By David Karchere
Wikipedia defines the word cult this way:
The word cult pejoratively refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange. The word originally denoted a system of ritual practices. The narrower, derogatory sense of the word is a product of the 20th century, especially since the 1980s, and is considered subjective. It is also a result of the anti-cult movement which uses the word in reference to groups seen as authoritarian, exploitative and that are believed to use dangerous rituals or mind control. The word implies a group which is a minority in a given society.
The popular, derogatory sense of the word has no currency in academic studies of religions, where “cults” are subsumed under the neutral label of the “new religious movement,” while academic sociology has partly adopted the popular meaning of the word.
I believe that any culture has the potential to exhibit the worst qualities of a cult by this definition. The spiritual groups I know about certainly have the potential to be a cult, and that includes Emissaries of Divine Light. But Emissaries of Divine Light is not, in any way, unique in this regard. All spiritual and religious groups, large and small, and indeed all cultures, can display the worst qualities of a cult. It is easy to point to the worst offenders–Nazi Germany, Charles Manson, and Jonestown come easily to mind. Most people are unaware of any cultic tendencies in the culture in which they, themselves, live. They are like a fish in water–they hardly notice they are getting wet.
I believe that the critical factor in whether a person has a cultic experience in Emissaries of Divine Light, or anywhere else, depends on the consciousness and the function of the people involved in the culture, most particularly the person themselves. All adults in any culture have responsibility for avoiding cultic behavior–for thinking clearly and acting with integrity. As a leader, I believe that elders have a special responsibility for the culture in which they live. Using the word elder, I am not just speaking about seniors. I am referring to people who are in a relative position of greater knowledge, power or age.
It is easy to think of a cult as something that happens to someone. If we are talking about children, I agree with that view. If we are talking about adults who are participating together by choice, then I believe it is far more creative and empowering to view cultic behavior as something that people have decided to accept and act out. This doesn’t mean that elders don’t have the special responsibility I spoke of. It just means that it is a healthy, empowered view of one’s own life and the life of others to believe that we all are “at choice” in our life all the time. With rare exceptions, no one is really making us do what we do. The German people who participated in the Nazi regime were responsible for the choice they made. So was the Manson family, and so were the participants in Jonestown. This, in no way, justifies the horror the leaders in these circumstances perpetrated on their cultures and on others. The point is that the antidote to cultic behavior is taking personal responsibility for one’s own thought, action and experience, whatever one’s role may be in the culture.
In my life, I have witnessed, firsthand, cultic behavior in many contexts. While on business in Japan, I saw office workers in Tokyo who regularly worked until 7:30 p.m., then had dinner in the corporate cafeteria and continued work until 9 p.m. or later. They were back at work at 9 a.m. the next day. When I asked about it, I was told that if a Japanese man came home at dinnertime, his wife, and anyone else in the apartment building who saw him, would wonder if he was really valued by his company. In the United States, I knew a man who worked regularly until at least 9p.m., and then drove home on the crooked rural roads of Connecticut, completing work in his lap as he went. This was an intelligent man who, I believe, was subject to exploitative, authoritarian, mind-controlling culture.
I haven’t participated in the military, or in an organized religion in which the leadership repeatedly perpetrated sexual abuse upon children. But from what I know, there are cultic behaviors taking place in both the military and organized religions of the world.
I have participated in Emissaries of Divine Light since 1970, when I was seventeen years old. I have the greatest appreciation for what I have come to know and experience through this program. That is why I serve as a leader of Emissaries of Divine Light today. I am repaying a debt of gratitude that I feel for what I have received, and I am doing what I can to offer a similar opportunity to others.
Nonetheless, I believe there has been cultic behavior in the context of Emissaries of Divine Light. I have seen some leaders who took advantage of, and disempowered, followers. And I have seen some followers who were eager to give responsibility for their life to someone else. I’ve come to understand that people are people wherever you go, including in this program. And still, as far as I am concerned, I have not heard a more empowering, inspiring teaching in all the world. I haven’t met leaders who are more worthy of listening to and learning from.
For many years I wasn’t a leader for Emissaries of Divine Light. As my experience grew, I took on greater and greater responsibility. In 1988, Martin Exeter, who had led the Emissaries since 1954, died. His son, Michael Cecil, led the Emissaries until 1995, and then stopped participating. It was in that time period that I assumed responsibility for the leadership of the Emissaries with a group of Trustees. I became the focus of leadership for the Emissaries in 2004.
For anyone assuming new leadership responsibility, there is a steep learning curve. For me, that was particularly so. Martin Exeter had been a strong, visionary leader who was more than three times my age when I first met him. There was a major paradigm shift under way for the organization and the people who had been associated with it when he died. There had been widespread cultural experimentation, including twelve intentional communities, and extraordinary levels of commitment to the purpose of the organization, which is to bring the spiritual regeneration of humanity. There had also been a remarkable level of shared love and empowerment that flowed through the Emissary network. Along with this, there was sexual experimentation. What I know now is that for many, especially women, this was seen, in hindsight, as unfair and abusive.
Another factor in the experience of Emissaries of Divine Light is that in its early days we had very little money. Sunrise Ranch, where I live, was initiated in 1945, and in the early days here there was virtually no pay for the people who pioneered this place. I am incredibly proud of those pioneers for what they offered to initiate this project, and for the sacrifice they made. As time went on, there were meager stipends that were offered to residents here that gradually increased over time. There was also a lot of physical work to do at Sunrise Ranch and in the other intentional communities of the Emissaries. It was hard work for little pay, though food, housing and healthcare were provided. I should add that, in most cases, the leaders worked as hard as anyone; and while there was a level of care and service to them offered by the communities, the leaders too received little compensation for their work.
But people flocked to participate in the Emissaries anyway, and they were eager to live in our intentional communities. Many who wanted to live in our communities were turned away because we were at maximum capacity. As far as I know, the organization was very straightforward with people about what they would be offered and about the work that would be expected of them. Nonetheless, there was eagerness to participate in the spiritual work that was being undertaken.
With the paradigm shift that came with Martin Exeter’s passing, the culture as it had been came unraveled. Michael Cecil’s departure accelerated that process. We who assumed leadership were left to care for the people and the culture, and to reinitiate the work of the Emissaries based in a new paradigm, based on universal spiritual principles.
Part of our work was to create ethics guidelines and trainings. We are creating a culture in which people take responsibility for their experience, and where leaders are held responsible for the influence they have on the people they lead. We have become more keenly aware of dual relationships–particularly relationships in which a person has a role as an elder or leader, as well as a friend. In the helping professions, there is often strict oversight in this area. Psychotherapists are generally not allowed to date their patients.
Dual relationships are inevitable in a small community, where people play many different roles. But conscious management of situations in which a person is functioning both in an elder capacity and as a friend really helps.
Is there a risk that people, today, will walk away from Emissaries of Divine Light, calling it a cult? Is it possible they would be filled with anger and regret as they did so? I think so. At Sunrise Ranch we pay more in salaries than we used to, but we still don’t pay much. And people are still people wherever you go. Residents of Sunrise Ranch are inspired and committed, but I know that when people leave a place like this, they can have a different view of their experience in retrospect. Have you ever spoken to someone who has recently been divorced? Sometimes they have gratitude to express regarding the other person. But often, there is acrimony, even if the marriage had been creative for a time. And I do believe that there are people who have malicious intentions regarding this organization because of unhealed places in their own hearts. Forgiveness, shared mutually by all involved, is the ultimate medicine for that experience.
It is also true that there are inherent risks in exploring new levels of consciousness, and creating new culture. This work is not for everyone, and individuals have to make their own decisions as to what they are up for in their lives. What I and gathering numbers of people around the world are finding is that the risk of living a life that is defined by a commercially oriented world culture is worse than the risk of being a spiritual pioneer. While I have no issue with commerce, I want to accept the clear, undiluted message of the greatest spiritual leaders that have walked the earth, and embrace a spirituality that answers the most urgent issues of our age.
What I’ve learned through all this is that the function of elders, and the relationship to elders, is the most critical factor in the health of any culture. In a healthy culture, the function of elders invites others to come into their own eldership. In a dysfunctional, unsustainable culture, the function of elders tends to keep others where they are.
The key functions that elders perform in a culture are teaching, directing and relating. In a healthy culture, the teaching of elders brings wisdom and the ability to teach. In an unsustainable culture, teachers teach, and others remain ignorant or perpetual students.
In a healthy culture, the direction given by elders empowers others and leads to their self-direction and the ability to offer direction to others. In an unsustainable culture, the direction of elders empowers only themselves.
In a healthy culture, the way elders relate brings love and inspires others to love. In an unsustainable culture, the way that elders relate leaves others cold, or dependent on the elders for love and approval. Or, in the worse cases, the elders steal love from others for themselves.
I believe that the functions of teaching, directing and relating are the responsibility of elders, and the responsibility of all the adults in the culture. And while elders have responsibility in the matter, I believe that everyone is responsible for their own learning, their own self-direction and their own loving.
I also believe that every culture must have elder function. And the lack of elder function is the death of a culture. The familiar, prevailing Western culture certainly has its elders–politicians, corporate leaders, religious leaders, and many more. If there is to be a new paradigm for humanity, there must be elders who lead that shift.
Personally, the resolution for me around all these factors–what lets me sleep at night–is the acceptance that I am responsible for my experience and my actions, and that the same is true for everyone else. For me, that means that I have responsibility now for my function as a leader, in the culture of Emissaries of Divine Light and with anyone else who is interested in what I have to share. I also have the responsibility to do my utmost to see that the elders around me act with integrity.
For anyone interested in knowing more about Emissaries of Divine Light, I encourage you to write () or call (970.480.7792). Or feel free to contact any of the other Emissary Trustees.