Join Us

Join Us

It’s interesting to see a documentary openly label a local Christian church—a church that frankly seems to me would not be very far from the religious mainstream in a lot of areas in this country—as a cult.

Join Us is about a church in South Carolina run by an elderly German pastor. The church has a heavy emphasis on emotion, discipline, obedience, hard work, and demons and supernaturalism. Some of the members eventually break away, with some of them checking into a cult deprogramming facility for a time.

Besides his just being kind of a creepy nut in general, the main specific complaints they lodge against him, that they sue him over, are that he worked many of them for $1 an hour or less on various construction projects for the benefit of the church (i.e., him and his wife), and that he pressured them to discipline their children through physical abuse, and in some cases carried out that corporal punishment on the children himself.

As far as the latter, we’re talking kids as young as 3 and 4 being beaten, having their hand forced onto a hot stove, being made to run around until they collapse puking and exhausted, etc.

The style of the documentary is fine. It’s a competent job. They interview who was available, at least touch on most of the issues most worth addressing, and edit it all together in a way that’s understandable and not too fancy. It’s not anything that struck me as unusual or unusually good, but I have no complaints.

There are a lot of issues connected with a story like this that I’m not entirely sure what to think. I’m conflicted.

The whole notion of a cult itself is one of the things I’m uncertain about. I’m troubled when people speak as if that’s a clear, distinct, unambiguous concept. On the other hand, I don’t want to go all relativist and just dismiss it as a derogatory term that means nothing except that the speaker doesn’t like a certain religion. I think it’s a fuzzy term in ordinary usage, or potentially artificially precise if defined stipulatively, but not a wholly empty term of abuse.

Join Us does address this briefly, including with interview clips of Robert Jay Lifton talking about his criteria for what makes something a cult. It’s like it wants to acknowledge that there’s an issue here, but not make this too academic and get bogged down in semantics.

I agree there’s some substance to the concept, some (mostly negative) traits that are associated with cults at least vaguely, and so one can meaningfully talk about something being a cult or not, or perhaps better of being more or less “cultish,” but only in a tentative, approximate way. But I still feel a little uneasy when people toss the term around in a too confident, or condemnatory, tone.

As I say, the very fact that the term’s being used in this movie for a church that many, many Christians would find unobjectionable I suppose is refreshing in a way, compared to only labeling as cults small, unpopular non-Christian groups whose primary sin seems to be being small, unpopular, and non-Christian. But even there, I was uncomfortable in that the implication perhaps was just that the line between acceptable non-crazy religion and cults was being drawn in a slightly different place so as to put the occasional more kooky Christian church outside the approved zone, whereas I’m sure I would be inclined to sweep away most of those on the “right” side of that line as well.

I also have misgivings about cult “deprogramming,” and the whole notion of people being brainwashed and needing help to save them from cults.

I mean, clearly weak-minded people can be influenced by others to do bizarre things and things that are totally contrary to their self-interest. It’s not that the Moonies and such don’t exist, or are totally benign groups that have been misrepresented.

But unless such a group is holding someone against their will physically, I’m skeptical of the degree of control sometimes attributed to them, and I’m very wary of using coercive means to “free” people. (I’m thinking of the deprogramming kidnapping squads of the past that families would pay to seize their loved ones from a cult and harangue them in a locked room until they were unbrainwashed.)

Weak and stupid people believe and do nutty things all the time under the influence of regular religion, not to mention assertive spouses, Fox News, the military, advertisers, and anyone else inclined to manipulate them. I don’t know how much we should single out cults as if their form of influence is special and warrants countermeasures that the others don’t.

I think the extreme anti-cult folks can be as scary as a lot of cults.

The anti-cult people in this movie didn’t bother me so much though. I don’t have a real strong opinion about them, partly due to this movie picking and choosing what to show of them, and partly due to my not having fully thought the matter through and come to any confident conclusions, but they seem to be mostly providing a beneficial service.

I didn’t get the sense that people are being coerced or heavily pressured to stay at the facility. There is a certain amount of the patronizing therapy-speak stuff where you already know the answers and you try to guide the person as non-threateningly as you can to take themselves in that direction, but I’ve certainly seen worse.

It’s understandable that they would converse with them in a bit of a condescending, therapist-to-nut manner, as some of these people are indeed pretty badly mixed up. (Though it’s part of the dogma to insist just the opposite—that there’s nothing about being drawn to a cult that’s correlated with being stupid or crazy or weak-willed, that it can happen to anyone.)

One woman in particular is a sad case. I don’t have a background in psychology to know if there’s a specific term for her verbal style, but it’s something that’s vaguely somehow familiar to me from being around people who’ve spent a lot of time in therapy. In a sense she’s telling the people at the facility what they want to hear, but it’s always qualified. It’s like, “I know that Pastor is in the wrong and everything you’re telling me is true, but there’s still a part of me that wants to say you’re doing the work of demons trying to trick me. I mean, I know you’re not and everything, but I’m just saying I still kind of see things that way sometimes.”

But then she’ll constantly express herself that way, like she’s almost free of it but just wants to be totally honest and admit in a small way she isn’t quite. And then when she talks about how she feels when she’s not got them in her face hammering home the message, it’s clear she’s slipping further back into her old mindset. She even moves to another state, and then calls the facility to report sheepishly that she’s been taking her children to a new church that’s an even more notorious cult. She doesn’t defend it; she reports it more apologetically, as in “I know I shouldn’t, but…,” like someone talking about going off their diet.

But it reminds me of therapy people verbalizing that they now realize they should love themselves or should have high self-esteem or whatever, but they say it in such a way as to admit they haven’t really internalized that yet and need people to constantly affirm it for them. Or the same thing with the alcoholic who claims to now fully understand all the reasons he shouldn’t drink, but maybe not enough to ensure he won’t do it again.

She “knows” it’s a bad idea for her and her kids to be in a cult, and she can repeat back to a therapist all the reasons that’s so, but it’s an open question—and she realizes it—how much her future decisions will reflect that “knowledge.”

The pastor himself doesn’t come across as all that evil to me, and seems more sincere than not, but I could easily be wrong on both counts. He strikes me as a pathetic old guy who’s slightly more delusional than the average religious person, and especially obsessed with a few key issues like disciplining children. But I don’t see him as an out-and-out charlatan. (Like, for instance, Peter Popoff having his wife secretly transmit messages to him by backstage radio so he could pretend to obtain information supernaturally during his faith healing shows.)

I hesitate to say that, though, because he did benefit a lot financially by the way he exploited his followers. Still, even if he’s living in a nicer house and driving a nicer car than the people he had working for the church for $1 an hour, he was still living in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina working full time as a pastor. I would think a charlatan would move in, bilk them, and move on, enjoying his ill-gotten gain elsewhere while laughing at what suckers people are.

Actually his wife says people should back off persecuting him for whatever he did or recommended as far as severe child punishment, because he’s senile now and doesn’t always know what he’s doing. (It’s funny that he vehemently denies on camera this vicious rumor he heard is being spread that he’s supposedly senile, apparently having no idea that his wife herself has made that point in his defense.)

I don’t know. I’m certainly not unsympathetic to his former followers who are upset with him for how he damaged their lives and their children’s lives, but he didn’t coerce them, and he sure doesn’t seem like some amazing Svengali-like figure that people would be powerless to resist. I’m not sure how much of the responsibility for their behavior I can really relieve them of.

Another odd point that occurred to me is, as anti-religion as some people probably think I am, I’m not prepared to automatically condemn elements of religion just because they are unconventional or “extreme” in some sense. In the movie, sometimes it feels like any of his ideas that would not fit well in mainstream society, or would hold people up to unusual or difficult or rigid standards, are self-evidently wrong and evidence that he was running a cult.

Sometimes it’s the stuff in religion that’s too heavy for most people that I like. Whether it be the purity, or perfectionism, or asceticism, or martyrdom, or sacrifice, or non-conformity, I typically either admire it, or at least am glad it’s there as an option for people to try. I don’t need every religion’s teachings to be tame and mainstream, all standards to be conventional and easily met.

It’s not so much that there are a lot of specifics where I would defend him or this congregation, but I’m just saying I was a little uneasy that the film at times seems to imply that the way we know that he’s really out there and that this is an emotionally damaged bunch of people is that he claimed the truth is sometimes unpopular and persecuted, or that pain and sacrifice can sometimes be beneficial. I’m just thinking about what one could say of Gandhi or St. Francis or Tolstoy or even Jesus if they were judged by whether they said things that seem “weird” to regular folks, or called for sacrifice or some sort of unconventional behavior.

Again, I’m not defending him specifically. He’s delusional and so are his followers, but the grounds upon which he’s condemned in this movie might, if followed through logically, hit a much broader range of targets than intended.

Which returns us to this whole puzzle of just what’s a cult and what isn’t, how objectionable cults are and why, how they truly differ from non-cult religions and other groups, etc.

By the way, I get that these folks think they were wronged by the pastor, and I even agree with them to some extent even though I wouldn’t relieve them of all the responsibility for their actions, but I found the vindictiveness of some of them unappealing. It was especially creepy that some of the children mimic the adults by talking about how they want to kill him, want him to suffer as much as possible in prison, etc.

On the other hand, one of the things that most struck me in a positive way is how so many of the children seem so good-hearted and well-adjusted. Despite the abuse from the pastor, and despite being raised by parents goofy enough to have taken them into this cult to begin with, they’re mostly surprisingly kind and sensible.

For instance one poor mother still can’t forgive herself for all the abusive things she did to her young daughter under the influence of the pastor. She tearfully wonders if her daughter will ever be able to love her.

The little girl—not looking at all like she’s just saying what’s expected of her, or like she’s playing to the camera—gently tells her mother that of course she loves her, and she just wants them to be a family and get past this. (I don’t remember the exact words, so I’m sure that’s off a little.) The mother’s seemingly not ready to hear that yet, but I was touched by it, as I was by similar sentiments expressed by other children.

I guess I’m so used to seeing people messed up by the things that happen to them when they’re young, that it seems miraculous when a child can rise above something like that and provide a lesson for the grown-ups.

It’s a reason for hope.

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