reporters didn’t want to ask them was what percentage of the money these lawyers keep for themselves.
The Japanese and (to some extent) international media are inclined to believe anti-Unification Church advocates because of their beliefs that, unlike legitimate religions (which can sometimes be just as insistent in soliciting donations) , “cults” are bad. Japan was understandably shocked by the horrific acts of violence, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, carried out by a so-called “cult” group, Aum Shinrikyo.
However, this does not allow hate speech against hundreds of non-violent groups that some might consider “heretical”. A large majority of scholars of new religious movements abandoned the label of “sect” decades ago and concluded that “sect” is a word without meaningful content and is only used as a weapon to slander and discriminate. religious minorities that certain lobbies, for example, whatever the reasons, do not like. This is precisely what is happening with the Unification Church in Japan.
- Massimo Introvigne, Italian sociologist of religions and author of some 70 books on new religious movements (including The Plymouth Brethren and Inside The Church of Almighty God, both published by Oxford University Press, in 2018 and 2020; and Brainwashing: Reality or Myth ? which has just been published by Cambridge University Press) is the Managing Director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies in New Religions.