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Fifteen Minutes of Flame

Aaron Bushnell’s agony didn’t start with Israel’s war in Gaza. It began with an abusive cult that traumatized its children, and saw the destruction of Israel as a gateway to heaven.

David Jager
March 25, 2024



Why did a 25-year-old U.S. airman named Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington? It depends on who you ask. According to his supporters on both the right and the left, Bushnell was a man of rare courage who self-immolated in order to “free Palestine”—the slogan that he screamed repeatedly as he burned to death.

To these people, Bushnell performed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice because he could no longer stomach the U.S. military’s endorsement of what he termed Israel’s “genocide.” His was a brave and a resounding condemnation of a U.S. military he had voluntarily joined, and now believed had wrongfully endorsed Israel’s military response to the atrocities committed against it by Hamas.

For others, Bushnell was simply a useful idiot of the hate-Israel left, an impressionable man who tragically fell prey to anti-Zionist rhetoric. His act of conscience was in fact an expression of the creeping antisemitism disguised as righteous anti-Zionism that has become dominant in some parts of both the left and the right, and is even infiltrating our military.

It’s also possible that the origin of Bushnell’s horrific action had nothing to do with the simplistic political divides of our moment, and were instead more deeply rooted in the events of his own life. The troubling details of Bushnell’s childhood in an isolated community known as the Community of Jesus suggest that setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy may have been Bushnell’s response to his own searing victimization at the hands of people who had nothing to do with Israelis or Gazans, and who have been characterized as espousing a particular brand of antisemitism, which one former member dubbed “Anglo-Israelism.”

The Community of Jesus, in which Aaron Bushnell was raised from birth until he joined the U.S. Air Force in 2020, was originally founded in 1970 by two “lay sisters,” Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen. The group presents itself as a pristine Benedictine lay community on Rock Harbor, in Orleans, Massachusetts, with members living an intense life of devotion and quiet under a specific motto: “Nothing is more beautiful than a life of obedience.”

In truth, the community practices a hodgepodge veneer of Catholic, Episcopalian, and charismatic beliefs combined with their own homespun fire and brimstone theology. It also, according to former members, enforces extreme spiritual discipline. Punitive and shaming to a pathological degree, it is especially hard on its children, who, according to multiple prior members that I spoke to over phone and email, are frequently beaten, screamed at, shamed and made to perform endless menial labor. Bushnell, who was the child of two core members, was raised under this regimen, one former member told me.

There really is no way to understand Bushnell or his motivation without first understanding the community in which he was raised. His struggle was, ultimately, a deeply personal one.

The allegedly abusive practices of the Community of Jesus have come to light largely because of the tireless work of Ewan Whyte, a survivor of the cult. Like Bushnell, Whyte was raised by the community as a child. Soft-spoken with a scholarly demeanor, he is now a poet, art critic, and essayist living in Toronto. He is also a tireless advocate for the surviving children who continue to languish there. A lion’s share of his time consists of securing personal statements, affidavits, and signed court documents that corroborate the severity of the cult’s practices, which they continuously and categorically deny. He is also working on a memoir.

“They managed to completely impact my life,” Whyte told me recently by phone, “but if I can save even one child with my research, then it will have been worth it.”

As a survivor, Whyte has his own thoughts about Bushnell’s attitudes toward the Community of Jesus. Like Bushnell, Whyte left the community; he remembers his first years in the world were a combination of trauma, helplessness, confusion, and rage. He developed an antipathy toward organized religion and control of any sort.

“It makes sense that Bushnell developed such an extreme zeal for social justice,” Whyte told me. “When you are mistreated as continuously as we were, you develop a strong desire to protect the helpless. But you also struggle with the hypocrisy and evil you were raised with. You see people who call themselves the chosen people of Christ regularly beating and abusing children, destroying them physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You develop a passion for rooting out bullies and hypocrites. But because your every gesture and thought is criticized and controlled, you don’t have any real critical thinking tools. It’s messed up.”

Bushnell, by all accounts, was an extremely caring individual who went out of his way to help others and zealously adopted social justice, socialist, and anarchist causes. The community, while fervently right wing and Christian, is also staunchly pro-Israel, though in a way that can quickly become ominous for actual Jews.

Reading Bushnell’s actions against the accounts of Whyte, however, one gets the sense that Bushnell’s struggle was less a way of finding his way politically or religiously than it was a way of reacting against what we can surmise about his upbringing. There really is no way to understand Bushnell or his motivation without first understanding the community in which he was raised. His struggle, was, ultimately, a deeply personal one.

Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen, the co-founders of the Community of Jesus, were two housewives when they met at a Christian fellowship meeting in 1958. They founded the community as a bed-and-breakfast and retreat center in 1970. From there it steadily grew into a multi-million-dollar private compound in Orleans, now run by Mother Betty Pugsley (Cay and Judy have since died). The duo grew extremely wealthy on retreat fees and dues paid by residential members, who live in community as lay brothers and sisters. By the 1980s, they had a handsome real estate portfolio, a private plane, and an estate in Bermuda. Visits from religious dignitaries were frequent, and they were received in audience by Pope John Paul II.

In the compound, the two ladies were spiritual rock stars, seen as living embodiments of humility, moral rectitude, and Christian service. Their many lectures, given in person or played endlessly on cassette tapes, were a community constant. Accounts of their ability to heal circulated. Members hinted at the possibility that both of them had been present, spiritually, at the moment of creation.

In private, however, their lifestyles were apparently squalid. According to statements from their inner circle, the two women were overweight, heavy drinkers embroiled in a secret, decadeslong lesbian affair. Witnesses claim to have seen them regularly gorging on food and drunkenly fighting with each other for hours on end. Nevertheless, members were called upon to follow their outward example unstintingly. The community—which is profoundly homophobic—objected to same sex relationships and demanded celibacy from members, even married members, unless procreation was the goal.

Despite the exhortation to procreate, prior members have stated that community children were forcibly separated from parents, usually at the age of 8, but often as young as 6. The sisters believed that a child’s love for their parents is “idolatrous” because it supplants their love of God. They were taken from their parents, and instead placed in separate houses—which is what sources say happened to Bushnell. A child could then be moved continuously from house to house throughout their childhood. Despite being corroborated by multiple prior members, it is a practice that, like all other allegations of abuse and corporal punishment leveled against it, cult leaders staunchly deny.

Ewan Whyte had the double misfortune of having lived at both the Community of Jesus’ Orleans compound and a notorious boarding school with alleged ties to the community, Grenville Christian College. Founded by cult members in 1973 in Brockville, Ontario, the school remained open until financial insolvency and allegations of abuse forced it to close in 2007. Whyte’s mother taught there, and his testimony was central to the success of a $225 million class action suit filed by former students for abuse.

‘Light sessions,’ or ‘Lichtgemeinschaften’ in German, were the community’s primary spiritual practice, which a former member thinks may be linked to Nazi interrogation techniques.

According to the lawsuit brought against Grenville—which the court found had adopted certain ideas and practices of the Community of Jesus and which many claim is effectively one and the same—children were subjected to the community’s notion of an ideal Christian upbringing, which allegedly includes frequent corporal punishment (sometimes resulting in hospitalization or permanent injury), screaming at full volume in children’s faces (called “blasting”), and constant aggressive exhortations against potential—especially sexual—sin. Affidavits submitted in the lawsuit have recounted practices by Grenville including pre-pubescent children being aggressively interrupted during showers and their naked bodies searched by cult leaders for signs of puberty, which is seen as a sign of impending sinful thought or action. According to a former member of the community, one lay brother who “struggled” with masturbation was made to sleep at night in a straightjacket.

Kept to a strict schedule that includes mandatory early morning and evening worship, children are also forced to perform menial labor alongside adults that includes tending to the cult’s extensive vegetable gardens, grounds, and buildings. Children who do not comply are allegedly beaten, collectively shamed, isolated, sleep deprived, and in some cases, deprived of food. The community believes these austere measures are not punishments but actual blessings, ways of steeling the child to be a more perfect disciple of Christ. Like the Puritans before them, community members see themselves as a chosen elect who must undertake the arduous task of living a perfect Christian life.

In her 2020 statement on the case, presiding Judge Janet Leiper concluded: “The evidence of maltreatment and the varieties of abuse perpetrated on students’ bodies and minds in the name of the [Community of Jesus] values of submission and obedience was class-wide and decades-wide.” Nevertheless, the community was not named as a defendant in that case, no findings against the community were made, and representatives for the community continue to deny that any such allegations are true.

Whyte vividly remembers his first year as a child member of the community, where he was placed with around 15 other children under the constant supervision of a dour cult couple he was forced to call “Uncle and Aunt.” He recalls a gantlet of early mornings, continuous worship and prayer, physical labor, and frequent corporal punishment and abuse. During his first few weeks at the house, a fellow child was found “guilty” of scribbling on a log of firewood with a pencil. He was beaten until he bled.

Ewan Whyte’s father, a pastor and member, was a friend of Aaron Bushnell’s family. He agreed to the separation from Ewan, as did all core members. The doctrine of separation was so rigidly enforced, Ewan recalls, his father would look directly through him whenever they happened to pass each other in the compound. “It was as if I were invisible.” He adds: “My father was a vain, malignant narcissist, used to being admired as a pastor but fundamentally troubled and self-involved. He truly believed, in his very twisted way, that he was doing what was best for me.”

Ewan Whyte remembers Bushnell’s father as well from this time: “The father was a complete cult follower. To me he was a shell of a person.”

Extremely fit but slight, Whyte believes his growth was stunted due to the substandard food in his first house. Unable to finish his dinner one evening, it was set aside and returned to him the next day. After a week of this, he was finally forced to eat it anyway. When he vomited, he was made to eat his vomit while the house uncle screamed an inch from his face.

To his credit, Ewan Whyte proved surreally resilient and stubborn. He developed a secret fondness for art and poetry. Literature of any sort, aside from the cult-approved religious literature, was scarce, but he ransacked books from the local school and public library. He memorized poems compulsively, starting with Shelley and then backward to the classics, as a means of mental escape. “Poetry really did save my life,” he told me. He also developed an obsession with competitive running. “I strengthened the inner recesses of my mind through memorization. My mind became a storehouse of beautiful things they couldn’t get to. Also, I learned how to run away.”

Despite his attainments, Ewan Whyte readily testifies that he continues to suffer the aftereffects of over a decade of unimaginable abuse. He was beaten countless times, both publicly and privately. He was physically thrown against walls and down a flight of stairs. Once he was locked in a walk-in freezer for two hours and made to sleep in soiled bedding for a week. He is more reticent about the incidents of sexual abuse, which he said were numerous. “It was rampant in the community, and I suspect it still is,” he states unequivocally.

Beatings and constant yelling weren’t the worst things that children in the Community of Jesus had to endure, however. Another alleged staple of life that the community denies was a disciplinary tool called the “light session”—spontaneous group shaming sessions in which a community member is suddenly singled out for a shortcoming, a shared piece of history, or a sin. Sins can be anything a light session leader decides.

After the accusation, the target is then made to endure lengthy, sometimes hourslong psychological browbeating. The goal, in Whyte’s view, is to tear a member down completely. The only legitimate response is complete emotional breakdown and confession. Once the subject has been turned into a shuddering wreck, they are then love-bombed by the same group that had just berated them endlessly. They are told they have won a great spiritual victory. The subject is then ordered to reciprocate the stated love.

Whyte recalls this last detail with intense disgust. After being beaten or abused, children invariably had to turn to their abuser, thank them, and declare their love for them. If they refused, the punishment or beating would continue. Ewan remembers being forced to do this to his house “uncle” immediately after eating his own vomit.

If Bushnell’s parents were core members, it is highly likely that he was subjected to these light sessions and other abuse. Whyte remembers that even the exalted Cay and Judy underwent the process, if only cosmetically. Light sessions were the community’s primary spiritual practice. The term comes from the German Lichtgemeinschaften, which, according to a former member of the community, Andersen and Sorensen learned from the Evangelical Sisters of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany (founded in 1947). Peter Andersen, the estranged son of founding member Cay Andersen, thinks there may be a link between the practice and Nazi interrogation techniques. In Whyte’s view, the German sisters were using the light sessions as a form of atonement for Nazism.

Whyte believes that light sessions account for the intense devotion and secrecy of core members. While he has managed to get private statements against the cult from senior members, even from Peter Andersen (whose statements in the case against Grenville support the claims in this story), many cult members remain loyal and tight-lipped when confronted about cult abuse. The obedient nature of the community breeds a sort of reflexive doublethink and fealty similar to the devotion inspired by other effectively authoritarian organizations.

According to Whyte, children of low-ranking members also receive harsher treatment than children of visitors or elite members, as a strict but silent system of class favoritism is in place, and the cult favored moneyed elites who joined. It was at his lowest ebb, a period of truly horrific treatment in his teens, that Whyte realized with creeping horror that he was being groomed to be a permanent lay brother.

That Aaron Bushnell was expected to become a “brother” of the community is a matter of record. He expressed his intention to do so before opting instead for the military. He would also work alongside his mother in the cult’s publishing house, Paraclete Press, for two years.

Yet at a certain point, Bushnell, according to a former member, wished to leave. The Air Force was ultimately his only means of escape. The odds of his thriving in the outside world, however, were sadly stacked against him.

In the successful class action suit against Grenville Christian College, it was demonstrated that survivors of the school suffer an unusually high degree of mental health issues, trauma, addiction, suicide, and general failure to thrive in the world at large. Left to their own devices, many have felt adrift and confused. Whyte believes it is a pernicious form of Stockholm syndrome: Cult children are continuously told they have been chosen to participate in the most ideal of Christian communities, and told that outside of the community’s structure, they are worthless sinners. Leaving the community often results in feelings of abject failure and extreme inner conflict.

It has also led, for many former child members, to traumatic, justified rage against the community and everything it stands for.

Bushnell escaped into the U.S. Air Force but was soon disillusioned by military life and became far more interested in social causes like combatting homelessness. Given its strong support for the Jewish state, the Community of Jesus was likely strongly identified in Bushnell’s mind with Israel. It is also possible that Bushnell viewed the Palestinian cause through the lens of his own oppressive upbringing, perhaps allowing him to express his own despair at his own continuous abuse, and to express solidarity with the children who are there to this day.

Yet Bushnell’s views of Israel would have also been warped by the community’s own cryptic antisemitism. Like many born-again communities, the Community of Jesus sees itself as a staunch supporter of Israel. This support, however, is based only on a literal reading of the Book of Revelation. For certain evangelicals, Israel is merely a means to an eschatological end, a pawn in the biblical endgame that ends with the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. In any case, for Bushnell, Israel would have represented yet another piece of the oppressive theology from his childhood.

Perhaps more important than the specifics of the cult’s teachings about Jews and Israel is its penchant for framing political and religious issues in black and white. In the community, which trains its members in unquestioning obedience more than the U.S. military ever could, horrific actions are cleaved to with stone-faced moral certainty. In Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation, one can read both a challenge to the community’s faith and a ratification of the religious tenets into which he was forcibly indoctrinated.

The fanaticism and ultimate messiness of Bushnell’s final gesture, however, points to something murkier. It presents a traumatized individual lost in a maze of belief. A cultish brand of Christian extremism devoured Bushnell’s childhood and youth. In attempting to escape its ideological straightjacket, he appears to have substituted new ideological convictions for the ones of his childhood. But these too were hopelessly tainted by his traumatic past. In his desperate search for a new cause to replace the one he was raised with, he is not so much an example of moral rectitude or refutation than of traumatic confusion.

What is the remedy for this spreading form of extremism, which the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has identified as La pureté dangereuse? What protects us from corroding and violent systems of fanatical belief?

Ewan Whyte, mistrustful of religion in general for obvious reasons, believes the answer lies in the humanities. “There is no way one can seriously study the classics, or history, and emerge with some ridiculous notion of one’s unquestionable, divinely appointed, manifest destiny,” he told me recently. “The folly of human endeavor is written too repeatedly in our history to miss.”

David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in Manhattan. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto.