The World in Flames

My autobiographical reviews of books regarding the Worldwide Church of God continue.

Review: The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult, Jerald Walker, 2016.world-in-flames

It’s just possible that Jerald Walker and I ran into each other as boys in the 1970s in a building “as nondescript as an airline hanger, and probably larger” in Wisconsin.

We were both children in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) aka the “White Supremacist Doomsday Cult” of the subtitle.

I’ll confess that when review copies of this title came up on LibraryThing, I rolled my eyes. I am, at best, indifferent to things that smack of minority memoirs about the demon white man. At worst, my reaction is along the lines of John Derbyshire towards his bete noire Ta-Nehisi Coates: “blackety-blackety blackness”.

But, I do like reading about doomsday cults and, when I saw which cult Walker was talking about … well, I had to read it.

For a while, reading the open third, I cynically wondered if this was another bogus victimization autobiography along the lines of Rigoberta Menchú’s eponymous autobiography.

There is enough on the WCG on line and in print, doctrines and memories of its former members, where you could fake such a book. But why would you want to? Hardly seems like a plausible ticket for big sales.

And there is an emotional truth to it that is not, I believe, faked.

It was a quicker read for me than most I suspect. After all, I wasn’t traversing an odd, apocalyptic landscape. I’d seen the markers before: Saturday mornings with no cartoons, the embarrassment of discussing your church with “worldly” friends, excusing yourself awkwardly from school Halloween and Christmas parties, weird diets, your parents sending money away while you were poor, “deleavening” your house every spring, and chess champion Bobbie Fischer being an odd totem of respectability.

I think Walker had the harder time of it. I lived in rural poverty, not the poor parts of Chicago. My parents were not blind, literally blind, like his were. And the dynamics of his family in the number and ages of his siblings was very different. And there are the family secrets Walker discovers.

Walker makes much of his apocalyptic fears of the pending “Great Tribulation” when the Four Horseman will ride but the elect will be sheltered by God in Petra. (Yes, that’s Petra, Jordan – a popular tourist attraction; my sister has been there several times.) I just wish he would have told it in the past tense instead of resorting to the gimmicky modern fad of the present tense.

That’s the flames of the title, the flames that will consume your friends down the street because they aren’t “called out of the world”. Same with your cousins.

The end-time flames prophesized in a Worldwide Church of God booklet called “1975 in Prophecy”. (That was actually a fallback from an earlier end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it date of 1972.) The year came and went, and Christ didn’t return. Walker and I are different people. I don’t remember even reading that pamphlet though it certainly exists and, as far as I can tell, the quotes from it are accurate.

I wasn’t as sensitive a soul, evidently, in my concerns as Walker. The armor of my faith was pried off for different reasons and later than Walker’s.

There are a couple of odd omissions in Walker’s account. His family was fond of the Jackson Five – enough that they “sinned” by dancing to them on the Sabbath. But he doesn’t mention church founder Herbert W. Armstrong’s (HWA) denunciations of rock music. Girls get mentioned, worldly girls that interest the teenage Walker in adulterous pleasures but no mention of HWA’s conservative tract The Missing Dimension in Sex which had much to say on the topic.

Walker charts the doubt that began to creep into his family about the church’s teachings after 1975 came and went and the rationalizations WCG’s leadership used to explain the mistake away.

It was Walker’s brother Timmy, once a devotee of Bobbie Fischer, that introduced him to the works of author Iceberg Slim. His Pimp: The Story of My Life shares the epigraph page with HWA, WCG’s founder.

WCG was just another scam decided Walker who then entered “nearly a decade of drug and alcohol abuse, petty crimes, and street violence”, the subject of his first memoir, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.

Walker has said in interviews (yes, I actually looked up author interviews for this one) that he struggled with his racial identity. I don’t know what conclusions he came to, but the Walker family learns that the dirt of Chicago’s white South Shore isn’t really magical. The neighborhood becomes a ghetto following white flight. Of black culture, the Walker of this time says, in his cousins’ minds, its nothing but “foods and vices”.

Was WCG a “white supremacist doomsday cult”?

Well, “white supremacist” gets us into “race” and “racism”, two words almost value free and totally subjective in modern discourse and conveniently slippery when political debate requires it, so I’m going to address the question more precisely.

I can tell you that Walker is absolutely correct in that WCG did preach against interracial marriage. HWA certainly preached racial segregation. A quote from HWA in 1963 (the capitalization and italics are authentically HWA):

Christ was WHITE. Adam “looked like” Christ. So Adam was WHITE?

The Oriental race is a MUTATION FROM Adam’s stock. … The same is true of the Negro. … MAN perverts God’s laws by interbreeding and producing a mongrel or hybrid. …

Noah was the ONLY man on earth who was not guilty of this SIN of intermarriage? … ALL other human beings were destroyed – PUNISHED for this sin of interracial marriage. …

GOD is the author of SEGREGATION! But man is the author of INTEGRATION!

Now that is not white supremacism. (I seem to recall once hearing HWA sort of recant this and stating that God was not white, did not look like HWA or a black man, but I don’t remember the date.)

But there was a difference between how things worked on the ground in the local churches and official teaching. I believe Walker’s account that some white members did interpret these teachings as sanctioning white supremacism. (A detailed discussion by ex-members of WCG about this and Walker’s book can be found at Ambassador Watch.)

I do have a problem with Walker calling WCG a cult and even comparing it to Jonestown. WCG worked by social pressure, the painful ostracization of wayward members and household visits by officious deacons (another thing I was spared living in a rural area). There were no armed guards keeping me or Walker from running into the jungle for freedom.

Intellectually, I understand Walker’s anger at all those tithes wasted by sending them to WCG. (Some even went to building the palatial Ambassador Auditorium for HWA’s preferred classical music.)

Like Walker only telling his family and friends about his strange upbringing in his middle age, it took me awhile to revisit those years in conversation. However, I don’t feel a lot of anger about the whole thing now.

Well, maybe I do about one thing.

I think Walker may agree with me that it wasn’t the money conned out of members or the waste of Saturdays or the awkward social embarrassments of youth that was the worse thing about being a kid in WCG.

It was the lost future, the shortening of horizons in our youth. It was the part of us that should have been thinking about our future that the flames of WCG damaged most.

Here is Walker on being sent to the school counselor to discuss his future education after his very good test scores have come in:

The maple has lost most of its leaves. A strong wind attacks the survivors. I fix my attention on one near the top of the tree and watch its futile struggles while the counselor urges me to describe my long-term goals. He doesn’t know I’ve spent almost thirteen years believing that at any moment the sky would collapse into a fiery tornado and obliterate much of mankind, long-term goals aren’t something I’ve given a lot of thought to.

We both spent a few years of our youth off balance, but Walker and I made it. His career seems to be going well, and he seems to have a nice family. I wish him luck.

And he even made it to Petra after all.

 

This was Walker’s response to his WCG years. Next posting I’ll put up mine.

 

More reviews of nonfiction works are indexed here.

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