By Tommy Airey
Here’s an easy way to figure out if you’re in a cult: If you’re wondering whether you’re in a cult, the answer is yes.
Not too long ago, in the years of early adulthood, I was attending a church in Southern California with weekend attendance in the tens of thousands. This was Respectable Religion. The pastor prayed at Obama’s inauguration. But something dreadful was percolating inside of me as I took inventory of what was happening all around me.
Earlier, back in the mid-90s, during my college days, I couldn’t shake that my favorite professors Francisco Marmolejo and Bill Tuttle, treated students with the utmost kindness and spoke eloquently and passionately of current events and issues: from poverty to race to violence to the environment. However, these issues, which they easily convinced me were important, were never spoken of in the churches or Bible studies I attended. The crusading Christian faith that I had been trained in, from the time I was ten, was about prayerful piety and making Jesus my personal Lord and Savior so that I could go to heaven when I died. Someday.
I started teaching at the large public high school I graduated from and my ingrained conservative platform began to be humanized. Immigration, addiction and sexual orientation, it turns out, are real people. I traveled to Kenya three weeks before 9/11 and went to Kibera, the largest slum in the world—one full afternoon walking around like a zombie, baffled by this devastating existence. Were these people saved?
Two years later, some friends and I went to Nigeria and toured a leper colony. More of the same. Then, my friend Dale started FedExing me books by authors like Brian McLaren and N.T. Wright who, in compelling ways, were squeezing North American Evangelicalism beyond its mold. I found myself sitting on the beach reading biblical commentaries and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and Paul Among Jews & Gentiles by Krister Stendahl, a professor at Harvard Divinity School who had the original Greek text of the entire book of Romans memorized.
Then I got married and, for the honeymoon, we went to seminary. Together. I read works by the Radical Reformers and Liberation Theologians. We found what we were looking for and set ourselves on a new Path: jail-breaking biblical inerrancy, tearing off the “Evangelical” label, becoming card-carrying pacifists and vegetarians. Then, lo and behold, we campaigned for Obama, the pro-choice socialist! Now, all we needed was a Prius.
In the midst of this identity theft, I happened upon Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man. It opened the floodgates. It was also the nail in my coffin labeled “Respectable.” It had major implications. Myers named the “radical discipleship” movement and its repentance and resistance from the four horsemen of the apocalypse: empire, militarism, economic exploitation and environmental revolt. The same forces that created Kibera.
Eventually, we met Myers and his partner Elaine Enns and started making frequent weekend drives 150 miles north to the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries compound: Casa Anna Schultz in the Ojai Valley. They sent our privileged asses on a 75-day road trip across 12,000 miles of radical terrain. Our friend Mike loaned us his Prius.
We met the nuns at Jonah House in Baltimore who have spent significant time in federal prisons resisting the military industrial complex . We went birding with some of the women of KAIROS Canada, out on the spit in Toronto. We attended a service at Spiritus Christi in Rochester, a Catholic Church that ordains women and blesses same-sex marriage.
In D.C., we attended a whole dismal day of the Bradley Chelsea Manning trial and then found Art Laffin and the Catholic Worker just outside the gates of the White House, wearing orange jumpsuits protesting torture at Guantanamo. In the Pacific Northwest, we went on a hike up Tiger Mountain with cat whisperer Wes Howard-Brook (photo above) who did to the Gospel of John what Ched did to Mark. The next day, we went to lunch with Weldon Nisly, who was on a team that flew to Iraq on a peace mission right after the U.S. invaded the country in 2003.
We were exposed to a Christianity that engaged biblical scholarship and social analysis with a lived reality. These communities, also, were keenly aware of the life of the Spirit in ordinary, everyday life. They prayed and sang, fasted and got arrested. Sure enough, the world still needed saving, individually and institutionally: from austerity, alienation, aggression and addiction.
Even though the Pope came to the States early this Fall and proclaimed that King, Day and Merton were on his playlist, the radical discipleship Movement will remain a minority report of North American Christianity. The forces of power, privilege and possession overwhelmingly line up on the side of a Respectable faith that refuses to shake up the status quo.
And so, most of my friends either remain aligned with some brand of fundamentalist faith or they have ditched religion altogether. Now, we live in Detroit: a city where a few elites proclaim “a comeback” while the vast majority of residents remain survivors in the midst of a sea of water rate hikes & shutoffs, tax & mortgage foreclosures, school closures and joblessness. We throw in with a church (boasting an attendance of a whopping two dozen on any given Sunday) that seeks to name and resist this structural injustice.
All this leaves us feeling, on many days, like we’re in a cult. We are a flawed, quirky, socially awkward, motley crew, toting with us all our own complex emotional baggage. We remain committed to the unsexy road of personal inventory and prophetic imagination. Our confessional way cannot compete with conventional wisdom and, quite frankly, our message can tend to overwhelm meager audiences with bad news (forgive us for, too often, forgetting the Hope).
We are trapped. Like the Apostle Peter, we have nowhere else to go. Like the Pope (it turns out), we have drunk the Kool Aid. Unlike the Pope, however, we remain disconnected from economic and political power. And so, we cannot coerce. Our only option is to compel: by speaking truth to power, through ruthless acts of mercy, in a community of compassion, with a posture of vulnerability. This is the Gospel of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Bartolome de las Casas, Dr. King and Archbishop Romero. This is who we are. Let’s keep drinking.