the Spirit Watch

Tasting The Rainbow: 

Our Thoughts On A Wandering Countercultural Movement

by Rev Rafael D Martinez, Co-Director, Spiritwatch Ministries

"Help! My son and his friends have run off and joined something called the Rainbows. Are they some kind of cult?"

For some reason, we've gotten quite a number of requests on this over the years, so Spiritwatch Ministries decided we needed to help answer the question for our site visitors. The "Rainbows" attract a lot of people who are free spirited nonconformists filled with curiosity to their movement, and many of these are often young men and women whose sudden absence alarms their parents. What can we make of these people who call themselves the Rainbows?

The first step in determining the nature of groups like the Rainbows is that of quality investigation based upon good research and good critical thinking, and in doing an investigation like this, what we typically search for are opportunities to enter into dialogue with leaders and members of the group we are wishing to examine for firsthand and factual information (unfortunately, no local group exists here, although several years ago they did visit the Cherokee National Forest for a time). So, if this cannot be accomplished, then we rely heavily upon the literature and writings that the group produces, realizing that how they represent themselves to the public may not always be how they really are in private (we did find Rainbow websites we used  as sources of information we will share from). All of this, you may recognize, can get very involved and finding sources of information relating to groups wishing to remain anonymous can become excruciatingly difficult.  Not being in any physical proximity to local Rainbow groups at has made this worse, so we want to speak carefully and not want to perpetuate or create any misunderstanding about them. 

The “Rainbow Cult” activities we are often asked about are usually the doings of local chapters of “the Rainbow Family” movement that is popular in various places of the country. The only source of information about the Rainbows I will draw from is from websites run by members who are clearly sympathetic to them. The identity of  a “Rainbow Family” group has probably less to do with the labeling of a dangerous cult (some still active today do use the concept of "Family" quite intentionally)  than with a handy term to identify those individuals and groups that embrace a particular countercultural philosophy that is based upon the variety of  1960’s  pop Eastern mysticism.  The term of “Family” seems used by those who are attracted to the communal aspect of Rainbow gatherings and who wish to identify themselves as spiritually united with the other like minded people who espouse their beliefs. 

The “Rainbows” are made up people who have chosen to work collectively in a cooperative effort of “intentional community building, non-violence, and alternative lifestyles,” as one site put it. The "Burning Man" festival is similar in spirit, although considerably more commercialized and party-oriented in nature. The most visible focus of Rainbow activity appears to be around their involvement with Gatherings of like-minded people to create short-term communities in national parks or forests. The Gatherings are essentially an attempt to create a combination of county fair and camp-out, of theatre and support group in a serious (and more often then not, not-so-serious) effort “to learn, to grow, to celebrate, to be one with .. fellow beings and .. Mother Earth, to serve, to pray, to play,” as another Rainbow writer wrote. Every conceivable type of countercultural communal activity can be found going on at Gatherings. Native American spirituality and Eastern Hindu/Buddhist philosophy seems to supply the movement with its’ core worldview of pantheistic mysticism somehow made very joyously personal as embodied in Rainbow community. Conscious efforts to minimize and restore the wilderness lands impacted by mass gatherings of hundreds of people are made, though not always with the greatest of success. It's an exotic and non Christian perspective but hardly cultic in the acutely abusive and manipulative manner many concerned people e-mail or call us about.

However, it can be a strange one, I'll have to admit, that can lead some Rainbows to unusual depths of intimacy with nature.. One of my co-workers at the Maytag plant encountered a Rainbow Family member several years ago at the now defunct Grumpy's Country Store along U.S. Route 64 just west of the Cherokee National Forest entrance. The young man came in to shop for groceries, and my coworker (who was working part time at Grumpy's) noted how shaggy, unkempt and his denim and leather clothing was and how gaunt he seemed.. "Musta been one of them thar Rainbow hippies," he snorted.

A few minutes went by and the Rainbow came up with his grocery selections and produced a wad of dirty dollar bills to pay for them. As the transaction went on, the clerk noticed a hideously gorged tick dug deeply into the Rainbow's face, and it became quite obvious the thing had been attached to his cheek for some time. The clerk noticed it and told the Rainbow that there was a tick on his face. The Rainbow acknowledged it with a grunt, paid the bill and started to walk out the door with his bag of groceries. The clerk was totally thunderstruck and blurted out "Hey, son, there's a tick stuffin' hisself on your face there!"  Without looking back, the Rainbow said "Hey, he needs a home too," and walked out. Needless to say, this had to have been a young man truly dedicated to the Rainbow ideal of harmonizing with nature and becoming one of it.

For Rainbows, there are no rules, no leaders, and no organization, something cultic movements cannot develop without creating. And yet, in a exceedingly decentralized and eclectic manner, there are indeed guiding principles that they do operate by which appear to be traditions created by consensus over the almost thirty years of Gatherings they have had. For any movement or philosophy to succeed and prosper, some sort of common ground has to be established and even for the intensely individualistic bent of this movement, these “traditions” do exist. Leadership of the Rainbows is entirely a voluntary affair, and appears to exist only whenever it is needed. There are those entitled “elders” and “focalizers”. Again, this is not leadership in the contemporary sense. It is perhaps more accurately a cross between mentorship and the advice of “old hands” that helps to bestow upon well-traveled Rainbows these titles.

Researcher Michael Niman, who wrote a book about the Rainbows, created a glossary of Rainbow terminology and defines “elders” as those individuals who have “been to many Gatherings and are supposedly knowledgeable about the Family”  He points out that “Rainbow ideology states that elders, while wise, are not leaders, as the Family admits to no leadership.” Focalizers are those volunteers “ responsible to serve as a conduit for Rainbow Family information to both Family members away from the Gatherings and to the public; (they are) also responsible for overseeing the organization and publicity for local area Rainbow Family events.”  Niman’s definitions suggest that leadership roles are recognized in the context of interpretive and organizational needs for group activity and are not meant to bestow the status of  a “spokesman” or “representative” mantle upon elders and focalizers.

I do not know  that destructive cultism has any part in Rainbow events at all and suspect that it generally doesn't exist, although it is quite possible  that it can develop. Not having had a chance to live among Rainbows during Gatherings,  I cannot say with any certainty that the cultic group dynamic that coerces and pressure people to conform to a rigid group ideology and practice with techniques like cult mind control does not exist among them. Some uncorroborated yet plausible claims that include first hand testimony as to the presence of the cult dynamics at Rainbow gatherings can be found on the Internet. However, despite these I think it would be safe to assume that destructive cultism does not appear to be prevalent here to any great degree. To be perfectly honest, however, I really cannot say. But the highly established principle of individualism that Rainbow Gatherings are dedicated to preserving would appear to be a check to any kind of individual or group attempt to mobilize people under one particular ism or belief system.  Rainbows are at heart non-conformists dedicated to self-fulfillment in settings that involve cooperative interaction with others. As one person on the above link put it: "People who go to these gatherings range from high functioning, intelligent, creative, insightful folks to dysfunctional, deranged, and lost souls. Kind of like the mix in our broad culture." And there is no one in a Rainbow gathering that will make you cooperate or conform with its ideals in any mass gathering. The Rainbow community at its spirit is a fluid social circle of anarchic coexistence. Anyone can theoretically float in, interact, and leave at any time. That is definitely not cultic in the traditional sense.

There is actually, according to Rainbow writings, a definite derision if not amusement held for those who seem too eager to advance their own self-centered needs or dogmatic cause at the exclusion of all others’; such people are called “blissninnies”, "drainbows" or “high holy hippies” (Niman's research revealed and defined these three derogatory terms). With such a degree of organizational decentralization, however, it becomes obvious that Rainbow gatherings could present opportunities for cultic radicals bent on their own agenda and kingdom building to slip in and draw away their own disciples, even if all the while being seen as dogmatists who take themselves too seriously. While they don’t generally make an impact on the overall movement of Gatherings, it seems quite likely that strong voices of those espousing seductive philosophies in the context of their own clearly defined and exclusive vision will be heard. They may be laughed at by many Rainbows, who avoid dogmatism, but not ignored by all of them. To what extent this has gone on at Rainbow Gatherings is again uncertain, but the fact that the “Family” has coined terminology to define such individuals is proof positive that there are those who do indeed attend Gatherings to do their own gathering.

Now while psychologically damaging cultism may not be prevalent, there is, from a Christian perspective, the grave concern that should be had for the spiritual destiny of those upholding unbiblical and pagan practices such as the Rainbows espouse. They advocate a casual and individualized religious syncretism: they freely mix religion and philosophy into tailor made spirituality to “connect” with and take nurture from the earth. Their lifelong embracing of an ill-defined, eclectic spirituality of Rainbow philosophy certainly will never lead anyone to a true relationship with God through Christ.  It is a creation-centered spirituality whose concerns are largely with  human attempts to advance “the positive evolution of humankind & nature” as “Carla,” a Rainbow writer, recalls.  

Quite apart from their spirituality, another area of concern might be that in the headlong rush to openness to new perspectives and lifestyles, impressionable people - young and old - are far more willing to experiment with philosophies and practices that can be damaging. The underlying toleration for drug and alcohol usage as well as sexual and social experimentation can lead some people getting involved with it into a spiral of corruption and defilement that can turn them into addictive and self-destructive behavior. In the midst of sharing those elements of human life that make up the common social denominators between strangers and groups of individuals tagging along down a long road, it's inevitable that these kinds of things will become expressed. The grand goal for "positive evolution" usually bogs down in the mundane grasping for a good buzz, a hot meal, or a sex partner. The relationships one Rainbow wannabe gravitates to in a gathering or trek have this kind of potential - but frankly one must be honest and realize that the potential for these kind of dangers are just as prevalent in many other kinds of personal relationships the same people might encounter even as they worked 9-5 jobs and hung out in clubs on the weekend.  The Rainbows are no more unrighteous in that regard than the "Babylon" they claim to be so emancipated from as they sit in tents in national forests eating granola bars. 

As wonderful as cooperation, positive attitudes and a passion for the advancement of peace on the earth and harmony with nature sounds, it is clearly a dream that does not square with human reality or Biblical truth. It is a passive, retreatist philosophy that uses idealistic escapism to avoid confronting the hard issues and choices that must be made if real peace and human harmony is ever to be achieved.  The first Rainbows are certainly pushing sixty now, and it would be interesting to engage them in conversation that asks them how much further humanity and the Earth is after the years of communal chanting, energy sampling in prayer circles and drumming have gone by. Only a personal relationship with Jesus Christ can restore peace to individuals, who in turn comprise the population of the earth: and according to Bible prophecy, true peace to the world will only come after the Enemy of all souls, Satan himself, is finally vanquished by God at the great last day Battle of Armageddon. That's a dose of reality our Rainbow friends fail to really grapple with: peace will not be achieved by human instrumentality. 

No matter how compelling the Rainbow desire is to pursue peace at the exclusion of the Lordship of Christ, it cannot come through a murky, self-centered spirituality that can never work real change in the world, except within the immediate circles of the Family, and then only for a time. The Rainbow movement may not be cultic, and its anti-materialistic, communal and non-violent spirit may be a laudable thing in the times we live, but it is yet another attempt by fallen man to create a utopia that is as substantial as a morning fog covering a mountain valley that vanishes when the sun rises upon it.

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