Nobody who was alive in the 1970s will ever forget Jonestown. At least, I hope not. That tragedy stands as a mute reminder of the awful results of a leader gone wild.
I shall never be able to erase from my mind the same horrible scene that appeared on one television newscast after another. It was not just death but a mass suicide—over nine hundred bloated corpses in the steamy jungle of Guyana. People lying there in rows, “looking like full-grown rag dolls,” was how one reporter described them. Except for a few defectors who managed to escape at the last minute, every soul in that cult compound gave up his or her life as the leader demanded.
Whoever takes the time to investigate the evidence that led to such a bizarre atrocity soon discovers that the man at the top (who claimed to be a servant of God) fell into the trap that has ruined many a strong, natural leader.
Beneath every dreadful photograph of that unforgettably sick scene could be written the same five-word caption: THE PERIL OF LIMITLESS CONTROL. Rather than remaining a true servant of God and gentle shepherd of the people, instead of modeling humility, teachability, and unselfishness, Jim Jones eroded into an empty shell of authoritarianism, sensuality, and unaccountability . . . an arrogant, untouchable prima donna who fell into the clutches of his own lust and pride.
Most every calling and occupation carries with it peculiar hazards—some subtle, some obvious. It’s not just the steeplejack or submarine crew or high-rise window washers or S.W.A.T. teams who face perils in their work. We all do. No exceptions.
Including pastors. That’s you and me.