I was listening to the radio this afternoon in my office whilst tidying up some papers, and was captivated by this programme–
The compelling true story of two sisters, Annie and Carolyn Moore, who died in the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana on November 18th 1978. Over 900 people died that day, followers of Peoples Temple and its leader, Jim Jones. This documentary drama is one family’s experience of Peoples Temple, which began with the highest ideals. It’s told through the actual letters between Carolyn & Annie and their parents back home.
This told the story of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple church right to the bitter end- from the unique perspective of insiders- people who kept faith in Jones right to the very end. Two women who were in leadership positions in Jonestown, and whose parents even seemed supportive of their involvment.
What was fascinating is a kind of insight that emerges as to how people would be prepared to follow this man- prepared to put their faith in him- to believe in the world he created, and be even be prepared to die at his suggestion…
Attempts to make sense of what happened at Jonestown have tended to paint Jones as something other than human. He is seen as evil personified, able to cast a mystical spell over the brainwashed people he surrounded himself with. They, in turn, we tend to see as weak lambs to his slaughter.
But hearing this programme made me think that this was too easy.
There was so much about Jones that was attractive, and I could imagine how seekers after a radical spiritual way of life could be attracted to him. How I might have been interested in the way of life he offered…
Another thing I began to wonder about was the degree to which the dreadful end to the People’s Temple and Jonestown was an extreme example of a more common experience- namely the power we ascribe to leaders in religious/church contexts.
I came across this post recently, by Bill Kinnon, where he quotes from this series, which discusses the role of sociopathy in church, and in Christian leadership. I have a mental health workers suspicion of easy labels given to human patterns of behaviour- but perhaps it is worth lingering with this concept for a while…
Here are a few quotes that Bill uses-
The Sociopath is unable to develop any kind of true, loyal attachments to people. This inability to be genuinely connected to others renders their experience of life bland, colorless, boring, and tedious. Consequently, they turn to power, not love and relationship, as the primary motivational factor for their lives. The sociopath seeks to gain power through which she can find some sense of connection to humanity by causing the suffering of others. The more she is able to make another suffer or hurt, the greater her sense of personal power, and the more exciting and invigorating life becomes. (Dr Martha) Stout says that the motivation for self aggrandized power is so strong in the sociopath that many of them work hard to place themselves in leadership positions because the authority of an office or position gives the sociopath the tools and avenues she needs to both feed and fuel her mental illness.
It is stunning the extent to which Christians forgo what they know to be true, pure, and right when they get to sit across the table from a powerful and charming bishop, pastor, or seminary professor. Studies show that otherwise normal and healthy personalities will do some of the most atrocious things in their blind allegiance to an official with a title.
The suggestion made here is that around 1 in 25 people could be described as having sociopathic tendencies, and that sociopaths will tend to gravitate towards situations where they can exert power, control and manipulation. Places like church.
I have posted before about the phenomenon that has come to be known as church abuse. (See here and here for example.) Many of us carry hurt and scars from finding ourselves part of church situations where leadership goes badly wrong. There are of course many reasons for this, and throwing around accusations of sociopathy at our leaders is unlikely to help.
But there are wolves who come dressed as lambs. When we see a hint of tooth or claw, may we have the discernment and the courage to recognise what we see.
There are some suggestions as to what to do when you are confronted with leadership like this here.
If you are in this situation- God be with you. It can be extremely difficult.