The Theology of Jonestown:
Radical Explorations in Redemption

by Jeff Hood

Jim Jones committed evil.
The people of Jonestown committed evil.
Surely that’s not the end of the story?

Love is a beautiful thing. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Love created us. Love sustains us. Love will never die. You can’t talk about anything of import without talking about love. Love is. For love so loved the world that love gave love’s only begotten love that whosoever believes in love shall not perish but have everlasting life. The people of Jonestown never died. Love was there. Love remains. In the beginning was the love and the love was with God and the love was God. The arms that wrapped around each person…that was love. It never died. The tears that flowed…that was love. It never died. The courage to stand by each other…that was love. It never died. The grief of the survivors…that was love. It never died. Love never dies. The story of Jonestown is the story of God for God is love. The victims of this tragedy are our prophets. They beckon us to love as fiercely and powerfully as they did. Can you learn to love like that? I hear the whispers. I hear the cries. Do you have the strength to whisper? Do you have the courage to cry? Do you have the courage to go to Jonestown? It will cost you everything.

Dreams

Each step creates a symphony. The floor is old. So am I. The bed pulls me down the long hallway. Between dreams and reality, I see something. As I turn to look out the window, a familiar face stares back. Jet black hair. Wide dark glasses. Long sideburns. Frowned lips. The details only grow starker. I freeze. I don’t know why. Maybe, I’m afraid. Or maybe I’m looking for something I’ve lost. Maybe…

The bed offers refuge. I close my eyes. The ghost is still there. I close my eyes tighter. I knew that I shouldn’t have watched that documentary. I knew that I shouldn’t have listened to that recording. I knew…

Everyone was dancing. Joy repeatedly compounded. The band played on and on. Where was I? The songs sounded familiar. I listened harder. I couldn’t figure it out. So I just danced. All was right in the world, until I saw that face. Jet black hair. Wide dark glasses. Long sideburns. Frowned lips. The details only grew starker. In the midst of it all, he called my name. I didn’t know what to do. As he walked toward me, electricity ran wildly through my body. Was I alive or dead? When his hand reached me, I felt nothing and everything. The face looked into my soul. We began to talk.

What was he saying? His lips moved but nothing came out. I started to pray. Surprisingly, I felt no need to pray for myself. I just prayed for him. The deeper we traveled, the more I knew we were getting closer and closer to the point of no return. I didn’t seem to care. I felt like my job was to seek and to save that which was lost. Maybe I was trying to save myself. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I just know that I wasn’t moving aimlessly. Hope was our guide. Hope drew me forward. Hope led me to that place.

I didn’t have a choice. Hope wouldn’t let me go. There is something about hope. There is something about believing that salvation is possible. There is something. The darkness set in. This time was different. Everyone was so serious. The face spoke loudly. I wanted to believe it all. Hope seemed fleeting. Hope seemed full. I didn’t know what to believe. I just tried to believe. Doesn’t belief make things real? People kept collapsing. Though I could no longer hear his voice, I saw his lips moving. Why wasn’t I fighting? Looking around, I saw that love was with us. Maybe the hope of love drew us forward? Or maybe it was the lunacy of love that drew us forward? I don’t know. I just know I didn’t try to escape. “Hurry, Hurry…” The face followed me all the way. I couldn’t tell if it was real or not. I opened my mouth. Something touched my tongue. Was it love? Was it terror? I didn’t know. I only knew what was happening. I knew only the beginning. I knew only the middle. I knew only the end. When I opened my eyes, I looked around. Sitting up, I realized the face was gone. Where was I? Then I remembered. After a moment, I could see. Was it a dream, or was it something much more?

Somebody told me I’d meet God in church. So I went. I didn’t see God. I just saw a bunch of people acting like they’d lost their minds. Maybe that was the point. So I started acting like I’d lost my mind too. Then something took over. My soul was on fire. My spirit quaked. Something was in me. I stepped out into the aisle and joined the saints. We were one. God was amongst us. The table was set. “I am the hope of glory…” I couldn’t get down the aisle fast enough. Looking around, I knew that we were one. There was one cup. There was one loaf of bread. There was one body. There was one. As I lifted the cup to my mouth, I saw his face. Was he evil? I didn’t care. I just wanted to be one of the one. I was. I could taste it.

I walked toward the bathroom. Light had not yet arrived. So as not to wake anyone, I stepped as softly as I could. Looking outside, I forgot where I was. Was I here or was I there? The mind is often difficult to control. I wondered. Slowly, I got back to walking. “Hurry, Hurry…” There was a small light that guided the way. Once I arrived, I turned on the light. None of it seemed familiar. Then again, I didn’t seem familiar either. Then I filled the sink with hot water. The steam lifted me up. I yearned for the water. I dropped my face into it. Holding my breath, I lingered in my early morning baptism as long as I could. When I splashed out, I rose up and opened my eyes. And there it was. The face was back. Jet black hair. Wide dark glasses. Long sideburns. Frowned lips. For some reason, I couldn’t move. Gaining courage, I looked right into the face. I refused to be shaken. The longer I looked…the more I wanted to know more. For the first time in a long time, I began to pray. I asked God to show me more than just evil. I asked for a light. I asked for hope. I asked for something more than worn-out narratives. I knew there had to be something more. There was. There is.

Music is a baptism. We begin. We start to move. We go down. We come up. We move. We shake. We quake. Nothing can stop us. “Something’s got a hold on me…” After communion, I shouted that I was ready to be baptized. Though I didn’t know what I was being baptized into, I knew that water called me there. The face tried to stop me. “There was no stopping me now.” I slowly walked down the steps. I knew the water, and the water knew me. God was there. I waded for a bit. The music played. I could feel it in my soul. I knew something beyond, and something beyond knew me. I looked at the face. I wasn’t going to let that face keep me from meeting God. In spite of that face, something happened. The roof opened up, and love fell on me. Love upon love upon love. I didn’t know if it was touching anyone else. I just knew it was touching me. As I went into the water, light perpetual exploded. I knew God was mine. When I looked out at the people, I saw that they had it too. Light perpetual. The face looked at me. I saw a pain. I saw a longing. I saw… Leaning in, I could tell he wanted it too. The face was seeking. Then I remembered something that I’d heard many years ago. “Seek and you shall find…” I don’t know if you ever actually find. I think you get found.

How do you keep engaging? How do you keep going? How do you survive? The questions are our only chance of survival.

The morning drew me back to sleep. I don’t know if I was dreaming or not. The clock seemed to lie. How could it tell the truth? Isn’t time an illusion? Maybe we don’t begin or stop? Maybe life is just pain. Maybe it’s not. Maybe… I oscillated back and forth between dreams and reality. I looked out the window. I saw the face. There was no love in his eyes. I just saw evil. I was horrified to see abuse after abuse reign down on the people. I didn’t know what I could do to help. Maybe I couldn’t help…but I had to do something. Instantly, I was there. Standing over the face. I began to shout down the evil. There was war in the heavens. I kept shouting. In those moments, salvation was possible. The face refused. The exorcism continued. Quickly, the demon came out. The face collapsed. I thought he was dead. Then I bent down. Everything changed. Love returned. God was close. The resurrection was upon us.

The face buried me. I was in some sort of box. I couldn’t get out. The walls closed in. I wondered if it was the end. My mind was fractured. I wasn’t the only one. I was told that I was being put there because I had a demon. A fractured mind is not a demon. The more I lay there, the more I realized that it was the people who put me in there who had the demons. In those hours, I excised all the demons out of that space. I now knew who I was. I was something much greater than all of this shit. When I got out, I acted like nothing ever happened. However, the face knew that he had me. When we all drank the poison, I resisted for a long time. Then I realized I wasn’t getting out of there alive. I looked out to the bodies and realized that their exorcisms were complete. At long last, they would no longer have to deal with the face. I looked at him one last time. Staring directly at me, he yelled, “Hurry, hurry, hurry my children…” In those moments, I hurried to get away from him. The taste was bitter. The pain was real. Death seemed delayed. After I took my last breath, I saw my mother. Loudly, she yelled, “Love always beats evil…” I didn’t believe her.

I saw the face. I couldn’t believe it was him. He had been washed as white as snow. Every demon was gone. I believed. God hadn’t forgotten about anyone…even Jim Jones. In those moments, Jones led me to a foreign place. I was lifted up. The jungle was dense. There, in a clearing, I could see the bodies of those I’d just left. I was overcome with sadness. Then Jones leaned over to me and said, “Watch what God can do.” The people began to rise. No one was left out. Over and over again, I heard everyone declare, “I am the hope of glory…” Then I heard music. I’d never heard anything like it. God was there. “Something’s got a hold on me…” It was so beautiful. I wanted to stay there forever. The alarm rang. I shot up in bed. I wanted to stay there. Maybe I did.

Jim Jones was a child of God.
The people of Jonestown were children of God.
Can we treat them as such?

Origins

Jim Jones committed evil.
The people of Jonestown committed evil.
Surely that’s not the end of the story?

That which is beyond…is the creator of us all. Our isness is created by the being without whom there is no is. Love is the is that is. Creation is born. Isness flows. God moves. In the electricity, a creature forms. There in the palm of God, life wiggles. God doesn’t know what the child will be. God simply knows that God loves this child without limits. There is a shaking and quaking that explodes in the midst of the enormity of it all. Tears of joy fall like rain. “This is my beloved child…” The water is a baptism of creation. The heavens split open and a voice as loud as had ever been heard thundered, “His name is Jim Jones.” Electricity perpetual filled the child. There had never been anything like it. There was love beyond love. This was a beloved child of God. This is how it begins for us all. This is where Jonestown all began.

In the midst of the jungle, there was a woman with child. Her name was love. With the hopes of many, she ran into the future. Evil grew closer and closer. She could feel it. Evil wanted to devour the child. Teeth kept gnashing. She didn’t know how much further she could go. Up above and out in front and down below and back behind a small clearing appeared. She found a hiding place called love. There, she delivered a child. The very image of God was in his face. “Jim Jones” was written across his forehead. There was war in the jungle. Would life or death prevail? Evil worked hard to kill the baby. Then I heard a loud voice cry, “The salvation of God is in you.” As the woman held her child, God threw evil down. Evil was not destroyed. The battle raged. The battle rages. The battle is within. The battle is Jim Jones. The battle is us.

“Jim Jones was born evil.” The older woman thought she was stating the obvious. That which is obvious is often wrong. There is a world beyond that which is obvious. In such a world, God creates every individual in God’s image. No one is born evil. We are all born in and of God. To say that Jones was born evil is to say that we are all born evil. Such a statement is evil. Was God born evil? Neither are we. Jones was born the image of God. So are we. Throughout our lives, our actions oscillate between shades of good and shades of bad and shades of everything else. This is what we are…but what we are does not determine who we are. We are children of God. Such is the birthright of all humanity.

Maybe Lynetta was clothed with the sun. Maybe she was running through the backwoods of Indiana. Maybe there was evil hot on her tail. Love was all that she had. Love was all that she would ever need. Love is Love. When the child was born, she thought she was holding God or at least a very close resemblance. She was right. All mothers are.

“They were all lunatics from the day they were born.” It is easy to judge bodies. Life has already left. There is no one to fight back. Only lunatics call other people lunatics. I guess you could call God a lunatic on occasion. How else do you explain God’s loving commitment to us? Regardless, every child was born a child of God. For their entire lives, God was with them. When the end came, God was there. For those who live on in the flesh, God is there. God is God. We are We. They are They. God never left Jonestown…because the people could never leave the God that was within them. God was there in the beginning and in the end.

We all dream of paradise. The people of Jonestown found it, at least for a moment. In the beginning, there was a people who believed that they could change the world by learning to love each other. Though the world was dark, the people had a fire burning within. Though the destination seemed formless and void, they believed their hopes would build their dreams. God was moving. Would God follow through? God did.

Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” They gathered around the glow and saw all that was forming. With tremendous joy, they shouted out that it was good. The gap between the two spaces started to dissipate. People wanted to go. They wanted no gap. They wanted all of their dreams to come true. Then there was day. In flight, God declared, “Let the waters never separate love from love again.” The excitement of the heavens filled their spirits. Everyone looked at what God had made and it was good. Then there was day. Then God declared, “Let dry land appear.” Looking out the window, everyone knew that it was finally so. God called all that was behind…the past. As they touched dry ground, the journey continued. Every inch seemed to be the culmination of all that they’d ever wanted. Love was in. Love was out. Love was all around. God knew that it was good and led them on. The space teemed with living creatures. The jungle grew more magical by the sound. Hope sprung eternal. Then God created the people of Jonestown in God’s image. God told them, “Be fruitful and multiply.” God sent them out to rule their own lives. The demands of modernity would have no influence here. God intended for them to be free. God saw all that was made and declared it, “Beautiful.” After the end, God rested.

There was nothing. The jungle hid it all. In the void, God breathed life. Jonestown started to take shape. God planted it all. The people of Jonestown were made in God’s image and now they were creating in God’s image. In the middle of it all, God planted temptation. For, nothing is beautiful when it’s forced. Freedom was intended to be in abundance there. As the community developed, God repeatedly reminded them, “There is only one God. Do not create a God amongst yourselves.” Love grew in their hearts. The community truly believed that they were one. They were bone of the community’s bones and flesh of the community’s flesh. They were real believers…until they weren’t.

There was a serpent in Jonestown. Everyone believed the serpent. The problem was that the serpent didn’t know the truth. Repeatedly, the serpent tempted the people. “Worship me and me alone.” The serpent told them that they would experience enlightenment beyond their wildest imaginations. The people didn’t know what to do. The serpent had been so connected to God, and now the serpent seemed so far away from God, but the serpent seemed so similar to God. Slowly, the entire community was drawn to the worship. Though the temptation had been present for a long time, it was now tempting everyone. The serpent was so happy… Now, the serpent had complete control of everyone. Not for long. In those hours, God began to whisper the truth, “You are my beloved child, and today you will be with me in paradise.” They departed from Jonestown. In the heavens, all things were made right. Even the serpent was redeemed. In the celestial realm, Jonestown was perfected.

Origins are never without their consequences. Such ramifications multiplied exponentially in the middle of the jungle. There was good. There was evil. There was God. Such confusion is what life is all about. In the fog of existence, poor decisions are often made. Decisions do not erase reality. Reality is that the image of God manifests in us all. The creation of Jonestown is the creation of us. We are Jonestown and Jonestown is us. Such is true, because the creator made it so.

Jim Jones was a child of God.
The people of Jonestown were children of God.
Can we treat them as such?

Exodus

Jim Jones committed evil.
The people of Jonestown committed evil.
Surely that’s not the end of the story?

Jim Jones was born to lead his people out of bondage. They had been slaves to the system their entire lives. God spoke to Jones and told him what to do. They did something. From donations to organizing, the people sought to ingratiate themselves to Pharaoh. They got only so far. Everyone knew that they were strangers in a strange land. Nobody trusted the stranger. The establishment was more than happy to take their time and money…but not much more than that. In time, it became apparent that they were just slaves to a system that could never contain them. Somehow, they had to figure out how to rise above it all. They were desperate to be passed over by such systems of death. They could feel something bad coming. Jim Jones told them what to feel. They felt.

The community was under assault. They tried to fight back. The enemy was too strong. Light grew dark. Murmurs flowed. Terror reigned. Fire was imminent. The community had to escape. Repeatedly, they’d practiced. Now, it was real. The threats necessitated escape. In the face of such terror, the people prepared. Packing their bags was an act of defiance. Securing transport was a cry of freedom. Liberation was upon them. They just needed the final word. Then the plagues hit.

The waters of baptism turned into the waters of blood. Members of the community started to die mysteriously. Murders became common. The forces of evil were close. The people were desperate to leave. Then animals started to plague them. All they wanted to do was kill and destroy. The only safe place was in the community. We stayed there until it was time to go. Somehow, they kept getting to us. Fear wouldn’t stop. Like incessant flies, it plagued them day and night. Death was always close. Parts of the community couldn’t take the pressure. Many just died off. Boils started to appear in the community. Repeatedly, we had to just make them disappear. Intercepted messages and communications reigned down like hail. They were after us. We tried to humble ourselves and work things out…but nothing ever came of it. Darkness was here to stay, and we had to get out. Jim Jones gave the order to leave and assured us that an angel of death would visit the unfaithful before they got on the plane. Everyone prayed that they would be passed over. When the plane started, those who were there knew they were safe. Others were not so lucky. None of it seemed real.

The journey was long. Nobody thought they would make it. Everyone was just living on hope. The drive. The plane. The boat. The struggle was real. Regardless of the problem, Jones could fix it. The waters rose and we walked across on dry land. I was amazed. Before I thought he was God. Now I knew it. Every day, Jones revealed himself more and more. We just kept our eyes on him. When we arrived to Jonestown, the waters crashed behind us. We knew we were free.

I chased Jim Jones. I chased Jonestown. I wanted to know the one they claimed to be God in the flesh. The plagues made me hesitate. Revelation doesn’t come without some level of hesitation. I was terrified to fly. The flight wasn’t so bad until the end. Right before we made it to the airport, the plane started to lose altitude quickly. In the midst of the insanity of those moments, I called out to God. I didn’t call out to Jim Jones. This caused me to think more critically about what I was heading in to. Before I left, talk of Jonestown had always been enchanting. When I continued my journey by boat, I pretended like I was on dry ground until I was. When I met Jones in Jonestown, he said, “I was with you the whole time.” Hunger. Intimidation. Fear. The struggles multiplied daily. I’d only been gone for a few days and I was yearning to go back home to Egypt. The demands of the idols were just too much for me. Then it ended.

Regularly, Jim Jones came down from the mountain. The revelations that proceeded from his mouth only bolstered his authority over the community. While uncomfortable for some, most simply believed every word. You see, there were only two commandments that Jim Jones spoke in Jonestown: 1) I am God. 2) You are not. Though Jones repeatedly claimed to be an atheist, he wanted everyone to know that he was God. You didn’t get down to Jonestown without believing most of it. Jonestown was a long way from Egypt. There in the wilderness, things began to unravel. Most of the community didn’t care. They had God on their side. But every once in a while, someone would speak up, and God would strike them down. The people listened to God for hours and hours on end. The words wouldn’t stop. There was no one to stop him. At the center of Jonestown, right above the throne of Jones, hung a sign that said, “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Memories seemed to be coming in and out. Were they in the past? Were they in the future? The only time they knew in those days was sun up and sun down. The jungle always messes with your mind. That’s the nature of the wilderness. Something was repeating. Something was repeating. Something was repeating. Surely it wasn’t doom? They were so very close to the Promised Land. Their father had brought them through the entire journey, and they were almost there. Everybody was hungry. People were scared. Bodies were giving out. Things just weren’t right. Yet, they could see the beauty that was possible. Many were also starting to realize the evil that was possible too. They were repeaters of the past. They had no idea what was coming. There was a serpent in the Promised Land. There was a serpent in Paradise. There was a serpent in Jonestown.

The journey was almost over. We walked faster and faster. All that we were told was coming true. The lights drew nearer and nearer. We could see the promise. We could taste the promise. We could touch the promise. We could hear the promise. We could smell the promise. We knew the promise.

Then just as we were almost there, we hit a mirage. It was all bullshit. Pain never felt so bad. Hope was gone.

Jim Jones was a child of God.
The people of Jonestown were children of God.
Can we treat them as such?

Crucifixion/Christ

Jim Jones committed evil.
The people of Jonestown committed evil.
Surely that’s not the end of the story?

In the beginning was the word of Jim Jones, and the word was with Jim Jones and the word was Jim Jones. God sent messengers to prepare the way. It came to pass that Jones was born in Indiana. Lynetta knew that she had given birth to a messiah. In the heavens, angels declared, “Do not be afraid…” People wanted to see what this phenomenon was. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. The child was something much more than human. Everybody in town could hear the words from on high. Afraid, most people just chose to believe that the family was weird. Not Lynetta. She believed that she held the possible salvation of the world in her hands, and she wasn’t about to let him go. Beautiful things kept happening.

When word got out of what happened, people started to murmur. The Great Depression sealed the deal. They fled to another small town. Jones kept reading and reading. By the time he got to church, he was smarter than anyone in the room. By the time he got to the library, he was smarter than anyone in the room. By the time he got to school, it was over: there wasn’t anybody even close to his level of intelligence. Wherever he went, he was taught that he was the smartest. Eventually, Jones started visiting churches and showing off his knowledge. People were amazed. “How has he gained such knowledge?” “How old is he again?” “He’s from here?” Maybe some of it was bullshit. He didn’t know and they didn’t know. Spirituality and truth have a funny relationship. Jones grew more pious by the hour. God came in and out.

In those early hours, Jones wanted disciples that he could control. He promised to save them. Truth be known. He promised many other things as well. Jones and his wife Marceline began to expand their family. Between all of these organisms, Jones had a big following. Fearful of a possible nuclear holocaust, Jones decided to take everybody to California. When it came time to leave, not everyone followed. Many had witnessed Jones and turned away. The path to Jones’ salvation was narrow.

The car couldn’t move fast enough. It was like Jones was trying to have sex with the entire community. One morning, Jones finished another round and raced off to his work. One of Jim’s former partners was dragged into a space of violent condemnation. As the people pressed in, Jones laid down next to her in order to save her life. How are we to view such ambiguity? The adulterer and the abuser was also the lifesaver.

Once he moved all of his people to San Francisco, Jim Jones started shaking things up. He and his people knew how to gain power. Jones was throwing all the moneychangers out left and right. Such violence made him popular with progressive preachers and politicians. City leaders started coming to him at night asking for advice and money. Really, they were willing to listen to the advice in order to get the money. There was a preacher of a large church who started doing similar things. Everyone wanted a piece of Jones. They wanted to get saved. People began to listen like never before.

When people started to leave the community, things got a little more complicated. Despite the accusations, people kept on coming. The people claimed healings. The people claimed resurrections. The people claimed all types of things. Maybe Jim Jones really was the Son of God? Aren’t we all children of God? No matter how you parse it, they believed that Jones was God, if not in name, then in practice. The transfiguration was complete. Jones knew what was coming. People started coming for him. Paranoia took over. All Jones could do was pray to himself and take drugs. Sex alone just couldn’t do it anymore. The community just wanted to be as close to him as possible.

The food multiplied. The drink multiplied. The shelter multiplied. The healthcare multiplied. Jim Jones was leading the community to minister to the entirety of their community and then some. Nobody had ever seen a man like this, feeding, healing and saving using his own hands. Political power led to an increased visibility of Jones’ works. People kept coming. Jones was exhausted. The spotlight was hot. Everybody thought he could walk on water, but Jones just wanted to fly over it and get away from all this shit. The Concerned Relatives were prepared to follow him to the end of the earth. In the midst of it all, Jones knew that more suffering was imminent. The people just wanted to pray to him…

Our Father who is Jim Jones.
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in Jonestown.
Give us you and you alone.
Forgive us when we fail you
And forgive others who have failed you too.
And bring us not into a time of trial,
But rescue us from all of your enemies.
Amen.

Jones agonized about what to do next. Finally, he decided it was time to go. Jones called numerous leaders in the community and informed them that they were leaving. Why didn’t these friends and colleagues do more to stop them? As the people waited on a sign, Jones put on his dark glasses and led them all to Guyana. The dying would be revived. The dead would rise. They were promised they were traveling from death to life. What is death? What is life?

The trip was long. Journeys to anything that matters are never short. Upon arrival, Jones wanted them to experience all of paradise. “Well done, my good and faithful children.” The blind could now see. Things weren’t happening like they had imagined. For some, it was better. For others, it was worse. Regardless of how they felt, survival was about being faithful to Jim Jones, and to Jim Jones alone. Repeatedly, Jones talked about the imminent threats that surrounded them. When they heard shots or received news about possible dangers, they trusted Jones to protect them. The Concerned Relatives were getting closer and closer.

The Last Supper seemed to happen regularly. Meals were often filled with doom. They practiced laying down their lives. They practiced death. Their demise was never too far from their minds. Then there was an invasion. Evil people entered their community and kidnapped members of their families. Jim Jones wasn’t having it. The Concerned Relatives were the Judases of the tragedy. They were responsible for what came next. “Is it I, Lord?” During those final hours, Jones wanted to make sure that everyone knew that revenge was coming. Death would not be held back. That’s why they had to kill everyone at the airport. Ryan and his co-conspirators were dead on the tarmac. The enemies of God cannot be allowed to live. Nobody fucks with Jim Jones, except Jim Jones.

The hour was upon them. The trial was to commence. The venue? The heavens. The accused? Jim Jones. The accusers? The Concerned Relatives. “You’ve stolen so much from us.” “You’ve lied.” “You’re an abuser.” “You’re a murderer.” “You deserve death.” “Where is my son?” Disenfranchised Temple Members. “You are destroying our souls?” “Where are the miracles now?” “Why do you keep on punishing people like that?” “Repent of your sexism!” The People of Guyana. “Why did you bring all of this foolishness to our country?” The accusers and the accusations just kept on coming. Jones didn’t say anything. When there were no more words to say, God spoke, “Do you repent?” Jones said, “All I want to do is follow you.” In the coming hours, he did just that.

The community began gathered. Slowly, each one made the journey. Something felt very different this time. The weight of the world was upon them. Throughout their existence, people had abused them… Now, they were finally going to be free. But freedom was coming at a high price. For Jim Jones, the drugs took the edge off. Guns surrounded them. The cross grew heavier and heavier. “If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace.” Such words were a prayer more than they were a reality. Everybody had just wanted to make a difference. They believed that their deaths would make a difference. From everything they’d ever been taught, they knew that this was their moment to give their bodies to each other and to the world. “Greater love has no one than this,” Jones led them on. Time seemed to linger. The voices became intertwined. They were marching forward together. At the apex of their existence, they climbed up on the cross and hung there for the sins of the world. They were willing to pay the price. Above their heads hung a huge sign that read, “Jonestown, Home of God.” To their right and to their left hung those who had persecuted them the most, saying, “You were all about saving the world…why don’t you save us?” They looked to them all and said, “Today, you will be with us in paradise.” Nobody really knew what that meant. Death seemed to be delayed. The community was determined to go together. Darkness reigned in those moments. As they clung to each other, strength lessened. Looking out at all of the beauty the community had accomplished, Jim Jones lifted his head and screamed, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” Life was rapidly dissipating. Finally, the entire community cried out, “It is finished.” Their mission to save the world was complete.

Chaos reigned. People were terrified. Though they knew they’d been left behind to spread a message – right now – they were too scared to even go out in public. Much time passed. Pain didn’t stop. Gruesome images were shared. Explanations were given. People tried to move on. There was no moving on. Life seemed to end in Jonestown. Maybe it did. Then again, maybe it didn’t.

There was something still there. The presence grew stronger and stronger. Then it happened. In the days following the tragedy, much of what had been  Jonestown was placed in a tomb. Everybody thought they could just forget about it all, but those closest to what happened never could. They were gathered there together that morning. Amidst a small ceremony remembering the lost, the ground started to shake and souls started to rise. When they saw Jim Jones, they were terrified. Then the heavens opened up and God declared, “These are all my beloved children.” Now, Jones was a soul amongst many rising to meet their God in the sky. Rejoicing. Tears. Joy. Shouts. Healing. Everything was there and then some. The souls lingered. It was a love explosion. Then they were taken up into the heavens. Love would linger forever. They strained to see them as long as they could, until they could see them no more. The gathered didn’t move. Everyone was overwhelmed. Then God spoke again, “Why are you frozen? The people of Jonestown are here with me. You will join them. But until you do, go and love as they have loved…so that life will be on earth as it is in heaven…and they will be with you always…even until the end of days.”

God has used the people of Jonestown and their descendants to bring about so much love…If such things were transcribed, the world would not be able to contain all that would be written.

Jim Jones was a child of God.
The people of Jonestown were children of God.
Can we treat them as such?

Revelation

Jim Jones committed evil.
The people of Jonestown committed evil.
Surely that’s not the end of the story?

“Don’t you want to know what I did?” For many years, I’ve served as a spiritual advisor on death row. I’ve encountered all types of people who’ve committed all sorts of murders. Sometimes, the experience is frightening. Sometimes, the experience is joyful. All the time, the experience is deeply spiritual. When he asked if I wanted to know about his crimes, I knew that we were entering into a time of a confession. For a considerable period of time, he described shocking detail one of the most heinous crimes I’d ever heard of. When he finished talking, I had to take a break. Honestly, I thought I was going to leave. Something made me stay. When I returned to the conversation, I could hear God say, “He is mine.”

I believe that God says such things about all of us. It is easy to monsterize those we fear. It is harder to find the monster in us. For only when we find our monster can we find a belief in God’s love for us/all. To love honestly in this world is to look past deeds and see people, even in the most heinous of circumstances.

God is redeeming. God is drawing all to love. God will restore. God redeemed Jim Jones. God has drawn Jim Jones to love. God has restored Jim Jones. There is no amount of monsterization that can change that.

History is a racket. It is written by people with great privilege. It is distributed by people with great privilege. It is maintained by people with great privilege. The common narrative about Jim Jones reflected the horror of the images coming out of Jonestown. The problem with such descriptions are that they grant no room for the good that Jones accomplished in his life. There were people who loved Jones. There were people whose lives were transformed by Jones. There were people whose lives were saved by Jones. To deny these pieces of the story is to deny history. Jones was more than Jonestown. Jones was a servant of God from time to time. Why deny that? Those who deny the love in others are denying the love that is within them. To deny love is to deny God, for God is love. Jones was a beloved savior for many. Jonestown doesn’t negate that. Jones committed great evil. We know that. Where is the rest of the story? History is always bigger than the obvious. The story of Jim Jones is too. Do we have the courage to look? God is there.

I lingered on every word. Though I knew how the tape ended, I listened with hope. The noises were horrific. Terror ran up my spine. I didn’t know if I could finish it. The poison flowed and the sounds subsided. That night, I was very restless. One phrase – “revolutionary suicide” – stood out above all others. I was very disturbed. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew that this phrase had big consequences for my faith. Revolutionary suicide and the sacrifice of Jesus had much in common. Jesus and Jonestown were in agony. Jesus and Jonestown pushed forward in love. Jesus and Jonestown believed that they were dying to start the revolution. Jesus and Jonestown gave their lives for the world. Even though Jim Jones claimed to not believe in God, he led his people on the pathway of Jesus. “Greater love hath no one than this, than one who would lay down their life for their friends.” The incarnation of Jesus was there that night. The entire community traveled all the way to the cross. May we go and do likewise.

“They were crazy.” “They were brainwashed.” “They were evil.” I’ve heard all of these descriptions and more, a million times. These words are evil. There is nothing gained from shitting on the dead. There is much lost by not understanding that these were brilliant people with beautiful souls.

Just the other day, someone asked me how to follow Jesus. I told them to look to Jonestown. A community full of people loving each other and struggling for a newer world. Isn’t that everything? If people would just do that, we wouldn’t have to worry about all of this bullshit going on in the world. Instead of looking away from Jonestown, we need to look to Jonestown. May we go where they went. May their people be our people. May their God be our God. May nothing separate us from their witness. May nothing separate us from their love. May nothing separate us.

Revelations are peculiar. God’s ways are mysterious. Jonestown can be salvific for all who have ears to hear.

Jim Jones was a child of God.
The people of Jonestown were children of God.
Can we treat them as such?

Conclusion

Jim Jones committed evil.
The people of Jonestown committed evil.
Surely that’s not the end of the story?

Behold, I saw the community struggling to walk. Each one was dragging conclusions. “Crazy!” “Evil!” “Murderers!” “Abusers!” Multiple people fell. Some couldn’t get back up. Seeing such evil, a small group of people tried to help…but the conclusions were too strong. The conclusions continued. Then I heard the booming cry of God from the heavens, “Stop!” In that moment, the people were set free. They began to run. I ran too. Everything was coming to fruition. Evil was destroyed. The ideals that they had stood for were true. No one was left behind. Everything was made right. It wasn’t long before we reached a place where love knows no end. And we called it Jonestown.

Jim Jones was a child of God.
The people of Jonestown were children of God.
Can we treat them as such?

(Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor, theologian and activist living and working in Texas.

(Dr. Hood’s extensive work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including in the Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Los Angeles Times, WIRED magazine and on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR.

(Amongst his work is a 51-part Lenten series in 2017 entitled Jonestown Theology: Lenten Explorations in the Valley of Death (available online at the Patheos Progressive Christian website starting here).  Recently, the series was published Wipf & Stock Publishers as a work of theology entitled The Slaughter of God: Theologies from Jonestown (available at amazon).

(In addition to a doctorate with a focus in Queer Theology from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Dr Hood holds two undergraduate and four graduate degrees (including advanced theological degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Emory University).

(Along with his academic studies, Dr. Hood was ordained to the ministry in 2006, at a church within the Southern Baptist Convention.

(A prolific writer, Dr. Hood has published 19 books and countless shorter writings. In 2016, Dr. Hood’s book The Courage to Be Queer was named the third best religion book of the year at the Independent Publishers Book Awards.

(Dr. Hood is the husband to Emily and the father of five young children. He writes regularly at http://revjeffhood.com/.)

 

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