My dad knew Jim Jones. Well, not really knew him; just sort of in a passing acquaintance kind of way. After the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana 30 years ago where 900 of “Rev.” Jones followers committed mass suicide by drinking poison-laced Kool-Aid on his command, my dad told me the story. They had both been young preachers in Indianapolis in the late 60s before Jones moved his congregation to California and then ultimately to South America. Apparently there had been some sort of monthly interdenominational prayer breakfast thingy for ministers and it was there my dad met Jim Jones. According to my memory of what my dad told me all those years ago, Rev. Jones was a dynamic, charismatic, revered and well-loved member of the ministerial community.
My dad was a dynamic, charismatic, revered and well-loved minister as well. He left the ministry in 1978 under a bit of a scandal which is not the subject of today’s blog. I once had the opportunity to talk with a woman who had been a member of my dad’s church a few years before. She said, “When I found out about your dad, I almost left the church completely.”
Now, it makes me no nevermind whether people leave a church or stay in it. I’m not especially fond of organized religion in general. But, the bigger point to me was that someone’s faith, their very spiritual compass, would be so completely contained in one other person. My dad didn’t become a paranoid, megalomaniacal, murdering lunatic like Jim Jones, but there were several people who pretty much considered him the assistant Messiah. There is an inherent danger in living from a pulpit. People start to believe anything you say as the direct word of God, . . . and then sometimes you start to believe it yourself.
With the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California which banned gay marriage, I’ve heard something a lot recently which I’ve heard at least a jillion times before. “I’m against gay marriage because the bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.” Like a hit song on the radio that you’ve hummed with a thousand times and then that thousand and first time you hear a lyric you’d never really heard before, it suddenly dawned on me just this week . . . no, it doesn’t. The bible doesn’t say that. The bible says a few things about marriage (including Paul’s admonition that it’s better not to marry at all and Jesus’ prophesy that one day there would be no marriage), but it never says that marriages are to be restricted to only those between a man and a woman. It just simply doesn’t say that.
Jerry Falwell has said it. Pat Robertson has said it. James Dobson has said it. Rick Warren has said it. But I have yet to see any of their books included in the scriptural canon. So, I’m skipping right past my old argument of “Who cares what the bible says; this is a civil issue” and pressing right on to my new one, “If you care what the bible says, then take the time to know what the bible says . . . and doesn’t say.” And be sure to draw a clear line between what your Holy Scriptures say and what your preacher says they say.
Ministers have an immense amount of power. The fact that 900 people would drink Kool-Aid they knew had poison in it is an extreme example. But, people drink the Kool-Aid every day. And they are poisoned by half-truths, misinformation, and downright lies. Jesus didn’t have to stretch the “facts” to draw 5,000 listeners at the Sermon on the Mount. He just spoke Truth and blessed everybody: the poor in spirit, the meek, and the merciful.
He also said these words that day: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
Or because they somehow think he wants them to.