It’s painful enough to learn that at least eight members of the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York, allegedly took part in beating to death 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and left his younger brother, 17-year-old Christopher, in critical condition. Two of the alleged perpetrators were the victims’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard.
But it’s also highly upsetting to hear members of the public so quickly defend those accused of such an egregious crime.
Last Sunday night, after church services concluded, a group of members sat Lucas and Christopher down for a “counseling session,” according to police. Later, it came out that a “sin” Lucas had to be forgiven for was stating that he had wanted to leave this tight-knit, secretive group. According to witnesses, group members took turns holding the boys down and beating them, a torture session that lasted for 12 hours. The boys suffered injuries all over their bodies, including their genitals. When Lucas stopped breathing, the group drove him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. He had been so severely injured that staff there thought he had been shot. Two of the alleged perpetrators, the boys’ parents, have been charged with manslaughter. Four other members of the church have been charged with assault.
And yet, despite the horrifying news of what took place inside the Word of Life, despite the fact that two of the alleged perpetrators are the parents of the victims, onlookers can’t bring themselves to criticize them. “I think they’re good people that made a bad decision,” said a woman who used to work at a church next door.
A woman who attended a Word of Life church service described it as “very family oriented.” While she was stunned by news of the beatings, she also implied that the boys somehow deserved the torture session. “There had to be a really good reason,” she said, “for something like that to happen.”
It’s obvious that when it comes to crimes that involve religious people, many Americans simply can’t bring themselves to condemn them. In a CNN news report (no longer viewable), the anchor kept referring to the Word of Life as a “so-called church,” indicating that it didn’t fit with her idea of what a church actually is. Apparently, she couldn’t imagine that anything violent or ugly could be tied to a place of worship.
One can only wonder how people would react had the same crimes occurred in a home, a store, or a secular school. Would people be so willing to defend those accused? If the crimes were committed elsewhere, would a commentator feel obliged to call it a “so-called pet store” or a “so-called home”?
I seriously doubt that would be the case. Instead, I believe people would be rightly calling for those responsible to be punished to the full extent of the law and wouldn’t give a fig about their worldview.
The meaning of church or Christian are highly subjective. Deborah Leonard’s attorney said Word of life was much like any other church, holding regular services and Bible study and providing food to the needy. An ex-member denied reports the church is a cult. “I realize this situation makes it look like this,” she said, “but if you listen to the teachings, they are accurate to the Bible.”
Those who have read my book Breaking Their Will know that religion has both a nurturing and a damaging side. The nonprofit organization the Child-Friendly Faith Project seeks to work with faith communities so that they can feel assured their teachings are beneficial to children and not harmful. This kind of work can’t be done unless people acknowledge that religious worship sometimes can go seriously, even fatally, wrong.
Let’s not allow naive perceptions about religious belief and doctrines to cloud our judgement of individuals who are both religious and monstrous.