From the very beginning I was looking for examples of ceremonies and rituals that were unusual, even off-the-wall, extreme, although I did want to think about the traditional sorts of things, the Roman Catholic Mass, the Anglican Vespers, and the Unitarian Universalist Leadership School gentle experiments. But even when thinking about the grotesque and the illegal, a person ought to know where the line is drawn. So this is where it is: I won’t write about Jonestown, MOVE, or Waco. Just enough to tell you why.
Jonestown was supposed to be a “religious,” utopian, self-contained society, which it wasn’t, of course. The end came while I was in seminary and there were two points of contact with Unitarianism. One was that a Methodist fellow student (who was at Meadville because of an interest in social justice) knew people who died there and grieved hard. They were church family friends who had left the Methodist context and wandered over to the People’s Church.
The other was the Unitarian minister in San Francisco. When James Jones was young and feeling around for possibilities, he had visited this minister to ask about becoming a Unitarian minister but could not be admitted to seminary because he had no bachelor’s degree. Ministry in the UU tradition requires a master’s degree which is predicated on a bachelor’s degree. (Actually, another student later did attend M/L without a bachelor’s degree. He was an older man with a solid work record.) Later this Unitarian minister had been approached by the sister of someone in the congregation of the “People’s Church” who tried to tell him terrible things were happening there. He didn’t know what to do, even whether to believe her since the church had done many good things, so he did nothing. His guilt was great enough that at the annual UUMA minister’s meeting, he rose and confessed, asking forgiveness. The other ministers had no idea how to respond. They knew they had often sort of finessed similar appeals. Some felt he was weak to confess. Others searched their own souls. Basically, he was encouraged not to share.
MOVE was in Philadelphia. The members went unwashed and naked, piled up feces and garbage, cursed and railed with bullhorns around the clock, had no detectable means of support and generally enraged everyone. They were black and everyone took the surname of “Africa.” But it was all principled, “living naturally.” The city decided they had to go. In 1985 when they barricaded themselves in a gun fight, an actual bomb was dropped on the roof. Somehow it caught fire and since they were row houses, sharing walls, a block of housing had burned out by the time it had ended. Many died, some by gunfire.
WACO was similar except rural. This is from Wikipedia. “The Waco siege began on February 28, 1993, and ended violently 50 days later on April 19. The siege began when the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, a property located 9 miles (14 km) east-northeast of Waco, Texas. On February 28, shortly after the attempt to serve the warrant, an intense gun battle erupted, lasting nearly 2 hours. In this armed exchange, four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Upon the ATF's failure to execute the search warrant, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The siege ended 50 days later when a second assault on the compound was made and a fire destroyed the compound. 76 people (24 of them British nationals) died in the fire, including more than 20 children, two pregnant women, and the sect leader David Koresh.” There’s quite a lot more about the mixture of sex, violence and sectarian religion.
When Jonestown happened, I was in Don Browning’s class about ethics for ministers, one of the most useful classes I’ve ever taken. The explanation he proposed was that these people in Guyana had crossed the liminal threshold into a space where anything was possible and had failed to ever emerge. In other words, they died because they were out of control, basically insane or at least mentally dislocated. I don't agree. In both Waco and Philadelphia, it was government that foreclosed the liminal space with fire. They were militant Christians with hell at their heels, entirely respectable, inside the law, and deadly. I’m not prepared to take that on at this point.
Every postal box holder in Valier received last week a little booklet from “A. Jan Marcussen.” You can find him on Wikipedia. He “joneses” for apocalypse. He makes two mistakes of hubris: first, that anyone can tell when the Judgment Day is nigh, and second that when it comes, he will survive. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, one of the Valier churches, and their missionaries come to the door. I am not in sympathy. This is a small town with many older people who should not be frightened into false salvation. The people who come to the door seem nice and they are easily turned away when I tell them I’m ordained. They have a high respect for authority. Maybe too high. Someday they may have to choose which authority.
Beyond that, none of these three examples are really rituals or liturgies. Though the von Gennep and Victor Turner theories can be applied to the larger festivals of various cultures (Halloween is coming up.), they are still not the pattern of the “fire in the chalice” that I am discussing. They are simply conflagrations with no containers.
And that’s the bottom line. I do not want to think about uncontained fires. I want to think about what sort of chalice can contain the burning hearts of human beings. I don’t want to talk about supernatural authority figures in the sky who impose their timelines on us. I want to explore the perfectly natural and absolutely real shifts of consciousness (brain waves and neurotransmitters) in our own human thinking. As real as to sleep and perchance to dream. Then to wake renewed, knitted up.
What I know from research, evidence and experience is that this little schema I’m exploring will work. But there is another element that is necessary: the liturgist must be open and sensitive to the personalities and material cultures of the persons attending. They must be based on understanding which is the chalice for love. This is the way to affect the deepest assumptions of people. Not rules, force, punishment, and suppression.