Charismatic Leaders

(pic of Jim Jones. Photo credit: Jonestown Institute, found on Wikipedia,

While the teens in the house slumbered til noon, I watched a CNN online live feed of a Jim Jones special. Thirty years ago a Californian cult led by Jim Jones was living in Guyana, South America–they settled there intending to create a utopic, self sustaining communist society. Instead it ended in a nightmare: nine-hundred men, women and children were either massacred or willingly committed suicide in this \’utopic\’ paradise.

I missed the first part of the show, so don\’t necessarily know what CNN\’s take is on the origins of the community. From what I know generally and through Wikipedia, it was originally a church and Jim Jones was the Reverend Jim Jones. He had his own take on God and much of what he taught was echoed the Bible: in the 50’s and 60’s he was against segregation and in his worship services blacks and whites stood beside each other and praised God. They even intermarried, highly unusual back then. He adopted into his own family children from a variety of ethnicities (he called it his \”rainbow family\”). In Christ Jesus there was \”neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female\” (Galatians 3:28). He was very charismatic and took in all who came…400 of the dead went unidentified—no one was missing them, no one really knew who they were. This leads me to think that he had an attraction for street people, runaways, castoffs and the mentally ill. He also was known as a healer—he brought physical healing to many and did so publically during worship. His utopia was based on communism, which is also glimpsed in the book of Acts (‘they had everything in common’).

I’m going to posit that the Reverend Jim Jones never set out initially to destroy the lives of almost a thousand people. He didn’t start out concocting ways to inject cyanide into people’s bloodstream. No, I would conjecture that he slowly slid into that place. He had ideals and a theology that he believed in and that spoke to people, that resonated in their beings. He gave his followers a reason to get out of bed in the morning, an ideal to strive toward collectively. He may have even helped some find Christ, convert to Christianity. If we dare demonize Jim Jones, then I think we miss out on all the ways he did help people. Even local and national political leaders (i.e. Walter Mondale and Rosalyn Carter) recognized his ability to promote integration and equal rights for all—for instance, in Indianapolis he was appointed director of the Human Rights Commission in 1960. If we dare demonize Jones, then I think we miss out on the places inside of him that reside in us. None of us are above Jones’ behavior, none of us. We’re lacking self awareness and utterly deluded if we think otherwise.

Who is responsible for Jones’s descent into hell? We can point to American authorities for not catching him sooner and shutting down his church, the Peoples Temple, and stripping him of any kind of power. We can point to his parents and wonder at the possible upbringing he may have received. We can point to he, himself, of course. We can also point to all the people who followed him. I mean, without them, he couldn’t have done what he did.

What were all these people looking for? How did Jones’s interaction with them lead them down such a dark road? That’s a complex answer and, no doubt, no one has all the answers. What seems basic to me, though, is that the people were placing their trust in Jim Jones. Instead of trusting God and seeking to know Him, they were blind followers of one who eventually ended up calling himself “God”—probably because they elevated him to such a place in their hearts. I’m sure when Jones started performing miracles and speaking with riveting authority and helping remove racial walls that people stopped and thought “here is one from God who can help us, heal us, lead us, one who will provide a new kind of church family that will take care of us.” That one ‘from God’ eventually became their god. Not so good.

Is there a lesson for us in all of this? Simply, the thought comes that if we collectively trust anyone over God then we’re teetering on creating a monster like Jim Jones. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and other fascist dictators couldn’t have done anything without the people’s trust, without their followers’ active involvement. Charismatic leaders will always arise and draw the masses, for we have this desperate need to think that there is a person out there who will be the answer to all our problems. Few of us recognize that this desperate need is only met in Jesus Christ. History, even church history, is chock full of examples of Jim Jones sorts—we refuse to learn, we refuse to be discerning, we refuse to put God first and let Him lead. We see a possible savior leader and latch on and they are fed by our trust, they become monsters that we, the people, create.

Powder kegs happen, and in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 one big one blew up. Americans stood aghast, the world recoiled in horror. As an adolescent I remember the news report well, it just didn’t seem real. Kool-Aid mass suicide…a happy faced child’s drink used to kill/destroy, how sick. Yet, look at our world, our society today; we’re kind of in a powder keg, aren’t we? Leadership isn’t quite cutting it in our estimation, yet a new world leader is on the brink of power. A charismatic leader has arisen that is esteemed highly by many followers and leaders throughout the world—power and license to act is about to be granted. Let’s not flirt with creating a monster, folks. Let’s not hang our hat on any person or office for when we do, we unwittingly feed places in them that they may not be able to resist. They may come to believe all that we say about them, all that we believe about them. Let’s look Up and place our trust in the only One who can save us. God has a way through this mess, if we simply turn and seek His face. Maybe then, just maybe, He will extend His hand of mercy and we will be spared.

I kind of feel like I’m speaking into empty space right now, or maybe a vacuum, for there is no echo…

Categories God

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