There’s a Simpsons episode in which Lisa conducts a science experiment in a petri dish. Somehow she spawns a civilisation that rises, flourishes and declines right before her eyes.
Watching Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary about the Rajneeshees/Orange People is like watching that petri dish.
We see the rise, flourishing, decay and decline of a movement that began with the celebration of life and ends with plots to murder.
And in that it’s helpful for Christians in the West today. There are similarities to the way in which we are either in danger of, or have been complicit in their mistakes. Here are five things we can learn from the experience of the Rajneeshees.
1. Turn The Other Cheek
The decline hinges on Sheela’s statement that while Buddha and Jesus may turn the other cheek, she never would. To cross Sheela would usher in vengeance.
Before you can say “Sannyasin” the compound is full of automatic weapons and firearms training. That in turn leads people to attempted murder, including this tearful admission from Jane Stork who attempted to kill one of Sheela’s enemies with a poison-filled syringe:
“Deep inside of me I was shattered. I had grown up clearing understanding that ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and now I had tried to kill somebody. What had happened?”
At every turn when the other cheek could have been turned, it wasn’t. It didn’t begin with murderous intent, just a desire to get even with perceived enemies; locals who didn’t want the religious compound in their area, government officials trying to shut them down, media who challenged them, enemies within the camp. Before you know it – murder.
Jesus’ command is counter-intuitive at every level. Like Sheela it’s tempting to take the easy and immediate path to vindication. But look where it leads. Every time. In these Twitter and Instagram times it’s so easy to refuse Jesus’ command, but little by little, disobeying it will lead to greater disobedience in this area.
2. The Enemy Resides Within The Camp
What’s most striking about the movement is that the supreme conflict occurs within. The true enemy is within the camp. At no point does anyone in the movement take sin seriously. It was about indulging the flesh, not putting it to death.
No surprise then when the flesh rears up within the camp and destroys it. They were ripe for it.
So we have wire-tapping, drugging, cliques, violence, suppression of any news about bad behaviour. All going on within the camp.
Let’s learn from that. Especially in these hardening secular times. The true enemy is not the world out there, much as it might rail against us. It is the deceitfulness of sin within us – individually and corporately. Have a watch of the series, then watch the movie The Village, if you haven’t already.
And after that go and read the story of Israel in the desert, then the story of Israel in the Promised Land.
3. Money and Power are Intoxicating
It’s astonishing watching Baby Boomers who were once so sick of all the money and power of the Western world, and how it didn’t satisfy, find themselves so intoxicated by both. People who had fled the materialist West to a commune in the spiritual East, find themselves back in the West, intoxicated by the very things they fled.
The movement took over the local town near their commune city, took hold of the institutions in the town, and then generated enough income to ensure that they could maintain control of it, before pushing ahead with plans to take over the county.
How has the church fared over the past two thousand years when power and money come its way? How have you fared? The Bible is so clear about the lure of wealth and the false promise of power.
Do we truly think that the solution to the church’s woes in the West is more finances to carry out our wishes and a better seat at the cultural table?
4. The Cult of Celebrity
Watching the celebrations of the Sannyasins when the Bhagwan arrived on stage was like watching Woodstock. And in a way it was the same. Same Boomer crowd. Same adulation towards the stage. Same hanging on the words of the rock god/poet. Same ecstatic emotional response of tears and hyper-ventilating that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones had drawn from pretty much the same crowd ten or fifteen years previously.
We’re suckers for celebrity. We can’t help ourselves. And all too often church is no different at its worst. But it’s not always obvious. Just as it was not always obvious in the Oregon commune.
Celebrity-worship can be loud and proud. Or it can be quiet and seemingly humble. It can be a sycophantic craving to be liked by the Christian leader, the Christian cultural influencer, the Christian who has kudos in the wider culture. It’s about how to gain access, say the right thing, never say the wrong thing.
Whether that celebrity is a clean-skin, or rotten underneath is not the issue. The issue is about our craven desire for someone impressive to be just that little bit impressed by us. For us to have “access” to them and their affections, thoughts and goodwill.
5. It’s Easy to Justify Using People
The Rajneeshees went out to the highways and byways of the USA and brought in the homeless, the downtrodden and the psychologically broken, and fed them, clothed them, loved them, and declared that they were truly human and had had dignity.
It was beautiful and heart-warming and a challenge to the established church and its failures in this area. For a while at least.
Their true aim was to sign up thousands of people to be citizens of the local area so that they could vote in the upcoming elections and swing the county in the Rajneeshee’s favour.
When that failed, the compound was left with thousands of broken, angry, listless (mainly) men, who were often homeless for some reason other than merely not having a home.
The love soon turned to despising. It soon turned to drugging their drinks to keep them sedated. It soon turned to dumping those homeless people by force in neighbour towns and villages.
We tut-tut at that, but there’s a sophisticated version of that in which people become a means to an end for our own empire, our own importance, our own church’s place on the map. Our own place on the timeline of church history. And it’s so easy to justify.
Church history is littered with the body count of those Christians who were simply a means to an end for a man or a movement to make their mark. There’s a #metoo movement coming for the spiritually abused one day, I can feel it.
6. Jesus Truly Is Astonishing
What this petri-dish experience ultimately reveals is just how astonishing Jesus is. Compared to Jesus, the Bhagwan is a fool, and a tool for others to use.
Witness his behaviour when Sheela ultimately betrays him. He breaks his three years of private silence, and calls her all the names of the day, including “that bitch”. He can barely contain his rage.
What a contrast to Jesus. Three years of public speaking is followed by silence when he is betrayed by one of the men closest to him. Exactly at the time when he could vindicate himself, he chooses to say nothing. As Peter reminds us:
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
What a lesson for the church. What a lesson for the church when the world is hurling insults at us, or is twisting our theology, or our practice and making it mean something we don’t mean by it.
We have the practice of the suffering Jesus who did not retaliate. We have the power of the risen Jesus to enable us not to retaliate. We have the promise of the returning Jesus that we do not need to retaliate.
Jesus truly is astonishing. He can truly usher in the promise of “a new man” in way that the Bhagwan could not, for the Bhagwan simply proved, under pressure, that he was merely another expression of the “old man”.
So that’s five things. There are plenty more, and one thing I will write about soon is the manner in which the church could see itself as a creative minority like the Rajneeshees did, but avoid the mistakes they made in trying to gain a foothold in the cultural landscape.
Oh and to conclude, and the series has an astonishing soundtrack, which includes gems such as this, by the recently rediscovered Bill Fay. If you haven’t listened to him before, or if you haven’t even heard of him, go to Spotify right now!