The Jonestown Themes

by Archie Smith, Jr.

After looking back over a period of 40 years since the deaths in Jonestown, we can rightfully ask, “What have we learned”? That which escapes us in immediacy may be available in the long haul, a “looking back,” so to speak.

What can a historical perspective – a selective “looking back” – tell, teach or enable us to see that might be missed in a shorter look? The latter may be among the enduring questions or answers.

I have been asked, “Why do you keep going to the Jonestown Memorial Service, year after year?” So here is the big question that frames and informs this brief essay:

Is there a way to hold on and to hold out in a fast changing world that appears to be void of lasting meaning for many?

I answer in the affirmative.

Looking back, certain (and selected) enduring themes stand out:

Remembering: We remember the incompleteness of all things in an ever-changing world. It was Reinhold Niebuhr who said:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness (The Irony of American History, Charles Scribner, 1982, 63).

I would only add that “mature forgiveness” is not possible without remembrance in the first place.

Nothing remains exactly the same. Certainly, some things are similar, and there are look-a-likes, and somethings may stand as metaphor for something other, all in an ever-changing and incomplete world. In such a changing world, remembrance of a reconstructed and irretrievable past may become important.

Interpretation: How events are interpreted – who and what is interpreted, how it is interpreted over time, the surrounding context and norms used, and the stories that emerge from them – they all matter. The meaning of events arise from interpretations and change over time. Then comes wisdom and change.

Change: If Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, was right in saying no one can step into the same flow of water twice, then change is a constant feature of reality. A Buddhist priest who is a dear friend of mine, said, “The past is present, and the future is now.” Not only is the river flowing, but we humans change, too. Who, then, can have a universal, objective view of change?

Prejudicial thinking: A delusional, simplified and frequently sanitized, view – e.g. Republican, Democrats, Independents, etc. –  attempts to stabilize a complex and changing reality. Prejudicial, locked-in, and redundant thinking does not require facts or evidence, nor any other support. It is highly subjective. Pre-judgmental thinking suggests – indeed, insists – that we not be confused by facts or objective show of evidence, because our mind is already made up.

Finitude, Limits, Boundaries and Horizon: I recall a time when a doctoral student came to my class and announced, “All absolutes have fallen. There are no absolutes!” I asked, “Are you absolutely sure of that?!”

We seldom see or acknowledge our own limits. I know I have them. I cannot know or see nor think of everything that needs to be thought about. Typical or common words and phrases in our own language illustrate what I mean: “Talk a little bit about….”; “Absolutely”; “A return to normal” (as if the previous “normal” had not led to the crises of the day); “Everything” (which apparently includes every different culture, language, ethnicity, social class, race, etc.) and “Everybody”; “We are doing this now so that we never have to do this again” (and the children of this phrase, such as “The war to end all wars,” and “To eradicate terrorism at its source.” Even the word “unique” suggests that, not only has something not happened before, but that it will never happen again.)

But who among us finite humans can know everything or everyone? We cannot even know what a person is going to say before it is said. We are even a surprise to our (many) selves. We almost never talk about limits, nor what was said or meant after it was said. Do we know what we are talking about? It is part of the human condition that everything will continue as a mystery.

Myth and Mythology: Myth is comprised of many made-up and idealized stories that we would like to be true. Mythology, someone said, tells a lot of little lies – small, simple untruths – in order to illustrate something that is big, complex and truthful. Because history is so often interwoven with mythology, the true stories of individual incidents become hard to verify.

The experience of “Jonestown” provides ample evidence of all of these themes. And more will follow.

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

Originally posted on September 12th, 2021.

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