Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Exodus 20:3
How does a terrorist become a hero? Thats what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wants to know, and I add: How do hero-worshippers choose their gods?
Years ago when my husband and I moved to a small town in Maine to start a new church, we had a willing group of people waiting to work with us, and the resources of the American Baptist Convention behind us. Ours wasnt the only new church in the recently settled town, but it was the first to come in under the umbrella of an organized denomination. Not far away stood an independent church whose founder received his guidance only from God, his members said, even as they criticized my husband for being compromised by his seminary training and pulled by the strings of the man-made denomination that sent him there.
I remember listening to their criticism and wondering if they could be right. After all, it was the learned Pharisees whom Jesus most criticized for their unwillingness to accept His teachings.
But when indecision and discouragement came we also listened to the words of more mature Christians than we were. It was always tempting to run our own course, or try to solve our problems alone, but it was usually those wiser words that brought the solution.
Today, 40 years after that church was born, it is still a thriving member of the community. The independent church folded long ago, after the leader denounced his own teachings and left town.
Not all independent churches end so abruptly, and leave such disillusioned members behind, but many do. The principle behind such groups, where all behavior and belief is dictated by one person, is what Friedman calls bin Ladenism. Left to their own unchecked thinking, few leaders are able to guide any organization alone, or escape the adage, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The bin Laden issue both disgusts and fascinates me. How could one man wield so much sway over so many people? Why are so many brains turned off?
We only have to examine events in our own lifetime to see the pattern. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had good intentions when they founded the PTL Club 25-30 years ago. But by the mid-1980s, as donations to their listener-supported ministry broke televangelism records, their facilities grew more plush and scandal closed their doors.
Within the next decade, fundamentalist David Koresh led his Branch Davidians to a commune in Waco, Texas, and eventually to their deaths, and New-Ager Marshall Applewhite convinced his Heavens Gate followers that suicide was a certain route to utopia.
But perhaps the worst case of mesmerized devotion to a fellow mortal, and the clearest example of why such things happen, occurred 23 years ago when Peoples Temple leader, Jim Jones, led his homeless, jobless and otherwise needy followers to presumed prosperity in Guyana. Like the fabled Pied Piper of Hamelin, through intimidation, grandiose promises, and cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, he led 900 men, women, and children to their deaths.
Like Jones and the others, Osama bin Laden knows how the system works. Find a group of people with common needs and a common enemy, and magnify both. Then portray yourself as the savior from all that perceived repression and youll have them eating out of your contaminated hand, or drinking from your poisoned cup.
What the followers rarely know until its too late is that the neediest person in the group is the one they mistakenly call their leader. Escape from their own reality - or the law - and a lust for power drive them to the unspeakable acts they all eventually commit.
Needy is too small a word to describe Gods people 3,500 years ago. Slavery, poverty, and cruelty are inadequate descriptions, too. But in His time, and with the assistance of leaders of His own choosing, God led the nation of Israel out of that oppression and into a land of their own. One of His first acts after their journey started was to give them a set of rules to live by.
Far from being oppressive or for His own gratification, those rules were for the peoples benefit. In Gods plan, people who dont murder, lie, and steal wont be killed, deceived, or stolen from, either.
Had the people followed those rules, it wouldnt have taken them 40 years to take a journey that should have lasted less than 40 days.
I pray it doesnt take another 40 years to convince the followers of the misguided bin Laden, or to warn ourselves that, in the words of the Apostle Peter, We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
If were not sure how that obedience is to be carried out, a refresher course in Gods benefit plan (Exodus 20:1-17) is a good place to begin.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.)
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