Friday 26 May 2006
No martyrdom in Milwaukee
In March 2005 the COG community was shocked to its core by the shootings at a Sabbath service in Brookfield, Wisconsin. A small congregation of the Living Church of God catapaulted to international attention when a member, Terry Ratzmann (pictured), opened fire on the pastor, the pastor's family, and people who counted the shooter as a long-time friend. When it was all over seven people lay dead. Terry Ratzmann then turned the gun on himself.
It was a terrible event. The Living Church of God - a small splinter group from the troubled Worldwide Church of God - went into damage control mode. The LCG's autocratic leader, Roderick Meredith, initially seemed more concerned with the PR fallout than compassion, while the leader of the sect that Meredith, Ratzmann and his victims formerly belonged to, Joseph Tkach of the Worldwide Church of God, appeared unable or unwilling even to express the basic civility of condolences. It was almost surreal.
Now one of the survivors has privately published a book about those events, Martyrdom in Milwaukee. Thomas Geiger was there, and his nephew, Bart Oliver, was among the dead.
I want to say that Mr Geiger seems a genuine man, and the experience he relates, along with his son's, deserves to be treated with great respect. But let's be totally clear, the book's title is not accurate.
Martyrs are people who willingly give their lives for their faith. They stand tall against persecution and hatred from outside their community. Those people who lost their lives in Milwaukee were victims of an evil deed; good, decent people cut down in an apparently senseless act. They lost their lives to a fellow believer, not an enemy of their faith or a coercive state power. They were not martrys.
Thomas Geiger gives more than a first hand account; his is also a defense of Meredith's sect. The book's publicity includes this statement: "Learn... how this modern day derivative of the early New Testament Church functions, traces it's roots, and strives to selflessly serve humanity." You have to wonder just how much input the LCG's hierarchy had into this part of the book.
It seems unlikely that we'll ever know exactly what led to Terry Ratzmann's meltdown. What is certain, however, is that Ratzmann saw his church affiliation as pivotal in some way. While it is inappropriate to cast stones following such a horrific event, the church itself has a responsibility to ask some soul-searching questions about its ethos and its apocalyptic message. At the very least LCG (and other related groups) has to look long and hard at the way it counsels those dealing with depression (and reportedly discourages members from seeking outside help.)
There were no martrys in Brookfield that day in March, but there were victims. It will be a further tragedy if the Churches of God refuse to learn from this terrible experience. While Mr Geiger has every right to tell his story, confounding adversity with apologetics is unlikely to provide either enlightenment or a credible account.