St. Mark’s Adult Forum
19 November 2017
Questions of Value*
‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’ Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’ is an idiom commonly used in the United States that refers to any person or group who knowingly goes along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure. Its origin can be directly traced to an event in 1978 at Jonestown, Guyana, where 909 members of the Peoples Temple, a Californian religious cult, committed mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Tragically, one third of them were children.
Mass suicides are sometimes planned or carried out by small groups of depressed or hopeless people. On 1 May 1945, about 1,000 residents of Demmin, Germany, committed mass suicide after the Red Army had sacked their town. Mass suicides can make a political statement. Japan is known for its centuries old suicide tradition, from seppuku ceremonial self-disemboweling to sacrificial kamikaze warriors flying their aircraft into enemy warships during World War II.
Religiously motivated mass suicides occur as well. In the 700s, the Montanists were told by Emperor Leo III to leave Montanism and join orthodox Christianity. They refused, locked themselves in their places of worship, and set themselves on fire. Similarly, in 1993, a sect of Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, refused to surrender during a 51-day siege at their Waco, Texas compound. In total, 76 people died.
People – so certain, so committed or invested – willing to lay down their lives for a person, group, or cause are said to ‘Drink the Kool-Aid’.
Question: Nearly everybody agrees Jonestown was a monumental tragedy. But why did it happen? Was it due to peer pressure? Runaway paranoia? Mass hysteria? Hopelessness?
Or, was it ‘blind faith’ – belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination – that took so many lives?
Faith is defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Religious faith is defined as a strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. Christian faith is summed up in Hebrews 11.1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
In addition to ‘keeping the faith’, Christians are called to follow Jesus Christ – his word and example. Thus, fundamentally, Christians are called upon to both believe and obey. Yet the mere mention of ‘blind faith’ is a bit troubling. Why? Well, the extent to which one believes and/or obeys can be problematic, even disastrous. More of something is not necessarily better.
Consider 1 John 3:16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If this passage makes you uncomfortable, particularly in light of Jonestown, you’re not alone. We’re faced with a moral dilemma; a conflict between two virtues: obedience and prudence.
Obedience & Prudence
Although obedience may not seem to be an attractive virtue, it has its benefits. It’s founded in trust. We obey our parents because ‘it’s for our own good’. Obedience also serves the common good. We obey our laws for this reason. We obey God, because God is a trusted authority.
Blind obedience is something else altogether. During my service in the United States Air Force, I was obliged to obey the orders of my superiors, even if those orders put me in harm’s way. I had no discretion provided those orders were legal as defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. On the other hand, given illegal orders, I was obliged to disobey – say ‘no’ – rather than be led astray by misguided authority. When in doubt, it was crucial I exercise judgement rather than follow blindly.
Prudence – practical wisdom – speaks to our gullibility. Moreover, it helps protect us from mindless or reckless behavior. Prudence calls for caution and foresight. Consider Proverbs 14:15 The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going. Also, Psalm 112:5 A good man guideth his affairs with discretion.
Question: It’s true, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. Are we expected to respond in kind?
Blind obedience lacks discernment and restraint. Fruitful obedience, far from being arbitrary and blind, is informed by knowledge and reason. God blessed us with free will. We have options. We are not to throw our lives away; we are not to expose them in a rash, mindless manner. To seek martyrdom would be imprudent, reckless and perhaps sinful. There will be times when we will act purely on faith because we do not have the whole picture. However, this faith is not blind; rather it’s based on our perception of God’s nature, love and saving grace.
Question: Have you ever taken a ‘leap of faith’? What were the circumstances?
If only 1 John 3:16 read…And we ought to be prepared to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. For one thing, all of us could momentarily breathe a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, a situation may arise where it would be proper to lay down one’s life, and so we ought to be prepared.
Question: Can you conceive of a situation calling for laying down one’s life?
It may be comforting to know that in a crude online search of the Bible, I found 35 verses pertaining to prudence; three verses pertaining to ‘laying down one’s life’; and zero verses pertaining to seeking martyrdom.
* ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim