Can you find a link between the following: MI5; police chiefs; senior government officials; the Millennium Dome; San Diego; a Tokyo underground station; and Armageddon?
You have probably guessed correctly. They are all linked in various ways with cults. But what has MI5 got to do with cults? Evidently, MI5 was interested because of the possible threat from doomsday cults of mass suicides and organised violence at the dawn of the new millennium.
Was MI5 overreacting? Surely an agency of such stature concerned with national security should simply ignore these bizarre groups? Yet last year, experts in MI5’s counter-terrorist section conducted a detailed ‘threat assessment’ of what they called ‘apocalyptic and millennial groups’.
Their task was to explore the possibility that some group or groups might resort to violence by means of shootings, bombs or even chemical or biological attacks on the public. It was in this context that MI5 experts identified the ‘apocalyptic and millennial groups’ as posing the greatest threat to national security.
What evidence, if any, did MI5 have? Perhaps one ought to emphasise, first of all, that Stephen Lander, the MI5 chief, approved the report from his counter-terrorist section. He used it as the basis for warnings to police chiefs and senior government officials concerning the threat of mass suicides and organised violence from doomsday cults operating in the United Kingdom and overseas. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the report was thorough and sufficiently conclusive to demand vigilance and preventive measures.
The evidence quoted in the MI5 report is cumulative and partly speculative. But it is rooted in a number of recent cult disasters in countries across the world. For example, reference is made to the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo religious cult which launched a frightening nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo underground system four years ago.
Twelve people were killed in the incident and many were injured. The whole nation of Japan was startled by the methods used by the cult and also by their aims. Could a similar incident occur in London? It seems that it ‘cannot be discounted’ (Sunday Times, 19/12/99). In fact, counter-terrorist officials in MI5 were fearful in December that some cults might try to poison reservoirs, carry out terrorist attacks on the Millennium Dome, or intervene in the River Thames Millennium Eve celebrations.
There was also the possibility of mass suicides. Here MI5 refers to two cults in the West which initiated mass suicides. One cult was the Canadian-based Order of the Solar Temple led by Luc Jovret, who had recruited his members mostly from civil servants in Quebec. In two separate locations in Switzerland, forty-eight of their cult members were found dead. They had been injected with a powerful drug then shot; tied round their necks were plastic bags.
Another recent example of group suicide referred to by MI5 is the Heaven’s Gate cult involving thirty-nine members. Their bodies were found in a rented mansion in an exclusive suburb twenty miles north of San Diego on 28 March 1997. The people called themselves angels and probably believed they were destined to rendezvous with a spacecraft travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet when they agreed to their suicide pact. Applewhite, the cult leader, was regarded by his followers as an alien in human form!
Absurd? Yes, of course. But security officials could not rule out the possibility of this type of belief and action being popularised in the United Kingdom. In fact, the officials referred to a study by the FBI in America that concluded: ‘Extremists from ideological perspectives attach significance to the arrival of the year 2000, and there are signs of preparations for violence’. Not surprisingly, MI5 felt the need to take action.
One other dangerous cult referred to in the MI5 report is Concerned Christians. It is an apocalyptic American cult but it has dozens of members in Britain. The British leader is Tom Cook whose home is in Finchley, North London. Cook actively distributes literature and propaganda videos for the cult but claims that they proclaim peace, not violence and war.
The leader of the cult is Monte Kim Miller. Born in 1954 in Colorado, USA, Miller began the cult early in the 1980s in order to challenge New Age influences and fight prejudice in the media against Christianity.
While his intentions were good, he soon deviated from biblical teaching and practice, claiming to be the recipient of private messages from God. His prophecies were increasingly related to ‘the end of the world in December 1999’. On 3 January 1999 the Israeli authorities arrested fourteen members of the cult on the grounds that the cult was intending to embark on violent action to instigate the Lord’s personal return. These members were deported five days later to the United States.
ABC News reported that ‘there is growing concern in Israel that the group, the Concerned Christians, is a forerunner of hundreds of fanatics who will be drawn to Israel at the close of the millennium’. No wonder that MI5 identified this cult as posing a potential threat to security in Britain.
The Denver Post reported fears in England that Monte Kim Miller and his members were targeting the Millennium Dome. Was this only a rumour? We do not know, but the newspaper reported confidently: ‘Scotland Yard will launch a massive operation to protect the site from all cults and terrorists … The operation will cost about $10 million’.
The British-based group The Family, which wants to prepare people for the end of the world in 2006, poses less of a threat to national security. As part of their preparation, members are said to be ‘stockpiling food’ and preparing to hide in caves in India before the cataclysmic event occurs.
Thankfully, the eve of the new millennium did not bring the cult violence and mass suicides that security services like MI5 feared. There was certainly tension in some countries, including Israel where soldiers patrolled the outer cordon of the ancient city of Armageddon (Meggido). Security forces were on full alert but there were no major incidents.
In Britain, hundreds of thousands of revellers poured into Central London on the eve of the millennium. Just after midnight the biggest fireworks display in British history lit up the London skyline with thirty-nine tons of explosives. There were no mass suicides, no threats of violence, no major disasters and no millennium bug! However, we should be thankful that government agencies like MI5 monitored the situation so thoroughly in order to protect the public and maintain law and order.
Supporting the State
Reflecting on the situation, I turned to Romans 13:1-7 and reminded myself of our responsibilities as Christians to the State. Submission to the ‘governing authorities’ (v.1) is necessary because they are divinely established. And those who rebel against the authorities ‘will bring judgement on themselves’ (v.2). It is strong language.
Provided the civil government does not expect us to violate God’s law, we are to support our earthly rulers actively and prayerfully. Three significant statements are made in verses 4-6.
Firstly, civil authorities have the task of promoting and rewarding what is good (v.4). Secondly, they must restrain and punish those who do evil. These are primary responsibilities of the State, and Christians should be pro-active in supporting the State in the execution of these tasks, rather than being passive, critical spectators. After all, the third significant statement here is that the authorities ‘are God’s ministers’ or servants (v.6). Police, magistrates, Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, councillors and civil servants are all ‘servants of God’ with clearly defined, God-given responsibilities.
After reading Romans 13 I recalled an African student preaching from 1 Timothy 2:1-3 in one of our college morning services. It was a helpful message. ‘Why don’t you Western Christians pray for your secular rulers?’ he asked. He then explained verses 1 and 2: ‘I exhort … that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority’. Yes, he insisted, Paul urges prayer for civil rulers, even for cruel Nero who was the Roman emperor at the time. ‘Look what we are to pray for’, he said excitedly; ‘that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’.
But we should not pray only for peace in society. My African student showed us from verse 3 that we should pray ultimately for a vigorous, fruitful evangelism to develop within a stable, peaceful society.
I will return to this MI5 report next month.