Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cults: The Ugly Underbelly of Christianity

Today is the 30th anniversary of the mass suicide at Jonestown. Many of you may not remember when this happened. Shoot, many people in the blogosphere weren't even alive yet. In fact, I expect many people who have used the term (so prevalent in today's vernacular) "Just go ahead and drink the Kool-Aid" have no cultural reference for it. They don't know where it comes from. Now, I do remember Jonestown. I wasn't old when it happened, but I remember the horror that Americans felt hearing about more than 900 people who either drank the Kool-Aid (cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid it seems) or were shot for trying to escape.

The horror of Jonestown is just a cultural reference point to me. It's a remembered tragedy not a personal one. And yet, I do have a personal story to tell here. It's about the ugly underbelly of Christianity - the Christian cult. Jonestown, Waco, these are catch words now. Things that bring immediately to people's minds crazy Christians who died in bizarre ways as part of a cult. So, how is this personal for me?

My brother spent over 15 years as a member of a Christian cult. That's right more than 15 years. I can tell you, it was a long hard road.

My brother is a wonderful, wonderful person. He's sweet, caring, and generous. He's also self-conscious and socially awkward. This lack of self-confidence is likely what made him a target for the cult when he joined the Navy out of high school. Cults like people who are searching, they help them find something. They give them a home, a place to fit in, a group where they belong. For a seeker, that can be very powerful.

They also use more nefarious techniques. They help indoctrinate people by depriving them of sleep (requiring them to "cleanse" themselves by spending 20 hours a day in prayer and hard labor), food (my brother lost 40 pounds in the first year and he was already thin), and hammering the need for memorization of specific Bible verses from the "right" Bible (King James version only).

So, the first time we saw my brother after he joined the Navy, he spent long hours in the bathroom (they teach them to go to the bathroom to be alone without the distraction of "non-believers") praying and reading scripture. He ate very, very little and came home in what were, effectively, rags having given all of his clothes to the cult. He pushed us more and more firmly away as the Cult continually filled him with the belief that his family doesn't understand him, never loved him, shouldn't be part of his life. He worked hard and turned all of his money over to the cult, sharing a 3 bedroom townhouse with 9 other guys. Needless to say, we were very concerned. The weight loss alone was worrisome. Add in the rest and we really didn't know what to do.

My mother began to read. Books upon books have been written on this topic. Through one of these books, she found a young man who works with families to free people from these cults. She took a personal loan and funded a trip for several members of the family as well as the deprogrammer and an associate to Hawaii, where my brother was stationed. The associate had been a member of the same cult that my brother was in an had found his way out. The deprogrammer had been in a different cult and left it after many, many years. We went into this experience with very high hopes. We were not successful. It was heartbreaking, but God knows best.

So, we find ourselves more than 15 years down the line and my brother one day seems to have sort of wandered away from the cult. There was no big explosion, no painful break, no angry words, no big announcements. He simply moved from the Chicago area (location of one of their HQs and where he was brought in) back home to Alabama. He talks to people once in awhile, but doesn't have close direct contact with the cult members. And, he's found his way back into the family. He started that process by getting together with a cousin who had moved to the area. Finally, he has come to realize that many of the things the cult had told him were not true. He did not die because he left the cult (they actually convinced them that God would kill them if they left), his family does still and always has loved him, it is possible to be a believer and a person of faith and not hold to his one little sect's practices.

It has been a long, long road. Honestly, if you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have predicted that he would never leave the cult, likely never marry, and never be part of the family. But God takes His time and does things in His way. Thankfully, the prodigal son is home, hopefully for good.

And, at times like this, it's good for Christians to remember that we do have misguided souls in our faith. Sometimes they do commit crimes while exercising their "freedom" to worship. One of the big differences, I suspect, between them and the radical elements in Islam is that often Christian cults are trying to hasten their own joining with God (killing themselves and their followers) rather than killing outsiders. I'm truly glad we're out the other side. I'm glad my mother has her son back. And my heart aches for all of those of all faiths who have lost their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers to radical religious movements. I know their sorrow and pray that they, also, will be able to reflect on the sorrow of separation and the joy of reunion.

Happy Returns!


At 6:34 AM , Blogger Dave said...

I was under the impression that it was Flavor Aid. We're giving Kool-Aid a bad name. :P

But that's beside the point.

At 10:08 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Kind of beside the point. But, I really thoght it was Kool-Aid. Perhaps I must do some research into the matter.

At 1:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm two points,
grouping waco, which is a governmental failure to follow the rules of engagement with jonestown is unfair. while it was a cult alright it was the goverment agencies fault that they were killed off.
Actually one point to notice is that the cult phenomena is an interesting one actually that requires a person with a lot of charisma, and i guess htat makes my mind wonder a bit about what it entails since it doesn't have to be always negative and it could possibly be quite revolutionary.

What I really wanted to stop at is this statement "Christian cults are trying to hasten their own joining with God (killing themselves and their followers) rather than killing outsiders."
Thats entirely not the case, Christianity has quite the history of militant cults, the biggest and most obvious one that comes to mind is the protestant (by definition it was a cult at its inception).
While the mo'tazilla and sufism are longstanding islamic cults(shall we just use sects instead since that's what a cult is called once its accepted by the mainstream ) and they are pretty peaceful. :D

Just trying to point out that nothing is as clear cut as it seems. not every islamic cult is a terrorist organization just the few that sprouted in recent history. and they are a marginal number

At 2:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hhhmmm, Bam, I don't think Protestantism would quite qualify there either. The Catholic church had quite strayed in it's bonding to governments and changing doctrine to suit leaders (more along the lines of definitive cultic behavior).

I believe it was the Catholics killing off Protestants that started the violence (which did not start right away)? Were they justified in fighting back then dishing out the same violence to Catholics? Yes in fighting back and No to violence, to me...

I was an agnostic teen in Calif at the Jonestown tragedy, not only was it a governmental failure but a press failure as the leader was so well liked the normal check and balance system of gov and journalism was absent when there were warning bells going off everywhere.


MB, I am sorry for what your bro went through, and your fam. Thank God he got out.

At 2:20 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Kinz, thanks. Bam, the causes and ability to avoid tragedies is always subjective. Given the behaviors that the Waco group was going through prior to its "issues" with the government, Iwould argue that they clearly were preparing for their own little war. They were, in fact, ready to die. At least some were. What the government's missteps were (many by all accounts) most likely hastened the end result, but I believe it would have come anyway. I'm with Kinz on the point that Protestantism doesn't qualify cleanly either.

In fact, there are many cults which have nothing to do with any religion. It doesn't make them less harmful or damaging. They all tend to find the same segment of society to bring in. For the families, it's terribly painful. And, while most cults (of all sorts) do not go out in a blaze of supposed glory, they are still painful for families. Typically for those engaged in what is truly cult behavior, they tear families apart. To be clear, simply because your views may be heretical to some body or other doesn't define you as a cult. Cults are typically engaged in the types of control that I mentioned above (mind control, manipulation, isolation). Main stream groups typically do not use such techniques to try and gain total control over their members... I can't speak to Islamic groups, of course.

I'm definitely going to think some more on this topic...

At 9:38 AM , Blogger Khadra said...

wow, what a journey your brother has been on. I am glad for him and your family that he found his way home.

At 11:59 PM , Blogger UmmFarouq said...

Wow. A lot of pain and emotion and in the end, a happy ending. This is indeed scary stuff. So glad your bro came back, even if it took 15 years.

At 2:01 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Khadra and Umm Farouq, thanks. We're blessed to have him back in the fold.

At 4:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

kinzi and mommabean i didn't mean that to offend any body i was trying to twist the perspective a bit.
I mentioned protestantism because it fitted the definition of a cult
1. reverence of a leader (Luther or Calvin)
2. mainstream thinks its a false religion (catholic/Greek orthodox view was mainstream)
that's usually my definition, not to detract from the elation of this post about your brother being free from the cult.

At 3:09 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Bam, no problem. But actually Protestantism refers to so many denominations within Christianity that the comparison here doesn't quite work. The Methodsists looked to John Wesley, the Presbyterians to Calvin, the Lutherans to Luther, and the list goes on... However, there were also the Anabaptist churchs (Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, Quaker) and the Anglican Church. So, there is no central figure here. What there are is a wide range of churches who had a variety of reasons for desiring change or breakage with the Roman Catholic Church (the Orthodox Church already being separate).

In addition, the type of cult behavior that typically defines AMerican cults (mind control, sleep deprivation, etc.) are typically absent in the split of a sect. However, in the early days they can be difficult to identify. At any rate, never fear our elation is the same and my feeling for others in the same situation remains...

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