“I don’t do things half way.”
THE PEOPLE OF IRAN couldn’t have illustrated the importance of today’s ReadTheSpirit theme any more powerfully. The struggle unfolding inside Iran is between openness and isolation—connection with the larger world or continued confrontation. (The top photo is from Iran.)
The spiritual lesson is this: Isolation is dangerous. That’s true especially when trying to end our global plague of terrorism.
We’ve had two shocking examples recently of men from a Christian background who sank over a period of years into isolated, extremist obsessions: an anti-abortion zealot who justified murdering a physician and a man so mired in conspiracy theories that he opened fire in our nation’s central Holocaust memorial.
Here’s how the Department of Homeland Security puts it: “Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous terrorism threat.”
That is why you should make a point of seeing two important documentary films, newly released as a DVD set: “A” and “A2.”
What’s so powerful about “A” and “A2” is that these shocking films take us far away from our own hot-button biases as Americans. They take us half way around the world to Japan and track the isolated, extremist group known originally as Aum Shinrikyo.
In March 1995, the group exploded out of obscurity by launching a deadly gas attack in five Tokyo trains—killing 12 people and injuring at least 1,000 more. (The second photo today shows emergency crews responding.) That spring, there were other attacks averted by police, including one other gas attack that could have struck 20,000 commuters.
Suddenly, as this news broke, a religious con man with flowing black hair, Shoko Asahara, popped up on front pages around the world. The founder of Aum Shinrikyo and the coordinator of the plans for mass murder, Asahara was convicted and is still awaiting execution for his crimes in Japan. (That’s him on the cover of Time magazine in 1995, at left.)
When Asahara went on trial for the crimes, veteran documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori (photo lower right) convinced the remaining leadership of the extremist group to allow him to come inside their isolated compounds and film their lives during the firestorm of public outrage.
The central character of “A” is an idealistic, bespectacled young man who apparently had been a minor player in the sect until the leadership vanished after the crimes. Suddenly, faithful underlings who had lived almost in total isolation found themselves pushed onto the world stage as the last people available to speak for their group. Looking a little bit like a Japanese Woody Allen, we want to give this young man the benefit of our doubt as a victim of this seductive cult.
In fact, what “A” seems to illustrate is that there were a lot of victims of this mastermind, who enriched and debauched himself while his members essentially starved themselves to the point that they were left with no desires. The bespectacled spokesman looks cluelessly at a journalist, when he is asked about how he suppresses his own sexual desires. It’s clear he’s living such a subsistence-level life, eating meager rations that resemble dog food patties, that he doesn’t feel desire.
The entire aim of the group is obedience to a twisted vision of the world. A university-based scholar who appears at one point in the film describes the beliefs as “absurd” and most readers will agree the beliefs and practices are outlandish.
HOWEVER, this is why you need to see “A2” along with “A”—our conclusion that a “bad guy was behind it all” is called into serious question in “A2.”
After completing his first film, Tatsuya was not eager to go back for more. The first film became entangled in lawsuits and was never given wide distribution. Nevertheless, in 2000, Tatsuya realized that the group had not disappeared. It had changed its name and was trying to more carefully hide its cells and “training centers”—but the group appeared to be roaring along, seeking new converts.
In fact, in the most chilling scene in these entire two films, you’ll find yourself waking up like a hard slap to the cheek when Tatsuya (right) finally gets one of the group’s new leaders alone, turns the camera on and talks honestly with the man. At the time this film was made in the year 2000, the group was teaching that the convicted mass murderer, awaiting execution, actually was a vast cosmic spirit who was controlling the flow of human history.
Tatsuya asks the man if Asahara, once again, ordered a deadly gas attack, what would happen? Would this man follow the master’s orders to commit mass murder?
The man answers: “I would.”
Tatsuya asks: “You have to follow the guru’s instructions even if you feel it is intuitively wrong?”
The man answers: “That’s right.”
The man explains that their religious system depends upon driving each person so deep into the sect’s training system that each person ceases to be an individual mind. “Training is all about crushing the ego,” he says.
As a Religion Writer for Knight-Ridder and Gannett newspapers for more than 20 years, I’ve heard that sort of “crushing-the-ego” rhetoric in a number of fundamentalist Christian training programs in this country.
You know what’s just as troubling? You’ll hear the line that opened today’s story at least twice during these documentaries: “I don’t do things half way.” Millions of men and women are driven by such strong passions that they can become deadly if they are isolated so completely. If we allow parts of our communities to cut themselves off completely and “crush the egos” of their followers—the potential danger is clear. We just saw it in two American tragedies.
Watch these films. You’ll come away convinced of the dangers of radical isolation.
There’s an Amazon link with this story to purchase the films. Or you can visit Facets directly, where you can even choose to rent films—and you can learn more about Facets’ other educational programs, including the upcoming Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)