Persecution (3,938 words)

Persecution and millennial beliefs are interrelated in complex ways. This article will highlight aspects of the interactions of persecution and millennialism in relation to catastrophic and progressive expectations and to the sociology of assaulted, fragile, and revolutionary groups.

Defining persecution.

"Persecution" related to religious groups is understood to mean harassing to afflict or injure because of beliefs. Persecution is in the eyes of the beholder. Acts committed against a religious group may be deemed persecution by observers or by believers, while people committing those acts may see them as being necessary to preserve social order and safety.

Catastrophic millennialism.

Persecution is particularly relevant to catastrophic millennialism, the belief in an imminent cataclysmic transition to a collective salvation. Catastrophic millennialism involves a dualistic perspective of "good" battling "evil" which often translates into a sense of "us versus them." The dualism of catastrophic millennialism is validated and strengthened by believers’ experiences of "cultural opposition" (Hall 1995). The dualism of catastrophic millennialism can contribute to situations in which believers are persecuted or they believe that they are being persecuted. The experience of persecution confirms catastrophic millennialism’s dualism and prophecies of violence.

Progressive millennialism.

Progressive millennialism involves the belief that humans working under the guidance of a superhuman or divine agent can create the millennial kingdom in a noncatastrophic manner. This type of millennialism appears among people who feel relatively comfortable in mainstream society–-they do not feel persecuted–-but they are disturbed by suffering and feel called to do something about it (Wessinger 1988).

A religious group’s worldview may shift between catastrophic or progressive millennial themes as members alternately feel persecuted or comfortable in society.

Some progressive millennialists desire to speed progress up to such a fast rate that they resort to violence to achieve their millennial kingdom (Ellwood forthcoming). This pattern can be termed revolutionary progressive millennialism. Whereas the nonviolent progressive millennialism may downplay dualism in favor of stressing the unity of humanity (Wessinger 1988), revolutionary progressive millennialism possesses a strong dualism in which the good guys ("us") must fight the bad guys ("them," the demonized "other"). As in revolutionary catastrophic movements, revolutionary progressive millennialists often violently purge perceived traitors and apostates. Revolutionary progressive millennialists typically possess a strong sense of having been oppressed, and they believe that their only recourse is violent action to achieve their collective salvation. The German Nazis, the Khmer Rouge (Salter forthcoming), and Maoism in China (Lowe forthcoming) are examples of revolutionary progressive millennial movements.

Revolutionary progressive millennial movements have a great deal in common with violent catastrophic millennial movements in terms of their shared dualism, their propensity to utilize violence against enemies within and without their groups, and their sense of being persecuted. These movements will be immensely violent when they become socially dominant. In resorting to revolutionary violence to overthrow governments, dominate countries, eliminate the perceived threat of demonized peoples, and deal with perceived traitors, the believers become persecutors on a massive scale.

However, a sense of persecution is most commonly relevant to catastrophic millennial movements and groups, and the remainder of this essay will focus on these.

Three attitudes toward participation in the transition to the millennial kingdom.

Catastrophic millennialists can take three possible stances toward whether they are called to participate in the anticipated cataclysmic events of the endtime (Rosenfeld forthcoming).

1) They can await divine intervention to destroy the current world as the necessarily prelude to the creation of the millennial kingdom;

2) They can arm themselves for protection during the anticipated cataclysmic events. If such groups are assaulted, they will fight back;

3) They can adopt a revolutionary theology or ideology that will prompt them to wage war to overthrow the government to establish their millennial kingdom.

The extent to which a millennial group experiences persecution can prompt the believers to shift from waiting for divine intervention to using violence for self-defense or to overthrow the government. The nature of the interaction of outsiders with millennialists is crucial in determining whether a group will remain peaceful or become caught up in violence. While it is sometimes necessary for religious groups to be investigated, whenever possible these investigations should enroll the cooperation of the millennialists, promote respectful dialogue, and avoid persecution. Persecution strengthens catastrophic millennial beliefs, hardens the boundaries drawn between "us" and "them," and causes millennial groups to become caught up in violence that may be initiated either by the believers or by outsiders who assault them.

Assaulted millennial groups.

Assaulted millennial groups are catastrophic millennialists who are attacked by law enforcement agents or civilians because they are thought to be dangerous. They are assaulted because their religion is misunderstood and because of bigotry. Their religion is regarded as being bizarre and not worthy of respect and legal protection. Members of assaulted millennial groups are persecuted, and they may respond either in a pacifist manner and attempt to utilize legal recourse--as do members of the Messianic Communities (Swantko 1998)--or they may resort to violent actions in self-defense.

In the nineteenth century, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were assaulted repeatedly as they were pressured to move from New York to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The governor of Missouri issued an extermination order against Mormons in 1838. A Mormon camp at Haun’s Mill was attacked by a Missouri militia killing seventeen people. A nine-year-old boy was shot by a man who later explained that "Nits will make lice." Joseph Smith and his brother were in jail when they were murdered by a mob on June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois. The largest group of Mormons went with Brigham Young to settle in Utah where they received further persecution from the United States government. In the heightened conflictual atmosphere, some Mormon men and Native Americans committed the Mountain Meadows massacre on September 7, 1857, of about 120 pioneers traveling westward. Some of those pioneers had boasted that they had participated in the massacre at Haun’s Mill and in other attacks against Mormons. During the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. government prosecuted Mormons for polygamy (Arrington and Bitton 1979, 44-46, 166-68).

Throughout the years of persecution, public sentiment was whipped up against Mormons by sensationalized books and newspaper articles. The following quote from an Illinois newspaper is worthy of any propaganda effort to promote ethnic cleansing:

War and extermination is inevitable! CITIZENS ARISE, ONE AND ALL!!! Can you stand by, and suffer such INFERNAL DEVILS! to ROB men of their property and RIGHTS, without avenging them? We have no time for comment: every man will make his own. LET IT BE MADE WITH POWDER AND BALL (Arrington and Bitton 1979, 60)!!!

The extermination of Latter-day Saints was justified by their dehumanization, first by calling them Mormons, and then by applying other degrading labels to them. They were "denounced as dupes, foreigners, Negro-lovers, Indian-lovers, trash, and vermin. Various images tended to degrade the Mormons into animals: swarms, hives, locusts, geese, and droves" (Arrington and Bitton 1979, 61).

On February 28, 1993, a community of about 123 adults and children living at Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas, was assaulted by federal agents largely because they were identified as belonging to a "cult." The assault was carried out by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF or ATF). The Davidians had arms and fought back. Four ATF agents and five Davidians died in the shootout. Later that day a sixth Davidian was killed by ATF agents as he attempted to return to Mount Carmel on foot.

The Branch Davidians were assaulted by ATF agents although their investigation had found no evidence that the Davidians possessed illegal weapons. There were allegations of child abuse against the leader, David Koresh, but the case had been investigated and closed by Texas social workers due to lack of evidence. Furthermore, child abuse does not come under the jurisdiction of federal agencies (Reavis 1995; Tabor and Gallagher 1995; Wright 1995; Wessinger forthcoming B).

During the 51-day siege of Mount Carmel in which Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents waged psychological warfare against the Davidians, the agents dismissed the significance of the religious worldview of people they regarded as duped and brainwashed "cultists." The negotiation transcripts reveal that the Davidians did not want to die and they tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution that would conform to their understanding of biblical prophecies (Docherty 1998; Gallagher forthcoming), but the tank and CS gas assault by FBI agents culminated in a fire that killed 74 Davidians including 23 children.

In 1993 David Koresh’s theology did not teach the Davidians to initiate violence (Gallagher forthcoming), but their persecution by federal agents confirmed the Davidians’ belief in Koresh’s divinely inspired ability to interpret the Bible and strengthened the cohesiveness of their group. This accounts for why the Davidians were able to withstand the psychological warfare waged against them. In the cases of both the Mormons and the Branch Davidians, their persecution strengthened the believers’ faith and solidarity by confirming their leaders’ interpretations of biblical predictions of the cataclysmic endtime events.

Fragile millennial groups.

Members of a fragile millennial group initiate violence to preserve their "ultimate concern" (Baird 1971), their religious goal, that is endangered by stresses internal to the group and cultural opposition. It is not unusual for the leader to cause many of the internal stresses. Opposition from outside that threatens the group’s ultimate concern can include criticisms from concerned relatives, sensationalized news reports, and investigations by government agencies, law enforcement agents, and social workers. Child custody disputes and accusations of child abuse are very threatening forms of opposition. Apostates–individuals who have left and are very vocal and aggressive in opposing the group–are a particular threat as former believers who have lost their faith (Bromley 1998; Gallagher forthcoming) and who may be demanding the return of financial resources.

Members of fragile millennial groups in extreme tension with society may resort to violence to silence dissidents, attempt to return them to the true faith, and prevent them from leaving the group which is viewed as the only source of salvation. Also, they may resort to violence against perceived enemies in society.

In committing coercive and violent acts, members of fragile millennial groups become persecutors. The violence may be directed inwardly against group members or outwardly at perceived enemies or both. Endogenous and exogenous stresses (Robbins and Anthony 1995) may culminate in murder and group suicide as at Jonestown in 1978 and with the Solar Temple in 1994. They may culminate in an assault against society as in Aum Shinrikyo's release of nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Persecution serves to destabilize a fragile millennial group, because it contributes to believers’ fear that they will fail to achieve their ultimate concern. In such cases, persecution serves to weaken a group that is already suffering from internal stresses, and thus might motivate believers to resort to violent actions to preserve their religious goal.

Revolutionary millennial movements.

Revolutionary millennial movements are fueled by theologies or ideologies that motivate believers to commit violent acts to overthrow the government. A people feels persecuted so they resort to revolutionary actions to establish a collective salvation. In their zealous use of violence to create the millennial kingdom, these millennialists become persecutors of others who do not share their vision.

When a revolutionary millennial movement becomes socially dominant, it produces massive amounts of violence. For instance, the Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 1864 in China against the Manchu Qing dynasty resulted in the deaths of at least 20 million people (Lowe forthcoming).

When a revolutionary millennial movement is not socially dominant, its most fervent believers resort to terrorism. This is the case with the contemporary Euro-American nativist movement which includes the Montana Freemen, Identity Christians, Odinists, Neo-Nazis, and extremist Christian Patriots.

Catastrophic millennial beliefs often are heightened in response to the experience of persecution.

Catastrophic millennialism is a worldview that promises salvation from evil and suffering, and can be the perspective of whole nations or small groups. Catastrophic millennialism is appealing particularly to people experiencing persecution. It offers hope for deliverance and promises that the evil-doers and the righteous will receive their respective just rewards. Based on his study of Mormon millennial thought, Grant Underwood (forthcoming) has concluded that "the single greatest factor in propelling a movement to emphasize an apocalyptic rhetoric of judgment and vengeance seems to be the persecution they feel from around them."

Apocalyptic rhetoric of violent divine retribution against oppressors does not mean that millennialists will seek to carry out that anticipated judgment. A group’s theology and sociology have to be studied in depth to determine the extent to which believers feel called to carry out the destruction of their enemies. The violent apocalyptic rhetoric of catastrophic millennialists will diminish if their sense of persecution diminishes. However, the preservation of catastrophic millennial prophecies in scriptures means that these passages will be resources for new movements within that religious tradition.

When a catastrophic millennial group feels persecuted, a leader may bring the date for the end of the current order closer in time. This was done by David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (Wessinger forthcoming B) and by Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo (Reader 1996). Bringing the date for the end closer in time is an important indication that the group and its leader feel persecuted.

The dualism (sense of "us vs. them," "good vs. evil") of catastrophic millennialism can prompt believers to be convinced they are being persecuted when, in fact, the opposition they are experiencing is not excessive.

Whereas catastrophic millennialists often are persecuted, the dualism of the catastrophic millennial worldview predisposes them to interpret any amount of opposition as being persecution.

An example of this is Heaven’s Gate whose leader and 38 followers committed suicide near San Diego in 1997. Although the group had received some sensationalized news coverage in the 1970s, they had not been persecuted for almost twenty years. In 1993 they emerged from their reclusive monastic lifestyle to begin proselytizing again. In 1995 they sent their message out into cyberspace. In response they received some email messages ridiculing their beliefs, and they interpreted these as evidence of their persecution and as confirmation that it was time to leave the corrupt earthly world behind to its cataclysmic fate (Introvigne forthcoming, Wessinger forthcoming B).

The dualism of the Aum Shinrikyo worldview contributed to what a member called Aum’s "persecution complex" and to Aum’s intense conflict with society (Wessinger forthcoming B). Ian Reader (1996 and forthcoming) judges the negative news reports about Aum Shinrikyo as not being persecution since new religions in Japan often are scrutinized by the press. The criminal activities of Aum devotees needed to be investigated, but the Japanese police neglected to investigate for some time, in part, due to trying to avoid the appearance of persecuting a religion. The dualism of the Aum worldview predisposed the guru and devotees to view any sign of opposition as persecution.

Both the Heaven’s Gate members and Aum Shinrikyo devotees were avid consumers of conspiracy theories, which can be taken as one indication of an extreme dualistic worldview.

There is a circular dynamic relating persecution and the dualism of catastrophic millennialism. The dualism of a catastrophic millennial worldview predisposes believers to view any opposition as persecution. The opposition may become severe enough to be actual persecution. Persecution increases the dualistic catastrophic millennialism of the believers.

Characteristics of catastrophic millennial communities and movements can contribute to situations in which they are persecuted by law enforcement agents and/or citizens.

Because of their dream of an imminent transition to a radically renovated state of collective existence, all millennial religions pose a challenge to the status quo. Even catastrophic millennialists that peacefully await divine intervention expect a revolutionary destruction of the old order (Eugene Gallagher, personal communication). Millennial communities often adopt a lifestyle that anticipates the expected salvation kingdom involving practices and values radically different from those of mainstream society. They often adopt distinctive sexual arrangements, gender roles, and childrearing practices. These include celibacy, polygamy, marriage between partners of different ages, and women’s religious leadership (Palmer 1994; Wessinger 1993). These practices that diverge from those of mainstream society elicit hostility and raise the fear that vulnerable persons are being abused by the group.

Committed millennialists hold an allegiance to an authority they consider to be higher than the authority of civil law. While many catastrophic millennialists will submit peacefully to the unjust application of laws, and they pray that they will encounter individuals of conscience who will administer laws justly (Jean Swantko, personal communication), some other millennialists will prefer to kill or die rather than compromise their commitment to higher authority. The latter was the case with a group of black South Africans calling themselves Israelites, who believed they were ordered by God to gather at Bulhoek, South Africa, in 1921.They refused to disperse when authorities told them that they could not live there. The result was a massacre in which 183 Israelites died from police gunfire (Steyn forthcoming).

Catastrophic millennial communities may not contribute actively to their own persecution, but their antagonism to the predominant social order, their alternative lifestyles, and their commitment to an authority they place above that of civil law puts them at odds with society and law enforcement agents. Furthermore, the dualism of catastrophic millennialism leads millennialists to expect and perhaps even promote conflict with society. Catastrophic millennialists are not surprised when conflict manifests in fulfillment of their prophecies. If a catastrophic millennial group is armed due to the expectation of imminent conflict, that is yet another factor that can provoke negative attention from law enforcement agents and citizens.

When millennialists resort to coercive and violent measures, they become persecutors.

Some millennial groups resort to violent acts to control members, prevent defections, and attack persons outside the group who are identified as enemies. For instance, Aum Shinrikyo devotees were forced to undergo severe asceticism such as being immersed in extremely hot or cold water (Reader forthcoming). Devotees who said they wished to leave were confined, drugged, and subjected to ineffective attempts at forcible mind control. Aum devotees also made numerous attacks against outsiders whom they deemed to be threats (Kaplan and Marshall 1996). Aum Shinrikyo's nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway killed twelve and injured over 5,000 people.

When millennialists utilize violence against tepid members, defectors, and outsiders, they are persecuting people because of their different beliefs.

Rituals of violence.

When dramatic violent acts are committed either by or against millennialists, often these are preceded by ritualized smaller violent acts.

Aum Shinrikyo’s violence began with the coercion of devotees into submitting to violent asceticism (Reader forthcoming). Individual murders committed by Aum devotees gradually escalated into the development and utilization of biological and chemical weapons against society. These repeated, and therefore ritualized, acts of violence culminated in the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

In Peoples Temple, suicide rituals first took place in Jim Jones’ inner circle while the church was located in California. Church members sanctioned public boxing matches and other violent rituals to socialize misbehaving members. In Jonestown, some people who wished to leave were drugged, and some were confined in coffin-sized boxes. The community discussed group suicide as an option and came to a consensus that "revolutionary suicide" was an appropriate means to preserve the cohesiveness of their collective if it was threatened with disintegration. They practiced mass suicide in "white night" drills. On November 18, 1978, the Fla-Vor-Aid contained cyanide and the majority of the people knew they were committing suicide (Maaga 1998; Hall 1987; Moore 1985). A total of 918 people died that day including five members of Congressman Leo Ryan’s party who were shot as they were departing with some defectors.

Law enforcement agents and members of the military also engage in rituals of violence that can escalate to a massive level. After the ATF raid on the Branch Davidians, FBI agents presided over a siege during which tanks demolished cars and other property belonging to the Davidians. The men in the tanks made obscene gestures at the Davidians, mooned, and cursed them. Psychological warfare was waged by blasting high decibel sounds and blinding lights at the Davidians. These violent acts escalated to culminate in the final assault in which tanks inserted CS gas into the residence and began demolishing the building. While it is unknown how the fire began, it is clear that there would have been no fire if there had been no final assault.

Religious believers, law enforcement agents, military personnel, and citizens need to be wary of participating in or condoning ritualized acts of violence.

Prejudice against "cults" and "sects" promotes religious persecution.

Since the 1970s, religions that are deemed to be "cults" or "sects" often are subjected to persecution. In English-speaking countries, "cult" has become a pejorative word for a religion that people do not understand and do not like. In countries in which romance languages are spoken, "sect" is the pejorative word. "Cult" and "sect," which originally designated legitimate categories of religion, have become convenient four-letter words to label religions that are judged by the general public to be false and dangerous. Many people do not realize that these terms express a prejudice equal to that expressed in racial slurs. Applying a bigoted label and stereotype to members of an unconventional group has the effect of dehumanizing them and makes it appear to be legitimate to discriminate against them and even kill them. In countries in which freedom of religion purportedly is guaranteed, groups have to be labeled as not really being religions and as being dangerous in order to legitimate aggressive persecution by law enforcement agents. This persecution in its most extreme form consists of violent acts against the religious group.

After the Waco tragedy, many American law enforcement agents and news reporters in the print media have attempted to become more sensitive to issues of religious freedom and to avoid prejudice that fuels aggression against minority religions. People working in electronic media in the United States still have a lot to learn about not promoting religious bigotry.

In the 1990s, some European countries have become highly intolerant of groups labeled "sects." In 1996, France published a list of 173 "dangerous sects" that included Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Baptist mission church. These religious institutions and their members have been subjected to defamation in the media, government audits, punitive taxes, employment discrimination, and the denial of bank accounts and bank loans (Garay 1999; DeMeo 1999).

Law enforcement agents, who must struggle with the question of how to maintain law and order while preserving religious freedom, need to be aware that applying a bigoted stereotype to an unconventional group can result in misunderstanding, and therefore can prompt them to take actions against a religious group that can culminate in violence. News reporters need to become sensitive to how their reporting about unconventional religions has the power to contribute to violent scenarios. Millennialists need to become aware of how the characteristics of their groups can elicit hostile reactions on the part of the general public, and consider how they can respond constructively to reduce that fear. Scholars of religions need to continue studying the multi-faceted relationships between millennialism, persecution, and violence, to deepen our understanding of these dynamics so that we can extend our teaching mission to the general public and avoid perpetuating simplistic conclusions and stereotypes.

There are complex interrelations between the dynamics of millennialism and persecution. The violence that sometimes engulfs millennial groups arises in contexts involving interactions between millennialists and people in mainstream societies. The quality of those interactions determines the potential for tragic loss of life.


Catherine Wessinger

Loyola University, New Orleans


See also entries on catastrophic millennialism, progressive millennialism, assaulted millennial groups, fragile millennial groups, revolutionary millennial movements, nativist millennial movements, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Branch Davidians, Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, Aum Shinrikyo.


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