Throughout history, religion has been a tool for the unscrupulous. There are those who use faith as a lever to gain power and manipulate the masses into anything from giving up their life savings to committing suicide. In the following, we will explore a few examples of misuse of the desire to believe and those who capitalize upon it.
Perhaps the most well known example is Joan of Arc. Known as the Maiden of Orleans, she was born in 1412 to a farmer. She tended her father’s sheep, learning housekeeping and the groundwork of her faith from her mother. At 12, Joan began to hear “voices.” She identified them as Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret. She believed God had sent them to her, and that “her divine mission [was] to free [France] from the English and [help] the Dauphin gain the throne.”
In 1429, the English controlled France from Paris north along the Loire. French resistance was minimal. There was no leader, nor much hope. King Henry VI was claiming the French throne. Joan convinced the Dauphin’s captain, and the Dauphin of her mission. After an examination by a board of theologians, she was made a Captain and given men to command. In May of 1429, she led her men to a “miraculous” victory at the Battle of Orleans. Fear of her battalion was so deep, that when she faced Lord Talbot of Patay, ” most of the English troopsÃ¢Â?Â¦Commander Sir John Fastolife fled…” Talbot was captured with 100 noblemen and lost 1800 men.
Charles VII was crowned King on July 17, 1429. Joan was given a position of honor at his side. She was later ennobled for services to her country.
However, Joan was not finished with her divine orders. While defending Campiegne in 1430, she was captured and sold to the English. They passed her to the ecclesiastical church at Rouen. She was tried for heresy and witchcraft. Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Bauvais, a pro-English clergyman, cited Joan’s insistence on wearing men’s clothing as a “crime against God.” Joan’s voices had not told her to comply, and garb proved to be protection against sexual abuse by her jailors. Joan’s refusal of feminine dress was considered defiance. She was convicted and burned at the stake in the Marketplace on May 30,1431.
There was no attempt from Charles VII to rescue the maiden who had placed him upon his throne. We find this matter disturbing, in that throughout her life, Joan sought to serve her people, her god, and her king. Justice was served, posthumously, in 1456, when a second trial found her innocent of all charges. In 1909, she was beatified and canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.
In the 20th century, abuse of religious power has become the cornerstone of a number of cult leaders. Take for example, the Massacre at Jonestown in 1978. Jim Jones, described as “charismatic and mad,” founded the People’s Temple in San Francisco, CA, where he gathered over 1,000 followers. In 1974, he moved his flock to the jungles of Guyana, South America. Before his hold could be broken, a U. S. Congressman, three reporters and 20 defectors were dead. The few who managed to escape told horror stories, and fail to explain how Jones managed to coerce others to accept his cocktail of Kool-Aid and cyanide. Those who refused were force-fed, while Jones was found with a bullet to the head.
Another disturbing example of cult leaders taking flocks to a morbid end is David Koresh and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. Born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959, he changed his name to David Koresh in 1990. The son of a teenaged mother, Koresh was raised by his grandparents, and described his childhood as “lonely.” He was dyslexic, a bad student and a high school dropout. He did posses some musical ability, and a strong Bible interest.
At age 20 he joined the Church of Latter Day Saints, but was expelled for being a “bad influence on the young people.” Koresh went to California to pursue a career in music, which never got off the ground. In 1981, he returned to Texas and joined the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel. Koresh had an affair with “prophetess” Lois Roden, who led the Davidians and was in her late 60s. On a trip to Israel together, Roden died, whereupon a power struggle ensued. Koresh and Roden’s son, George vied for control. Koresh retreated to eastern Texas, but returned in 1987. He brought seven men armed to the teeth with assault rifles, automatic weapons and at least 400 rounds of ammunition. Roden was shot in the chest and hands, and Koresh and the seven were tried for attempted murder. The seven were acquitted but Koresh received a mistrial. He stated they had gone to Mount Carmel to find proof of “corpse abuse” by Roden, and had been aiming for a tree.
By 1990, Koresh took control of the Davidians, believing himself “[the] biblical head of the House of David.” Koresh was seen as a prophet and a teacher. He used his knowledge of the Bible to declare himself the rightful husband of every woman in his group, including those already married, 140 in all. Koresh took 80 of his followers, including 23 children under age 17 (14 of which he fathered) to the grave. There are survivors that “consider David God-incarnate” and still await his resurrection.
How are reasonable, rational people led down such a path? One who has never known a yearning that deep cannot fathom the mindset it takes to fall under the spell of cult leaders. The Bible has become a weapon of the manipulator. Congregations are taught to be sheep. Fear of retribution drives the cowed flock to obey every order given. They become targets of those who would garner favor in earthly ways. On the other side are those like Joan d’Arc, burned by a powerful leader of the church, who used his position to mete out justice in the name of political views. In all cases, this writer finds the use of faith as a lever distasteful. Without teachings in the home and study, anyone may become victim to such abuse. Knowing where to turn can be the first step to being spared the anguish suffered by those mentioned.