Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Quasi-Cult Behind "The Path To 9/11"

The story behind how “The Path to 9/11” (PT911) came to be made is still quite murky, so the degree of influence various individuals and entities had is very much up in the air. Nonetheless, it is certain that director David Cunningham had a lot of power—after all, directors usually do, and the producer’s own statements indicate he took a rather hands-off approach.

So who is the director, and what are the influences on him? This is surely a complicated investigative question for anyone with so little previous public record. But we do know this much:
    (1) He’s the son of Loren Cunningham, the founder of a very big missionary organization, Youth With A Mission (YWAM),
    (2) He founded an auxiliary of YWAM, The Film Institute (TFI) with the goal of producing a “Godly transformation and revolution TO and THROUGH the Film and Television industry.”
    (3) PT911 is TFI’s “first project.”
Therefore, whatever other influences are involved in the production of PT911, the role of YWAM has to be considered as an important contributor. It’s all too easy for those left of center to refer to the “religious right” as a sort of short-hand, but this is often politically foolish when we are dealing with specific groups or individuals whose beliefs and practices are strikingly at odds with what the majority of Christians believe—or sometimes even with what the majority of rightwing Christians believe.

For example, journalist Robert Parry, who broke the Iran-Contra scandal while working for AP in 1986, has written extensively about the Reverand Sun Yung Moon, in a series, 'Dark Side of Rev. Moon'.

The summary of one of Parry’s story’s “Buying the Right”, reads:
Rev. Sun Myung Moon calls America "Satan's harvest" and vows to subjugate its people under a Korea-based theocracy. Normally, this anti-Americanism would not sit well. But Moon has spread around billions of dollars from mysterious sources to Washington conservatives. The money has helped key allies, such as Jerry Falwell and Oliver North. It's the real Asian money scandal -- and the Washington media is missing it. (8/11/97)
A brief segment of this story reads as follows:
Better than Jesus?

Falwell also might have been shy about disclosing his alliance with Moon because the Korean's theology upsets many Christians. Moon asserts that Satan corrupted mankind by sexually seducing Eve in the Garden of Eden and that only through sexual purification can mankind be saved. In line with that doctrine, Moon says Jesus failed in his mission to save mankind because he did not procreate.

Moon sees himself as a second messiah who will not make the same mistake. He has engaged in sex with a variety of women over the decades. The total number of his offspring is a point of debate inside the Unification Church.

Moon's rhetoric has turned stridently anti-American, another problem for the Religious Right and its strongly patriotic positions. On May 1, 1997, Moon told a group of followers that "the country that represents Satan's harvest is America." [ Unification News, June 1997] In other sermons, he has vowed that his victorious movement will "digest" any American who tries to maintain his or her individuality. He especially has criticized American women who must "negate yourself 100 percent" to be a receptacle for the male seed. [For details of Moon's speeches, see The Consortium, July 28, 1997]
Clearly, when we are dealing with a figure like Moon, it is a mistake to use the label “religious right,” as it helps to paper over the fact that his actual teachings are deeply anathema to vast majority of followers of the religious right—even if their mamon-crazed leaders feel differently.

And so we turn to look at YWAM with the lesson of Moon in mind. I do not wish to equate the two. YWAM is nowhere near the blatantly anti-Christian ideology of Moon and his Unification Church. But neither is it a perfectly normal missionary organization, like the missionary outreach of any long-standing denomination. Founded in 1960 by Loren Cunningham, it claims a staff of thousands in over a hundred countries. Two types of charges against it are significant for our consideration: its theology and its cult-like aspects. Both are potentially significant in terms of potential influence on the nature of PT911.

Evidence of YWAM’s Questionable Theology

In “The False God & Gospel of Moral Government Theology”, E. Calvin Beisner, an author and theologian with Christian Research Institute, and himself a solid member of the religious right, describes Moral Government Theology and its association with YWAM—an association the YWAM denies.

In the summary, Beisener says:
Moral government theology (MGT), rooted in the philosophical definition of freedom as the "power of contrary choice," denies the fundamental Christian doctrines of God's perfection in knowledge, goodness, and power; original sin; human moral inability; the substitutionary satisfaction of God's justice in Christ's atoning death; redemption; and justification by the crediting of Christ's righteousness to believers by grace through faith apart from works. As documented in this article, these denials are unbiblical and are so serious as to warrant classifying MGT as non-Christian.
In the body of the article he explains:
Contemporary moral government theology is principally the brainchild of the late Gordon C. Olson. During the 1930s and 1940s, Olson's studies led him to believe that God's foreknowledge is necessarily limited by human free will and that the classical doctrines of original sin, human depravity and moral inability, the Atonement, and justification were as wrong as the classical doctrine of absolute foreknowledge.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Olson and an engineering associate of his named Harry Conn began to teach moral government theology for various mission organizations, often in recruiting, motivating, or training young people. Moral government theology (hereafter MGT) first began to spread rapidly when Olson and Conn became regular speakers for Youth With A Mission (YWAM), which has since become one of the larger youth missionary organizations in the world. Contrary to YWAM's repeated denials that MGT was an important part of its teaching, it was in YWAM training that tens of thousands of students from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and some even into the 1990s, learned MGT (although today some YWAM leaders speak against MGT).
Clearly, it is not alleged that YWAM still teaches this theory. However, the fact that they once did (even though they now deny it) is evidence that we should not casually lump them in with the rest of the religious right. Some on the religious right clearly accept them, but some obviously do not. So why help them by lumping them all together? It’s best to describe them as they are—which is, at least, as a controversial organization, as we shall see more fully in the next section.

Evidence of YWAM’s Cult-Like Features

Any discussion of churches and cults is bedeviled by the difficulties of subjective judgment, since there is real truth in the claim that “one man’s cult is another man’s religion.” Yet, some examples of religious cults are so clear that no one (except their members, of course!) can deny what they are. YWAM is clearly not one of those. But it does have a record of clearly cult-like activities, and has been investigated as such on several occasions.

The most comprehensive set of writings on it I’ve been able to find online comes from the Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey (RRI), which describes its mission thus:
RRI's mission is to study destructive cults, controversial groups and movements and to provide a broad range of information and services easily accessible to the public for assistance and educational purposes.
RRIs main page on YWAM contains links to its own comprehensive report, as well as testimonies by two former members, a family-member of a YWAM member, an overseas missionary with extensive experience of YWAM, a critical news story from New Zealand, and a positive one from Florida.

The comprehensive report—by Ross himself—begins with a brief description of WYAM, then continues:
During the month of September 1990, I was contacted and subsequently retained by a family in Long Island New York. Their concerns centered upon their adult single daughter's involvement with the organization known as Youth With A Mission (YWAM). She planned to enter a Discipleship Training School (at a cost of $1700.00) operated by YWAM in late September located in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After completing the training program she might then be selected as a staff member (full time missionary) at the salary of $7.00 per week.

The young woman could be placed within the third world. Once placed she would be totally dependent upon YWAM for financial support, food, medical attention and security. She had liquidated all her assets. The family accepted fully their daughter's religious commitment, but felt that they should investigate YWAM. My work on their behalf consisted of gathering information.
The report combines a description of the specifics of the case, including interactions with a high-ranking YWAM official, as well as a digest of material Ross uncovered in his background research. The picture that emerges is definitely disturbing, but deserves to be read in full. However, toward the end of the report, Ross offers an analytical perspective that is worth reproducing in full:
There is an evident pattern to all the complaints about Youth With A Mission. If these statements are accurate, (which they seem to be) YWAM practices the so-called "sheperding" leadership method. Implementing direct control over their members through "discipleship" training. This training appears to employ recognized techniques of thought reform and mind control as listed by Robert J. Lifton in his "eight criteria" (see The Future of Immorality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age, New York, Basics Books, 1987).

This can be seen clearly through a comparison of those eight criteria to the practices employed at YWAM DTS facilities.

* "Milieu control; essentially the control of communication within an environment." This appears to be accomplished at the DTS through the school's relative isolation from the outside world. Also, through rules concerning dating, television, discussion alone with other new members and communication with family. Another example of "milieu control" would be "group leader's" influence during "intercession". Lifton seems to be describing YWAM DTS when he states that "there is often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures and group encounters, which become increasingly intense..."

* "Mystical manipulation; a systematic process that is planned and managed from above (by the leadership) but appears to have arisen spontaneously within the environment." This process seems to occur through "intercession" when one receives a "confirmation" through Bible verses (step 8) or when "God…brings things to your mind" (step 9). Also, when "group leaders" receive a "word from the Lord". The profound influence exercised by leadership during "intercession" probably promulgates these seemingly spontaneous spiritual experiences.

* "The demand for purity; radical separation of pure and impure, of good and evil, within an environment and within oneself." This can be seen through several steps within "intercession" (steps 1,3,4). A YWAM lecturer "reasoned that there are three kinds of thought: yours, Satan's and God's". There is no gray area. Everything is black and white. As Lifton relates the group has a "Manichean quality".

* "The cult of confession; a confession process that has its own structure…accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups." Confession seems to be the most prevalent feature of "intercession". DTS students said "confession emotionally exhausted us". Students who had nothing to confess were told they were "guilty for not confessing anything".

* "Sacred science; a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology." Again, the process of "intercession" seems to be the "sacred science" of YWAM. This technique within the overall structure of "discipleship" can be "the truth" for every person involved. It can be seen as the science by which every student can become "clean: and reach God (steps 1,2,3).

* "Loading of the language; literalization of language-words or images becoming God. A simple slogan to which the most complex and otherwise difficult questions can be reduced. The language of non-thought." Phrases such as "openness and brokeness, causing disunity, being rebellious, give up your rights, with the appointing comes the anointing and don't say it, pray it are just a few examples of the "thought terminating cliches" reportedly used within YWAM. These slogans could discourage questions, individuality and critical thinking.

* "Doctrine over person; one must find the truth of the dogma and subject one's experiences to that truth… doubts are reflections of one's own evil." This can be seen in (step 3) "die to your own imagination". The students at the DTS are asked to subject their experiences to that of the "group leader". The doctrine of "intercession" comes before individual rights. They were told "give up your rights" and "you get the leader you deserve". They must be part of the whole "in God's Kingdom there is structure".

* "Dispensing of existence; those who have not embraced that truth…are bound up with evil and do not have the right to exist. There is a being verses nothingness dichotomy." Nancy Brown stated that YWAM depicted the "world" as "Satanic". "Bind Satan" and "deal aggressively with the enemy (step 6)". All thoughts could be labeling dispenses with the individual thought and the outside world as evil. Ultimately, when one student decided to quit a YWAM DTS, her group leader said, "well, at least God never quits on us". Somehow she had rejected God by leaving YWAM.

One very disturbing feature of YWAM is its seeming inability to engage in open dialogue. Mr. Savoca [the WYAM higher-up Ross interacted with] never really responded to any concerns. He was evasive and finally fled rather than answer specific questions. This would lead to the conclusion that YWAM has little if any intention of changing.
Now, keep in mind, Cunningham is not just a product of this environment, and a promoter of it. He is the son of the founder of it. Everything about this description seems to mitigate against the ability to make a fair-minded film. Indeed, the very idea of a fair-minded film would appear to be anathema to such a mindset.

With this list before us, there should be little doubt about how Monica Lewinski came to be such a central figure in 9/11—"The demand for purity" says it all. But more than sexual purity is involved here. “There is no gray area. Everything is black and white.” This is how Bush thinks, and so it is no wonder that his failings are excused. Note—I’m not saying this is the reason for why the film is as it is. There are surely many contributing factors. But I am saying it’s a powerful reason why it isn’t as it should be.

Similarly, the principle of "Doctrine over person" helps explain why the facts and intelligence were fixed around the policy that Clinton, not Bush, was to blame for 9/11, since Bush was pure and Clinton was not. “one must find the truth of the dogma and subject one's experiences to that truth.”

Finally, regarding "Loading of the language" intended to “discourage questions, individuality and critical thinking.” Loaded language is hardly limited to mind-control cults. They are, however, extremely sensitive to its potential. With that in mind, consider how Cunningham responded recently:
According to Cunningham, critics are simply taking scenes out of context or relying on a competing set of experts. Here’s what Cunningham told The Crimson White, a University of Alabama newspaper:
    “A lot of these critics haven’t seen the whole thing or, in some cases, any of it,” Cunningham said.

    “We have these CNN pundits who haven’t seen it who are taking scenes out of context as examples [of factual inaccuracies in the film].”

    Cunningham also pointed out that the critics, many of whom are Democrats, are just telling their side of the story.

    “We have out [sic] CIA consultants and Clinton has his. It’s kind of a ‘he said, she said’ situation right now,” Cunningham said.
At one level, this is simply typical rightwing spin. But at another level it is rather adroit use of language to “discourage questions, individuality and critical thinking” that is almost certainly second nature to Cunningham, given his upbringing and who he is.

The emblematic phrases he uses aren’t even rationally related to the charges. There is no way that a false, defamatory scene can be altered by context. Nor does it involve conflicting experts to note how a film script clashes with its purported source material. A sixth grade reading level will more than suffice for that. This is the use of language as talisman, to magically stop the process of critical thinking.

Keep in mind, this is only a brief, initial peek behind the curtain at the sort of organizational world in which Cunningham was born and raised. There is bound to be much, much more for us to learn about YWAM and how it influenced the making of PT911.