Reflections on Jonestown, 37th Anniversary, November 18, 2015

by Archie Smith, Jr.

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His complete collection of writings is here.)

“You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32.

“And isn’t it a bad thing to be deceived about the truth, and a good thing to know what the truth is? For I am assured that by knowing the truth you mean knowing things as they really are.” – Plato.

Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.” – Albert Einstein, 1954

“What is truth?” – John 18:38.

I

These reflections are about the tragic and still-traumatic events of Jonestown, Guyana and truth[i]. The quotes above raise disturbing, difficult and discerning questions. “Truth” is like light reflected through a prism and appears in a variety of ways. We are bound to ask, “What is Truth? Who can know it completely? Whose relative ‘truth’ are we talking about? What is ‘truth’s’ relationship to love, power and justice?” Truth may be discerned as a sacred and essential unity that endures and permeates the nature of all things. The question of truth and its diverse meanings arises in everyday life and is inescapable.

II

Today is Wednesday, November 18, 2015. It is a high cloud day with a visible blue sky. The fall temperature at midday is 67°. We are still in a drought, although an El Niño is promised. We shall see. Today, also marks the official 37th Annual Jonestown Children’s and Victims Memorial service at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, led by Pastor Jynona Norwood. The purpose of the day, as in times past, is to “honor the innocent lives of 305 children who were murdered in Jonestown along with their families, Congressman Leo Ryan and his news crew.” What follows are my reflections on what happened today at this 37th Memorial and the difficult questions posed by the quotations above.

I began the day feeling uncomfortable. I had just finished reading The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre, written by John P. Judge in 1985. I had not seen it before. Someone who knew that I was interested in the events of Jonestown asked me about this article and sent it. One of the article’s most controversial claims – heavily footnoted, which I have deleted – follows:

Dr. [Leslie] Mootoo, the top Guyanese pathologist, was at Jonestown within hours after the massacre. Refusing the assistance of U.S. pathologists, he accompanied the teams that counted the dead, examined the bodies, and worked to identify the deceased. While the American press screamed about the “Kool-Aid Suicides,” Dr. Mootoo was reaching a much different opinion.

… Dr. Mootoo found fresh needle marks at the back of the left shoulder blades of 80-90% of the victims. Others had been shot or strangled. One survivor reported that those who resisted were forced by armed guards. The gun that reportedly shot Jim Jones was lying nearly 200 feet from his body, not a likely suicide weapon. As Chief Medical Examiner, Mootoo’s testimony to the Guyanese grand jury investigating Jonestown led to their conclusion that all but three of the people were murdered by “persons unknown.”

This is not the official, cyanide-laced Kool-Aid version that many Americans heard. It raises disturbing questions: “What is truth? “Where does it exist?” Who tells it and who does not? How can regular folk tell the difference between truth, cover-up, lies, lies and more damn lies?

Today before the memorial service began, I was approached for the first time by the organizer of today’s event, 37 years late. I felt very uncomfortable and cautious because of what happened when I was here the year before.[ii] This time, I was asked, in a friendly manner and with a handshake extended, “ Is this your first time here?” “Did you lose someone at Jonestown?” “Are you a member of the news crew?” “What is your name?” My answers were brief and to the point: “No.” “No.” “No.” “Reverend Archie Smith, I have been coming here for 37 years.” The questioner paused, then said, “I have never heard of you.”

I counted about 12 people when I first arrived. Then I counted about 22 near the end of the memorial service. This number included participants and a camera crew. I may have been the only one present who did not have an assigned role. However, I do not know that for certain.

I did not recognize anyone that I knew. Only on a few occasions, in 37 years, has anyone from the Graduate Theological Union been present. The attendance has dwindled to a precious few. Who from the general public or faith community attends? Has Jonestown been largely forgotten? I do not think that I have ever seen an Asian presence in 37 years. This service is definitely a “Black” thing and marked by a Black style of Worship. There may have been two non-Black people there, and one of them was a camera person. Over the next few days, however, I could not find a single news or media report of the anniversary event. And if there was no official media record of the event, then did it really or truthfully happen?

* * * * *

Earlier on November 18, I received an e-mail message from my oldest sister.

I remember a lady in the neighborhood talking to Mom about Jonestown. I don’t think Mom was interested in going, but this woman was very excited about the minister, and Jonestown. I think I was amazed that she was so taken in about the whole thing (Rock Star excitement).

What my sister wrote gave me an insight. A lot has been written about those who lost everything, including their lives in Jonestown. Many have written or talked about their relatives who (were murdered) died there. I am often asked, “Did you lose any one at Jonestown?” But very little, if anything has been written about those who were personally approached and invited to join the commune at Jonestown, and who resisted.

Here is the insight: I do not know, nor have I heard the stories, of anyone who was enthusiastically approached by a true devotee, a convert, a recruiter, but resisted going. But they are out there, scores, maybe hundreds. Why did my mom and others like her resist joining the Jonestown commune? What was mother’s truth? What resistant forces enabled her to turn away from an invitation promoted by an enthusiastic devotee? What did the resisters have going for them that the others – the joiners, the victims – may not have had going for them? I do not know. This question is not further pursued here, but will be pursued at a later time.

Today, Jonestown can now be seen or interpreted as part of a larger pattern of deception and meanings that gets played out in a variety of tragic ways. At the same time, Jonestown is unique in that it was a tragic event that sealed the fate of many, including 305 children. The stark truth here is that living, trusting and caring humans, family members and their children, working for human betterment, were once alive and then suddenly dead. Never to be heard from again. It happened in time and at a particular place. Still, 37 years later, this tragic Jonestown event can no longer be regarded as an isolated, single, one time event. The ominous effects of Jonestown are still with us.

If Jonestown, Guyana was a deliberate, planned and rehearsed act, then what about those acts, with similar life-changing, if not fatal consequences, that are not planned? Today and every day, the lives of many disenfranchised people are tragically destroyed and without protest, by “legitimate” agencies and processes. Does this loss or destruction happen unawares? Similarity in acts may carry decisive, tragic and destructive consequences. I am reminded of a passage from The Warmth of Other Suns, a book about the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life:

She never used the term “Great Migration” or any grand label for what she did nor did she see her decision as having any meaning beyond herself. Yet she and millions of others like her were right in the middle of it. At one point, ten thousand were arriving every month in Chicago alone. It made for a spectacle at the railroad platforms, both north and south.[iii]

True, this is a different connection. But it raises the question, are there patterns that connects one human process to another, even when we do not use the same name for it?

We are often caught-up in the details of the present day and never aware of the larger drama of which we are part. We are sometimes overwhelmed by daily details—especially when these details carry news of betrayal, unplanned or unwanted loss of employment, friendship, health or death. Heavy loss can be among the burdensome details of the day. They can extend for weeks, months or longer. When unwanted loss clouds the day, then we are often unaware of the larger patterns that help to shape today’s meaning. We may not comprehend the role we play in a larger unfolding drama. Only hindsight or a retrospective can yield insight into a larger picture. When we are able to reflect on the past, then awareness of context and multiple perspectives might arise. They may yield images of a more truthful picture with multiple meanings. The larger picture may offer wider choice.

Yet, it is our responses to the details of everyday life that can go a long way in helping to determine its moral significance for us in the here and now.

Howard Thurman once said, “we cannot get through to the great anxieties that surround us until, somehow, a path is found through the little anxieties that beset us.”[iv]

I am a pastoral family, psychotherapist and mental health provider. In therapy, for example, the challenge is to discern the critical connection(s) between the paths that carry the details and nagging anxieties and larger, historical patterns (reciprocal loops of meanings) that surround our day, on the one hand, and on the other, the implications they hold for the decisions we make now. This challenge is what I refer to as “systemic” awareness. Unfortunately, this concern appears to be of little interest to those for whom it ought to be of great concern—i.e. religious leaders, leaders of faith communities, and those who interpret meaning and significance in the lives of others.

III

A professor from a local university spoke at the 37th anniversary event. He talked a lot about himself and his accomplishments as a professor for 38 years. He spoke down to the audience (including me, who may have known much more than he, for example). After the service had concluded, I went by to visit with my pastor, who told me he had taken a class from the professor. The man was very popular among Black students, my pastor said, but still he talked down to all of “his” students. He chided his students to protest big companies and take moral stands against them and avoid “corrupt” companies. To the chagrin of one Black student who had been chided, the same professor was later seen driving away in the latest model Nissan while his student (in disbelief) waited for a bus ride.

The professor made global statements at the memorial service like, “You have to listen to the truth of your inner voice; that is God directing you.” His words made me think about the murders that happened during Bible Study at the historic AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina a few months earlier. I thought about Dylann Roof, the KKK, Jim Jones and scores of others, who listened to their “inner,” narcissistic voice.

The professor also spoke of “God… and about mothers being right up there next to God… protecting their children.” I thought of the children of many mothers who have been in therapy with me, in different parts of the world, over the years because their children were abandoned, unprotected, even sexually abused by their mothers.

Several times, the professor would pause and ask the audience, “Am I right about that?” or “Am I telling the Truth?” The few member of the audience would shout back, “Yes!” And of course, this made me think about “audience corruption” and the mantra Jim Jones repeatedly used, “I am God,” and the response from the congregation, “You are God!”

One may argue that when the professor drove past his student, he didn’t even see his student standing at the bus stop. If true, then that is precisely my point: The student was invisible to the professor. My relative truth is not to point a finger of blame, but to suggest how commonplace it is to render another invisible, and thereby be able to pass them by. What happened there is part of a universal story of human frailty and limits for which each must take responsibility. Perhaps this kind of recognition of our common human limits and taking moral responsibility can go a long way in freeing us from the tethers that bind and blind.

We are preoccupied with many things and cannot attend to everything. Selective decisions are always being made, whether we are aware of them or not. We may be occupied with what appears to be most important to us at the time. But, slowly and surely, things that were once perceived as very important can imperceptibly slide into non-recognition and insignificance.

* * * * *

Another thing happened during the service which was uncomfortable in the moment, disturbing in its presumption, and illustrative of the type of behavior that the service seemingly was supposed to warn us against. One of the speakers paused in mid-speech and told each of us to say, “I love you” to the persons sitting on either side of us. I sat between two women whom I had never met. I doubt that I will ever see them again. I do not know them, and they do not know me! How on earth can I say, I love you” in any truthful, genuine or meaningful sense of the word? It seemed totally dishonest, superficial, inappropriate and highly manipulative.

At the end, the minister who gave the benediction told us to “stand and repeat” after him” (Are you standing?). He read from the Book of Numbers 6:24-26, the King James Version, first published in 1611. “The Lord Bless Thee and Keep Thee…” The women on my right and left repeated. Did this language momentarily place us in the 16th or 21st Century? I remained silent, astonished and disturbed.

* * * * *

The good news is that I attended the service and did not abandon the cause of “remembering” the tragic, isolated and largely forgotten events of November 18, 1978.[v] Was a certain traumatic dynamic and truth of Jonestown bleeding through into the present? I am once again reminded of how unrecognized traumatic effects of a tragic event like Jonestown can continue long after it has happened.

I now see the invitation that my Mom received to go to Jonestown as metaphor for many other tragic situations when authority and a closed cosmos appear to collude. Power and deception, mind control and limited or one-dimensional communication can subtly co-operate and worked to shut down discerning questions. I may sometimes refer to this subtlety co-operating process as “ideological blindness.” When a one-dimensional communicational process develops, then the world can become uncritically and simplistically divided into absolutes of good or evil. Finger-pointing and a successful laying of blame, projection, cover-up and camouflage can result. This seems tragically true and a daily happening.

What, then, is the truth that we should know? What are the truths that can challenge us to live noble lives and free us from falsehoods?

End Notes:

[i] There are different truths related to particular situations and contexts. There are also different genres of truth. They include: metaphysical, philosophical, scientific, pragmatic, existential, personal truths, etc. I am using the idea of “truth” in a very general way to indicate the quality of wholeness in something that is essential, reliable and enduring.

[ii] My thoughts from the previous year’s service appears in an article for the jonestown report entitled Notes on Official Jonestown 36th Anniversary.

[iii] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Vintage Books, 2010, p. 12. ISBN: 978-0-679-76388-8.

[iv] Howard Thurman, The Centering Moment, Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1984, p. 85. ISBN: 978-0913408643.

[v] November 22 – four days later – marked another tragic event, namely the anniversary of the 1963 assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Where was it publically acknowledged? I could find no mention of it in the news or on the media. Is the truth marching on?

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Jim Jones and Donald Trump: Is There a Parallel?. His complete collection of writings is here.)

Last modified on October 20th, 2016.
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