Interview with Malcolm Wrest

Former Jesus Christians member Malcolm Wrest talks to Australian Story about his time with the group and the difficulties he faced when he decided to leave the group.

ABC, Australia/June 4, 2007
Program Transcipt

Tell about background with Jesus Christians.

I met them on campus at Melbourne University. At the time I was a student in town planning. The Jesus Christians came on several occasions and I began to communicate with them by mail. At the end of the first year I decided I wanted to be part of what I saw as a very exciting and promising church, for want of a better word. And so I left Melbourne and joined them.

I was legally an adult but I literally ran away from home to do this, because I was well aware my parents may not approve of the move. And so I was with them, I suppose it would be from December 1981 or early 1982. I think December 1981 through to the walk across the Nullarbor in 1985.

Why did they appeal to you?

I think they actually identified many of the shortcomings of the churches. At least in a superficial level they do have a community. And for those who have any nature of idealism I think people who look at the bible and generally agree with the principles of Christ, living in community is an ideal we should ascribe to.

At that time how did you regard Dave McKay?

Oh at the beginning he was someone I trusted implicitly actually and [we had a] very close relationship. And despite now the fact that we probably would be quite bitter enemies I can still see in him a lot of good qualities. In some respects a man’s weaknesses are his virtues in excess. Because David has the skills and the ability and the knowledge to see Scriptures quite clearly he unfortunately has become a little conceited. And I think unable to see beyond his own impressions. But very very close relationship I would say in the beginning.

Over time did your feeling change?

It is an extremely restricted environment and despite the fact that there’s no physical restriction on movement, people are discouraged from developing relationships with people outside the group. And you start to get a very narrow perspective on life. And basically the whole universe is those people who are members of the Jesus Christians at the time you are present. Because it’s an absolute disphilosophy and in that situation it doesn’t matter at what lengths you go to to attain the goal of the Kingdom of Heaven, however you’d describe it. So you start to become aware of the claustrophobic perspective of the group. But it’s a sort of subtle procedure. You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone.

People in the Jesus Christians basically would have no friendships or really wouldn’t be able to communicate with people outside the organisation. Despite the fact that physically they are free to pick up the phone and do so. And that’s because they’re taught that only they represent the ideals that Christ stood for, and Christ said, those who love their father and mother or brother and sister more than me are not fit to be my disciples. That’s played upon and played upon until you feel guilty for actually developing a friendship or relationship with people outside the organisation.

Did you start to question the things?

Yes the civil things I think I did question. Although one should remember it’s very similar to the situation in communist North Korea where if you don’t become part of the cheer squad you’re quickly isolated. So you tend to be encouraged to clap and applaud the group’s directions.

The group was involved in a lot of community work and actually started a project in India in one of the poorer communities in Bangalore. But you become aware that from David McKay’s perspective ultimately the only thing the group stands for is his own self-aggrandisement.

From David McKay’s perspective all personal rights are actually negotiable. And that in fact it’s quite insincere the work in India or any community work. The ultimate goal in David’s eyes is publicity.

There’s no intrinsic good or bad in anything. The criteria is, can the group get publicity and potential members from their activity. So the community work had – this is free community work – had a great deal of coverage. And when the coverage stopped David wanted to discontinue the project.

India was the same. Initially there was a lot of coverage in the media. I wasn’t involved there, but I’m only aware of the coverage it had. And as soon as that stops David’s got no interest in it. It’s sort of utterly insincere. If you’re familiar with the great commission, Christ commanded Christians go into the world and teach others to observe what he commanded them. Most churches use that as a justification of building hospitals and schools overseas and in areas that are fairly poor. And David McKay just uses it, prostitutes it really.

There’s nothing really that he stands for other than himself. And when you start to question that you become subject to what I term grievance meetings which are basically episodes where you are in a room with three or four other people and the topic of the discussion is your inadequacy. Similar to the sessions that the Communist Party run.

It’s a very awkward situation because you have no reference. There’s no reference other than the community, which you are, because anyone who is outside the community obviously is not part of the Kingdom of God, and how could you possibly confer with them. They’re not representatives of Christ whatsoever. And so again you find yourself in this very narrow little world where you are aware that the Scriptures are not being lived up to, but the whole universe tells you that you are the problem.

Was there anything you regret?

I regret being part of the promotion for the organisation because of the time frame that we’ve seen, so this would be from I suppose before the 1980’s up until the middle of 2000, they have really become increasingly more vengeful and spiteful and really I regret the time that I spent advertising the organisation. And in some respects I feel obliged actually to now try and put a stop to them. In many respects I think they’re the antipathy of what Christ represented.

The original verses which attracted me and I suppose many other people to them, when they speak of the demands that Christianity requires and that we should be prepared to make sacrifices and go to considerable cost to follow Christ. Those extreme verses have to be looked at in relation to Christ’s sermon on the mount. Blessed be the pure and blessed be the peacemakers and blessed be the pure in spirit. And they’ve just completely ignored that.

I look at them now and I think really it is horrendous. I would say they border on criminality now in relation to their attempts to access new members. The promotional activities now have just become more and more extreme. Extreme in a sense that they’re just completely self-serving. The whipping episode in the States where David had himself and a couple of others whipped in order to embarrass the Johnsons into paying money to them over a dispute about an assault.

The kidney donations which again I admire the individuals that have made the effort. But from David McKay’s perspective it is just a publicity generating gesture. Were it not to be kidneys it would be liver or something else. You just go on and on. Utter insincerity. And to see the Scriptures being prostituted continually for Dave McKay to benefit it’s just sickening really.

Looking back at it now, you learn a lot from being with them because you learn to question what you thought the Scriptures stood for. And you obviously learn to re-assess your own philosophy. You have to become quite clear what’s important to you. But I think you can do that without being inside the group. And these days I would definitely recommend to anyone, look at what they say but don’t have a bar of them. They’re really horrendous unfortunately.

Occasionally, it wasn’t a case in my situation but occasionally you lose your family as well. To make sacrifices where you salvage what you have and basically give everything over to David McKay, or you refuse to have an independent livelihood and sign away your own rights of association or movement of speech. You tend to lose your friends. And of course once you leave the Jesus Christians you lose your friends.

So at the time you leave the Jesus Christians there’s sort of not a soul in the world you can turn to. You’ve lost everyone because of the cost you had to pay to join the Jesus Christians. And members are frequently demonised. So they can’t begin negotiation with the Jesus Christians who you thought were your friends at the time you leave. So if everybody’s left I think they’ve had a terrible experience of isolation and really, confusion.

My parents and family were quite supportive, but that’s not always the case. I regret the time I’ve spent promoting the organisation. I see them as quite a swindle now and I regret to think that I’ve actually encouraged people to join them. They’re certainly not what they pretend to be. There’s a huge amount of spin involved in the presentation of themselves. And Dave McKay’s extremely duplicitous.

I regret, I don’t regret the time I spent with the bible or the time I spent I suppose becoming more familiar with my own beliefs. But it was a long time, 3½ years. In fact perhaps I could have got a lot better for myself, not being involved with them. And certainly that’s what I would think now. There’d be no advantage to involvement with them.

Tell me more about leaving.

I did speak earlier of the similarity to the Communist sessions where people, confession sessions where people were required to nominate why they’re not a good Communist and ask authorities to forgive them. Towards the end of my term with the Jesus Christians I was going through this continually again and again and again, issue after issue. Ongoing sniping from David about me personally.

But when you leave the Jesus Christians they deliberately set out to make you feel guilty about it. And of course there’s no good ex member. Everyone who’s left must be demonic or a follower of Satan. And again it’s hard for people to appreciate this, you feel inadequate and you feel that you’re the problem. And certainly that was the case with me. Terrible feelings of guilt and why can’t I live up to the standards of the group.

So by the time I left it wasn’t a particular issue, although at the beginning of the walk across the Nullarbor I said to myself that if nothing improves I’ll be leaving after the end of the walk. And at the end of that period it became apparent that nothing had changed. So I was out.

But that was not a case where I felt, I didn’t feel myself vindicated I just felt sort of lost and completely unhappy with the Jesus Christians, but not really being able to put a finger on why.

Was it difficult to leave?

Quite difficult because you don’t have any independent livelihood and no possessions, and you live in a community where every aspect of your life is decided. At the time I was with the Jesus Christians and I believe this is still the case, mail is communally read. If you ever go out on your own you’re accompanied by someone else. You really don’t have any opportunity to develop sort of support outside of the Jesus Christians.

There’s just the matter of not having any, literally not having a penny to your name. That is not the difficult part. The difficult part is the fact that you’ve been made to feel inadequate and there’s no support outside of the Jesus Christians. So where do you turn to. It’s me. Something’s wrong with me. Why aren’t I still part of this. So that’s extremely difficult.

Ash would be having the same feelings now. Nick and Kate’s son, even if he questions what’s going on he will be in the situation where, where does he discuss this? Because wherever he turns to he will be in a situation where this is his doubt is reported, or he’s inadequate because he sort of questioned the strength of the commitment he should be showing. He would be in that situation now.

Tell more about the cost of leaving.

At the time you leave the Jesus Christians you are not only leaving a job. In some respects you’re leaving the planet. Because at the time in the Jesus Christians long term you will have largely cut relationships with people outside the organisation. So there will be no friends to turn to or there will be no sort of social circles that you and I are part of. So many people have forgone their career because they’ve interrupted a job or a study to join the Jesus Christians.

So you suddenly find yourself in an utter hole where you’ve got no access to resources because everything belongs to the Jesus Christians. In terms of career or employment you’re sort of really behind the eightball. And there are no friends to turn to.

But that actually is not the most difficult part. The most difficult part of leaving is that at the time you are in the Jesus Christians where doubts occur and where there’s dissent, David McKay will tell you that you’re giving in to the wiles of the devil. Your inadequacy is the reason why you’re having this difficulty.

Just as Ash will be in the same situation now. Even where he could criticise or quietly question what’s happening with the kidney donations. He would find that it was turned on him, and suddenly oh Ash what’s wrong with you? You’ve fallen prey to Satan’s whisperings. He wouldn’t actually be able to genuinely question what’s taking place. To do so would just mean he would be out of the group.

How are you regarded by the Jesus Christians now?

Oh I’d be hated. They have to be a little careful about that. Because obviously David worked for the media for several years, he’s aware of what sells. They have to be a little bit careful how they portray that hate. Because it reflects quite poorly on them.

No I’m really loathed. There’s no communication really with any of them. And the only communication we had is, I’ll tell them that they’re basically forsaken the Christ that they claim to represent. Really they are horrendous now. They will point out to me all my weaknesses and inadequacies and the fact that if I really loved Christ I’d still be with them. There’s no communication whatsoever with them.

What did you think when you heard about Dave’s idea to donate kidneys?

On paper it’s a noble thought and I feel a great deal of respect for people who do so. And individual members of the Jesus Christians who have donated a kidney have obviously gone to a lot of sacrifice to do so. The need to give more kidney donations and the whole system’s dreadful. But David McKay’s doing it for the publicity. He’s buying coverage, and with that in mind I personally feel quite uncomfortable with the idea that the Jesus Christians can do so. I think they should be prevented from donating kidneys.

There are too many issues at stake here and you don’t know that you’re dealing with an individual decision, or if you’re dealing with someone who’s been encouraged to donate a kidney by the other members of the group. You could never know whether someone was acting of their own volition, or from the pressure that Dave has placed on them.

And of course the pressure David places on them is not a written contract, so David McKay will deny that he has ever been of any influence. I would not take any kidneys from Jesus Christians. But the idea is great. Just David McKay is horrendous. Great idea, just wrong person involved. He shouldn’t be doing it because he’s definitely making news for himself.

Isn’t donating a kidney is helping people?

Yes it’s certainly a good thing. It’s a good thing from the individual who chooses to do it. There’s no guarantee, there’s not compulsion in donations from the Jesus Christians. And because the group’s entirely self-enclosed there’s no perspective on the world other than David’s and his leaders. So for that reason I don’t think the Jesus Christians should actually donate kidneys. Certainly there should be absolutely no coverage of it because that’s what David’s looking for.

But it is a very very noble act, absolutely. But they shouldn’t be doing it.

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