Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Escape from Utopia

“Karen, I was right!  Someone escaped!  She says they are a cult!” I said to my wife, exuberant.

It was Monday, Labor Day.  We were at the Lake of the Ozarks, in mid-Missouri, and Karen, my wife, noticed a group of people standing near the overlook on the hill above the lake’s dam.  A man about my age was about to take a picture of a group of teenagers with the lake in the background.  All of them were well groomed, well behaved and wearing polo shirts and caps that said “Shepherdsfield” on them.  Karen offered to take the picture for this man, so he could be in it as well.  He was very grateful.

“What’s Shepherdsfield?” I asked after the photo had clicked.

“We’re a Christian community near Fulton, Missouri,” the man answered.  “We’re on our Reward Trip.  These young people have been working very hard all summer, and we’re taking them on a Reward Trip before school starts again.”  My eyes locked with one of the young people.  They were certainly well behaved … but a “Christian community”?  Creepy.

Karen and I got in the car.  I began to talk in my quiet, slow cult-leader voice.  “Welcome to Shepherdsfield,” I said.  “You’ll be very happy here.  As long as you do what we tell you.  There’s no need to fuss.  You’ll be loved and you won’t want to leave.  In fact, you won’t be able to leave.  Now just do what we say and everything will be fine.”

“Kevin!” Karen shouted.  “Stop that!  You’re so judgmental!  Those were nice people!  What makes you say they’re a cult?!”

I got out my phone and Googled them.  One of the first things that comes up is the blog Cult Girl Speaks Out.  It’s written by Tabitha Casey, and it details how she grew up in Shepherdsfield and how she “escaped” and how she’s trying to process all of it now.  It’s a fascinating blog, and even Karen became interested as I read many of Tabitha’s posts to her on our way to ice cream after dinner at the Lake.

Tabitha Casey
Of course, my only knowledge of Shepherdsfield is what I’ve been reading on Tabitha’s blog, and it’s possible that the place is not as dark as she paints it - though, she actually seems quite fair and gives credit where credit is due on more than one occasion.  But human history has many examples of utopias gone bad - and, if what Tabitha says is true, Shepherdsfield is one of them.  

For one thing, according to Tabitha, the Reward Trip rewards children from the ages of about 10 on up who are required to work all summer long from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm daily mulching, weeding, repairing, and sweating in the hot and humid Missouri summers, the “reward” of which is a trip to someplace like the dam overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks.  Plus mini-golf.  But it’s worse for adults.  Able bodied males supply the commune with money by power washing, painting and building decks in Columbia, Jefferson City, and other towns nearby.  The income they generate goes to the Shepherdsfield “church”, which allots them back a small amount.  In the case of Tabitha and her family of eight, they were given no more than $130 per month back from the money her husband earned power washing.  Of course, the “church” provides all needs - housing, car, telephone, utilities, food - but the “church” also controls all needs.  And if and when a member “escapes” with his or her family, they must leave with absolutely nothing.  There is no private ownership.  Christian Communism meets Christian Capitalism - the Company Town owns everything and the members owe their souls to the company store, so to speak, even though the power washing business seems to be entrepreneurial and thriving.  

Tabitha explains how there is no incentive to work hard, since slackers receive the same share as hard workers.  This was the story of New Harmony, Indiana and elsewhere.  Human nature must be either ignored or brutalized for utopias to have any chance of working.

For example, Tabitha describes

… a peer of mine who, at age nine, because of stealing some quarters from a communal change drawer to buy a gift for a girl, was subjected to the most severe punishment we had devised. He was made to undergo what we termed "coventry". This coventry involved rejection from every member of the community. He would eat alone during all our common meals (lunch and dinner for five of the seven days); no one would talk to him except to give direction ... he would not play or interact in any fun way with any of his friends during this time. This lasted several weeks and crushed this child.  To this day, the mention of Shepherdsfield evokes only pain.

… the fear of such strong punishment was so great that those youth who had pullings toward stealing, lying, cheating, interest in the opposite sex, etc. became masterful at doing what they were already inclined towards and masterful at disguising it. It created an environment of facades. If someone had a problem, or an issue, covering up, putting on a brave face and always looking joyful - "as a good Christian should" - were the ways that were approved of to deal with it.

This is one of many painful and fascinating tales of Tabitha’s life as a Christian Communist.  She analyzes her experiences growing up in Shepherdsville well, and reaches the two most obviously correct conclusions

This is my story - this is the life I lived and this is mine to tell. I did not just observe and am reporting on what I observed - I ate, drank, slept, talked and walked this life - this is my story and this is what I want to do with what I have lived. I want to warn people about the dangers of these two things mostly:

1.) spiritual abuse and
2.) putting men on pedestals or allowing them to climb there themselves.

Such misplaced idealism which created the environment for spiritual abuse and for trusting in men rather than God, and for giving men way too much power and authority over private lives and over other people’s families led to what became an intolerable atmosphere.  There is more than one suicide in Tabitha’s story.

Her husband, however, gets closer to a third lesson learned that should be emphasized …

It was a great place to be a kid - but there was never a transition point in how one was treated. We were never given the chance to make decisions and choose wisely - all those decisions were made for us.  If we started to try to think an issue through and - Heaven forbid - question or disagree, we were challenged on our spirit of divisiveness.

My friends, I see this in Devout Catholic circles every day.  It is the prime characteristic not of the Church, but of an ideology.  Ideologies are Closed Systems, Unrealities that are man-made fictions and that can only exist by forcefully suppressing human nature and by carefully keeping out anything that might topple the house of cards or pop the carefully guarded bubble.

The true Church, by contrast, and true philosophies, and indeed common sense and sanity are marked by an openness, by a seeking, by humility.  “Thy Kingdom come” (our daily prayer) means that we will never have the perfect community on earth, though we are always desiring it and seeking it.  The “eschaton” is not “immanent”.  There is a fundamental tension that exists between “The Divine Ground” of our existence and our longing for it.  Even we Christians who know Christ and love Christ still seek Him - or at least seek to imitate Him - in various ways.  We try to remain open to Him, and in doing so we renounce the kind of control and fear that keeps His Spirit out, we renounce the contraceptive mentality that protects the precious bubble at all costs, that keeps it from ever being pierced, and that keeps life from ever being natural, joyful, fertile.

There is an idealism behind Shepherdsfiled, and “Cult Girl” Tabitha readily admits that and refuses to condemn it.  She knows that that love, that longing, that desire to embody what we long for is at the heart of our existence.  But there was an idealism to all sorts of Communism, not just the Christian “Acts 2” kind.  There was an idealism to the Bolshevist Communism that brutalized half the world for most of the 20th century.  Even the Nazis were idealists.  But all such ideals, all such utopias, all such Closed Systems and Unrealities start with a frightening premise: We men are enough.  We can build, on our own efforts, God’s Kingdom on earth - if we’re just emphatic enough and repressive enough.  And if we have to, we’ll tear down and remake man himself to do it.

In C. S. Lewis’ phrase, “The Abolition of Man” is the final project of man.  Indeed, at one point, Tabitha quotes C. S. Lewis …

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their conscience.

Monday night, Labor Day, after meeting the Reward Trip kids and reading Tabitha’s blog posts, Karen and I arrived at the ice cream stand off of Highway 54 at the Lake of the Ozarks.  There were about eight old men surrounding us as we stood in line to get ice cream, and, to my surprise, they were dirty old men.  One old guy got a sundae with a cherry on top.  He turned to his octogenarian companion.  “I guess I can’t give you my cherry!” he leered.  Two other old guys got their sundaes.  One of them, stooped over, wearing shorts with street shoes and black socks pulled up to his ankles, said to the old guy next to him who got a smaller size sundae, “I guess mine’s bigger than yours!”  I’m not sure his companion heard him.

They all finished their treats, climbed (slowly) into a mini-van with Missouri plates and pulled away, almost backing into another car in the process.

“Wow!  Those old guys were something else!” I exclaimed.

“Do you know who those guys are?” asked Karen.

“Who are they?” I replied.

“They’re the elders from Shepherdsfield,” she answered.  

It was the best laugh I’d had all weekend.

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