Yesterday I received a message from a publicist I've heard from before, on behalf of the work of Richard E. Kelly, "a self-described 'survivor' of Jehovah’s Witnesses" and the author of Growing Up in Mama’s Club and The Ghosts from Mama’s Club. Kelly is concerned to warn against the danger of "cults," fringe religious groups with tight authoritarian structures. This doesn't seem to be as hot an issue as it was thirty years ago, when such groups got a lot of hostile media attention, but Kelly is working in the same fields. What caught my attention was Kelly's list of the signs that indicate a group might be a cult. As I noticed during the last big wave of cult alarmism, these traits describe early Christianity very well. The similarities help to explain why the early churches were regarded with suspicion and distrust, even hostility.
The following beliefs should be considered cult constructs, he says.
This one, especially, is a "construct" of early Christianity. All the New Testament writers took for granted that the world would end within the lifetime of Jesus' first followers. Jesus himself said so, according to the gospels, and the same believe turns up in almost all the New Testament writings: where it's not put at center stage, it's assumed. The Apostle Paul often refers to the nearness of Jesus' return.• Certainty that the world will end in one’s lifetime: This is a crucial pill to swallow for a subsequent list of cult beliefs, which keep followers in a perpetual state of fear. If only one holds true enough to a strict set of rules – like avoiding pledges of allegiance at school, for example – then they may be spared at Armageddon.
The early Christians also got into trouble for their refusal to participate in expected demonstrations of loyalty to the Roman Emperor, "like avoiding pledges of allegiance at school." They refused to show reverence to the divine ruler of the empire; the US simply requires reverence to its flag, though it also is accorded divine significance ("under God").
• Social manipulation: For Jehovah’s Witnesses who are not observant of all rules, ostracism and shunning is used. How to handle someone who questions policy? Make sure their family ignores them!This is also a trait of early Christianity. Both Jesus and Paul enjoined believers to shun or expel their fellows who were "not observant of all rules." Of course, family pressure was a normal way to enforce social conformity in antiquity, as it is to this day. (In Pray the Gay Away Bernadette Barton shows not only contemporary fundamentalist Protestants disowning their gay children, but Roman Catholics as well.) The early Christians reacted as modern cults do: by declaring themselves the new family of converts, and requiring them to break with their blood relations. One follower asked Jesus' permission to go home for his father's funeral, for example, and Jesus told him curtly to leave the dead to bury the dead. When Jesus' mother and brothers came to remonstrate with him, he simply refused to see them, designating his obedient followers as his true mother and brothers.
• Cripple half of the members (women): For Jehovah’s Witnesses, women are seen as creatures trapped somewhere between men and animals in God’s hierarchy. No woman can have a position of authority, which means it's men only for preaching, teaching and praying. If there’s an official meeting and a woman prays she must cover her head out of respect for the angels who might be there.This is true not only of much of early Christianity, but of modern churches. The apostle Paul forbade his churches to allow women to preach or occupy any position over men, which is used by the Roman Catholic church today to rationalize its refusal to ordain women as priests. This wasn't true of all early churches -- there was at least one woman apostle in the first Christian generation, mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans -- but eventually the male supremacists won out. Outsiders in the second and third centuries accused the Christians of letting their women run wild, a charge they answered by insisting that they kept their women as subservient as any good Roman did.
• Scorning education: Who needs advanced learning when the world is sure to end in a few short years? Kelly’s sister, Marilyn, had very little education, so when she was finally able to leave home, she had few coping skills. She ultimately met an abusive third husband, who later murdered her.The early churches were ambivalent about book learning. Jesus rejoiced that his heavenly father had revealed the deep secrets of the universe to the poor and unlettered, and Paul exulted that the cult of Jesus, built around his crucifixion, was offensive to Jew and Gentile alike. Later on, some early Christians found it expedient to acquire good Greek educations, and to work as tutors to children, and some early Christians distinguished themselves as scholars, but in general they were dismissive of such pursuits. Only after Christianity took over the running of the empire did learning gain more status.
• Sexually repressive: Jehovah’s Witnesses are thoroughly indoctrinated in how to harness the power of the sex drive to please God. It’s obsessive compulsive when it comes to creating rules about sexual do's and don’ts, from masturbation to the role of women; from conception to sexual pleasure. Sex before marriage is an onerous crime, punishable by shunning and death at Armageddon.The whole Bible is sexually repressive, but the New Testament reflects trends toward asceticism that were current when it was written. Jesus warned his followers that even feeling sexual desire was worthy of damnation, and held up those who became eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven as examples to all. Paul permitted but discouraged marriage, since the end was near and marriage was a distraction from devotion to the Lord. In the book of Revelation, a group of 144,000 "who were redeemed from the earth" sang a new praise song in front of the throne of Christ: "These are they which were not defiled with women, for they are virgins" (14:3-4; King James Version). Though some branches were less strict than others, mainstream Christianity kept this strain of hostility to women and the flesh throughout its history; and why not? It is thoroughly biblical and supported by Jesus' own teaching.
Of course I'm not a supporter of the Jehovah's Witnesses, any more than I am of any other sect. What I want to draw attention to here is the ignorance of many right-thinking people today, who condemn sects today for behaving and teaching pretty much what the biblical Jesus and the early Christians taught and did. That's not surprising, because Jesus and the early Christians were religious fanatics whose extreme teachings and conduct would have gotten them in trouble in just about any time or place. But most people today -- even many atheists, to my ongoing surprise -- want to see Jesus and the early church as good guys, even as exemplars for our troubled times. I think it's much more likely that they would have despised them, even if they didn't condone overt persecution, for the same reasons they despise and attack modern groups which follow in the early Christians' footsteps. It's clear, at least, that they have no idea what early Christianity was like. Most of what Kelly (and most other anti-cult writers) see as characteristic of certain small cranky sects is really characteristic of mainstream Christianity, historically and sometimes down to the present.
Something similar: my liberal law-professor friend recently shared on Facebook an announcement of an upcoming event showcasing Islam at her university, probably run by campus Muslims groups. The poster touted the Koran as providing "guidance" for humanity. I'm all for religious education, though I expect Muslims to be as honest and accurate about their faith as Christians are -- which isn't very. I don't agree that the Koran is a guide for humanity, any more than the Bible is. I can oppose and criticize the widespread demonization of Islam in the US, without endorsing it or any other religion.