The Mutt’s Nuts

Where religion is about as attractive as a two week holiday in Afghanistan

Posts Tagged ‘power

Impotent God

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Believers claim that God is omnipotent, the creator of heaven and earth. Occasionally in the Bible we see evidence of his powers – raining down plagues and destruction on people he didn’t approve of, making fire suddenly appear from nowhere, whisking a few favoured individuals up into heaven, turning a woman into a pillar of salt and other useful antics. Through Jesus, God supposedly raised people from the dead, fed hundreds with a few meagre supplies and, just to show he was no party-pooper, turned water into wine.

But what’s he been up to since then? Seems to me he’s been a tad shy and retiring for the last couple of thousand years. Although there have been plenty of opportunities for him to show his mighty power, thrill the faithful and confound the doubters, God seems to be resolutely sticking to the small stuff. These days he might help someone to find their car keys or pass an exam. Sometimes he does something a little more impressive, like helping someone to recover from a serious illness or injury when they weren’t expected to (although in most cases, people just die). But surely there’s so much more an all-powerful being could be doing?

God has been quite happy to allow rape, plunder, enslavement, torture, destruction and murder on a grand scale throughout the years. Did he stop the Inquisition in its tracks with a few nasty plagues? No. Did he swallow up the Nazis in the depths of the sea or the bowels of the earth before they had chance to fill the death camps? No. Did he step in to halt the genocide in Rwanda? No. Has he put an end to killer diseases such as malaria, typhoid or cancer? No. Did he put forth his mighty hand to stop the Asian tsunami, or protect millions from the effects of the Ethiopian famine? Did he divert Hurricane Katrina from her course to avoid death and destruction? Again, no.

In fact, what the hell has God been doing all this time? Has he lost his powers, or simply lost interest in us?

Just one more reason to believe that God is about as substantial as a puff of smoke and as likely to exist as pigs are to sprout wings and take to the sky.

Isla

Written by islaskye

April 20, 2008 at 7:43 am

Jim Jones and Joseph Smith

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Last night I watched a documentary on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, something which I really knew very little about. By the end of the broadcast I felt really shaken – it’s the kind of programme that haunts you for a long time afterwards.

The story of Jones and his followers was very disturbing on several different levels. The terrible tragedy of so many unnecessary deaths was heartbreaking, especially as described by the few survivors, some of whose wives and children died in their arms, and who were still profoundly affected by their experience 30 years later.

The knowledge that one person could accumulate enough power over others that they would willingly poison themselves at his command was also incredibly troubling.

But for me, one of the most shocking aspects of the whole documentary was the description of Jones and his “religion”, because it wasn’t difficult to make connections between his behaviour and that of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith. Having previously been a Mormon for many years, I was shaken by the similarities exhibited by these two charismatic men. At times I almost felt as though I was watching a modern-day re-telling of the beginning of the Mormon church.

Let me say here that I don’t believe that Joseph Smith would have encouraged his followers to take their own lives. However, many of his qualities, experiences and actions were uncannily close to those of Jones in other ways.

Jones came from a poor family and grew up in a small town, as did Smith. He developed an interest in religion at a young age and so, by his own admission, did Smith. Jones became a preacher on the revivalist circuit. As a teenager, Smith acted as an “exhorter” at Methodist revival meetings, encouraging people to make a commitment to the church as they were touched by the message of the preacher. Both young men recognised the potential for influence that a religious leader held.

The messages of both men held broad appeal and attracted all types of people to their congregations. Both were well-known for their policy of welcoming whites and non-whites – in Jones’s case, African Americans, in Smith’s case, Native Americans. Admittedly, Jones’s determination to encourage desegregation was impressive and presumably built on a desire for racial equality. Smith’s rationale for gathering Native Americans into his fold, on the other hand, was rooted in religious belief. He taught that, anciently, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were of the House of Israel and, as such, were heirs to the blessings that God pronounced on the great patriarch, Abraham.

Jones and Smith were forced to relocate their growing band of followers in the early days of church growth, in order to better implement their visions for a more egalitarian society. They were both interested in the concept of “having all things in common” and encouraged church members to sell their homes and possessions and give the money raised to the church for redistribution more fairly, although in Smith’s case, this idea was met with enough resistance to prevent it from being implemented in any coherent way. However, both men did create communities that were set apart from the rest of society, giving them a committed power base that allowed them to mobilise hundreds, if not thousands, of people in support of the causes they espoused.

Both leaders were revered by their people and clearly revelled in this adoration, setting tests of their followers’ loyalty and commitment. In a horrible preview of the later events in Jonestown, Jim Jones arranged for drinks of Kool Aid to be given out during one church service, telling the congregation after they had drunk it that the juice was poisoned and then waiting to see their reactions. Smith devised a different kind of test, introducing the practice of polygamy, initially among the Mormon elite, much against their instincts and sensibilities. He charged one Mormon leader, Heber C Kimball, to give him (Smith) his wife. After much agonising, Kimball and his wife presented themselves to Smith, who then congratulated them on passing this test of their faithfulness and sent them home. (Smith later “married” Kimball’s 14 year-old daughter). Both Jim Jones and Joseph Smith had relationships with women (and in Jones’s case, men) outside of their marriage, using their position of church leader to accomplish this.

Smith and Jones both became involved in politics and accrued significant power in that area. Jones assisted Mayor Moscone to win a very close vote in San Francisco and was rewarded with the post of Head of the Housing Commission. Smith became Major of Nauvoo in Illinois and also launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency of the United States.

Both men felt the force of opposition from mainstream society and were accused of law-breaking. Both eventually succumbed to an untimely death, as a direct result of their controversial lifestyles and teachings.

Towards the end of Jones’s life, he was addicted to drugs and clearly mentally ill. Meanwhile Smith definitely developed delusions of grandeur, at one point declaring that:

I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet. (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 408-409)

However, I wonder if, ultimately, what both Jones and Smith offered people, over and above their own charismatic teachings and presence, was hope and idealism. Those who felt disenfranchised could join a community of like-minded people. Those for whom the prevailing religions of the day no longer met their needs could embrace new, almost revolutionary, religious ideas. Those who believed in social justice could feel that they were able to make a difference.

There is no doubt that Smith and Jones were clever manipulators. As one woman commented in the documentary, Jones’s actions seemed completely plausible at the time. However, both men managed to transcend mere personality cult and tap into the undoubted desire in many of their followers to be part of a movement that was working to create a better world – a utopia or a Zion. One might argue that it was their drive, their personality, their astuteness that allowed them to convince people to give up so much and follow them to a new life. And it was their narcissism that ultimately led to their downfall and put their loyal followers at risk. In Jones’s case, paying the ultimate price for relying on him to fulfill their dreams of freedom and equality.

Isla

Written by islaskye

February 2, 2008 at 2:08 pm