Christians like to imagine creating a perfect Utopian society of “True Christians.” The Citadel that was proposed in Idaho recently is only one example of the breed, but the idea’s been floating around ever since the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark invented the character of Jesus Christ. This desire is, of course, not unique to Christians. In the SCA, most of us wanted to buy a castle with a lot of land one day and do nothing but wear costumes and hang out with our friends and have tournaments. High-schoolers sometimes get the same idea about living together after graduation. Groups and friends get these ideas sometimes to live together and live according to their ideals and interests. It’s part of being human.
But things can go hideously wrong when those humans belong to dysfunctional authoritarian groups. Let me show you how I almost joined a real live cult in Waco by trying to get as “Biblical” as humanly possible.
A Visit by Ezekiel
I wasn’t really that aware of the Farm people coming to church to visit until things had gotten completely out of hand.
I had no special reason to suspect mischief at first. People visited all the time from other churches; even my husband Biff and I visited our college friends’ evangelical churches, just as they visited ours. That morning, I was only vaguely aware that we had visitors at all at church; I was off doing my own thing and largely oblivious until the damage had been done.
That night, as Biff drove us home, he began to chatter excitedly about this group called “the Farm” over in Waco that were trying to live as first-century Christians.
And their leader, Ezekiel (name made up as I can’t remember his real name), was in town to drum up new converts.
I wish I were kidding.
Ezekiel’s cult needed fresh blood
Yes, a commune of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians operated in Waco. This was before the David Koresh disaster, but not a lot before it. Like most folks, I’d never even heard of Koresh and had barely heard of Waco. (Has it seriously been 20 years since that event? Oh, my goodness.)
Biff was enchanted with the Farm and talked about it the whole way home. These people pooled their money. They wore simple modest clothes, men and women both (which meant dresses and head-coverings for women even in the Texas heat, naturally). They farmed and made goat cheese and sewed their own clothes and tried to be completely self-sufficient.
Hadn’t I been wishing I could meet people living like “real” Christians? Hadn’t I been aching to follow God the way the Bible said was best? Well, here was my chance. Biff said he wanted to learn more from this guy.
At first I was enthusiastic. I had indeed been wishing for exactly this opportunity, after all. I’d been edging more and more and more toward the fringes of Christianity as I sought the “real deal,” and maybe this was it. I agreed to go to a meeting Ezekiel had announced was coming soon. He’d be talking more about the Farm and its workings.
Authoritarians on parade
We met him a few days later, in the church parking lot after our regular Thursday night service.
I discovered he was a wild character: unkempt hair, staring eyes, earnest voice, his speech a hurried blur of excited words. Despite or because of these weird attributes, he was a very charismatic person. If I’d known about the “mad monk” Rasputin with his “lynx eyes,” that’s who I’d have thought of upon meeting the man. He wore a straw hat which he removed only for church and denim overalls which didn’t look like they ever got removed.
Big Dave and Little Dave were there and even more eager to hear Ezekiel’s sales pitch than Biff was. They were called that because Big Dave was super-tall and gangly, while Little Dave was short and gangly, and they shared the same name. Angela’s fiancé was there too, and a couple other church members. Nobody in that little kaffeeklatsch was a lifelong Pentecostal, I noticed; every one of us were fairly recent converts.
Interestingly, I was the only woman present.
Ezekiel cast a very earthly spell on this group
Ezekiel spun us a story about an idyllic life spent praying, working hard, and living for Christ. He talked about married life there and about how husbands and wives lived the complementary life Jesus had been talking about this whole time.
This meeting happened before complementarianism was a common word. Still, that’s exactly what he was talking about: rigid gender roles and out-of-whack power dynamics. This system very much benefited men at the complete expense of women.
Ezekiel brandished a Bible, of course. Everything he could reference in that book, he did.
He told us that the cloud had moved from the Pentecostal church. It’d been there once. But no more. That cloud of grace had moved. Now, it hovered over his commune.
Thus, if we, the people in his audience, wanted to be the most optimal Christians possible, we had to move with the cloud.
Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t think we were hardcore anymore.
Biff loved a good game of More Hardcore Than Thou
Being a fundie is all about playing a constant game of more hardcore than thou.
All Ezekiel had to do was mention that he was more Biblical than our Pentecostal community. Already, the guys were salivating to join him.
But despite his claim to Biblical authority and a rack of verses to back up what he was saying we should all do, which was “pick up and move to Waco,” something about him was off. I can’t describe it any other way than to say that. I was scared of him and didn’t want to be anywhere near him or his farm.
When I told Biff after this meeting that I wasn’t joining the Farm, Biff went and told Ezekiel about my reluctance. Ezekiel told my husband that he needed to flex his authority over me as the man in our family. Biff took him seriously and began to try to strong-arm me into going.
At the height of his pressuring, I told him one night, speaking very slowly and deliberately to get his attention, “If you go to Waco, you are going by yourself. I am not going with you.”
Biff was shocked; despite the impression I’ve surely given with this blog, I didn’t often object to his wild, reckless, and poorly-conceived plans, nor did I often stand against him.
Rather than tackle me head-on after that, though, he snuck behind my back to go see what our pastor would say about my rebellious disobedience.
Wow did Biff misread the room
In retrospect, Biff’s actions seem laughably ridiculous. He’d chosen about the least sympathetic authority figure possible to bolster his position. The pastor of our church was quite alarmed by the inroads Ezekiel was making. He had at first been ignoring the weirdo, but as more and more young converts were drawn in by the idea of joining him, something had to be done.
Thankfully, Biff prompted a response by flat-out going to him and asking him to help cow me into going.
To Biff’s shock, the pastor went thermonuclear on his butt: he unloaded all the Christianese at that point. He told Biff that he needed to listen to me for a change. I was speaking in the Spirit, while Biff was acting in the flesh. The spiritual fruits of this plan were rotten (if you can’t tell, I still retain respect and affection for this pastor, who really wasn’t a bad egg at all and acted as a good anchor for Biff’s craziness).
Under the combined pressure from me and the pastor both, Biff reluctantly and with a great show of resignation and petulance withdrew from his wild plan to join the Farm.
Ezekiel’s immediate response was to ridicule Biff openly in front of me and everybody else who’d listen. But it did no good, and maybe even backfired. Angela’s fiancé pulled out too, probably for the same reasons Biff had, and with the two most charismatic men in the church withdrawn everybody else did too, and in the end, only Big and Little Dave went to Waco with Ezekiel.
The cloud became a devastating fire
Time passed. The school year started. I was minoring in history and starting to take history classes in earnest, which were already rocking my worldview to pieces.
One day, toward the end of the school year, I heard that a religious compound in Waco had blown up. I watched the news with a sickening, sinking feeling in my heart. I didn’t know if this was where Big and Little Dave were, but it sure sounded eerily similar.
A while later, Biff caught me on campus as I was leaving a class to tell me that Big and Little Dave were back for good. They were down by the residence halls in the Quad talking to old friends. My relief was overwhelming–but so was my caution.
“They’re all right?” I asked.
Biff replied uncertainly, “Well, they’re different, but they’re all right, I guess.”
Indeed, they were very different
I rushed over there to see my old friends. There they were, but I paused before greeting them.
They were indeed different. But not in any kind of good way. They moved like very old men, slowly and with great care. They were emaciated (and both had been spindly to begin with). Their eyes were haunted and sunken, with dark circles beneath. They had been joyous, happy men before Ezekiel had visited our church. Now they were ghosts.
Soon I would find out why. No, their group hadn’t been that ill-fated Koresh compound, but apparently were one of several religious groups in the neighborhood. They’d watched the action from their front yard and rejoiced that God was protecting them. They had a lot more guns, Big Dave said, and were way worse, and God had shown them he loved them more. It’d done a number on both their heads.
“Wait,” I asked. “Way worse?”
Big Dave turned his blue, haunted eyes to me and spun me a tale of physical and emotional abuse, of long, unendurable rambling mandatory sermons that lasted till the wee hours every night, of sexual impropriety, beatings, deprivation, and more.
I felt like screaming “No, stop! Enough!” but I couldn’t say a word as I listened in mounting horror to his straightforward, almost monotone account of how he had been brainwashed and abused by a cult for six months.
After the Koresh conflict, Ezekiel had only gotten more bold and more abusive. Finally, Big Dave had had enough and had all but hauled Little Dave out of there when Ezekiel refused to help Little Dave get much-needed medical attention, insisting on prayer instead; they’d hitchhiked back, since Big Dave had been obligated to sell his car upon joining the Farm. Big Dave’s parents had taken both young men in under their roof and gotten Little Dave the doctoring he’d needed for injuries and malnutrition.
So they’d been back for while, but this day had been the earliest Little Dave had felt up to venturing outside again. (I think they’d been back a week or so, but I don’t remember exactly. It was long enough to really worry me.)
Aww, what’s the harm of religion?
These young men had had their entire lives in front of them. They’d been vibrant and happy. Now they barely even believed in God. Biff tried to find out where they stood with God, but both of them declined to go into a lot of detail. We parted on good terms, but I was deeply concerned. I had reason to be so: they never really recovered, and neither really returned to church anywhere. We still hung out with them sometimes, but even Biff understood that religion wasn’t a topic they’d welcome discussing anymore.
I never heard another word out of the Farm. Ezekiel, to my knowledge, did not return to Houston to seek converts. I don’t know if the group still exists or not.
All I do know is that this incident changed my mind on one point that’d driven me almost my entire life: this feeling that if I could just get hardcore enough, if I could just get more Biblical, then I’d finally find TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
Koresh and Ezekiel had both had the idea of living like TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Isn’t that what I’d wanted? Isn’t that what I’d been craving, what I’d been seeking, all this time? So why was it so hard to make that ideal happen?
The real message of cult groups
This was well before the Catholic child-rape and various Protestant sex scandals came to light. Still, knowing about that abuse on the part of men who’d dedicated themselves to God would only have reinforced my thinking at the time.
In the meanwhile, getting more hardcore only seemed to create conditions that gave evil men license to abuse the innocent. I’d met Seekers (a group of solitary, homeless super-Christian youth who wandered the streets proselytizing and living off charity and garbage) as well, and a more sorry lot of victims I will never encounter. That said, I couldn’t deny that they were way more hardcore and Biblical than any other Christians I’d ever met.
No, getting more hardcore and more fundamentalist wasn’t going to change anything at all. Whatever happened to end my internal struggles would have to happen within myself, not from some movement or church I’d joined, because clearly everybody around me was flailing around just like I was.
None of us, not me or the Farm or Biff or the pastor or anybody else, really had the faintest idea what was going on or how to reach Jesus or how to live like real Christians.
The question was how to know what “God” wanted. I would soon discover that one of the main ways to figure that out, diligent Bible study, didn’t work.