"You shall have no other gods before me."
-- Exodus 20:3
Columnist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times asks, "How does a terrorist become a hero?" 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 the resources of the American Baptist Convention behind us. Ours wasn't the only new church in the recently settled town, but it was the first to arrive under the umbrella of an organized denomination. For example, there was an independent church nearby whose founder, the members said, received his guidance only from God. Consequently they criticized my husband for being "compromised" by his seminary training and the "man-made" denomination that sent him there.
I remember wondering at the time if the critics could be right. After all, it was the learned Pharisees whom Jesus criticized most. But when obstacles arose, we had someone to turn to for help. Though it may have been tempting to "go it alone," it was usually those wiser folks who led us through the hard times.
Today, 40 years later, that church is still there, while the independent church closed its doors long ago -- after the leader denounced his own teachings and left town.
I hasten to say that not all independent ministries end so abruptly or leave such disillusioned members behind, but many do. The principle behind this type of group, where one person dictates all behavior and belief, Friedman calls "bin Ladenism." Left to their own unchecked thinking, few leaders are able to guide an 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 may have had good intentions when they founded the PTL Club a few years ago. But as donations broke televangelism records, their facilities grew more plush and scandal shut them down. A decade later we were horrified as fundamentalist David Koresh led his Branch Davidians to a commune in Waco, Texas, and eventually to their deaths, while New-Ager Marshall Applewhite convinced his Heaven's Gate followers that suicide was a certain route to utopia.
But perhaps the worst case of blind devotion to a fellow mortal in recent memory was the "People's Temple" fiasco, when Jim Jones took his flock to presumed prosperity in Guyana. Like the fabled "Pied Piper of Hamelin," through intimidation, grandiose promises, and cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, 900 men, women and children followed their leader to their non-utopian deaths.
Like Jones and the others, today's terrorist leaders know how the system works. Find a group of people with common needs and a common enemy, magnify both, portray yourself as the savior from all that perceived oppression, and you'll have them eating out of your contaminated hand, or drinking from your poisoned cup.
What the followers rarely know, however, until it's too late is that the most needy person in the group is the one they mistakenly call their leader. Escape from their reality -- or the law -- plus a lust for power drive them to the unspeakable acts they eventually commit.
"Needy" may be inadequate to describe God's enslaved people 3,500 years ago. But in his time, and with leaders of his choosing, God led the nation of Israel out of oppression and into a land of their own. He also gave them rules to live by, not to continue their oppression or for his own gratification, but as an added benefit. In his plan, people who don't murder, lie, steal, etc., are also less likely to be killed, deceived or stolen from. And had they followed those rules from the beginning, it wouldn't have taken 40 years to finish a journey that should have lasted less than 40 days.
I pray it doesn't take another 40 years to convince the followers of the bin Laden's of our day that "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). And if you're not sure how that obedience should be carried out, a refresher course in God's benefit plan -- for leaders or the led -- (Exodus 20:1-17) is a good place to begin.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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