Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Significance of McCotter’s Great Commission at the University of Oklahoma Campus, Geoffrey Botkin, Vision Forum, New Zealand and Homeschooling

For those who follow Vision Forum’s homeschooling ideology and teachings, the Great Commission’s problematic history of college campus evangelism proves to be of great significance because not only because the problems manifested by Vision Forum’s “vision” match the very same problems of the Great Commission group (GC) at the height of their activities, it should also be noted that Geoff Botkin of Vision Forum worked with and for this cultic and aberrant evangelical Christian group for approximately 30 years. I’m told that the group leader and founder, Jim McCotter, was quite impressed with his creative ideas for evangelism dating back to their association in Norman, OK in the 70s on the campus of the University of Oklahoma (OU). I have found no documentation or testimony noting that Geoff Botkin renounced the past abuses of the Great Commission teachings and practices, actually now using Vision Forum to perpetuation the same core ideas. This information is also significant, because it relates to Geoff Botkin’s claims of a history of Marxism in his family and/or early history. (Please refer to this previous post with links to documentation the history of McCotter and his relationship with Geoff Botkin.)

The religious system that developed from Jim McCotter’s efforts quickly became an aberrant group, getting caught up in the peripheral aspects of the Christian faith by focusing on pet doctrines, performance standards, and a demanding submission to church authorities. There were many other churches that developed in the 1960s and ‘70s that fell into this same error, and this movement in evangelical Christianity became known as the Shepherding Discipleship Movement. Bill Gothard and Sovereign Grace Ministries are groups that advocate homeschooling as a religious right, groups that also classify as part of the Shepherding Discipleship ideology. According to the model framed by David Henke, these groups exemplify spiritual abuse because they manifest these hallmark signs: they are authoritarian, perfectionistic, image-conscious, they squelch criticism of their system, they are elitist, and they are unbalanced in that they focus on peripheral doctrine rather than essential doctrines of the faith, veering off-center from orthodox Christian teachings.

A few days ago, I made contact with an additional former member of the Norman, Oklahoma Great Commission group, a man named Ilgvars Vermelis. Information reported to me that some details about his own history I’d noted on this blog as reported by former members was somewhat inaccurate, so I would like to correct and clarify that information. Thanks to contact with and clarification of even more former members, I have been able to develop a clearer picture of the history of this group of OU students during and following the McCotter evangelism “Blitz” campaign in the 1970s.

The group participants in the Great Commission group were divided up into communal group homes that were overseen by more senior members in the group, referred to as “older brothers.” Married couples provided oversight of the group homes for the women members of the group, but as I understand it, there were cells of community within the larger group. Women wore head coverings and could not speak at meetings of mixed company, but they were permitted to sing. All marriages took place through courtships that were called for or approved by group leadership, and the group prohibited dating or the pursuit of romantic relationships that were apart from their oversight and authority through their system of strict ecclesiocentriticity. Those who did not conform to the group were disciplined, manipulated through positive and negative reinforcement, and were shunned if non-compliant with discipline from the group.

Most everyone who has contacted me with information about the GC group at OU Norman had a closer connection to Gregory Botkin but knew his brother Geoff Botkin, both of whom came there from Tulsa. Someone who was closer to Gregory’s sub-group and off-campus GC home was Ilgvars Vermelis, the son of survivors of the Marxist regime in Latvia who immigrated to the US following WWII. He was just a few years older than many of the new recruits on campus, and because of his powerful testimony that was well known among the Great Commission followers in Norman, he was seen as a role model within this group. He was a role model by example, age and testimony, but Vermelis was not a formal leader with the group in Norman in any capacity. The group actually subjected him to abusive discipline, and he reports that he was turned out of the group about the same time that Gregory Botkin and his wife left the Norman cult.

For those who had less direct contact with Vermelis and those who were not in his communal home and smaller campus group, it seems that his testimony took on a life of its own within the larger group. I’d presented these recollections of some of these former members on this blog last month, and I wanted to clarify the details according to my communications with Ilgvars Vermelis himself. Consider wide-eyed freshmen in the middle of the period of the cold war and during the protested Vietnam War hearing a testimony that spoke of Communism and protesting abuses of government. Some of the former members of the Norman group recall that Vermelis had some history that involved Communism and protesting who then became a follower of Jesus Christ. Some interpreted this or recall this as an actual history of Mr. Vermelis having been a Marxist or Communist himself. This is incorrect. Most specifically, Vermelis did have history “with Communism,” but it involved advocating for Latvians against Communist/Marxist oppression, petitioning the US to help these oppressed people in the USSR via peaceable means. So in the minds and memories that date back more than 25 years, some former members’ accounts lacked these details. Ilgvars contacted me recently to clarify these specifics that many innocently recall in error. Some also believed he was a teacher at OU when he was only a student, notably by those who are several years younger than he was and did perceive him as a role model.
My humble apologies and gratitude to former GC member, Ilgvars Vermelis, who very graciously corrected my reporting of his personal testimony details that were recalled inaccurately by former members, identifying him as possibly being supportive/sympathetic to Communism, an innocent error. He has always opposed Marxist ideology, and even prior to his faith in Christ, he opposed Marxism and did not support it as some may recall. He never held a leadership position within the GC group in Norman where he was a student at OU.

Why is this history significant to those who have an interest in Vision Forum or the call for the 2010 migration of homeschoolers to New Zealand?

First, I think it is important for those who are involved in these interests to have informed consent about the history of Geoff Botkin. Though his brother Greg left the Great Commission, Geoff Botkin continued in a relationship with both the aberrant Great Commission and with Jim McCotter, pursing McCotter’s interests and teachings through 2002. I’ve seen no documentation that Geoff Botkin has ever renounced or recanted the aberrant teachings and harsh practices of the original Great Commission group that many Christians and former members including Dr. Paul Martin, Lawrence Pile, Ilgvars Vermelis, and Greg Botkin abandoned. In fact, Geoff Botkin promotes most of the original core messages of the Great Commission through his work at Vision Forum including rigid performance standards for women; rigid courtship and arranged marriage; improper response to criticism; an elitist attitude; failing to distinguish between a Biblical command, a general principle and personal preference; authoritarian and/or insensitive leadership; harsh church discipline; lack of emphasis on formal education; and a belief that every man should become an elder [or prophet, priest and king of the home as it is articulate by Vision Forum].

Secondly, this information draws some of Geoff Botkin’s claims into question. In his capacity with Vision Forum, Geoff Botkin makes bold statements, claiming that his family was Marxist and that he himself repeatedly boasts a supposed history as a “committed Marxist.”   25Apr12 Addendum note to family members who have written to me to state that the Botkins were not Marxist:  Geoff made that claim in an interview with Brandon Howse which is no longer on line, but a copy of the audio can be purchased for a nominal fee from Worldview Weekend where it was originally featured.  I have merely repeated the bold claims that Geoff Botkin has made about his own family in a very public forum.

Ilgvars Vermelis adds his testimony to those who knew Geoff Botkin as a member of the Great Commission cult in Norman and states that he had no knowledge of the Botkin Family (Greg, Geoff or their family in Tulsa) professing any kind of Communism or Marxism. I’m sure that given his family’s personal interests and his concerns for the Latvians who were oppressed by Marxism, I believe that Ilgvars Vermelis would not have missed or forgotten that his friend Greg and the Botkin family had sympathy for Marxist ideology, let alone that his family members were committed Marxists.

If Geoffrey Botkin was a committed Marxist at one time in his history, exactly at what point did he participate in these endeavors? Considering the testimony of people who knew the Botkin family, unless the family kept knowledge of their beliefs very well concealed, it is highly unlikely that this Marxist training came by way of Geoff’s family in Tulsa. Geoff would have been about 18 years old in 1972-73 who I assume ventured off to college at this time, about the time of McCotter’s “Blitz.” He became a Great Commission member while a student there and actively participated in the group in the early to mid-seventies in Norman. Communism and Marxism was notably inconsistent with this very right-wing group. Was Geoff a committed Marxist for three weeks on OU’s campus during 1973 or while reading something about the Frankfurt School before the Great Commission recruited him? This seems highly inconsistent with the testimony he now offers. From Norman, Geoff followed McCotter to the Silver Spring, MD effort and is cited in the ‘80s as the Great Commission’s administrative assistant there. Geoff himself states that he oversaw a lobbying group, likely the ABG lobbyist group that the Great Commission mobilized in 1986, concurrent with their running of a total 19 candidates for political office in the November election in Montgomery County, MD. From Maryland, Botkin followed McCotter to New Zealand. They parted ways in 2oo2 when Geoff resigned.

None of these activities seem consistent with the activities and history of a committed Marxist. If this is such a notable portion of Geoff Botkin’s history, why is it that no one who knew Geoff as a young man knew him as a Marxist? When was he a Marxist and what specifically qualifies him as a committed Marxist?

As former members of the Great Commission group observe, there are those who believe that Geoff absorbed elements suggested by the powerful testimony of Ilgvars Vermelis in order to embellish his own testimony. The whole group at Norman was moved by Ilgvars’ powerful testimony of life in Christ, of his family, and of his advocacy for those who were oppressed, downtrodden and murdered by Marxists in the land of his ancestors. Did Geoff absorb distorted aspects of this testimony of another to sound more sensational of a figure himself? Who can say? A history of Marxism would establish Geoff Botkin as a more mysterious character within the leadership of Vision Forum that preaches for women to repent of feminism which they reduce to a Marxist origin. Geoff’s claims of a Marxist past and his agreement with this assertion of Vision Forum’s use of reductio ad Hilterum to vilify any position that challenges their gender hierarchy teaching make Geoff Botkin something of a desired expert. Both parties benefit from the validation: 1.) Geoff as the former Marxist finds a ready-made platform that zealously receives him because he agrees with and is useful to advance the group agenda, and 2.) this establishes him as a notable member in the Vision Forum group itself. The group that uses Marxism as a thought-stopping tactic and term now boasts a former Marxist that validates their teaching. Who would know better about the history of Marxism than one who was a former Marxist?

However, Geoff is very vague about his past, boasting claims that sound impressive, mysterious and fantastic at times, and there are many such exaggerations noted on his Western Conservatory website. One such notable one is that his son consulted with Johns Hopkins to assist the Navy with undersea warfare which seems quite implausible to me. Young Isaac likely had someone who worked for Hopkins help him with a homeschooling project at the ripe old age of 14 years. I would like to think that my friends are Geoff’s age who served in the Navy and have advanced degrees from some prestigious college engineering schools would have been more suitable for consultation. And I find it curious that if Geoff Botkins son’s skills were so advanced, why is he not a prodigy graduate of Hopkins or MIT now as opposed to a film maker? The website also boasts that Dr. Greg Botkin serves them as a scientist and as a Chief of Staff at a progressive hospital who participates in alternative energy research. I phoned the facility in Idaho where he works, and he is not Chief of Staff there but is an Emergency Department physician who oversees Rehabilitation Services and Continuing Medical Education at this small community hospital (20 acute beds and 36 extended care beds). The medical data search engines that report information and histories of physicians (of interest to prospective patients/clients) deny that he held a “Chief of Staff” position elsewhere. Certainly, this does not diminish the accomplishments of either Isaac or Greg Botkin in any way, but it does point out the ability of Geoff Botkin to exaggerate, presumably to promote his marketability and image.

I am prompted to ask some honest and concrete questions, particularly after learning about Geoffrey Botkin’s history. If he makes exaggerated statements openly on his website concerning his family, it makes me that much more curious about the measure by which he qualifies himself as a Marxist. What other claims has he made also prove to be gross exaggerations? Geoff Botkin remains vague about the specifics and details of his former affiliations, including his claims of being a former committed Marxist. He does not boast of his involvement with the Great Commission and Jim McCotter. He does not give any specific information about his lobbying and his “think tank” oversight, though all of these things look very impressive on his “Vision Forum Curriculum Vitae” when stated as such.

For those who choose to deem Geoff Botkin as an expert, particularly those who choose to follow his teachings and perhaps wish to follow him to and within New Zealand, I believe that they deserve informed consent. They certainly may choose to follow the Botkin teachings and Geoff as a leader, but they can now do so with a more comprehensive picture of the one whom they have chosen to follow.

I wish I had access to the history and professions of my own Shepherding group and leaders years ago, prior to my involvement with them. If I had access to this information, I never would have joined this church and given any ear to these teachings that were concealed from me until I became entrenched and committed to the group. The aberrant teachings were not documented, and many I learned through the bad counsel given to others and through leadership meetings after I’d become more involved. I rejoice now that God used the Shepherding Discipleship teachings in a powerful way to conform me to the image of Christ, but it is not anything I would ever recommend. (I advise that a person turn and run from them.)

Ilgvars gave me permission to quote anything I wanted from our correspondence in order to clarify the details about his history. I found his description of his history with the Great Commission cult to be quite powerful, so I will leave you with his own words. They explain quite eloquently what it is like to become involved in an aberrant group, either through ignorance about this type of manipulation or by falsely believing that the Word of God insulates you from the spiritual abuse of ideological totalism within otherwise Biblical evangelical Christianity.

When I first believed it was confirmed to me by the Holy Spirit of God – for the first time in my life it was as clear as day that this is the truth –that Jesus is the Truth –everything finally made sense. This overwhelming joy however soon departed, and I was plunged into such conflict as I had previously never known [as a consequence of participation in the Great Commission at OU]. I now understand what happened. At the time I did not. It was the classic Galatian error – “having begun in the Spirit will you now be perfected in the flesh?” I now have a clear understanding of legalism vs the grace of God – a tough lesson in a very tough situation. ( It is by abiding in Christ that we grow, not by attempting to fix the flesh to conform to some form of godliness –the flesh cannot be improved –that is what being crucified with Christ means.) But God did not waste the experience, and insufferable as it was at the time –He did promise to turn what was meant for evil into good. As I previously mentioned it was Jesus that I believed in and trusted even when I could not understand what was happening about me. It seemed as if everything was biblically based yet I sensed something at terrible odds with what I had believed. The imposition of false authority was “Scripturally justified”, yet I found myself at odds with the leadership constantly. I now know that true biblical authority comes by way of the Holy Spirit, not through the clever manipulation of man regardless how many verses one can fish out of Scripture to justify it.

For all those who found their way out of the Great Commission’s oppression and that of any other spiritually abusive group, I rejoice and pray for your healing. For those who are being drawn into or are entrenched in such a system, I pray for and rejoice in advance for God’s deliverance from these traditions of men. Glory to God! And my thanks to all of the former members of the Great Commission at OU at Norman who shared with me so many details about the group out of concern for these others at risk for spiritual abuse.