Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid
“Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Last Sunday afternoon while it was pouring rain, I watched a two hour National Geographic special on “Strong City” and its founder Michael Travesser. Wayne Bent, also known as Michael Travesser, is the founder of “The Lord Our Righteousness Church,” which is also known as “Strong City.” This is a cult, Insiders would say a religious community, in northern New Mexico. Michael, as cult believers call him, led a group of about eighty followers there from Idaho in 2000. In 2008, the community consisted of approximately fifty people.
Michael Travesser was once a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, but he left that denomination in 1987 and has since referred to that church as one of the "daughters of the great harlot" condemned in the book of Revelation. Wayne Bent/Michael Travesser claims that, during an experience in his living room in June 2000, God told him, "You are the Messiah." Since then he has stated, "I am the embodiment of God. I am divinity and humanity combined."
Like most cult leaders, Michael wanted control, total control over his followers, and that included apparently having sex with as many different women as possible. Furthermore, a former church member has alleged that Michael told his congregation that "God told him that he was supposed to sleep with seven virgins," including that member's own daughters, then only 14 and 15 years old. The father, John Sayer, refused. John Sayer left the compound they called Strong City with his wife and daughters after being a church member for sixteen years. Later, one daughter returned and, according to Sayer, was one of three minors taken into state custody for their own protection in April 2008. Michael Travesser has said he has had sex with his followers, including a woman who was divorced from his son, but he asserts that he only lay "naked with virgins,” that is with teenaged girls, which strikes me as really gross.
On April 22, 2008, the state of New Mexico seized three minor teens at Strong City. Wayne Bent—Michael--was arrested. On December 15th, 2008, jurors convicted Wayne Bent of one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The Judge imposed the maximum sentence of 18 years but suspended eight years. Michael will have to serve at least 8˝ years before becoming eligible for release.
All of which leads to this question: What is there about the United States that causes us to produce ever-increasing crops of religious nuts? Maybe it is just my ignorance of what is happening in other countries, but it seems to me that this country is way ahead when it comes to creating and nurturing cults of all kinds.
As I mentioned earlier, one marker of a cult is the amount of control the cult leader exercises over his followers. The ultimate control is suicide, and we have all too many examples of that kind of thing.
David Koresh (August 17, 1959 – April 19, 1993) was the leader of the Branch Davidian religious sect, who believed that he was Christ. He thought that his death would set in motion the events of the end of time and usher in the Kingdom of God. David Koresh was a former Southern Baptist who became a Seventh Day Adventist, then joined the "Shepherd’s Rod" group just before they were kicked out by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Koresh became the new leader of the group after having an affair with the former lady leader. As the messiah, Koresh regarded himself as the "ideal sire" of a new kingdom, and he thought that every woman in tune with God should have his children. So, he added numerous "spirit wives" to his household and compound, and many of the children in the compound were his own children.
On February 28, 1993, federal authorities raided Mount Carmel, the center of the Branch Davidian cult outside Waco Texas. there was a bloody shootout followed by a 51 day seige. When the FBI launched a final assault, a fire broke out and most of the members of the cult died in the flames, including at least 17 children. In the subsequent investigation, the Danforth report, a report commissioned by The Special Counsel, concluded that the Branch Davidians inside the building deliberately set the fire and committed mass suicide. The Danforth Report also claims that Steve Schneider, Koresh's right-hand man, probably shot Koresh and then killed himself with the same gun. Autopsy records indicate that at least 20 Branch Davidians were shot, including 5 children. The Danforth Report concluded that the adults who died of gunshot wounds shot themselves after shooting the children.
The list goes on. The Heaven's Gate cult, founded by Marshall Applewhite, believed that the arrival of the comet Halle-Bopp in 1997 concealed the arrival of an alien spaceship which was going to recycle the earth and save a chosen few. The way to be saved was to commit suicide. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the cult.
But the best known and most notorious cult of them all was Jim Jones’ "People’s Temple." Now no one remembers this today, but Jones started off as one of the good guys, but by the sorry end of his life he had gone far down the dark side. In Indiana, he was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement back in the sixties. His “People's Temple” was basically run out the state because he had blacks and whites worshipping together. So he went to California and there it seemed like with every pronouncement he became less Christian and more socialist. Like David Koresh and Wayne Bent he eventually claimed to be Jesus Christ. Jones was expecting a nuclear war and looking for a safe haven. He thought he found it in Guyana. By that time political and economic support for the People's Temple in California was on the wan anyway, so the group moved to South America, to Guyana, in 1974 and began building Jonestown.
But things did not go well. Jim Jones, like most cult leaders, wanted to have sex with a number of women and that caused trouble. There were accusations of tax fraud. Was the People's Temple a church at all? There were accusations of illegal drug use. There were reports of intimidation and degradation. In 1978, congressman Leo Ryan led a delegation to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission.
Apparently, this was the spark that set off the explosion. Armed members of the People's Temple attacked the delegation and killed five people, including the Congressman. Later that same day over 900 members of the people's Temple, including 276 children committed suicide. There is a 45 minute audio recording that survived. It is mostly Jones ranting, but it gives us some idea of what happened. Also, some members of the People's Temple fled into the jungle, and we have their accounts. These sources detail a horrific scene of how Jim Jones persuaded his followers to drink cyanide-laced kool-aid. The mothers were instructed to first give it to their children and then drink it themselves. Jones was found dead by a gunshot to the head.
So all of this raises the question: how do we deal with a cult? The simple answer is: Don't drink the Kool-Aid. Do not give another human being control of your life.
But before we can deal with a cult, we have to recognize it for what it is. We can get some ideas about the characteristics of a cult from the examples I have already described.
Cults are all about control. The cult is totally devoted to the leader or founder---Marshal Applewhite, Jim Jones, Wayne Bent. The leader is regarded as God, or Messiah or a special being of some kind. Consequently, you cannot argue with him, or disagree with him in any way. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Cult leaders are not accountable to any authorities. In most mainstream denominations, ministers, rabbis, priests are accountable to the courts of their denomination. Cult leaders always avoid that kind of constraint. Furthermore, in the cult, obedience to the leader usually requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. So devotion to a cult comes down to devotion to an authoritarian leader. This leader may be persuasive, charismatic, but the bottom line is he wants control.
Now that sounds mean and ugly to me, but some people apparently find it very attractive to just give their life to someone else and let them make all the decisions for them. Then, you need to understand that many Americans are confused about religion. They have only the vaguest of religious notions. If a persuasive and charming individual comes along and tells them that he is God. They have no frame of reference by which to judge this person. The cult's message may sound great. If you join their group you will not have to worry. You are in a special group of people that has the answers, and their leader will tell you that he is the only one with the answers.
Now there is nothing new in any of this. Throughout history, there have always been cults and charismatic cult leaders who wanted to run other people's lives. In the early twentieth century, L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology and claimed that his writings were the only source for truth to save humankind. Back in the 19th century, Joseph Smith founded Mormonism upon a set a divine revelations that he alone received. I could go through all of human history this way. In the first century, there were cults that infiltrated the church and caused divisions and turmoil among the people of God. The book, the short book, of Jude was written to warn against these false teachers. We do not know who the teachers were or exactly what they were teaching, but the letter gives a vivid sketch of their character and methods. For example, v16 says, “These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” v19 classifies them as “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.”
v12-13 speaking of these cult leaders say, “they feast with you without fear, feeding themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever.” Wow, that is pretty rough talk, but Jude is angry because these cultists are trying to destroy the people of God.
In v3 he says, initially I intended to write a different letter, a letter about “our common salvation,” but having learned of the extent to which the cultists have infiltrated the church, he appeals to his readers “to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
In v 4, he speaks of “certain intruders” who came in under false pretenses. They pretended to be Christians; they used he right words, but Jude says that they are destined for condemnation because they “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” That is what a cult does. We have seen how cult leaders are always obsessed with sex. They make the love of God into something unclean and obscene. And they reject Jesus. Notice the way Jude puts it. They “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” This is the crucial point. They deny Jesus as master and lord. Christianity centers on Christ—obviously, but the cult centers on cult leader. The cult may say a lot of things about Jesus, but the one who is master and lord of the cult is the leader.
For example, In 1997 some 30,000 couples gathered in RFK stadium in Washington DC to declare their commitment to marriage. Most are reaffirming their vows but 2,000 of them were entering into arranged marriages. They were Moonies. They were members of a church called “The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity,” or more often called just the “Unification Church.” The church was founded by Sun Myung Moon, who told those 2000 folks to get married, and they did. Consequently, it seems obvious that the Unification church centers not on Jesus but on Sun Myung Moon.
Jude is warning us against that kind of cult. He warns us not to have our center on any person, but on Christ, who is the lord and savior of his people. Christ is the center of the gospel. Jude says this is something worth fighting for. This is something worth defending.
Cults always try to lead people away from Jesus, away from the Gospel. We need to stand firm in Christ, now and forever. So no, do not drink the kool-aid. Do not listen to anyone who would turn you from Jesus, not now, not ever. Amen. .
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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