We live in a world of great complexity. Simplistic solutions rarely bear much fruit in this modern world of incredible technology and vastly complicated human engineering. Yet some' times great institutions allow themselves to indulge in cut-rate remedies to solve infinitely complex and deep-rooted problems. Especially is this so when a quick face-saver is urgently needed to smooth over a major embarrassment.
One of the greatest states in the Union found itself flushed with embarrassment over the untimely death of 900 of its citizens in the nation of Guyana. Worldwide attention was now acutely riveted on the ecclesiastical affairs of the state of California, famous for its fanatical religions.
A very few radical religious sects had clearly gotten out of hand. The media were filled with titles such as: "Behind the Cult Craze"; "The Bizarre Tragedy in Guyana"; and "Why Cults Turn to Violence." Editors of major newsweeklies called for a tight rein on lunatic cult leaders. Some few were even hinting at a cutback of religious liberty. The heat had been turned up.
California was then enjoying a soaring employment rate, renewed population growth and a big boom in construction. Moreover, Californians considered their "golden state of mind" one of their matchless assets. With the tragedy of Guyana, this golden image was suddenly and hopelessly tarnished. Public outcry for quick, concerted action pressured the government into the proverbial trap of opening Pandora's box.
The easy, on-the-shelf solution is always readily available for those gullible enough to reach over and dust it off. The convenient coincidence nearly always presents itself in these situations. It just so happened that at the time six dissident members were seeking ways to overthrow the leadership of the Worldwide Church of God. They took their supposed grievances to one of the California assistant attorneys general. The state leaped at the unforeseen opportunity. The time was just too ripe and the temptation too great. This was one game they couldn't lose.
In due course a lawsuit was filed. The complaint against the Church called for, among other things, the removal of the existing directors of the Church and the appointment of a temporary receiver. Then, on January 3, 1979, the receiver showed up on Church premises with attorneys for the relators, security forces, and representatives of the attorney general's office. Next, without any prior notice, he commenced his attempt to seize the operations of the Church. The rest you probably have already read in your local newspaper.
Forgotten in this almost involuntary spasm of retributive action following in the wake of the Guyana tragedy was the First Amendment to the Constitution, the age-old principle of separation of church and state, the overall unconstitutionality or any such action, and the uncalled-for governmental entanglements into everyday ecclesiastical affairs. A state government just cannot walk in and take over a church without a determined reaction from not only the accused church itself, but also the whole of the American world of religion.
The fight is currently progressing, and religious freedom will win out in the end no matter how many unscheduled rounds are needed to end the bout.
But for the purposes of this monthly column, let's look at the whole episode from a very detached, philosophical point of view. Forget, for the moment, the enormous damage the Church has already sustained. Indeed, history will eventually forget even this headline-grabbing breach of religious liberty. In the long term, the important thing is the lesson to be learned and the character growth to be instilled in the lives of the participants.
Let's widen our perspective just a little. The ancient admonition that fools rush in where angels fear to tread has probably been repeated time and time again for many centuries. That's because it's fundamentally true-being based on a sound biblical principle. The proverb says: "A prudent man sees danger and hides himself; but the simple go on, and suffer for it" (Prov. 22:3, RSV).
Am I suggesting that any particular individuals or groups employed by the California state government are fools and simpletons? Emphatically not! No one can even casually read through the book of Proverbs and find himself completely unassailed. The specific stated purpose of these aphorisms of antiquity is to make men "know wisdom and instruction ... in wise dealing... that prudence may be given to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth" and even that "the wise man also may hear and increase in learning" (Prov. 1:3-5, RSV).
These biblical lessons were not lost on Abraham Lincoln. Churchill so aptly described his wise and positive reactions to the enormous pressures of the Civil War. Sir Winston stated: "Through his [Lincoln's] office flowed a stream of politicians, newspaper editors, and other men of influence. Most of them clamoured for quick victory with no conception of the hazards of war.... At the same time his spirit was sustained by a deepening belief in Providence. When the toll of war rose steeply and plans went wrong he appealed for strength in his inmost thoughts to a power higher than man's. Strength was certainly given him. It is sometimes necessary at the summit of authority to bear with the intrigues of disloyal colleagues, to remain calm when others panic, and to withstand misguided popular outcries. All this Lincoln did" (The Great Democracies, pp. 214-215).
This is not to deny the reality of a fragile tension between discipline and impulse. As Churchill wrote in another context: "We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull's-eye of disaster" (The Gathering Storm, p. 18). This was certainly true of Western inaction in the face of the Nazi threat in the thirties. The key is knowing when to act quickly and when to heed the counsels of restraint. This takes wisdom!
Is there any real relationship or meaningful similarity between the People's Temple and the Worldwide Church of God? This question should have been asked — and the right answer should have come forth. The Jones cult was liberally laced with unscriptural principles. The very fabric of the organization was shot through with both beliefs and practices in diametric contradiction to the Bible. For instance, suicide — whether mass or otherwise — is a basic sin, a fundamental violation of the sixth commandment.
On the other hand, Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong has repeatedly said both in print and on the air: "Don't believe me. Rather believe what you read in your own Bible." Prospective Church members are continually urged to follow the example of the Bereans in New Testament times. Luke recorded it for posterity. "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11, RSV).
Would that we could all learn to heed the counsels of restraint when precipitate action will only lead us over the edge of the cliff.