Jim Jones, and surviving the sociopaths…

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.

Gulp.

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.

The legacy of church in the lives of children of the fundamentalists…

I met with some friends yesterday as part of our on-going attempt to get a supportive network for people who are interested in emerging/missional stuff in Scotland (details here for those who are interested- I will post an account of our meeting later.)

It was a great day- with many interesting conversations, and capped off with a visit to Glasgow to see some live music (Welsh language band 9Bach and The Broken Family Band- brilliant both.)

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One conversation we had was about kids and church. Like me, quite a few of my friends have grown up in church situations in which narrow belief systems and codes for living were espoused. For me it was to be part of an evangelical/Charismatic tradition, in a difficult family context. For a couple of other friends, their history comes from Lewis, and the stern austere, almost puritan, Free Church of Scotland. Then there are a few Baptists, or Pentecostals, and Catholics.

For many of us, the journey of faith ever since has contained an attempt to come to terms with some aspects and attributes of God- and what he expected of us- that were given to us by our backgrounds. When I say ‘given’, I include things we were told, and a wider way of seeing things that we just internalised though socialisation, if not indoctrinisation.

Some of my friends came to a point where they rejected church, because they could no longer live with some of the narrow and judgmental views that it represented for them. In losing church, it was difficult not to lose God too- at least for a while. Add the abusive actions of some of  the servants of Jesus in churches we are familiar with, and it perhaps makes it all the more difficult for people to find church again, or even to hold on to faith at all. (There is some more stuff about abuse in churches here and here and here.)

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But my friends and I- we remain drawn by the wonderful person of Jesus- and he leads us back to God the Father, God the Spirit- and the ecclesia- the collectives of the agents of the Kingdom of God.

As previously mentioned, yesterday, the discussion turned to children in Church. We all grew up with Sunday schools, and weekends regulated by attendance at a series of mostly boring services. The question concerned how much of this we felt we could inflict on our own kids?

Can we protect them from our experiences?

Where our experiences actually bad?

If so, in the balance of things- was there more bad than good?

The interesting thing was that all of us came to the conclusion that despite the difficulties, our church backgrounds, with all their guilt-and-confusion-inducing narrow viewpoints, brought to us mostly good and positive things.

Perhaps this was because we are a limited sample- people who still try to follow Jesus, rather than the many who have lost him entirely. These people are the prodigal lost sheep the Church may never return to the fold. My prayer is that Jesus will still bring them to him…

But I wonder if there is also something of a generational passing of the baton towards the new post-modern generation. We represent a punk generation, who later find an ironic pleasure in prog-rock, whilst also being drawn to Madrigals and Gregorian chant. There has been the necessary rebellion- but ultimately, there is nothing new under the sun, and the next generation will need their points of departure from ours!

Time will tell whether what they inherit from understudying the whole missional/emerging experiment equips them for their own journeys of faith more than our own childhoods.

For their own children’s sake- I hope so.

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