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Quakers (at least of the Australian variety) have survived for 350 years without a creed, and with an open, tolerant attitude toward many groups that other religions/churches would have scorned. Despite protests (and some of them quite vocal) that we might be "taken over" by various minority groups, we have managed to embrace homosexuals, atheists, and even a few witches, and still we have survived.

However, there is something happening amongst Friends at the moment that could reverse all of that unnecessarily. There has been an article in a recent edition of "The Australian Friend" expressing blanket condemnation of the female leader of a religious group in the U.S. which one Friend was a part of as a child. The charges published in our official journal, against the founder of this group, amount to serious defamation if they cannot be substantiated. But even if they COULD be substantiated, it seems inconsistent with normal Quaker practice for us to engage in such personal attacks as have been mounted against the woman who founded that group. This appears to be one of the first signs of a dangerous shift in Quaker faith and practice.

At a recent gathering for wholeness in Carcoar, New South Wales, a collection of comments from Friends present at that meeting was bound into a little pamphlet and circulated amongst Friends. There were several comments relating to fundamentalists, and how we can better protect ourselves from such people. But there was another comment from a long-standing and highly educated Friend which said:

"The view had been expressed to me, that any religious society that defines itself too loosely may be ripe for a takeover by a cult."

This is particularly significant considering that it is coming from the co-clerk of the Devonshire Street Local Meeting. Many Friends are aware that a furor is growing there, over the presence of certain people in the meeting who are also members of the "Jesus Christians", a group that has often been referred to as a cult. The NSW Regional Meeting has passed a minute, officially declaring that much of the faith and practice of Jesus Christians is "incompatible" with the faith and practice of Friends. That minute also calls on all other meetings to use their web sites to make a similar declaration.

I think that Friends need to give more serious consideration to what it is that we mean when we say something like being "ripe for a takeover by a cult". In fact, we need to think about what we mean when we use the word "cult" itself. Is a creed of some sort (i.e. a "tight" definition of who is allowed and who is not allowed as members) really the answer to such a threat? And how real is the threat?

An Australian Quaker private investigator, calling himself "Private Eyes" posts regularly on an anti-cult site based in the U.S. and run by a man named Rick Ross. While Rick Ross claims that there are 1,500 cults operating in the U.S., he himself includes a disclaimer on his site, stating that the groups being discussed there are not necessarily cults. The Jesus Christian thread on that anti-cult site is, by far, the most active thread of them all, and has been so for the past year... and yet Rick Ross himself has never, to my knowledge, ever had the courage to come right out and label the Jesus Christians a cult.

Surely a lawyer, like the presiding clerk of the Devonshire Street local meeting, would understand that Rick Ross does this because he knows that there are certain legal restrictions with regard to use of the word "cult". Rick Ross is a self-professed "expert" on cults, and yet he does not have the courage to provide an objective list of the 1,500 groups that he says are cults and that he says exist in the U.S. today. Isn't this because his expertise at least goes so far as to recognise that almost NO groups can be called cults in a strict legal sense... if the word is understood to mean that they are guilty of all the things that are usually associated with that word?

And what about his claim that there are 1,500 groups operating in the U.S. who are cults? Are Friends prepared to dissociate themselves from all 1,500 groups? Certainly this would represent a kind of exclusivism that would be anathema to true Quakers!

A lot of the legal concern about using the word "cult" has to do with the evolution of the word itself. For many decades it was defined in dictionaries merely as "a system of religious belief", with some dictionaries indicating that it is often used pejoratively, or as a way of identifying a group that is separate from the mainstream. As such, it was relatively safe to call a group a cult without fear of being charged with slander.

However, back in the 1960s, two groups changed all that. One was the Children of God, who started teaching members to have sex with strangers as a way of recruiting members. The other was the People's Temple, and the settlement they built in Guyana, South America, called "Jonestown". Almost 1,000 members committed suicide or were killed by fellow members in order to escape responsibility for an investigation which had been launched into that group, following complaints from parents and friends.

From that point on, the word "cult" began to be applied to any number of "new religious movements", with the implication always being that they were either sex cults or suicide cults, or possibly even both. A few other incidents involving fanatical groups either given to terrorism or suicide added more fuel to the panic that people everywhere were facing, with regard to the imagined proliferation of "cults".

It was at this point that use of the word "cult" started to cause serious damage to the reputation of any new religious movement, although it would be many years before libel laws were changed to recognise the signficance of calling a group a cult. Today, there are very few words in the English language which can be more damaging than that one word. It means everything evil that one can imagine in any (particularly religious) group.

Self-styled "Cult-busters" soon found that they could make good money by assuring families that any relative belonging to a questionable group would surely end up dead or becoming prostitutes if they were not forcibly "deprogrammed" by the same cult-busters who were generating all of the paranoia. Several cult-busters (including Rick Ross) were arrested and found guilty of kidnapping, until finally they had to modify their "art" and even to give it new names. They no longer call themselves "cult-busters" and they no longer "deprogramme" people. Instead, they are "exit counsellors", and, to their credit, most of them have learned to avoid force in achieving their goals now.

However, the tactics used are still terribly crude. They rely very heavily on the media, which they feed with stories that are carefully written to generate a lot of fear, without actually providing any factual information. Media coverage of any group being targetted invariably includes crossovers to stuff about Jonestown and/or the Children of God, the idea being to reinforce the suicide/sex-cult image, whether or not there is any connection at all.

Primarily, the various cult-busters aim at bringing together enemies of various groups (composed almost entirely of relatives and ex-members), so that they can reinforce one another's hatred for the target group, usually by telling more and more horrific stories about what they have supposedly endured, on the grounds that telling about such horrors will eventually bring healing.

In fact, quite the opposite seems to happen. People often lose touch with reality altogether, and start creating more and more fantastic stories about the leaders being monsters. Hate just feeds on itself.

Anti-cult forums like the Rick Ross forum, where David Lowe (the Quaker private investigator mentioned above) posts, usually ban people from saying things in defence of any groups they are targetting, as they claim that it takes away from the "healing" process of so many people sharing their bitterness. People coming to the forums who claim to be neutral are urged to say negative things just to convince the other posters that they are not "cult apologists" trying to secretly infiltrate their ranks.

Forum posters are urged to dig for dirt in terms of sex scandals, embarrassing money management, abuses of power, criminal activity, or heretical teachings. David Lowe has urged ex-members to give him information on our finances which can be used against us, but to no avail. He has begged them to give him evidence of abuses of power, but again struck out. One particularly bitter member suggested that they band together and just make up stories of criminal activity on my part, on the understanding that if they back up one another's testimony, they may be able to make a charge stick. David responded positively to this offer, but insisted that plans along that line would need to be developed off-line.

(UPDATE on January 18, 2008: David Lowe is STILL looking for the scandal which will justify his attack on myself, his latest probe being to prove that a photo used on our web site was used without permission of the photographer who took it! Keep trying, David!)

But lacking hard evidence, the cult-busters usually rely on name-calling and unsubstantiated complaints.

With every one of those supposedly 1,500 groups, the complaints are monotonously repetitious. Leaders are all to a man or woman accused of "mind control". (Formerly called "brain washing", until that term was discredited by reputable psychologists, who said that no such power exists.) "Mind control" is just a phrase to describe any kind of teaching. If members subscribe to the teachings, then they must be under the "control" of the person doing the teaching. There is no way to prove that someone has the ability to control another person's mind, but (fortunately for the cult-busters) there is no way to DISPROVE it either. It's all in the mind of the person doing the talking. And any member who wishes to refute the charge is ordered to leave the group as the only way to prove to the exit counsellors that they are not under the control of the group or its leader!

Leaders are also accused of being authoritarian and/or manipulative. Any hint of rules, creeds, requirements, or disciplines become proof of authoritarian leadership, whereas if there are not even these common signs of authority on the part of leaders, then they can still be accused of being "manipulative", i.e. being able to control people's minds without them knowing it... just through subtle hints and suggestions.

Rick Ross, who was instrumental in advising the FBI to storm the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas, which ended in the deaths of nearly a hundred people, was quoted as saying, "If you've seen one cult, you've seen them all." His advice to the FBI was just to hammer away at the leader through all forms of psychological pressure, until the leader either snaps, or the followers break ranks and run. The FBI learned too late that trained psychologists knew just the opposite: Such an approach only causes the members to be drawn more closely to their leaders. Nevertheless, it does have the effect of cutting the existing members off from the rest of society.

And that is what is happening with ourselves (i.e. the Jesus Christians in general, and Cherry and me in particular). We are being aggressively shunned by Friends, and personal attacks on us are being circulated throughout the Society, both in Australia and overseas. David Lowe has said that he is sending negative reports on us to Immigration Departments around the world, in an effort to stop us from being able to travel, to police departments, the FBI, and Interpol, to the media, to hospitals where any Jesus Christians may be likely to donate a kidney, to other cult-busters, and to any other organisations that he thinks may be willing to read what he has to say. Mind you, he has said nothing to indicate that there is any substance to the reports that he has sent, but we already know that they are having an effect, as we are being contacted by some of the people whom David has notified, wanting to know what it is that we have done that is so "dangerous". We have no way of knowing, but it is almost certain that David is also using the good name of the Society to give credence to his reports. He certainly has the unbridled support of the NSW RM in all that he has done.

If you want to see the kind of people that David is working with, just tune in to the Jeremy Kyle Show in ITV 1, in Manchester, England. This is the show that David had lined up as a highly touted "summit" for ex-members and angry relatives, until he discovered that I knew who he was. ITV had been promised a stellar line-up of disgruntled ex-members and angry parents, but they all failed to attend when David discovered that his anonymity had been compromised by someone working very close to him.

Nevertheless, the show went ahead when I offered to put them in contact with David's number one source of information, an ex-soldier in the U.S. who was discharged from the army because of a personality disorder. This man spent less than an hour in one of our communities in the U.S. five years ago before suffering from an anxiety attack and literally running out of the flat. But he now believes that I am "worse than a mass murderer and a serial rapist" and he has vowed to spend a big part of his life working to have me "taken out".

Not to be outdone, Anita Walker, another person, who attends Quaker meetings in Victoria, who posts under the name Blackhat, has invented the label "spiritual paedophile" for me, on the basis of the fact that most of the Jesus Christians are in their thirties and forties, whereas I myself am 62 years old. According to David and his supporter, Anita, I have no business teaching anyone younger than myself, and they will call me a paedophile until I cease!

The Jeremy Kyle Show used the classic crossover from Jonestown and the Children of God in a huge way. So predictable! They spend a whole hour generating fear and outrage over what happended at Jonestown almost 40 years ago, and then switch to "such a group" operating in the U.K. today!

You can read a bit more about what happened on the show by clicking HERE.

So are Friends prepared to head down that trail, becoming more and more "tight" in our statements of belief, in order to provide a safe refuge from any new religious movement that might be thinking of "taking over" the 350-year-old Religious Society of Friends? I certainly hope not!

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