Lately I was watching a documentary on Netflix about The Jonestown Massacre and it reminded me how things can sometimes go wrong at church.
If you aren’t familiar with the Jonestown story, it’s a heartbreaking tale of a group of people on a mission to create a utopian society. It started off pretty innocent. Admirable, even. A group of individuals committed to treating everyone with dignity, calling people to step into a lifestyle of wholeness and healing.
Over the years, however, something shifted. It started with a move from the United States to the jungles of South American and ending with over nine hundred men, women and children drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, committing mass suicide at the direction of their leader Jim Jones.
By that time it was too late. No one really understood what had happened.
The most terrifying part about the whole thing, to me, was listening to the testament of five survivors who escaped the massacre that day. As I listened to their stories I expected them to say things like, “Jones was just a monster,” or “He tied us up, and we couldn’t find a way out,” but instead I heard them talk about how Jim Jones was known for his kindness, charisma, and heart for justice.
That’s why they were a part of his movement.
“This wasn’t some group of zombies,” one of the men explained.
“These were high-functioning, thinking people just like you and me.”
The documentary showed footage of Mr. Jones touching people who were considered “untouchable” at the time, much like is recorded of Jesus so many times in the Gospels. Indiana, where Jones’ preaching career began, was laced with racism at the time he lived there, but Jones stood against such attitudes. He embraced the black community in a way no other church was doing.
In fact, he even adopted a black child into his family, far before that was the socially “in” thing to do.
That’s the part that got to me.
Things didn’t start bad with Jim Jones’ church. They got bad over time. And it made me think about how things can deteriorate when we stop asking questions.
There was another gut-wrenching church incident in the media lately.
None of the details have been confirmed, so I tell the story cautiously. But as far as I can gather, it goes something like this: A young man, connected to a well-known and popular institution within the evangelical community, was practicing several more-than-controversial “spiritual disciplines” in his “Bible Study.”
When his wife threatened to tell her counselor, this young man commissioned a friend to murder her.
She was killed. It was staged as a suicide.
Much like Jonestown, those left in the aftermath of this tragedy didn’t say things like, “we thought he would kill us,” or “I felt so trapped I just couldn’t say anything.”
They said, essentially, he tricked us.
I heard one girl (not in the Bible study) explain in an interview how, as far as she could tell, this man was a good, upstanding Christian. Another young man described how his life had, at one point, been positively impacted by this young man’s influence.
Again, the details of this case have yet to be confirmed, and the institutions involved are, for obvious reasons, distancing themselves from the group altogether. But that’s not really the point. I’m not interested in arguing details none of us know.
I’m just saying — why aren’t we asking more questions?
Are we afraid of them?
It’s difficult because it’s not like we need more reasons to question the church. Since the beginning of time, God’s people have given us plenty of reason to wonder if they’re trustworthy, to mistrust their leadership, to hesitate before we believe what they are saying. Christianity today, at least in my generation, bears the scars of this generational distrust.
Sometimes, this keeps us from engaging with the Institution of church.
We’re not unaware this makes us look a little paranoid at times, a little bit overreactive perhaps. We’re aware of the watchful eyes of our parent’s generation that seem to be saying, “sometimes it’s good to trust!”
But at the same time, these stories remind us why questions matter.
Questions are healthy.
God isn’t scared of our questions.
Questions can get us stuck if we’re not careful. After all, not all questions have answers, and the space that is left over, especially when it comes to something as vague and experiential as faith, has to be filled with trust. But questions can’t hurt us if we have nothing to hide, can they?
Do you tend to ask questions, or avoid them? What has been your experience?
[Photo, Zestbienbeautouza, Creative Commons]