Here’s the latest example of religious fanaticism run amok, this time in Mexico: according to a report from the Associated Press, a fringe, unrecognized sect of the Roman Catholic church is locked in a standoff with state and federal governments over public schools after organized gangs of extremists broke into at least two school buildings with pickaxes and sledgehammers last month, poured gasoline on the books and furniture, and set the buildings on fire.
The gangs are part of a breakaway Catholic cult founded in 1973 by a defrocked priest, the late Nabor Cardenas, who opposed the modernizing reforms of Vatican II, including the shift away from the Latin Mass. Cardenas teamed up with Gabina Sanchez, an illiterate 63-year-old local farm worker who claimed to be receiving messages from the Virgin Mary, to create the town of Nueva Jerusalen, or “New Jerusalem.” The town’s inhabitants believe that it will be the only place that survives the impending apocalypse (which, incidentally, the group initially predicted would happen in 1999; needless to say, that didn’t come to pass).
Sanchez and Cardenas claimed that the Virgin Mary imparted an incredibly detailed set of instructions about how the estimated 5,000 residents of Nueva Jerusalen were to live their lives. (Side note: in the years since the apocalypse failed to materialize in 1999, the group’s numbers are down as young people have lost interest in the cult’s teachings. Fancy that!) As one might expect, the Virgin Mary’s alleged “instructions” are downright bizarre:
Sports such as soccer are banned because they are played with a round ball that resembles the planet Earth, and thus represent kicking the planet. But American football is allowed because the ball is more elongated.
“No entry for women with short skirts, pants, low-cut or sleeveless blouses, makeup or fingernail polish, or uncovered heads, nor men with long hair or dishonest dress.”
Dancing and merrymaking are permitted, but alcohol, tobacco, television, radio, and modern dress are not. (The article notes that after Sanchez’s purported “visions,” the cult has “developed into a complex hierarchy of brightly-robed followers, with women wearing purple, red, white or green robes, depending on their ‘order’ or vocation.”) And apparently, according to Sanchez, the Blessed Virgin Mary also forbids public education.
This naturally doesn’t fly with the federal government or the authorities in the western state of Michoacan — just like in the United States, public, secular education is a bedrock of Mexican society, and they’re not about to grant an extremist Catholic cult the special right to ignore state and federal law. But members of the group, who call themselves followers of the Virgen del Rosario (the Virgin of the Rosary), are so far standing firm in their opposition. They claim that “the government-mandated uniforms, school books and lesson plans, not to mention the computers and televisions now used in many Mexican classrooms, would violate the Virgin Mary’s orders, on her own sacred ground.”
When Mihoacan education officials pledged Monday to rebuild the schools destroyed by the mob, reactionary cult members formed a human chain to try and block police from entering the town. Police brought an armored vehicle and patrol trucks in, and the incident stretched out into a daylong standoff. Future confrontations seem all but inevitable, as cult members show no interest in obeying the law and the state’s governor has committed not only to reopening the schools, but bringing those responsible for burning them to justice.
Whether it’s a whacky Catholic cult in Mexico demanding a special exemption from education laws, the dangerous spread of fundamentalist Islamic homophobia and anti-Semitism in the Middle East, or an evangelical Christian town clerk in upstate New York who thinks her anti-gay religious beliefs should allow her to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of state law, it’s clear that when it comes to hardcore fundamentalism, we can’t let our guard down. Instead, we must stand firm, because religious extremists aren’t content to simply apply their crackpot beliefs to their own lives. Instead, they seek to force them on the rest of us, regardless of whether or not we subscribe to their dangerous views. Religious extremism is a cancer and a threat to civil, multicultural, democratic societies everywhere. It must be peacefully but firmly resisted wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.