Who Did Sin?

(Glenda Randolph Bates was the sister of Darlene Ramey, who died in Jonestown. Her articles for this site appear here. She died on March 29, 2022 from pancreatic cancer.)

The word “awkward” is defined as lacking dexterity or skill. Its origin in late Middle English defines it as “the wrong way around, upside down, backwards, perverse, clumsy.” They all fit.

Yes, I’ve had awkward experiences that have touched and entangled every aspect of my life. That upside-down feeling that comes and goes anytime I recall my experiences with Peoples Temple epitomizes them.

Attempting to explain what those experiences were like feels clumsy. This is even more so today, when, after 43 years, I still don’t understand all there is to know. It’s awkward deflecting from the issues in life that brought me to such a people and place in time. That oddness and those perversities, they’re certainly perverse and clumsy when I try to put them in words. Awkward.

I’ve been an early riser since childhood. It began when my father used to promise he was going to take me fishing. He said I had to wake up very early so that we could be on the water before the sun came up. I didn’t need an alarm to wake me up. I’d be ready at 3:00 am, sitting at the window, looking out into the darkness, excitedly waiting for his headlights to turn into our driveway… headlights that never appeared. I’d stay at the window until evening, afraid to even go use the toilet out of fear of missing his arrival.

Of course, he lied to me every time. He never would arrive, and yet he would lie again when I stumbled upon him afterward. Sadly, I believed the lie each time he told it. Each time. Awkward.

So here I am, 62 years old and quite the awkward creature of habit. I’m a theologian and enjoy studying early before the sun rises. (I still don’t need an alarm.) I love to delve into history before distractions rouse me away.

I was recently cross-referencing a biblical text in Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John. John recounts an experience he shared with Jesus when he encountered a blind man. It’s safe to assume that Jesus encountered many blind people during His ministry here on earth. This encounter is of interest to me because it struck the awkwardness that surfaces from our human nature.

John tells of a man blind from birth, and of the naysayers of that period who asked an awkward question, “Who did sin that this man was born blind?” At the time the gospel was written, cultural beliefs held that sickness and disease were an outward manifestation of inward or hidden sin. Their understanding was that people are not blind by coincidence, but by consequence.

The finite nature of humanity often makes us blame instead of blessing. It becomes easier to point a finger of blame rather than extending a hand of blessing. I get it, we are human. There was that human need to blame someone for this man being blind through no fault of his own. Their faulty belief made it easier for them to question his parents’ morality. No one asked how they could be of help to this man, or even if there were something they could have done to prevent it.

I love the way Jesus responded to these people. He said that no one sinned to cause his blindness. I can only imagine how liberating that must have been to his parents. His mother probably lived under a cloak of shame. To live in a society that blamed her for not having a “normal” baby must have been tormenting. The whispers about her, the assumptions, and judgments. Surely, she must have committed adultery and thought she would get away with it, but no, God saw it and punished her. And surely, his father was an unjust man who probably defrauded someone, and God balanced the scales of justice by striking his baby with blindness.

It is amazing what that human need to blame does to us. We just cannot help ourselves. We feel the urgent need to put things in their proper places. We need to test our hypothesis and draw logical conclusions. And yet Jesus said no one sinned, it was for the glory of God.

Yes, it was. Because had they extended their hands rather than point their fingers, the awesome mercy and compassion of God could have manifested itself through their human weakness.

I admit that during the last 43 years I have pointed my finger countless times. In my weakness, in my humanness, I could not comprehend how hundreds of people were murdered. I needed to put things in the right boxes. I was not interested in anything beyond figuring out why my sister and my friends were dead.

It was someone’s fault, and they needed to be blamed. There might be someone reading this that I blamed.

Yes, I have asked myself repeatedly what I could have done to prevent this. I have tried not to form faulty assumptions, and yet I still point the finger. One reason that I have never visited the memorial gravesite is because I did not want to see people I blamed for this tragedy. Awkward, indeed.

As I pondered over what John had written centuries ago, I came to the realization that I wasted too much time pointing my finger and blaming others. I missed so many opportunities to extend my hand to allow God to be glorified and manifest His love through me.

Who did sin that so many lives were lost November 18, 1978? I could continue to point fingers hundreds of years, and yet my fallen human nature would not be satisfied. I would remain that little girl peering out the window into darkness, looking for headlights that were not coming, and that would never come. Or I can accept that each one of us are uniquely, fallen human beings. Individually, and collectively subject to the awkwardness of our human nature.

I ask forgiveness of everyone I have pointed a finger of blame toward regarding this tragedy. We probably all agree that there is enough blame to go around. Let us also agree that God grants the love we need to help each other heal through this journey. God bless you!