What does the homicides and suicides tell us about which among thousands of pacific new religious and esoteric movements may turn violent?
by Massimo Introvigne
In the latest article, we insisted that external as well as internal factors contribute to explain the tragedy of the Order of the Solar Temple (OTS). One was the members’ persuasion that the world was approaching its fiery end, and the only way of escaping apocalyptic tragedies was a “transit” to another planet to be accomplished through suicide, for the stronger members, and homicide, for the weaker.
While a similar logic was at work in another mass suicide of an esoteric movement, Heaven’s Gate, it would be of course wrong to believe that all groups announcing dates for the end of the world become violent or suicidal. History and observation of new religious movements illustrate that such a conclusion would not make sense. Thousands of date-setting movements quietly await the end of the world without resorting to violence.
However, unlike the OTS and Heaven’s Gate (or the Peoples Temple at Jonestown), most of these groups do not produce narratives in which suicide can be interpreted as something else. The OTS documents collectively known as the Testament, which Swiss historian Jean-François Mayer has studied in great detail, claimed that what the OTS was about to do was not suicide, but something radically different. The OTS members, as explained in three videos they wanted to be preserved after the 1994 tragedy, believed that through the force of the Blue Star (connected to Sirius) they would be able to reach Jupiter, where they could eventually become Secret Masters themselves.
A very similar ideology (although with a different background) was present in Heaven’s Gate. The members of Heaven’s Gate who committed suicide near San Diego in March 1997 (probably the same night, between March 22 and 23, when the third suicide of the OTS occurred in Quebec) were persuaded to leave the Earth simply to reach the interplanetary Kingdom of Heaven.
Certainly, in the cosmic vision of the OTS or of Heaven’s Gate it made more sense to become a Master on Jupiter or a god on the planet called Kingdom of Heaven than to remain on planet Earth about to be destroyed.
Such narratives are by no means impossible (as proved by the mass homicides and suicides of a fringe Catholic group, the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, in 2000 in Uganda), but much more difficult to produce in a contemporary Christian context, where there is a strong taboo concerning self-inflicted death.
Other factors may have played a role, including a possible copycat effect connecting one “cult suicide” sensationalized in the media to another. Mayer mentions a disturbing tape found by the Swiss police in Granges-sur-Salvan, on which Jouret and Di Mambro discuss their plans in spring 1994. Jouret complained that “we have been anticipated by Waco,” referring to the death of 82 members of the Branch Davidians movement after a confrontation with federal agents and the resulting catastrophic fire in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Di Mambro replied that in fact “it would have been preferable to leave six months before them.” But, at any rate, “what we will do will be more spectacular.”
The media had become so important, that “making headlines” was the only way for a suicidal movement to find a confirmation that, far from being marginal, it had an important role to play in this world. In a similar vein, Heaven’s Gate mentioned the OTS and the Branch Davidians in a web posting of September 20, 1996.
The most astute scholarly speculations notwithstanding, we will never know whether the OTS members would have committed their suicides and homicides without what they perceived as their systematic persecution. The external factors did play a crucial role according to American scholars Hall and Schuyler, while Mayer regards the factors internal to the group as primary.
A comparison with Heaven’s Gate—which, in one of its “exit videos” described as “persecution” the “mixture of ridicule and hostility” experienced when the group started posting its apocalyptic messages on the internet—seems to confirm that, when internal factors are sufficiently strong, even moderate external opposition is easily translated into a narrative of cosmic persecution. On the other hand, the opposition experienced by the OTS—while not as obviously harsh as that directed against the Branch Davidians—was not exactly moderate. An international police action might have been perceived as more serious than a number of jokes posted on the internet.
Cult-watching groups like Info-Secte in Quebec (in fact, one of the most moderates groups of this kind internationally) were right when they alerted the authorities about possible violent developments in the Solar Temple, although they did not suspect mass suicides and homicides. Other anti-cult organizations shamelessly manipulated the tragedies to add the “preparation of mass suicides” to their laundry list of accusations against the groups they label as “cults.”
In Russia, the notorious anti-cultist Alexander Dvorkin falsely accused a good dozen of new religious movements of “preparing a mass suicide.” Similar accusations were directed at the Jehovah’s Witnesses and La Luz del Mundo, organizations not only firmly opposed to suicide for theological reasons but with millions of members, which would make secretly planned generalized suicides a little bit difficult to organize.
Perhaps the lesson to derive from the tragedies is not only that the OTS was not a “typical cult,” but that the “typical cult” is a fictional construction that does not exist in reality. “Cult” stereotypes do not help in predicting which, among tens of thousands of religious movements, would likely engage in violent or criminal acts.