Ask Andrew: Cults

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew: Cults

Please talk about the “Freemen on the Land” (also called “Sovereign Citizen”) movement. This is not faith, but its followers believe it is. If this is unfamiliar, see the Wikipedia entry for either name. I have a family member caught up in this. It is cult-like. It uses random bits of scripture to support harmful practices. I guess my question out of this would be: “Is there false or unhealthy faith and how can someone who is in it see it?” This “movement” seems to be viewed as a problem for police and courts. But it is a huge mental health problem.

I would like to start with a comment on the word “cult”. Popular usage for many years now has been to talk of unhealthy faiths as “cults”. Actually, the word is neutral in religious & academic circles. For example, the “Cult of the Virgin Mary” refers to the veneration of Mary in the Roman Catholic church. For most, this is not something where you have to stage an intervention & bring in a deprogrammer.

Having said that, modern usage interprets “cult” as a false or unhealthy religion, and I will use it that way for the rest of this post for simplicity.

It can be said that the main purpose of religion is to re-define the world of the believer. We try to provide a perspective on life that challenges and re-defines the common understanding of the meaning of life in all its aspects. Every religion tries to do this to some degree, which is one reason extreme atheists distrust all religious faith.

For the purpose of addressing this question, I would suggest that a cult goes beyond this common religious purpose in a variety of ways. A cult likely includes elements that take a person, often a vulnerable person, and isolates them from their community. It replaces that community with the cult itself, calling itself the brothers and sisters at a spiritual level.

We recognize that as clearly religious language from Christianity, from the Bible itself, which is one aspect of this that can be so scary.

A cult also frequently includes a charismatic leader who becomes elevated to almost divine status in the eyes of most participants.

Cults are often damaging to a member’s financial health, demanding large contributions. The participant’s spiritual, emotional and mental health may also suffer. Some cults will encourage people with mental health issues to get off their meds, for example. Cults may also threaten a person’s physical health, not just through dramatic examples like poison Kool-Aid, but through diets designed to break down a person’s sense of identity combined with schedules that involve sleep deprivation and extreme work hours.

As for the question of how someone inside the cult can see it for what it truly is: that is one of the biggest problems. Cults typically discourage the kinds of questions that will create dissatisfaction in the ranks, and the people who ask them can be isolated and rejected by the cult community (while still controlled), or punished in other ways until they conform again.

I had never heard of the Freemen on the Land movement nor the Sovereign Citizen movement. The Wikipedia pages on these two groups were indeed helpful.

They appear to be related but not exactly the same. They share some features: both try to deny the authority of the established government, at least at the Federal level, of whatever country they are in. The Freemen on the Land use a creative interpretation of the International Law of the Sea, while the Sovereign Citizens use an equally creative interpretation of Contract Law, sometimes linked to the idea of federal bankruptcy based on the abandonment of the Gold standard.

The movements share a common resistance to paying taxes. They tend to take the view that the landowner should be the ruler of their own land, basically. They are not keen on environmental laws, expropriation, pipelines, roads, or anything that stops them from doing what they want on their own land. They typically refuse to recognize the authority of the courts, and often the police as well.

They also have charismatic leaders. Sadly for them, when their members face real courts they always lose, whether in the USA, Canada, UK or New Zealand. One Canadian judge handed down an extensive ruling on the legal arguments raised in court. The judge basically trashed the legal foundation of the arguments and suggested that the logic was cult-like: designed to impress the charismatic leader of the group more than the court.

So far, this hasn’t involved a lot of what we would call traditional religion. That is not a problem for me: I could imagine a political, economic or philosophical movement becoming essentially a cult if it develops enough of a hold on its members.

But these groups also have been known to use our scriptures to support their positions which doesn’t make them a religion, necessarily, but does try to use Christianity to bring God’s authority to their arguments.

This is not hard to do. The ancient Biblical position is that God should be our ultimate ruler and source of authority. The Bible presents a clear understanding that human governments are flawed and tend to try to elevate their wishes above God’s.

When Israel wanted a king instead of prophets and judges, the prophet Samuel warned them of the ways a King would abuse them (taxes, servants and armies). The clear message? God is your king! A human king is a poor second and not to be trusted.

At the same time all around the world kings of various countries were claiming that they were related to some god or other. It was a usual way for a ruler to claim that he had the right to boss everyone else around, and it continued for centuries.

So Biblically, with the exception of a handful of verses, there are lots of passages you can quote that support opposing whoever is in charge.

Add that to the prevalent American mythology which includes rebellion against British rule as they way they came to exist, plus the image of the Pilgrim Fathers landing at Plymouth Rock. Remember them? They were fleeing religious oppression in England and planning to set up their own religious states in the New World. In fact, the language of the New World and the New Jerusalem from Revelation got blended together, so that part of the Christian story in America is that America is to be the salvation of the world.

Really. I discovered this an ecumenical preaching seminar in Union Seminary, Virginia, some years ago. I asked the other participants if my understanding was true, and they looked at me as if I were an idiot for not knowing already.

American identity is tied up in both politics and religion. That’s why any movement that starts in the USA has a tendency to quote scripture to support whatever their values are. That doesn’t fly as well here in Canada (we have a different national image of ourselves), but it still happens.

One of the best solutions to the problem of scripture being used to claim God’s support for questionable ideas is to have a good understanding of the Bible. Not necessarily to have quotes to fight with, but to understand the principles being taught. That way we can’t be taken in by someone playing fast and loose with scripture, especially when what they are teaching goes directly against those principles.

Remember though, when dealing with someone caught up in a cult (religious or political) is

that arguing doesn’t accomplish much.

The attraction of a cult is not rational. Unless the person you are trying to persuade is normally someone who really wants to emulate Mr. Spock from Star Trek, logic and reason will not be very effective ways of getting through to them. They have joined up because something in this irrational group attracted them. It may well be that they felt isolated already, and the cult promised a community that accepted them and welcomed them, valued them, and gave their life meaning. The most effective measure against that is to offer love and acceptance and meaning that is better. Deprogrammers often try to remind them of the values they grew up with, but that is iffy: if those values have failed them once, they may be reluctant to trust them again.

This is not easy. I remember how aggressive were some of the cults I encountered in University, both in Montreal and Toronto. I remember how sneaky some were, disguising themselves as other types of study groups or health groups. It is much easier to stay out in the first place than to get out after joining.

The good news is that people do get out. As far as the groups mentioned above, it sounds like they aren’t likely to hold someone captive in an armed Texas compound (okay, maybe I’ve watched too many police dramas).

The issue remains that the person has bought into the thinking of the cult. They will have to realize that the thinking is a problem, but arguing won’t get them there. The best you can do is be available to them, to offer them love and acceptance, so they have someone to go to when they do leave the group.

That’s important because when they are ready to leave, their world will get turned upside down. They’re going to need someone who will love them and accept them.

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