This week marks some interesting religion anniversaries, including the 20th anniversary of the fiery massacre of David Koresh and 80 of his followers in Waco, Texas. Surviving Branch Davidians still await their leader’s resurrection and return. It’s also the 47th anniversary of Haile Selassie’s only visit to Jamaica, which Rastafarians who saw the Ethiopian leader as a messiah continue to celebrate as Grounation (or Groundation) Day.
Such stories make me wonder about some people’s attraction to living charismatic leaders. As someone who grew up in a religious tradition that pledged loyalty to only one human being—dead approximately two thousand years—it’s difficult to understand how others can embrace the tremendous risks involved in putting one’s faith in a live person. Christians have long been inspired, of course, by stories of highly-committed early Christian disciples and martyrs. But, conveniently for most of us (at least in the West), we need not make ourselves emotionally or physically vulnerable in the same way the first followers did.
Buddhists, Muslims, Latter-Day Saints, and now even Unification Church members can also, like Christians, take comfort in the fact that their founders can no longer disappoint or embarrass them. Increasingly covered by ever-thickening layers of time, these charismatic persons will never be discovered embezzling money, enjoying kinky sex, or (The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding) fathering surprise children.
It’s not necessary to label something a “cult” to understand the potential peril involved in looking to a living guru. However honest and virtuous that guru might be, she—like the rest of us—is susceptible to tripping and falling right up until the day she dies. What makes some folks willing and able to trust in a charismatic persona, while others remain deeply skeptical? Some of us will surely be tempted to adopt overly-simplified “opiate of the people” type explanations, that first-generation religious adherents must be stupid, gullible, oppressed, or otherwise psychologically damaged.
But is there not also some kind of beauty to admire in the capacity for whole-hearted faith in, and commitment to, something or someone? As long as they are not harming anyone, why are religious devotees—people addicted to a person—any weirder than lovers, artists, environmentalists, or athletes? Perhaps the answer to public disdain lies in the inherent critique of a society’s assumptions. Those who bolster our self-image meet with our approval, while those who call us into question must be neutralized. I tend to resent those who make me feel guilty for being ambivalent. What does your intolerance say about you?