On October 12, 2015, two teen brothers were brutally beaten for fourteen hours by eight of their fellow church members, including their own parents. Christopher Leonard, age 19, suffered life-threatening injuries. Lucas Leonard, 17, passed away in the hospital.
The Word of Life Church, located in my quaint, tiny hometown of New Hartford, New York, dubbed this beating a “counseling session”. After expressing a desire to leave the church, Lucas and Christopher were whipped with an electrical chord “in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness” (Sanchez & Crook, 2015).
The media and surrounding community’s response focused almost completely on the immorality of Bruce and Deborah Leonard, the boys’ parents. However, the public’s dismissal of Bruce and Deborah as evil outliers in the community failed to acknowledge the institutional causes of Lucas’s death; the Word of Life Church was also to blame. Like many sects (Johnstone, 2007), this church created an isolated lifestyle that made it incredibly difficult for people like Lucas and Christopher to escape. Cultures of isolation and violence contributed to the gruesome events that took place at the Word of Life Church, despite the media and public’s incrimination of the Leonard parents.
The congregation beat Lucas and Christopher because the boys wanted to abandon not only their faith, but also the lifestyle advocated by their small, isolated sect. According to Johnstone (2007), sects withdraw themselves from society in order to avoid “impure” and “evil” secular influence (p. 61). Not surprisingly, the entire Word of Life church consisted of only thirty-five members from five families. Members saw the church as a “refuge from what they viewed as decaying secular norms” and believed that their practices exemplified the true essence of Christianity (Mueller, 2015). In order to shield themselves from “evil” secular influence, church members erected walls and hedges to act as a physical barrier from the rest of the community (Sanchez & Crook, 2015). Church members cared little about the liberties of the outside world; they believed that this strictly regulated lifestyle would lead them to salvation. According to Johnstone (2007), attaining salvation becomes the “supreme, ultimate reward” for sect members, even if they are deprived of “earthly success and the good life here and now, which is only temporal and not eternal” (p. 67). When Christopher and Lucas sought to leave the church, they were effectively straying from the perceived path to salvation, prompting the congregation to initiate a counseling session. But why did that counseling session turn violent?
The congregation most likely beat Lucas and Christopher in an attempt to save the teens from what was perceived to be evil. Sanja Nilsson (2016) explains in “Children in New Religious Movements” that parents in sects often exhibit religiously motivated, authoritative parenting styles. She defines an authoritative parent as one who is highly demanding, but lacks responsiveness to the child’s desires. In the new religious movements Sanja studied, parents’ actions were often “theologically motivated and formulated by a higher authority,” and prioritized “submissive obedience.” Corporal punishment was used in order to “save the child from eternal damnation” (Nilsson, 2016, p. 386). Bruce and Deborah Leonard used a theologically founded, normalized form of violence in order to keep their children within the secluded sect, thus saving them from an eternity of evil.
By dismissing Lucas’s death as the actions of two independent, malevolent parents who did not value the life of their child, we fail to recognize the larger systems of violence and isolation inherent in some sects.