Garrett and Lauren Smith have been traveling around Australia for the last four months working on organic farms through the WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) program. A recent farm visit in the Sydney area brought them to a community of the Twelve Tribes (www.twelvetribes.com), a Messianic religious movement of people living communally in various countries, including the U.S. and Australia. Although milking goats had been the attraction of the farm stay, Garrett and Lauren were confronted with a very different, sometimes bewildering, view of life and religious doctrine. In a two-part article series, they reflect upon their experiences from living a week with a community in the Tribe of Asher and the lessons they learned to apply to their own life of religion. -Editor
A Brief Introduction to the Twelve Tribes
Picton, NSW, is a pleasant little farming town south of Sydney with the typical Aussie mix of crops, sheep, and cattle. One of the last stops on Sydney's CityRail train line, we arrived one afternoon shortly after Easter to do a farm stay at an agriculture-based, sustainable living community in the area. Expecting Scott at the train station, whom we had been in contact with via e-mail, we were instead met by a man named Yelid who had a big beard and hair pulled back into a pony tail. When we arrived at the site of the bakery/cafe and old-style hotel owned by the community, currently being used as residence for some of the members, we realized that ALL the men sported full beards and ponytails. We were introduced to some of the Twelve Tribe members over a big lump of rising sourdough bread... Yocef, Ehriz, Naaman, Qeshab. We were served a delicious lunch in the cafe by a woman wearing harem (or parachute) pants straight off of Disney's Princess Jasmine (minus the exposed midriff, of course). When we were delivered to the farm that evening, we realized that ALL the women wore harem pants. The women also had mind-twisting names to try to remember: Seetsza, Anava, Shalem, Rivka; all Hebrew, all with specific meanings, all given by the community to reflect each members' character.
It rained so hard the first day we arrived that by the evening, we were filling sandbags to try to prevent one of the lower buildings from being flooded. The 'Warehouse' contained some expensive printing equipment as well as some more family residences and the 'training' rooms for the children. We finally got a good look at the farm the following morning: a few houses and cabins for family and singles, a central communal kitchen and laundry area, a few greenhouses and fields of neatly planted veggies, and a dangerously full stream dividing the property comprised the community's main farm. We learned that the property and its contents are owned communally by the tribe; no individual owns any property, money, or material possessions of any sort. Everything is shared, including meals and vehicles, with the minor exceptions of specific clothing items and who does the dishes. This model of sharing everything brings us to one of their core tenets. By living in community, they try to emulate (as closely as possible) the teaching from Acts 2:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:42-45)
Despite being guests, we were immediately incorporated into their daily life, which is also literally modeled after teachings from the Bible. Every morning and evening at 7:00, they gather for a religious meeting in keeping with the verses in Joshua and Daniel:
“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” (Daniel 6:10)
Sipping on cups of yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay) tea in the morning because they reject popular, idolized items such as coffee and chocolate, the members of the Twelve Tribes sing songs, often accompanied by piano or guitar, and listen to Bible-based teachings. Members are able to share their 'pounding hearts,' which they believe is a way for the Father to communally and gradually show them 'The Way' of their Master Yashua (Jesus). After the morning gathering's closing prayer, everyone goes about their daily duties. For men, this means working on one of the community's various business enterprises: the extensive gardens, the cafe and bakery, a construction/demolition business, and various local farmer markets where they sell their baked goods and value-added vegetable concoctions. Some women also work in the cafe as cooks and servers, but most of them run the home complex: 'training' the children, cooking the communal meals, cleaning the living quarters, and doing endless laundry and dishes. The evening gathering brings most of the community (except those frantically baking and packing the last orders of bread at the bakery) back together to share their thanks to Yashua and their revelations of the day. Hebrew circle dances and a few extra instruments (drums, violin, cello, or upright bass) accompany the songs, and the group stays in 'standing supplication' for the entirety of the evening meeting. It was during these twice daily gatherings that we were introduced to a lot of the doctrine that underlies the Twelve Tribes Movement.
Founding Principles of the Twelve Tribes
From a passage in Revelation, The Twelve Tribes believe that there are 'Three Eternal Destinies' that await everyone on earth—“Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who is righteous continue to be righteous; and let him who is holy continue to be holy” (Revelation 22:11). They view themselves as the 'holy' because they have heard that God wants them to give up all their possessions and live in a community to follow His Way, and have done so. The righteous are those who have lived by their conscience, but never were taught what God really expects of them. The vile are those who lived against their conscience, or who knew what God wanted of them, but did not live it.
Another cornerstone teaching of their doctrine is Nebuchadnezzar's dream from Daniel:
“You looked, O king, and there before you stood a large statue--an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:31-35)
They believe that they will be the stone kingdom from the dream. This will happen only when they get 144,000 people from Revelation—“Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel” (Revelation 7:4)—with 'the heart of their Father,' living in community during the 'race' of seven sets of seven years to reach Jubilee in the 50th year—“You shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan” (Leviticus 25:10). Once they successfully meet these criteria, then Jesus will be able to return to earth because the bride (the church) will be prepared for Him and the Evil One will have been bound. At this point, the Holy (the Twelve Tribes) will rule over the earth with Yashua for 1000 years (the members wear braided head bands during their gatherings to “practice wearing crowns”). They believe they will fill the universe, just as the Lord promised to Abraham and to Isaac; “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 26:4).
A Clash of Doctrine
“What religion are you from?” This was a question we were asked a LOT throughout our week in the community. Tribe members who were not born into the culture, which started in the 70's, are described as 'coming out of the world' and often don't want to remember or recount their former lives and experiences (except as negative examples). They strive to not be distracted by 'worldly things.' Worldly things include electronics, unnecessary possessions of any sort, upper level education and careers, and even too great a proficiency in any one area if it acts as a distraction from the Way. Conversation topics therefore center around... what else? Religion. Now we don't know about you, but the whole 'what church are you from' discussion can be difficult on a good day. Now add a listener who expects detailed, bible-supported answers and believes that they are absolutely right. Describing and defending your personal beliefs at least five times a day to different people over the course of a week is exhausting!
Perhaps the most challenging thing about coming to the Twelve Tribes from an 'outside' Christian perspective was their (well-founded) criticism of modern-day, 'faith alone' Christianity. Now as Swedenborgians, we have similar complaints about those faith-aloners. We do not believe that people who 'get saved' but then lead unabashedly evil lives are actually on the right track to heaven. The Twelve Tribes, however, also has a bone to pick with 'one day a weekers,' those who cheerfully go to church on Sundays and even more cheerfully live their 'real lives' for the other six days of the week. Their vision of following (and loving) the Lord is summed up by the passage in Luke (in conjunction with the earlier passage from Acts):
“A certain ruler asked him, 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' 'Why do you call me good?' Jesus answered. 'No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: "Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother."' 'All these I have kept since I was a boy,' he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, 'You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'” (Luke 18:18-25)
They respond quite literally to this call from the Lord—to sell everything you have and share everything in common so that there is no rich and no poor among you—and staunchly believe that it is the only way to heaven. It's in His Bible and it's very clear. You can't even imagine how quickly it can get uncomfortable as you try to muddle your way through a New Church explanation... it's really more about intention in conjunction with action, and of course, love of worldly possessions is only one evil that people must fight, and we don't meet and think about God every day because... [mutter mutter mutter]... Why don't we?
And that brings us to the real crux of the matter; as off-the-mark as some of their doctrine seems to be, the Twelve Tribes has definitely gotten some things right. When it comes to the life of religion, what does the Lord really want us to be doing? Can each of us honestly say that we've passionately studied the Word (and the Writings) and we truly believe that the Lord only wants us to focus on Him once a week? And maybe we acknowledge the blessings we have from the Lord, but is He totally groovy with the fact that we don't tithe and only donate to charities when the feeling moves us? Or, on the other hand, are we simply living the life of religion that we so often see played out around us in a modern capitalist society? Are we blindly following suit without stopping to think about what the Lord actually asks of us? Despite the difficulty, confusion, and hurt that we felt in presenting our own beliefs, we personally found that there was a lot to be learned by being pushed WAY outside of our comfort zone. Spending a week in a Twelve Tribes community gave us the unique opportunity to evaluate critically our own religion and, more importantly, to face the hard question we all need to ask: 'Are we really living what we believe?'
Garrett and Lauren Smith
Garrett and Lauren are enjoying their new perspective of life served with boat loads of flies, alien conspiracy theories, and a generous helping of physical exertion. Washed down with lots of piss-colored beer, of course. Having decided to trade sunny Perth for Seattle, there sanity is currently under question. The verdict is still out.