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10 minutes with … Shawn Francis Peters

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Carl and Raylene Worthington are facing charges of manslaughter and criminal neglect in Oregon for the death of their 14-month-old infant daughter,Ava, from pneumonia and a blood infection. On June 17, the girl’s uncle, 16-year-old Neil Jeffrey Beagley, died from a urinary infection that caused his kidneys to shut […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Carl and Raylene Worthington are facing charges of manslaughter and criminal neglect in Oregon for the death of their 14-month-old infant daughter,Ava, from pneumonia and a blood infection.

On June 17, the girl’s uncle, 16-year-old Neil Jeffrey Beagley, died from a urinary infection that caused his kidneys to shut down. Both deaths, officials said, could have been prevented with standard medical care.

The family belongs to the isolated Followers of Christ Church, which shuns medical treatment in favor of prayer and annointing. Shawn Francis Peters, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied the Followers and is the author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law.”

Q: What do we know about groups like the Followers of Christ? How common are they?

A: It’s actually difficult to ascertain how many churches adhere to these beliefs and how many children have died. These groups tend to isolate themselves. What we know is really only the tip of the iceberg.

Q: Are they withdrawn because of some sense of shame? Are they hiding something?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s shame, but they think they are misunderstood. If you talk to them, they’ll say that the government wants to outlaw their religion. They’d rather not have it publicized, because the publicity they get tends to be bad.

Q: How would they be different from, say, Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses?

A: I’d exclude the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they don’t believe in one specific thing: blood transfusions. I wouldn’t categorize them as faith healers.

Christian Scientists don’t self-identify as faith-healers because they don’t believe in the reality of illness. But in terms of objections to secular medicine, they also do not see secular conventional medical treatment as being an effective treatment of illness. If you got them in a room with the Followers … they’d both tell you that people die in hospitals every day.

Q: Would you call them a cult?

A: I would not. Cult has become such a pejorative term. They are a very closed community that’s not open to doctrinal growth or public disclosure. They’re a church whose beliefs are not radically different from most Christian churches _ except for this one belief about prayer and illness.

Q: Here’s a hypothetical. A member of the church is stricken with either a mild heart attack or early signs of a stroke. A trip to the hospital could save their life. Do they go or do they pray?

A: They pray. They will say this is a crisis but we know that the Lord is powerful enough to bring people out of these kind of physical crises. They’d say the minister will come to our house, not the paramedics.

Q: What about more minor ailments, say a headache or the flu? No trips to CVS?

A: Nope. Nothing. Remember, most Americans believe in the healing power of prayer, they just don’t believe it to this extreme.

Q: Can you explain the theology behind choosing prayer over medicine?

A: James 5:14 says, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church … and the prayer of faith will save the sick man.” There’s no mention of doctors in there. That’s the lodestar, the touchstone for these groups. They interpret that very narrowly and very literally.

Q: Does the thought ever enter their minds that the answer to their prayers _ healing _ may be right there in the medicine cabinet?

A: It really doesn’t. It’s really not part of their worldview. People who are brought up in the faith have grown up viewing (medicine) negatively. They’re kind of conditioned ideologically not to look at secular medicine as a viable alternative to prayer.

Q: Does a lack of healing signal a lack of faith, or does more healing signal stronger faith?

A: The parents will say a child’s death shows that I wasn’t faithful enough, or shows a lack of spiritual strength. Or they’ll say it was just God’s will, and medical treatment could not have changed what was God’s will.

Q: Do you detect any sense of regret among the parents of children who have died, a sense of `Maybe we should have gone to the doctor …’

A: That’s one of the things that’s really tragic. The parents are doing what they think is right; they honestly think prayer is going to work. There’s never any intent to harm the child; in fact, they’re trying to help their children.

Q: A decade ago, Oregon enacted laws to hold parents criminally responsible for the faith-healing death of a child. Do those laws work?

A: Prosecution isn’t as much of a deterrent as you might think. The parents believe they’re being persecuted for their beliefs; prosecutors don’t like going after devout well-meaning parents; and the community doesn’t have a sense that justice is being served. No one is coming out of these cases feeling good about what happened.

Q: So, if a post-mortem prosecution doesn’t work, and many of these kids might be at risk but nobody knows they’re in danger, is there a workable solution?

A: Yes and no. I don’t think litigation is necessarily the solution. But if there was a discussion between law enforcement and these churches, if there was a dialogue about the relationship between medicine and faith, maybe we’d see more an evolution in people’s beliefs. The courtroom is a horrible place to have a dialogue.

DSB/CM END ECKSTROM

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A photo of Shawn Peters is available via https://religionnews.com.