“Inappropriate communications.” “Sexual abuse.” “Embezzlement.” “Inappropriate relationship.” “Mismanagement.” “Spiritual abuse.” “Toxic environment.”
Every day, something new seems to emerge about errant members of the clergy. Pastors have committed grievous sins, or taken advantage of their congregations, or abused folk in other ways. As more of these stories come out, more victims find the courage to lift their own voices about what has happened – or is happening – to them. While we must undoubtedly support and believe victims, we must also remember that there are more victims than those who are most clear and present. There are those who have sat under the teaching of their pastor, and are now left to wonder whether the teaching that they heard is true, or whether they should feel guilty if they still believe that such teaching has value. Surely, God can use a multitude of vessels to share God’s message, most imperfect, some downright evil. In the midst of such, God’s word is still God’s word. Right?
I’m not sure there’s a more abusive pastor in all human history than the Rev. Jim Jones. Throughout the history of Peoples Temple/Jonestown, Jones abused countless people and ultimately left hundreds dead in the middle of the Guyana jungle. So, how can people still say that Jones said things that spoke to their hearts? Well, I can only say that I recently encountered a line from one of his sermons that spoke to mine. Though I felt guilt at the source of my illumination, God’s word is God’s word. Right?
We must find the one central theme, and that is God is love. Love covers a multitude of sins. This whole move of God is something bigger than any doctrine.
–Rev. Jim Jones, “Faith Without Works Is Dead,” December 1956
Back in seminary, I had a professor tell us, “The overarching theme of all knowledge of God is God’s holiness.” Immediately, something didn’t sit right. Then, the professor continued, “God will destroy anything that comes against his holiness.” I left the class confused. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that we had to be perfect to have an encounter with God. Now, of course the professor would say that Jesus makes us perfect and all that stuff. But the problem is that holiness seemed like way too high a bar for imperfect creatures. Furthermore, I thought about the fact that often our imperfections make us who we are. If you erase those, you start erasing us.
Maybe instead of holiness, the bar should be wholeness. Once I started down this wider path, I learned to accept people as they are. Doesn’t that sound like a God one would want to have a relationship with? Something more tangible than the great destroyer in the sky?
There is a central theme in all spirituality, and that is love. We were created in love. We were created to be love. We are made whole in love. We will return to love. God is love, and love is what makes us whole. God is everywhere. Love is everywhere. God is constantly drawing us back to love. I can’t imagine God creating a bar of perfection to get to that. In order to experience the truth of God, all we have to do is open our hearts. If your spirituality doesn’t teach that, it’s bullshit. Though Rev. Jim Jones did many evil things, he got these truths right.
We must find the one central theme, and that is God is love.
Some people learned this truth from the mouth of Jones. Who are we to take such beautiful truth away from them? So many of those who would have heard such words came from backgrounds of oppression. What is the benefit of destroying words that bring forth love in the hearer? Don’t we all just want to be free? If love is the central theme that comes forth, then why destroy it? Maybe the answer is located in the challenge to embrace the love and leave the evil behind.
For a long time, I thought the story of Peoples Temple/Jonestown was a story of lunatics who got together to create more lunatics. I mean, how could it not be? Doesn’t the presence of more than 900 bodies demonstrate that? Then I heard about people who still hold to some of the teachings of Rev. Jim Jones. I thought, those might be the craziest ones of all, the extra crazy lunatics.
But then I started coming into contact with truths that trickled through the lunacy. Truths that I can hold on to as well. Maybe the idea that love covers a multitude of sins speaks to such a reality. Though there were a multitude of sins in Peoples Temple/Jonestown, maybe the love that was experienced there remains. Maybe Jim Jones was right when he said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
Every religious teacher I’ve ever encountered has their own doctrines. They want to make everyone believe that what they say is right. Some even go further and declare, “These are the very words of God.” While I’ve always been very skeptical of such pronouncements, there have been times in which I’ve heard what sounds like love trickling through. When such manifestations of truth – of love – find me, I hold on to them with all that I am. Love is worth holding on to.
This whole move of God is something bigger than any doctrine.
God is bigger than any one person. God is bigger than any doctrines. God is bigger than any one faith movement. God is always bigger. We should be too. No movement of evil should destroy any truth that we have found. Those who have found manifestations of love in the teachings of Rev. Jim Jones or any other scandalous/abusive pastor should cling to them with all that they are, because love is bigger than Rev. Jim Jones or any other scandalous pastor.
As we go forth to deal with other scandals that might find us, may we always punish the evil, minister to the victims, help those who have been abused, and cling to love with all that we are – wherever we find it, however it finds us – because love is the only word of God.
(Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor, theologian and activist living and working in Arkansas. Dr. Hood’s extensive work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including in the Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Los Angeles Times, WIRED magazine and on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. He writes regularly at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jeffhood/.
(Jeff’s other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are On “The Letter Killeth” and On the Power of Love: A Peoples Temple Agricultural Parable. The collection of his articles for this site appears here. He can be reached at email@example.com.)