Last night I turned on the television, and as I was flipping through the channels I ran across a documentary on CNN about survivors of Jonestown. I was tired from the first two legs of a big painting project, so I only watched for about a minute before I turned to the Hallmark channel for something a little less intense. But still, that Jonestown story stayed with me.
I was eleven years old back in 1978, and I remember reading about what was happening and watching it on the news, although I don’t think that my young mind could really fathom it all. Back in 1978, it wasn’t deemed necessary to educate children beyond their years. Our parents wisely acted on the fact that age and maturity would help us reason most things out in due time. My parents didn’t hide the Time or Newsweek magazines, but they just chose to be very discriminating in the details that they explained when I had questions about what was happening in the world. (Of course, I have a very strong opinion about the fact that much of what is wrong in our world is the result of children being exposed to adulthood before they are cognitively and emotionally able to handle adult matters, but that is a topic for another day.)
This afternoon, I revisited that story, because I wanted to see what had happened to the few people who survived the mass suicide/murder. I ran across something on YouTube that someone had posted that was the audio of the actual massacre. And I listened to as much of it as I could stand. Much was Jim Jones reasoning with the people that killing themselves was the only way that they could avoid being tortured and killed by their enemies, that if they didn’t take this way out, they would never have the life that they were intended to have. (When the adults began giving the poison to the children, I just had to fast forward through those babies crying. Fortunately someone had marked that point in the comments so I knew how far ahead I needed to skip.)
But there were some things that I actually heard for the first time as an adult that have just really made me ache even more for those people, and for people in our world today who are just as susceptible to people such as Jim Jones.
First, I was not aware that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the Jonestown Massacre was the largest loss of civilian American life from a non-natural disaster. Nine-hundred thirteen people died- either from poison the willing drank and the unwilling were injected with, or from a bullet. Jim Jones chose to kill himself with a bullet to the head after the other victims were dead.
Second, was the fact that he used racism as one of his kill points. When someone questioned why couldn’t they just leave, he made the statement that all the people who had walked away from the compound were “the white people.” One of the things that made this cult stand out, was the fact that it was an integrated “congregation” at a time in our society when most churches were still segregated. Rather than truly unify the races, Jones seems to have fed racist beliefs and used them to his advantage.
Third, was the fact that his platform, his stated purpose of starting this “congregation” was to propagate the tenets of socialism and communism. This congregation, The People’s Temple, had appeared to have done some “good” things. From History.com/Jonestown: In San Francisco, Jones became a powerful figure. He curried favor with public officials and the media, donated money to numerous charitable causes and delivered votes for various politicians at election time. Peoples Temple ran social and medical programs for the needy, including a free dining hall, drug rehabilitation and legal aid services. Jones’ message of social equality and racial justice attracted a diverse group of followers, including idealistic young people who wanted to do something meaningful with their lives.
One of the many disturbing moments of what is known as “the death tape,” was when what sounded like a fairly young black woman took the microphone and proclaimed that there was no greater cause for her to give her life to than that of socialism and communism. Jones’ rhetoric was that this was not just a suicide, but was a revolutionary act that the United States would pay for. He made them believe that they were giving their lives for a great cause. And they killed their babies and children, and then they killed themselves because they believed him. Those who faltered at the end, were “encouraged” by armed guards who pointed guns at them until they complied with the order to “just relax” and “let’s just be done with it, be done with the agony of it.”
Jones had won these people over by his excellence of speech. By telling them that those things that they so desperately wanted to believe were actually true and convincing them that what was true was really a lie. He gave them just enough of what they expected that they deserved out of life so that they believed he could give them everything. He became their god. He called himself their father, and many of them in those last moments of life called him, “dad.” They were willing to give everything to him- the deeds to their homes, custody of their children, their government assistance checks and social security. He took it all as his due, paying them back with nothing but more of what they wanted to hear.
This was a horrific moment in our history, and one that many young people don’t know anything about. Today I asked a friend of mine, who is about ten years younger than me, if he had ever heard the phrase “drink the kool-aid.” Yes, he’d heard it. So I asked him if he knew about Jonestown, where the phrase came from. He didn’t, and this is not a good thing, because I hear the rhetoric that people are so easily swayed by today. I see people believing as truth what they so desperately want to hear. I see a nation full of organizations that want to give the people just enough to make them think that they can have it all. And people are being taken in so easily because they are weary and hopeless and seeking rest and hope in the easiest and closest source.
Many have used Jonestown as an example of how bad organized religion is. But after listening to this today, watching raw footage from NBC News, and hearing the interviews of a couple of survivors, it was clear that The People’s Temple had nothing to do with God. It was not a church, it was an experiment in training human beings who were raised up on the American tenets of freedom and democracy to embrace the tenets of socialism and communism. It was not about the heart and the soul, it was about the mindset of the willing masses looking to an eloquent and charismatic leader to give them the life they wanted and believed they deserved.
There are those of us who can point them to the true source of what they truly need, of true hope and true rest and true peace…. the source of Jesus Christ…but what are we doing? Some are getting embroiled in heated debates, while we should be offering a cup of cold water. I would hazard an estimate to say that 99.5 percent of us who claim to be Christ followers are making a genuine effort, but we’ve missed the starting point- the one where we get on our faces before God and we stay there until we humble ourselves and seek HIS face, and then we pray for HIS will, HIS healing, HIS intervention.
If we continue to refuse to do this one thing that God gives as a condition for healing our land, our land will not be healed. But the good news of the Gospel is that our God is true to His promises. What He has said, that will He do.