Monday, December 1, 2008

Jonestown anniversary

Thanksgiving marked the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Over 900 people lost their lives when Rev. Jim Jones exhorted his followers to “die with dignity.”

By faith and by force, hundreds swallowed the cyanide-laced Kool-aid that was served up by the leaders of Jones’ church.

It was an event that left a permanent mark in our lexicon with the expression “drink the Kool-aid.”

Nowadays, people almost uniformly describe Rev. Jones’ church as a “cult.” Yet, what is often overlooked is that, for years, Rev. Jones was actually a very politically-connected preacher. It’s not as if he wore a sign saying “wacko.”

To the contrary, he carried the credibility of being a minister in good-standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It’s an “absolutely normal,” mainline Protestant denomination. And, similar to Southern Baptists, Disciples of Christ have a congregational polity.

And the people in Jim Jones’ congregation weren’t fools. Many were highly-educated. They almost certainly didn’t see themselves as being part of a “cult.” Yet, when things turned terribly wrong, the sheep couldn't rein in the shepherd.

After the Jonestown tragedy, the Disciples of Christ saw how their lack of clergy oversight made them vulnerable to horrific abuse perpetrated in the name of faith. So they created a process by which a regional body can consider the “standing” of ministers who carry the Disciples of Christ name.

One ordained Disciple recently explained the change this way: “In the dark light of Jonestown, it’s hard to argue that you can go back to an entirely decentralized structure with a general identity. That’s how you get a Jim Jones.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this story about the Disciples of Christ and Jim Jones. About 18 months ago, another ordained Disciple shared this same bit of history with me in explaining why he so strongly supported our efforts to create a clergy accountability system for Southern Baptists. He understood the danger.

After all, Southern Baptists have over 101,000 ministers in this country, and they’re spread out in more than 43,000 churches. It’s a faith group whose members share a strong “general identity” but have “an entirely decentralized structure.”

With 101,000 ministers, you can be certain that there are many who are seriously messed up. Some of those messed-up ministers will be child molesters. With the authority of a minister and with faith as a weapon, they persuade trusting kids to serve their sexual ends. Then, they often convince their own colleagues to disregard their worst fears about what they suspect or to even participate in a knowing cover-up. Such is the power of faith and trust.

There is no denominational system of oversight for those 101,000 ministers nor anyone who is systematically keeping records on them. In fact, Southern Baptists don’t even have some minimal oversight at the start of a minister’s career. They don’t even require that their ministers go to seminary.

Of the major faith groups in this country, Southern Baptists are perhaps the most loosey-goosey of all when it comes to clergy accountability. In essence, there simply isn’t any system of accountability.

Most people in the pews don’t realize that.

I will never forget the phone call I once got from a deacon in a church facing a substantiated allegation that, 20 years earlier, their much-loved pastor had repeatedly molested and sexually assaulted a 14 year old. Only after it became headline news, and when the church’s leaders could no longer keep a lid on it, did the pastor finally resign. The deacon told me that he had heard about the allegations earlier but assumed there was nothing to them.

“If there was anything to them,” he said, “then I figured someone at the Southern Baptist Convention would tell us.”

When I explained to him that there wasn’t anyone at the Southern Baptist Convention who would tell them or who would do anything at all, he was genuinely surprised.

“They wouldn’t really allow someone who molested a kid to stay in ministry, would they?” he asked.

“Yes, they would. And they wouldn’t even tell you about it.” That answer shocked him, but the shocking nature of it didn’t make it any less true.

Even a church deacon -- someone who probably knows more about Baptist polity than ordinary people -- still made the very reasonable assumption that Southern Baptist leaders would intervene if a minister did something dreadfully wrong.

People make that assumption because they share a “general identity” as Southern Baptists, and they think the shared identity means something. But with “an entirely decentralized structure,” there’s no accountability for those who abuse the trust of the shared identity. So the assumption winds up being erroneous.

Thirty years ago, the Disciples of Christ put in place a safeguard to try to plug the safety hole in their decentralized system. When over 900 people lost their lives, leaders saw the power of faith as a weapon, and they realized that the denomination itself carried a moral responsibility to intercede.

It’s a moral responsibility that Southern Baptist leaders still haven’t recognized.

For another account of what happened at Jonestown, read “Town without Pity,” by Charles A. Krause, a journalist who was shot while trying to cover the story there.


gmommy said...

Please try to stay on topic...Wade has given you plenty of blogtime for your Crusade.
At what point do your accusations become slanderous; or defamatory , to the thousands of God-fearing,Christ-loving, Law-abiding pastors in the SBC?

From the Southern Baptist Geneva
Robert I Masters

Tue Dec 02, 01:56:00 PM 2008

SO TYPICAL of the ARROGANT attitudes of the SBC leadership.

So now Christa has another name to add to who and what she does as an advocate!!!

She is a Crusader!!!!

and of course the accusations, slander, and defamatory words to the thousands of God-fearing,Christ-loving, Law-abiding VICTIMS of clergy sexual abuse...aren't really important.

Must protect those good ol SBC boys!!!

gmommy said...

Friends against clergy sexual abuse,
I don't know how to make a link but there is a good discussion on Wade Bureleson's blog after an SBC person dismissed Christa with the arrogance we have become very familiar with ...I copied and pasted but google if you need to!!! Wade will change the thread pretty soon.

J. Davidson said...

My question would be at what point do the "thousands of God-fearing, Christ-loving, Law-abiding pastors in the SBC" step up, display some moral courage and demand some changes be made? Standing on the sidelines, saying and doing nothing is just as bad. Collusion and sin of ommission plain and simple.

gmommy said...

I agree completely...but Mr Masters disapeared when confronted with his own I didn't get to actually ask him that.

Even tho we were interupted by an arrested personality....we got a lot of truth in about clergy sexual abuse before Wade had to change threads.

Christa Brown said...

I know that there are many good pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. But I think it's sort of like having an open pipe that drips sewage into a bucket of water. The drip may be a slow one, and compared to all the many water drops in the bucket, the sewage drops are few, but if no one does anything to stop the drip, then the whole bucket is still contaminated.