As those of us who are Christian wind up Holy Week, we would do well to remind ourselves that sometimes our faith leaders have been charlatans, megalomaniacs, theological knaves. (Well, truth be told, that happens in faiths other than Christianity, too, though for now I mostly want to focus on the religion to which I pledge allegiance.)
You can find evidence of this in lots of places, but here's one: Terry Gross, on National Public Radio, recently interviewed the author of a new book (I haven't yet read it) about what happened almost 40 years ago at Jonestown in Guyana, when some 900 people either were killed or killed themselves at the urging of one of these charlatans, Jim Jones.
As the NPR story to which I've linked you reports, "Journalist Jeff Guinn details how Jones captivated his followers in his new book, The Road to Jonestown. He calls Jones a 'tremendous performer' who exhibited 'the classic tendencies of the demagogue.'"
When Guinn calls Jones a great actor, he literally means pretending to be someone he is not: "Instinctively he understood the things that he would need to do in front of a crowd, not just to get their attention, but to hold it and be remembered by them. . . .He would [fake] being able to summon cancers from people's bodies, which were actually rotten chicken parts that he would have planted earlier."
And yet some of his followers went along with this on the theory that the end (raising funds for anti-poverty work) justified the means. So that's obviously one clue to recognizing a religious leader who is likely to lead people astray.
Leaders of healthy religious movements are themselves healthy, meaning they recognize that they, too, are flawed people who need support and help as well as aid in discerning direction. When you find someone who has become profoundly certain that he or she is on the right path, someone who will put up with no criticism, run. Run as fast as you can away from this trouble.
This is part of the message of my latest book, The Value of Doubt. There are good reasons why one of the surest paths to a healthy and sustainable faith is through doubt -- and being able to express doubts and ask questions openly. When that path gets shut off and adherents are spoon fed unquestioned answers instead of being able to wrestle with unanswered questions, disaster may not be far behind.
Guinn notes that Jones "tried to convince them (residents of Jonestown) it wasn't suicide, it was something much grander than that." When evils get labeled goods, nothing good will result.
May the lessons of Jonestown guide all people of faith.
* * *
RESURRECTING EASTER'S ROOTS
Because it's Easter weekend, I thought you might want to know where the term Easter came from and some additional background about this annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. You will find that here, in case anybunny cares.
* * *
P.S.: As Arkansas was moving ahead Friday with its inhumane, indefensible plan to execute six prisoners in 11 days starting Monday, a state judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop this barbarity, this madness. On Saturday, a federal judge followed suit. Before that news broke, I found this piece in the Christian Science Monitor that raised valid concerns for the state employees scheduled to do the killings. There also were lots of calls, including from religious leaders, for Arkansas to stop this state-sponsored brutality.