Here's a story about a small religious group that raises some difficult issues and shows how unpredictable religion can be. And how easy it is to demonize other people.

Michelle Mingo, a member of small (20 or so members) sect called "the Body" will plead guilty to accessory to murder charges tomorrow in the death of her infant nephew Samuel Robidoux in 1999.

This story first came out when Michelle's ex-husband Dennis, a former sect member, came to the group's house and noticed that Samuel was missing. He also found a journal lin the house that frightened him, describing how Samuel has slowly starved to death over 51 days. The Body believes in direct revelation from God, and Michelle had prophesied that God wanted her sister Karen Robidoux, Samuel's mother, to stop feeding her son Samuel.

Last year, Samuel's father was convicted of first degree murder for Samuel's death. And earlier this week, Karen was acquitted of murder charges but convicted of assault and battery.

This story got some national attention when another sect member, Rebecca Courneau, was jailed in 2000 for refusing prenatal care because of her religious beliefs. Her infant son Jeremiah died during childbirth in 1999--and authorities believe he could have been saved if the Courneaus had called for an ambulance.

It'd be easy to dismiss the members of the Body as "nutcases" as several people did when I was reporting on this story for Christianity Today magazine.

After all, they believe God talks to them. That God told them to stop feeding Samuel, and that if Samuel died, God would raise him from the dead. But God didn't do that, so it's easy to dismiss the Robidoux and Corneaus as crazy people. What kind of people would believe that God would intentionally put a child in danger?

Only about 2 billion or so people, that's who. Christians, and Muslims, and Jews trace their lineage back to Abraham--and the story of Abraham includes this section of Genesis 22: "Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.'"

I don't what to make of that story from Genesis, even though it turns out in the end that Isaac is spared. One source I interviewed when writing about the Body contrasted the two groups this way. "For most of us, the story of Abraham and Isaac is important because Isaac is saved. For them (the Body), the story is important because Isaac died."

Pardon, director of the New England Institute of Religious Research, an anti-cult organization who has worked with ex-members of the body described the group's beliefs this way--they believed that it is "more important to follow God than to save human life."

In a recent story, the Boston Herald referred to the Body as a "cold blooded cult" that let a baby starve "in God's hands." This story would be a lot easier to take if I could believe that. I think it's more complicated than that. As a religious person who believes God can talk to us and who believe God put his own son in mortal danger and allowed him to be killed for my sake, I have to believe that.

That's not to excuse what happened to Samuel Robidoux--it's a horrible thing to contemplate that a baby could be starved to death in the name of God. But I can't call his parents monsters, or cold blooded killers. That's just to simple.

My thinking on this was shaped by reading a book called "All That's Holy: A Young Guy, and Old Car, and the Search for God in America" by Tom Levinson. In it, Levinson meets up with Edna Doyle, a survivor of the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas. Levinson decribes going to the former site of the Davidian's compound expecting to find "wackos from Wacco" and instead finding Doyle, a "gracious, feisty" grandmother from Melbourne, Australia and one of the surviving members of David Koresh's cult. Dressed in a white blouse, cardigan sweater, and a plaid skirt, "Doyle looked more like a grade school teacher than a domestic terrorist," Levinson says.

She was sitting in a simple gray building whose walls are covered with pictures of the 86 people who died on April 19, 1993, when the compound burned. Pictures of families and of couples on their honeymoons who "looked normal."

There were other reminders of the standoff between the Davidians and the FBI -- rusty and twisted shells of spent ammunition, and a package of baby diapers, caked with dried mud. Doyle tells Levinson that one of the pictures on the wall is of her 16-year-old granddaughter. It's a heart wrenching moment that transforms her from a "cult member" into a real person.

"I used to wish I could have been here and burned with the rest of them," Doyle tells Levinson. She had been away from the compound when it was surrounded by the FBI and could not get back in. Six years after the fire, Doyle (who died in 1993) was still grieving for her granddaughter and the other children she used to care for.

"When I talk to you it becomes real," she says later in Levinson's book. "My memories are the only one thing they could not burn."

"Thinking about her deeply personal loss helped me step past the headlines and try to see her as a still-grieving person," Levinson told me last year, "not merely as a cipher for a wild-eyed, apocalyptic 'cult.' "

As someone who writes about religion, that's how I see the members of the Body. Not "nut cases," not cold blooded cultists, but as people who have suffered the greatest loss of all--the death of their children. And they have to live with that the rest of their lives.

May God have mercy on them.

What do you think?


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