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A Jury Of His Peers


The Jesus Christians carry out their unusual form of justice.

When Joseph Johnson decided to devote his life to Jesus Christ, he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

But he might never have expected it to land him, on Oct. 7, 2006, in a Los Angeles middle school auditorium, waiting for his turn to be whipped.

Last April, just weeks shy of his high school graduation, the 18-year-old straight-A student and star athlete ran away from his parents’ home in Long Beach to join a radical religious community called the Jesus Christians, which some say is a cult.

When Joseph returned to his parents’ house one morning in early May with two other Jesus Christians to tell his family he’d joined the group, a fight broke out.

Jesus Christian Reinhard Zeuner, 41, ended up in the hospital for several days with skull and spine injuries, while Joseph’s father, Jared, (a teacher for the Compton Unified School District) and Joseph’s older brother, John, now face assault charges.

In response to Zeuner’s beating, the Jesus Christians decided to put Joseph’s family on the stand in a special sort of “trial.”

“Even amongst ourselves, we were heavily debating whether to do it or not,” Jesus Christian Jeremy Kronmiller, 28, said recently about the trial, which was held on Oct. 7. “We knew how the public could see it … we’ve gotten a lot of criticism before: ‘Crazy whipping cult.’”

Indeed, throughout their history, the Jesus Christians have been no stranger to controversy.

***

Founded in Australia in 1982 by David McKay, a native of Rochester, New York, and his wife Cherry, the Jesus Christians have attracted criticism since their inception.

McKay is a former member of the notorious Children of God cult, best known for its practice of “flirty fishing,” or luring new members with the promise of sex, and for being the target of child sexual abuse investigations.

In media reports the Jesus Christians have often been identified as an offshoot of the Children of God, a claim McKay disputes.

“I was a member of [Children of God] for about three months more than a quarter of a century ago,” wrote McKay, 61, in an e-mail from his home in Sydney, Australia. “I left at the time that they tried to introduce ‘flirty fishing’ … it was specifically because of that that I left them.”

According to McKay, the Jesus Christians’ sole dogma are the teachings of Jesus, as written in the Bible.

Only 30 members strong, the Jesus Christians live in nomadic communities of five to 10 people spread out between Australia, England, Kenya and, until recently, Los Angeles. Living out of campers or tents, they take literally Jesus’ directive to “not charge for what you do” and refuse to work for money.

Instead, Jesus Christians spend their days traveling and distributing literature written by McKay in exchange for small donations, and sometimes raid grocery store dumpsters for food.

Because of their all-encompassing lifestyle and unconventional take on Christianity, the Jesus Christians are often identified as a cult.

Rick Ross of the Rick A. Ross Institute, a nonprofit organization that collects data on destructive cults, has called the Jesus Christians “very disturbing.”

“When you have a small group gathered around an absolute leader [McKay] like this,” Ross said, “and the group lives communally and is relatively isolated, bad things often happen.”

McKay argues the characterization of himself as a strong central leader, writing, “I live in Australia. And our handful of members in the U.S. are scattered over the entire country … They meet hundreds of people every day, and they hear lots of criticism.”

But some who have been involved with the Jesus Christians believe that McKay exerts an unhealthy degree of influence over his largely young followers.

The Jesus Christians have faced kidnapping charges, filed by the families of former members, twice — first in 2000, when a 16-year-old boy joined the community in England, and last year, when a female journalist joined the team in Kenya.

The charges were eventually dropped in both cases when the alleged victims told authorities that they were not coerced into joining, however, and McKay denies that he has any special control over the group’s members.

“Essentially, there is no such thing as brainwashing,” he wrote, admitting that “Living in community means that there is a higher level of peer group pressure than in a church where people meet together for only a couple of hours a week.”

But Joseph Johnson’s mother Sheila, who like her husband Jared is a teacher for Compton Unified, still sees McKay as a dangerous predator who targets the young.

“Why were they talking to a minor?” Sheila asked, referring to the fact that Joseph was 16 years old when he began exchanging e-mails with the Jesus Christians. “He was a kid at the time. If he were an adult meeting with adults, it would be different. But for a kid … I don’t even know if it’s a choice. Just like, is it his decision not to call home?”

Joseph, who has spent the past several months traveling outside of Los Angeles with another Jesus Christian and would not agree to a phone interview, has not spoken to either of his parents since the Jesus Christians went forward with their unique trial nearly three months ago.

***

In early October, Joseph called his parents to tell them that the Jesus Christians would be holding a trial that month in Long Beach in response to Zeuner’s beating and Jared, Sheila, John and Joseph’s younger brother Josh would be the defendants.

To take part in the trial, Joseph told Sheila, each of the Johnsons would have to prepare statements admitting their responsibility for Zeuner’s injuries.

The Johnsons declined.

“It just sounds bizarre,” Sheila said. “And even if I had written a statement, who’s to say if it would be sufficient for David McKay?”

So, the Jesus Christians proceeded without the Johnsons’ cooperation.

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 10 members, along with a local news crew, gathered inside the auditorium of Stephens Middle School in Long Beach, which they had rented for the occasion.

“We said it was for a church service,” Jesus Christian Kronmiller said, “which it was.”

The group included all of the U.S. based Jesus Christians: Former health food store clerk Kronmiller, from Kansas, and his twin brother Ezra; Zeuner, the rail-thin former environmental engineer from Germany who was the main plaintiff; Jesse Pazos, 21, a saxophone player and an aspiring jazz musician from San Dimas; Jose’ Jacobo, 18, a shy high school graduate from Oregon; Simon Smith, 23, a former bartender from England, and Grace Hill-Speed, 18, a freckled, former church-goer from Oregon.

David McKay, with his thinning salt-and-pepper hair and full beard was also there with his blonde, bespectacled wife Cherry, after flying in from Australia to participate.

“We knew [the trial] was going to lead to strong opposition,” McKay explained, “and so it was important for us to be there to take much of the punishment.”

Inside the auditorium, the Jesus Christians sat in a row in front of the stage, facing out over a long table and wearing bright red T-shirts with their Web site address, www.jesuschristians.com, printed across the front.

On stage behind this “jury,” green curtains were parted just enough to frame a raised platform covered by a white sheet, holding a red pillow at one end.

The official proceedings began with Kronmiller recounting the May 5 confrontation at the Johnson house, which he witnessed, using a hand-drawn map as an aid.

“[Zeuner] was down on the ground being kicked in the head by Joe’s older brother and his father,” Kronmiller said later, repeating his account. “The only reason it really stopped was because they saw a crowd had gathered … there was no attempt to fight back on our part. Joseph’s younger brother, Josh … pushed [Joseph] inside and held him down in his room.”

After Kronmiller’s presentation, the statements began, starting with Joseph.

Joseph stood up and, according to a report on the Jesus Christian’s Web site, “admitted that he had given little thought to Reinhard [Zeuner]’s physical state [after the fight], despite the fact that he had seen Reinhard lying in a pool of blood and ‘looking dead’ … He stated that this tendency to think selfishly was common in his family, and that it was only when he started spending time with the Jesus Christians that he began to develop sincere feelings of compassion for others.”

After Joseph was finished, Zeuner stood to describe the morning of May 5 as he remembered it before being knocked unconscious.

“I don’t really remember much,” he said, “but it was shocking [to be hit].”

McKay followed.

“What I said about Jared was that I appreciated the fact that he had a lot of pressure on him, not only as a father, but as a teacher and a leader,” the Jesus Christians’ leader wrote later. “I said that as a father, a teacher and a leader myself, I too have had to wrestle with all those demands and to find the right way to act. However … we leaders have to take responsibility for the things that we do.”

After the statements, the jury was ready to deliver its verdicts.

For the crime attempted murder, McKay pronounced Jared guilty.

Then, in Jared’s absence, McKay volunteered to take the punishment he had prescribed for Joseph’s father — 25 lashes from a whip.

McKay walked the few steps up to the stage and laid face down on the platform with his face in the red pillow.

Jose’ Jacobo, the quiet 18-year-old from Oregon, picked up a whip from the floor behind the platform and delivered the blows to McKay’s back. McKay’s body tensed with every sharp crack that resounded through the room.

Cherry McKay announced the next verdict, finding Sheila Johnson guilty of being an accessory to attempted murder and sentencing her to a choice between shaving her head and leaving it uncovered for three months, or five lashes from the whip.

Cherry chose the five lashes for Sheila, and replaced her husband on the stage to receive her punishment from Jacobo.

Joseph next found his younger brother, Josh, guilty of being an accessory and also took five lashes on his behalf.

And finally, Kronmiller announced Joseph’s older brother, John, guilty of attempted murder and took 25 lashes in John’s place.

“This was our way of addressing the issue of what took place,” said Kronmiller after the trial. “We wanted to show love for the people who committed the crime, and that’s why we volunteered ourselves to take on the punishment we thought they were deserving of.

“It’s an attempt to show, this is what true justice looks like.”

As for the Johnsons, he said, “They never once apologized.”

***

Immediately after the trial, the Jesus Christians became aware that Jared and John Johnson were waiting outside the locked doors of the school auditorium with approximately four young men and one woman (none related to Joseph).

A few of the Jesus Christians stepped outside the auditorium doors, Kronmiller said, headed toward their campers on the other side of the school playground, but quickly ducked back in when Jared, John and their friends ran at the group, yelling after Joseph.

The Jesus Christians locked themselves back inside and McKay called the Long Beach police.

While they waited for the cops, Kronmiller pulled his shirt up to show the red welts over his back in front of the local television cameras.

A female reporter shoved a microphone in McKay’s face, asking him if the point of the trial had been to embarrass the Johnson family.

“They’ve embarrassed themselves,” he replied.

When the police arrived, officers ushered the Jesus Christians out of the auditorium and across the school playground to their vehicles, while Jared, John and the others gathered there called out to Joseph.

“Please …” said Jared, who had been tipped off about the trial location by a neighbor who spotted the Jesus Christians’ campers, as he ran toward one of the officers. “My son’s joined a cult … his mother is so heartbroken.”

By the time Sheila arrived on the scene minutes later the Jesus Christians, including Joseph, had driven away.

“I didn’t even get a glimpse of Joseph,” Sheila said.

***

Joseph is currently traveling with Jesus Christian Simon Smith to the east coast, where the community is relocating its U.S. base.

The Kronmiller brothers and 18-year-old Grace Hill-Speed also recently left L.A. and are traveling across the country separately.

Zeuner remains in L.A. with Jacobo and 21-year-old Jesse Pazos, but the trio also plans to leave the state soon.

In the three months since the trial there has been an outpouring of notes from Joseph’s friends and acquaintances on the Jesus Christians’ Web site.

“I thought you were ridiculously good at basketball so I asked for your autograph and to this day I still have it!” writes a girl who identifies herself as one of Joseph’s former classmates. “As long as you’re happy I couldn’t be happier for you.”

The grandmother of one of Joseph’s high school friends, Carrie Mallory, writes, “Your Parents believe you to be in danger … your friends there, don’t really know the prayers, the work, the dreams and plans, the 18 years of giving all that they knew.

“Bye [sic] the way,” she continues, “I could not process that whip … The whip on a black mans back takes me back to my immediate grandparents and great grandparents … It is not a pleasant memory.”

Joseph, whose icon on the forum is a basketball with a smiling mouth wearing a pair of sunglasses, posted recently:

“I have forgiven my family, but you can’t just forget when a friend is nearly beaten to death. If there is to be a return to a normal relationship … there needs to be … at least some expression of remorse for the lawlessness that they exercised that led to all of Reinhard’s injuries.”

Meanwhile, Sheila hopes Joseph will return home soon. By the end of high school he had already accumulated a year’s worth of college credit, she says, and could still continue his schooling.

“We love him dearly,” Sheila said. “He needs to come home … we love him unconditionally and he has a lot of gifts, and I would like to see him use his gifts. He can still do work for the Lord; righteous work, fruitful work, productive work.

“He needs to get out of the dry spots.”

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