Wild Wild Country and Augustine’s City of God

Branson Parler

Truth is stranger than fiction. The six-part Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country bears that out as it chronicles the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a revolutionary mystic or dangerous cult leader (depending on whom you ask). The series focuses on the conflict that ensued in the early 1980s when Rajneesh and his followers migrated from India to Antelope, Ore., a tiny town that was unprepared for what was to follow: an enormous commune that sprang up overnight, power politics, assassination plots, and bioterrorism. The story of the conflict between the Rajneeshees and their Wasco Country neighbors is not only a riveting historical piece; it also carries a theological warning for Christians.

Those expecting the documentary to address the actual teachings of Rajneesh will be disappointed, for although he is obviously a central character, his assistant Ma Anand Sheela is really the star of this show. If Rajneesh was the religious heart of the movement, Sheela was the cool, vicious brains of the operation. After first meeting Rajneesh in the late ’60s, Sheela rose through the ranks to become, in effect, the CEO of Rajneesh Foundation International. The early parts of the documentary highlight the massive undertaking of constructing a city in the middle of what was an Oregon ranch. She built it—complete with housing, farms, an airport, religious center, and a militia—and they came, pilgrims from all over the globe, drawn to Rajneesh’s personality, the promise of enlightenment, and the pleasure of free love.

The residents of Wasco County, however, did not welcome this sudden and massive change. When faced with opposition, Sheela mobilized in order to stage a takeover of Antelope and Wasco County through a variety of means, some legal and some not. In order to gain political clout, Rajneesh’s followers recruited new members by going to major cities all over the country and busing homeless people to their compound. They formed a militia with more and better weapons than any local police or sheriff’s department. As a result, they took over the city council of Antelope and renamed the town Rajneeshpuram. On the not-so-legal front, they poisoned over 700 residents of The Dalles, Ore., a nearby town, with salmonella, and plotted to assassinate Charles Turner, the United States attorney for Oregon.

Whatever else was being taught or practiced by the Rajneeshees, “love thy neighbor” was not. Indeed, the tactics deployed in order to gain an upper hand were the direct opposite of the New Testament’s instruction to early Christians. In 1 Peter 2, those in the church are told to “live good lives” among those who were not Christians and to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority,” so that ultimately people would see their good deeds and “glorify God.” Whatever the rationale for their actions, Sheela and others inspired no love for their guru among their neighbors.

Whatever else was being taught or practiced by the Rajneeshees, “love thy neighbor” was not.

The power politics of Sheela and others are a visceral reminder of Augustine’s point in The City of God that all earthly cities have to fight furiously to survive, precisely because they revolve around an idol—which in this case was Rajneesh and his teachings. Idols demand constant sacrifices, especially of your neighbors and enemies and often of your own integrity. Even if Rajneesh himself was unaware of all the lurid details of assassination plots and mass poisonings, his inner circle seemed to recognize that their commune was only sustainable at great cost, both to themselves and to those around them.

All of which raises an important question for Christians of both a conservative and liberal political bent: exactly what are we willing to do in order to gain political clout? Who are we willing to sacrifice? What enemies or neighbors get sacrificed to the idol of political power? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our own integrity to bring our own agenda to pass? Although the events chronicled in Wild Wild Country seem outlandish, in the end, the heart of the story—the lust for power and political control—represents an everyday temptation for American Christians.

At the end of the documentary, I found myself still a bit confused about Rajneesh himself. Who was he really? What exactly did he teach? Why were people so drawn to him? We never really get much understanding of who he was. Which makes me wonder—how often do Christians, much like Sheela, end up overshadowing the very person we claim to serve? The conflict, winning, power—all these become the focus. And somewhere in the shuffle, Jesus gets lost, leaving people to ask: who is Jesus really? What exactly did he teach?

Even if we win the political battles, Wild Wild Country warns us that every kingdom we build will fall, though some may do so on a longer timeline than Rajneeshpuram. The key then, is to take the long view, the hope offered by Hebrews 11, that our true place lies in a better country, a city not made by human hands. When we take that perspective on history and have a proper sense of our true citizenship, we’ll differentiate ourselves from idols and the earthly cities they create, enabling us to be better neighbors and better citizens of whatever wild, earthly country in which we find ourselves.

Topics: TV