By Jenny Neyman
Anthropology of religion might sound like a history class, examining how religion has influenced cultures, societies and political structures throughout the ages.
But on Thursday, the class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus was very much a current event, with guest speakers who have been associated with those linked to some of the most gripping events in the nation’s, Alaska’s and the Kenai Peninsula’s recent past — the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 2008 shooting at Central Peninsula Hospital, and the arrest of militia activists in Fairbanks earlier this month for allegedly plotting to kidnap and kill Alaska State Troopers, judges and others.
Norm Olson and Ray Southwell, founders and former leaders of the Michigan Militia, and current leaders of the Alaska Citizens Militia and their Freedom Church, based in Nikiski, spoke on the significant role religion plays in their lives and political views, and shared their assertion that much of what’s wrong with society and political structures today is that the guiding moral compass and strength of faith that religion provides no longer receives the adherence and priority that it should.
“This study of anthropology of religion has far-reaching implication as far as Americans in this country today,” Olson told the class.
Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at KPC, said he appreciated the opportunity to have his students meet face to face with national figures such as Olson and Southwell, who have been involved with issues of such importance.
“The students have learned a lot in the sense of how to deal with challenging ideas they don’t necessarily agree with. And that’s the purpose of education,” Boraas said.
Throughout human history religion has affected politics, Olson said, citing particularly the times of Roman Emperor Constantine, who is said to have seen a vision of a cross and “in hoc signo vinces” — in this sign conquer — above the battlefield in 312. Today, Olson said, other signs have become the banner to live, conquer and govern by — those of the dollar, the euro, the yen and the ruble.
“There is a massive shift in our thinking in America just in the last 50 years. We have gone away from our traditional beliefs,” Olson said.
Every Sunday in the multiethnic neighborhood he grew up in outside Detroit, Olson said that all the families piled into their cars and headed off to church, even if they were different denominations serving different faiths and diverse ethnicities.
“Today you don’t see that much anymore. You wonder, ‘Where are these people today? Where do they derive their strength? What do they look to for their sustenance and their leadership? Who now gives the laws today?’” Olson said. “We don’t look at the God of glory — the Jehovah, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We look now to corporations and to government to give us all that we need, from cradle to grave.”
Olson and Southwell support the separation of church and state as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, with no state-sanctioned church and people free to follow whatever religion they choose. But the country — and, indeed, the world, they say — has gotten off track in no longer recognizing that man’s law, and the governments created to administer it, is subordinate to God’s law, Olson said. Throughout the hour-and-15-minute class the militia leaders expounded on their view that this shift has had consequences throughout the whole of society — to the overstepping of government, the stripping away of people’s rights, an economy on the brink of collapse and the diminishment of citizens’ self-reliance.
“We’re on a very perilous road trip to a very uncertain future, and a very fearful future. There is a sense of anxiety and foreboding, I think, that is getting worse,” Olson said. “The corporations, the central government, has taken away our rights and has replaced that with these assurances that it will take care of us. We have lost our independence. We’ve lost that spirit of self-sufficiency, independence, self-reliance and reliance upon each other in the community,” Olson said.
Over time, people have ceded more and more authority to the government, Olson said.
“Down through the ages we have given away more power, slowly but progressively, to the government. The government has consolidated and condensed and amassed its power and in that power has become corrupted absolutely. All three branches of the government today are conspiring against the rights of the will of the people,” Olson said.
That can be seen in many venues today, he and Southwell said, especially the growth and deregulation of corporations. Once upon a time corporations were required to provide some good for humanity, and monopolies — like the railroad and oil industries — were busted up to allow for competition. Today corporations are free to operate solely for profit and can conglomerate with the blessing of government — such as the mergers of media corporations and the pending acquisition of T-Mobile by AT&T, Southwell said. In Alaska, he said, some of the ramifications of this are oil spills from lack of investment in maintenance — “It’s a lot easier for a big corporation to pay a fine than to change,” Olson said — and the possibility of Pebble Mine being permitted to proceed.
“We have allowed the corporate monopolies to expand. Pebble Mine. What is it? It’s a
corporate monopoly. It’s this massive thing. And what’s our only hope? We have to turn to the federal government and beg them, ‘Please federal government, stop this terrible, terrible thing,’” Southwell said. “Am I opposed to mining? Absolutely not. If they could convince me that somewhere on the globe this has been accomplished safely then I will believe that technology has advanced. I don’t believe the technology is there yet. Why would we take the risk? Why? Because the corporations have the power and the money.”
A particular area of focus for the militia movement, and one that generated questions from the KPC students, is gun control. Citing Madison’s Federalist Papers, the writings of Patrick Henry, the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions, Southwell and Olson said that the Founding Fathers’ intention for the Second Amendment was for citizens to have the ability to protect themselves and their property from bandits and wild animals, but also to act as a deterrent against governmental encroachment.
Citizens should have the right to possess weapons on par with the standard military arms of the day, Olson said. In the Revolutionary War, that meant muskets. Today, that means automatic rifles and anything else with which U.S. soliders regularly arm themselves. But not, as students wanted to know, exotic weapons, such as tanks, grenade launchers and chemical or nuclear weapons, Olson said.
“Jefferson said over and over that the right of the people to keep arms for their own defense against tyranny, a tyrannical government, was necessary,” Olson said.
They emphasized their point that the Bill of Rights does not grant the rights listed therein, but merely codifies them.
“We believe that God gave us rights. That’s what the Founding Fathers believed. These are inalienable rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, among others,” Olson said. “These are rights from God. And if we believe these rights are from government or that these rights are granted to us by the Constitution we are definitely wrong. The Constitution grants no rights. The Constitution is a limiting document upon government,” Olson said.
v v v
Olson and Southwell paint a bleak picture of society today, and foresee an even more dire future.
“I believe we’ve got hard times coming. I’m preparing — we buy an extra bag of rice every time we go to the store, and I mean the 50-pounders,” Olson said. “We’ve got the monster of shortages coming, and the monster of inflation coming, and no matter what you believe eschatologically or religiously or theologically or whatever else you believe, you can mark that down as a sure thing. Math doesn’t lie. Inflation is going to wipe us out pretty soon.”
These hard times may or may not be signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible, depending on which understanding of the Rapture is espoused. There are three stances on the Rapture, Olson said — pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation and post-tribulation.
Those who believe in the Rapture believe hard times — a period of tribulation — will come to the world before the end. Olson said he believes there will be two phases to this seven-year tribulation. In the first 3.5 years, the Antichrist will be established to be worshipped as having the power of God. In the following 3.5 years, God will loose his wrath upon the Earth. At some point, God will send Jesus back to Earth to collect his followers — an event called the Rapture.
Those who believe in pre-tribulation Rapture think Jesus will come for his followers before the tribulation, and that believers will thus be spared the hard times. Those who believe in mid-tribulation rapture Rapture think Jesus will return at the midpoint of the tribulation, and those believing in post-tribulation Rapture think the faithful will have to endure the entire tribulation before being rescued. These beliefs can significantly shape how one sees and reacts to the world.
A belief in post-tribulation Rapture could result in a devotion to do anything necessary to prove one’s devotion to God — perhaps even including sacrificing lives and no longer following the rules of man. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who died in a showdown with federal officers in Waco, Texas, in 1993, are thought to have espoused the post-tribulation belief.
A pre-tribulation belief can lead believers to not be motivated to help right society as it goes wrong.
“Pre-tribulation rapture certainly weakens Christians,” Olson said. “If you think that Christ is coming back this afternoon, why would you ever change anything? I’ve got my ticket; I’m waiting for the hallelujah express to come take me off to jubilee land. Why should I stand up? Why should I risk anything?”
Olson said he is a mid-tribulation believer, which drives his insistence that the faithful should attempt to enact change. Southwell said he doesn’t think the end days are yet here and agrees that change must be pursued for the benefit of forthcoming generations.
“I don’t fear death, I don’t fear the government, what I fear is the economic catastrophe that my children and grandchildren are going to be faced with,” Southwell said. “… It’s not about me. It’s about what I leave my children. They’re going to stand over my grave someday and ask me what I did at this time in history to change it.”
By and large, citizens today have lost sight of their inalienable rights from God and have allowed themselves to become enslaved to government and corporate control through fear, Olson and Southwell said.
“The fear of loss is much stronger than the hope of gain,” Olson said. “It feeds into just about everything that we’re talking about. So you’re frightened that you might lose your job, you might be cut hours, you might have a run-in, something’s going to jeopardize your life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and so you give in to any kind of a pressure, any kind of a threat of change. So you squash yourself down, you don’t speak up, you don’t stand up, you don’t stand for what you really believe in.”
Both said that it is their religion and faith that gives them strength to stand for their beliefs.
“I’m able to do that because my religion has given me the basis of the faith to stand, because I’m doing what’s right, whatever that cost might be, and it has cost me a great deal,” Southwell said.
Southwell got a job as an emergency-room nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital after he, Olson, their wives and others from the Michigan Militia movement moved to Nikiski in the mid-2000s. Support for the militia movement, and Olson and Southwell’s leadership of the Michigan Militia organization, changed after the Oklahoma City bombing, because the convicted bomber, Timothy McVeigh, had ties to the militia. Michigan’s economy took a downturn, and Olson and Southwell decided to move to Alaska, seeking a climate where they could be self-sufficient off the land and prepare for the economic collapse they believe is coming.
Southwell got involved in the hospital’s union leadership, serving as a grievance officer. He said that he noted a change in the treatment of workers when a new administration took over in 2006 — intimidation, bullying and forcing out long-term, higher-paid employees, he said.
After fired hospital employee Joseph Marchetti went on a shooting spree at the hospital Nov. 26, 2008, killing one and wounding another before being shot and killed by troopers, Southwell said he felt he needed to be more public about his views of the administration, because it might prevent something similar from happening again. He since had his wages garnished for failure to pay taxes, and was fired last year. He has filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board to protest his firing, he said. Even to the point of losing his job, Southwell said he felt driven to speak out after the shooting.
“At the time I felt somewhat responsible because I didn’t expose, or talk or intervene with the borough assembly, or even at the hospital board level. I often wondered, if Joseph knew I was there, that there was somebody that he could have talked to,” Southwell said. “When I started going public and I started being so visible I started having person after person after person coming to me, employees at the hospital, and I found ways for them to take their anger, their fear, their frustration and direct it to a constructive way, or a safe way.”
Southwell said that counseling people is a large part of what they do as leaders in the militia and Freedom Church.
“We have people coming to us who are ready to go ballistic, ready to go postal, and we have to pull them down from the trees, pull them back from the edge and quantify and qualify their fear,” Olson said.
There are three responses to fear, he said — ignore it, run from it or examine it. He likened what he and Southwell do in individual counseling and encounter groups as parents turning the lights on for kids afraid of the dark.
“There are people who live under constant fear — of the government and the bad guys and the cops and everything else,” Olson said. “I had a lady call me from New York. She was frightened. … She was convinced that she was under surveillance — for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter, you create your boogeyman if you are allowed to leave them in your mind.
“You can see the fear and identify it and defend against it, or you can run from the things that you’ll never know,” he said.
Boraas asked if encouraging people to question government and stand for their beliefs might enable someone who is not rational to do something violent, like McVeigh. Olson said the militia movement is about demonstrating of the will to stand for their rights, rather than encouraging violence.
“But also, once in a while, a couple get away from us,” Olson said. “Did Tim McVeigh get away from us?”
McVeigh came into the militia movement on the fringes and didn’t seek Olson’s counsel, he said. Olson said he found McVeigh to be an honorable man, and posited that perhaps there is more to McVeigh’s story — that he was set up, or a pawn in larger, global forces.
“I believe he, being a military man (as is Olson, retired from the Air Force), didn’t want to break bread with me because he knew where things could go and he didn’t want me to be destroyed by something that he would do. He was an individual acting on his own beliefs. Or was he handled by the government? There’s that theory out there,” Olson said.
Olson and Southwell also believe there is more to the story of Schaeffer Cox, organizer of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia based in Fairbanks, than is being reported. Cox has been to the peninsula to speak at Second Amendment Task Force rallies. He was arrested twice in 2010, once on an assault charge after troopers accused him of choking his wife, and again March 17, 2010, on a weapons charge after police said he failed to notify an officer he was carrying a concealed pistol.
Olson said Cox was treated unfairly by the courts, which, in Alaska, need a license to operate and are therefore a corporation, he said. Cox was not allowed to address that issue in court, or use the Constitution in his defense, or appeal to the jurors as judges to consider the legitimacy of the weapons law he was accused of violating, as he says petit juries should be able to do.
“That’s what Schaeffer Cox wanted, ‘Give me a chance to talk to the jurors who could examine this law about if a cop walks up to you and you don’t tell him immediately that you’re carrying a gun concealed all of a sudden you become a felon, over something that may never happen,” Olson said.
Cox and other Fairbanks-area militia activists were arrested March 11 for an alleged plot to capture and kill federal and state officials.
“I can only speculate as to how he got where he is today, and it would all be based on rumors. I don’t have anything definite,” Olson said.
They do maintain support for him.
“I trust Schaeffer Cox,” Southwell said. “I met him. I think he’s an honorable man. I don’t know all the circumstances of what he’s gotten himself into. But I do think once the FBI gets involved in this type of situation, I don’t believe anything that is said. I don’t believe anything the FBI ever says. I don’t think they can be trusted.”
Olson said he thinks Cox was framed.
“I believe he was set up. I believe there is very deep political powers behind this to minimize his effectiveness, to cut the legs out from under Joe Miller with this Bill Fulton involvement. They say Alaska is the state of corruption. It’s the most corrupt state of all the 50 states.”
Olson said he doesn’t have information on the situation in Fairbanks, nor an explanation for the disappearance of William Fulton, owner of the Drop Zone military surplus store in Anchorage. Fulton has ties to the state’s militias and had served as a hired security guard for Senate candidate Miller. He is thought to possibly be an informant who worked with the FBI on the sting operation against Cox and others.
Olson in no way equated Cox to Koresch or McVeigh, but did note that all have shown resolve in standing for their personal beliefs.
Faith, which comes through religion, can give strength to stand for one’s beliefs, even in uncertain and difficult times, he said.
Southwell, now unemployed and awaiting the results of his appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, can attest to that.
“I am in fear, because we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring because of the economic calamity that I have brought upon myself because of my stand,” he said. “But it’s my faith that I know that God is working in my life that I can face this fear … and that’s the religious part. How do we face fear? Ideally, if my faith was strong enough, I’d have no fear. But it’s not there yet. Maybe someday it will be.”
Faith is crucial in trying to right what has gone awry with the economy and government today, Olson said.
“Where’s this idea of freedom come from? Is that something that is taught to us or is that something that we instinctually or innately or fundamentally have because we are cognitive individuals aware of own existence and knowing that there’s something better out there for us?” Olson said. “I think that’s part of this spiritual aspect of what drives everything.”
Yet another failing of government today is underestimating the strength that can come from such spirituality, he said.
“I don’t think the federal government ever really understood the convictions of people like that (Koresch). Remember, we’ve got a war going on — ‘in this sign conquer.’ Then what happens when these interests (followers of the sign of the cross) go up against these interests (followers of the sign of currency)? Many times the government doesn’t really know what it’s dealing with because it’s never seen people who are so loyal to their beliefs that they’re willing to sacrifice all, even their own lives.”