When does a religious movement take on the characteristics of a destructive cult? And why do people need to take extreme positions?
I’ve been pondering that while considering a strange trial in Ohio. On trial are Amish Bishop Samuel Mullet along with 15 of his followers. The charge: invasion of another Amish community and desecration of its members by cutting off their beards (for the men) and hair (both men and women).
Please note that to the Amish, such acts bring deep disgrace and dishonor. The public prosecutor has brought religiously inspired hate crime charges against the perpetrators.
Mullet has a current following of about 18 families. Evidently, he pulled multiple families from their previous Amish community, formed a separatist group, named himself bishop and then gained complete control over their lives.
When eight families left this newly formed community and returned to their home community, Mullet, as bishop, used his authority to excommunicate them. However, the bishop of the Amish community to which the eight families returned refused to accept that excommunication as binding. Mullet allegedly responded with his attacks.
Two paragraphs from an article written by James F. McCarty in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer on Monday caught my eye:
“Mullet’s daughter, Barbara Yoder, testified that she never heard her father order any of the four hair- and beard-cutting attacks, but confirmed her father had endorsed the humiliating hair-shearings as disciplinary measures, and laughed when the men reported back to him in the aftermath of the attacks.”
Later, the story states:
“Barbara Yoder also described other means of self-discipline and penance advocated by her father, including spending up to 12 days at a time living in a chicken coop, submitting themselves to voluntary hair- and beard-cutting, and engaging in sexual relations with the wives of his followers.”
Assuming the truth of those statements, I’m quite disgusted. But the real questions are: Why did this man’s followers put up with this? Where were their brains, their guts, their own sense of morality?
I have read that Mullet allegedly took sexual advantage of nearly every woman in his community.
What is going on here?
I believe that organizations function, especially at their founding, more efficiently when the leader has much authority. Some organizations must expect total and immediate obedience to commands to fulfill their purpose — I am thinking about disciplined military forces here.
But efficiency and effectiveness are two different things. Members of highly trained organizations have, on occasion, perpetrated the most horrific of crimes. When questioned as to motives, the response is generally, “I was just following orders.”
I suspect that Mullet’s followers have similar rationale for their actions. The bishop told them to. And they obeyed for two reasons. One: fear. Clearly, Mullet handed out nasty punishments for miscreants and those who disagreed with him. Two: They don’t have a wider frame of knowledge in order to see things from a different point of view.
That may be the ultimate definition of a cult: No different points of view are tolerated. Even the possibility is rigidly punished and obliterated. Should anyone maintain a different idea, that person must be expelled. Or even killed.
In the information age, it is becoming harder to control information. Amish cult leaders enjoy a significant advantage here because their culture does not permit access to electronic means of information. That’s going to break down eventually.
It is my guess that two things are going to happen. One, many tightly held religious groups will splinter as group members gain more information through electronic means. Two, many of those groups are going to ratchet up the fear factor for those who entertain disagreement. Beard-cutting, forcing people into chicken coops and sexually abusing vulnerable cult members will be just the tip of the iceberg.
I hope I’m wrong about the second prediction. But I bet I am right on the money.
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Krum. Reach her by calling 940-482-3482 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .