There's something terrible and truly alien about the Texas prairie landscape.
The long shot of a 1,700-acre polygamist cult's commune, shown repeatedly on CNN, shows this. The long sight-lines are filled with dust roads wiggling over the uneven land, and scrubs of bush and twists of mesquite gnarling under the heat, hiding deadly snakes. It's the kind of country that can kill cows, drive men more mad, and make the scent of shade, and a glimpse of water, seem like the secrets of heaven.
As women and children in calico clothes and old fashioned hair were escorted away from land of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints in Southwest Texas, I thought of other Texas communes and other April raids on Christian cults. The scene is so alien, so strange and so familiar.
The Mormon fundamentalists, who've split from the Salt Lake City Mormons, come up out America's past like the feeling of falling comes in nightmarish sleep. The edge is always there. The Warren Jeffs' group of polygamists and self-styled prophets have existed on the religious fringe since the 1930s, first on Arizona-Utah border, a wilderness desert, and then on this Texas land. The group and its leader, a felon and an accused child abuser, has always exists on the edge of public conscience, but was forced into focus when a 16-year-old girl called police and said she feared she would be sexually abused, and authorities raided.
The TV showed that land, calling it a compound because that what you call a religious ranch, and the TV showed a line of little girls being escorted away by the government. The TV commentators say, "How terrible!" Say, "How strange!" Say, "How alien!" The aerial photos show the land and the homes and the exotic central temple and it looks like something the Martians might have had in an old sci-fi movie. The fundamentalist Mormon are there on 1,700-acres outside a town called Eldarado, after the famous, mythical city of gold.
They named the land, "Yearning For Zion."
Bothered before, the name disturbs me deeply. Zion is the biblical city the saints are always hoping for, dreaming of, working towards and eagerly awaiting. When Zion comes, everything will be different and evil and tears and violence will be wiped away. All of us are yearning for Zion.
As weird as that land is and as much as I say "cult" and "compound," "sect" and "strange," in truth, the horror I see is one answer to a familiar question: How far will we go in our yearning for Zion?
That question is enshrined in the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is told by God to kill his son. He is told to kill his son and he goes, in pursuit of the promises of Zion, to murder the boy, but he's interrupted by an ethical angel. The boy, like the 16-year-old girl being forced to marry a fundamentalist Mormon elder, is saved by an outside agency, by one who comes between a man and his God. Isaac is escorted off, past the scrubby bushes and twisted trees, and there's the idea, dropped vaguely into the closing scene, that absolute fidelity to God has to stop somewhere.
The Christian traditions, religious traditions, political traditions and especially American traditions, all include attempts to establish that new world of Zion. We are all born out of that willingness to go out into the wilderness, yearning for freedom and God's blessings, Zion and the secrets of heaven. The edge is always there, where we can fall off in a nightmare. Many are trying to be faithful, trying to pick their way towards being found, towards the grace which will save wretches like us, but that question is there. How many victims are we to accept in the pursuit of heaven?
The ethical question tears, the sight of the endangered child sears, and the question has to be asked, even if we don't know how to answer. When is it wrong to yearn for Zion?
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.