The media has accepted at face value the accusation by anti-Unification Church lawyers that “victims” are being defrauded through “spiritual sales.” The real story is different.
by Massimo Introvigné
Article 7 of 7. Read article 1, article 2, article 3, article 4, article 5 and article 6.
The Terror of the French Revolution killed some 30,000 priests, nuns and lay Catholics. To stir up public opinion against the Catholic Church, the architects of the Terror used an argument that they knew was always effective: money. Countless pamphlets, gazette articles, and cartoons showed greedy priests ruining families by soliciting extravagant donations.
Communist propaganda learned and applied the lesson. When Mongolia was under communist rule, some 60,000 Buddhist monks were killed. The regime prepared it with a massive propaganda poster campaign, where the monks were portrayed as vampires sucking the blood of the Mongol population by asking for heavy donations.
We are now seeing the same propaganda at work against the Unification Church/Family Federation in Japan after the assassination of Shinzo Abe. The killer claimed he wanted to punish Abe for sending a video to one event, and a message to another event, from an organization linked to the Unification Church, a group he hated because he believed that his mother’s donations had driven her into bankruptcy. .
There is an anti-Unification Church group in Japan known as the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales. They claim that countless Japanese have been ruined both by donations and by the purchase of worthless artifacts sold by the Unification Church at extravagant prices.
“Spiritual Sales” is a label coined by leftist anti-Unification-Church media in Japan in the 1980s. A company called Happy World imported to Japan and sold miniature vases and pagodas. Some of those who bought them were connected to small new religions other than the Unification Church, and said that these artifacts were imbued with good spiritual energy. Unsurprisingly, Happy World was happy about it and raised the prices. The Unification Church did not sell the vases and pagodas and has nothing to do with claims about their alleged mystical powers. However, those who operated Happy World were members of the Unification Church and donated a portion of their profits to the Church. Thus, they were accused of “spiritual sales”, especially after the creation of the association of hostile lawyers in 1987.
After 1987, sales of vases and pagodas ceased, but other Unification Church members had businesses selling artwork, jewelry, and seals or stamps used in Japan to confirm the signatures. These stamps were exquisitely crafted and made from expensive materials, but they were sold for higher prices than usual, also because they were claimed to bring good luck, a common claim for different artifacts in Japan . Again, these items were not sold by the Unification Church but by members who then used a portion of their profits to donate to the Church.
In 2000, an existing door-to-door sales law was significantly amended and its name changed to the “Specified Commercial Transactions Law”. It prohibits “intimidating or disturbing” potential buyers in order to complete a sale. Based on this law, Unification Church members who sold seals were detained and eventually given suspended prison terms. The President of the Church in Japan at the time acknowledged his responsibility for not informing the members of the new law and their duty to obey it. He resigned in 2009 and the Unification Church adopted a new policy advising members whose businesses sold “lucky” artifacts, including stamps, to strictly comply with the 2000 law.
The hostile lawyers also used the label “spiritual sales” for donations to the Unification Church, another matter. They claimed that the Church was “selling” eternal salvation, both for the living and for their deceased loved ones, for donations. They managed to convince some Japanese courts to establish the dubious principle that if the amount of the donations was high, it was to be presumed that they had been obtained by “fraudulent or threatening” means, or “psychological techniques” depriving the givers of their “free will”. (a notion dangerously close to the discredited and pseudo-scientific theory of brainwashing).
Tokens of appreciation given to donors can also be maliciously confused with items sold in “spiritual sales”. In some Catholic organizations, those who make large donations receive a book or diploma autographed by the Pope. Of course, they don’t “buy” the diploma or the book at an extravagant price. The book or diploma are only symbolic reminders that the Church is grateful for their gifts.
Lawyers relied on a common mistake of campaigns against groups labeled as “cults”. They present as unique practices that they have in common with the major religions. The Catholic Church believes that many souls after death go to purgatory, a temporary state between heaven and hell. The time of purgatory can be shortened by their relatives and friends through prayers, masses for which they pay an honorarium to the priest and donations. Indeed, one of the reasons Martin Luther split from the Church of Rome was his aversion to the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, which taught that monetary offerings can automatically shorten the time spent in purgatory. Buddhist orders have similar teachings, linking the gifts to the best reincarnations of deceased relatives and escaping from the dreaded cold hells.
Hundreds of Protestant churches uphold the biblical principle of tithing and ask members to give ten percent of their income. Tithing is suggested as a possibility, although not mandatory, in the Unification Church as well, which also has specific practices such as giving for four years in multiples of thirty, recognizing the collective responsibility of mankind in Judas’ betrayal of Christ, whom he sold for thirty pieces of silver.
In its general principles, the gift theology of the Unification Church is strikingly similar to its Catholic and Protestant counterparts. Japanese courts have begun to recognize this, also because donors now sign notarized statements in which they declare that they give freely, understand all the implications, and will not sue the Unification Church in the future. In 2021, the Family Federation still lost one donation case but won two more, in one of which the Tokyo District Court found that the plaintiff had tampered with evidence.
Ultimately, the problem is theological and philosophical. For a believer, the gifts can be profound spiritual experiences. For an atheist, or someone who believes that groups like the Unification Church are not “true” religions, no caution would be in order, and no gift would ever be recognized as the fruit of a free and reasonable choice.