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VII - Apocalyptic Cults

For apocalyptic cults, especially biblically based ones, the millennium is viewed as the time that will signal a major transformation for the world. Many apocalyptic cults share the belief that the battle against Satan, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, will begin in the years surrounding the millennium and that the federal government is an arm of Satan. Therefore, the millennium will bring about a battle between cult members --- religious martyrs --- and the government.

In the broadest meaning, cults are composed of individuals who demonstrate "great devotion to a person, idea, object or movement."  (35)  However, using that definition, many domestic terrorist groups could be characterized as cults, including Christian Identity churches, Black Hebrew Israelites, and some militias. For law enforcement purposes, a narrower interpretation of groups that qualify as cults is needed. A more useful definition of cults incorporates the term "cultic relationships" to describe the interactions within a cult.  (36)  Specifically, a cultic relationship refers to "one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge."  (37)  This definition of cults provides important distinctions that are vital for analyzing a cult's predilection towards violence.

The origin of the cult, the role of its leader, and its uniqueness provide a framework for understanding what distinguishes cults from other domestic terrorist groups that otherwise share many similar characteristics. These distinctions are: (1) cult leaders are self-appointed, persuasive persons who claim to have a special mission in life or have special knowledge; (2) a cult's ideas and dogma claim to be innovative and exclusive; and (3) cult leaders focus their members' love, devotion and allegiance on themselves.  (38)  These characteristics culminate in a group structure that is frequently highly authoritarian in structure. Such a structure is a sharp contrast to the rapidly emerging trend among domestic terrorist groups towards a leaderless, non-authoritarian structure.

While predicting violence is extremely difficult and imprecise, there are certain characteristics that make some cults more prone to violence. Law enforcement officials should be aware of the following factors:

  • Sequestered Groups: Members of sequestered groups lose access to the outside world and information preventing critical evaluation of the ideas being espoused by the leader.
  • Leader's History: The fantasies, dreams, plans, and ideas of the leader are most likely to become the beliefs of the followers because of the totalitarian and authoritarian nature of cults.
  • Psychopaths: Control of a group by charismatic psychopaths or those with narcissistic character disorders.
  • Changes in the Leader: Changes in a leader's personality caused by traumatic events such as death of a spouse or sickness.
  • Language of the Ideology: Groups that are violent use language in their ideology that contains the seeds of violence.
  • Implied Directive for Violence: Most frequently, a leader's speeches, rhetoric, and language does not explicitly call for violence, rather it is most often only implied.
  • Length of Time: The longer the leader's behavior has gone unchecked against outside authority, the less vulnerable the leader feels.
  • Who Is in the Inner Circle: Cults with violent tendencies often recruit people who are either familiar with weapons or who have military backgrounds to serve as enforcers.

Apocalyptic cults see their mission in two general ways: They either want to accelerate the end of time or take action to ensure that they survive the millennium. For example, Aum Shinrikyo wanted to take action to hasten the end of the world, while compounds in general are built to survive the endtime safely. An analysis of millennial cults by the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit describes how rhetoric changes depending on whether the leader's ideology envisions the group as playing an active role in the coming Apocalypse or a passive survivalist role:

A cult that predicts that "God will punish" or "evil will be punished" indicates a more passive and less threatening posture than the cult that predicts that "God's chosen people will punish . . ." As another example, the members of a passive group might predict that God or another being will one day liberate their souls from their bodies or come to carry them away. The followers of a more action-oriented group would, in contrast, predict that they themselves will one day shed their mortal bodies or transport themselves to another place.  (39) 

A cult that displays these characteristics may then produce three social-psychological components, referred to as the "Lethal Triad," that predispose a cult towards violence aimed at its members and/or outsiders.  (40)  Cults in which members are heavily dependent on the leader for all decision making almost always physically and psychologically isolate their members from outsiders, the first component of the triad.  (41)  The other two components interact in the following way:

"... isolation causes a reduction of critical thinking on the part of group members who become entrenched in the belief proposed by the group leadership. As a result, group members relinquish all responsibility for group decision making to their leader and blame the cause of all group grievances on some outside entity or force, a process known as projection. Finally, isolation and projection combine to produce pathological anger, the final component of the triad."  (42) 

Of the nearly 1000 cults operating in the United States, very few present credible threats for millennial violence. Law enforcement officials should concentrate on those cults that advocate force or violence to achieve their goals concerning the endtime, as well as those cults which possess a substantial number of the distinguishing traits listed above.  (43)  In particular, cults of greatest concern to law enforcement are those that: (1) believe they play a special, elite role in the endtime; (2) believe violent offensive action is needed to fulfill their endtime prophecy; (3) take steps to attain their beliefs. Those factors may culminate in plans to initiate conflict with outsiders or law enforcement.

The violent tendencies of dangerous cults can be classified into two general categories-- defensive violence and offensive violence. Defensive violence is utilized by cults to defend a compound or enclave that was created specifically to eliminate most contact with the dominant culture.  (44)  The 1993 clash in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian complex is an illustration of such defensive violence. History has shown that groups that seek to withdraw from the dominant culture seldom act on their beliefs that the endtime has come unless provoked.  (45) 

Cults with an apocalyptic agenda, particularly those that appear ready to initiate rather than anticipate violent confrontations to bring about Armageddon or fulfill "prophesy" present unique challenges to law enforcement officials. One example of this type of group is the Concerned Christians (CC). Monte Kim Miller, the CC leader, claims to be one of the two witnesses or prophets described in the Book of Revelation who will die on the streets of Jerusalem prior to the second coming of Christ. To attain that result, members of the CC traveled to Israel in 1998 in the belief that Miller will be killed in a violent confrontation in the streets of Jerusalem in December 1999. CC members believe that Miller's death will set off an apocalyptic end to the millennium, at which time all of Miller's followers will be sent to Heaven. Miller has convinced his followers that America is "Babylon the Great" referred to in the Book of Revelation. In early October 1998, CC members suddenly vanished from the United States, an apparent response to one of Miller's "prophesies" that Denver would be destroyed on October 10, 1998. In January 1999, fourteen members of the group who had moved to Jerusalem were deported by the Israeli government on the grounds that they were preparing to hasten the fulfillment of Miller's prophecies by instigating violence.  (46) 

Ascertaining the intentions of such cults is a daunting endeavor, particularly since the agenda or plan of a cult is often at the whim of its leader. Law enforcement personnel should become well acquainted with the previously mentioned indicators of potential cult violence in order to separate the violent from the non-violent.

- Footnotes -
  1. Frederick C. Mish, ed., Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10 th Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1997), p. 282. (back)
  2. Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995), p. 7. (back)
  3. Singer and Lalich, p. 7. (back)
  4. Singer and Lalich, pp.8-9. (back)
  5. Carl J. Jensen, III, Rod Gregg and Adam Szubin, "When a Cult Comes to Town," accessed from Law Enforcement Online. (back)
  6. Kevin M. Gilmartin, "The Lethal Triad: Understanding the Nature of Isolated Extremist Groups," accessed at www.leo.gov/tlib/leb/1996/sept961/txt. (back)
  7. Carl J. Jensen, III and Yvonne Hsieh, L"aw Enforcement and the Millennialist Vision: A Behavioral Approach," accessed from Law Enforcement Online. (back)
  8. Ibid. (back)
  9. B.A. Robinson in "Factors Commonly Found in Doomsday Cults," (www.religioustolerance.org/cultsign.htm.) identifies traits that provide a framework for analyzing cults. They include the following: (1) The leader preaches end of the world/Armageddon in 2000 or within a reasonable time frame before and after 2000; (2) the cult expects to play a major, elite role at the end time; (3) the cult has large numbers of firearms, explosives or weapons of mass destruction; (4) the cult has prepared defensive structures; (5) the cult speaks of offensive action; (4) the cult is led by a single male charismatic leader; (5) the leader dominates the membership through physical, sexual and emotional control; (6) the cult is not an established denomination; (7) cult members live together in a community isolated from society; (8) extreme paranoia exists within the cult concerning monitoring by outsiders and government persecution; (9) and outsiders are distrusted, and disliked. These factors are designed to leave out cults that have unique end-time beliefs, but whose ideology does not include the advocacy of force or violence. [Note: numbering in FBI original] (back)
  10. Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America, p.57. (back)
  11. Ibid., p.165. (back)
  12. Lisa Beyer, "Target: Jerusalem," Time Magazine, January 18, 1999. (back)

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