(On November 26, 1978, John Moore preached a sermon about Jonestown after his daughters Carolyn and Annie died there. Ten years later his essay “Remembrance, Identification and Tragedy: Jonestown The Mirror,” was published in Ten Years After Jonestown, edited by Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989). In this essay he reflects upon the thirty years since his first daughter joined Peoples Temple and the twenty years he and his wife Barbara have spent following the tragedy.
(Rev. Moore’s complete collection of writings for this site may be found here.)
It was The Sixties! Liberation was in the air. A new social order was not far off in the future. It was an anti-establishment and antinomian time. It was as if history’s tectonic plates had suddenly slipped violently shaking the culture like an earthquake. Enormous forces were released in the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, and in the struggle for social justice. The Sixties cannot be demarcated as beginning January 1, 1960 and ending a decade later, for the events of those years were rooted in history and are still bearing fruit.
It is impossible to understand Jonestown and Peoples Temple apart from understanding The Sixties. Nor can I understand Carolyn’s and Annie’s involvement in Peoples Temple apart from what our family was doing during those years.
Our Family History
Whether it was by providence or chance, history or our own choosing, or more likely a combination of all of these, we were right in the middle of The Sixties. Life asked us “What will you do in this time and place?” All of us in our family made choices. When Peoples Temple and similar groups were moving to “nuclear safe” areas, we moved to San Francisco where I became pastor of Glide Church. One day early in my ministry I joined the Caesar Chavez’ United Farm workers who were picketing Schenley’s as a part of their efforts to organize workers in the vineyards. Three months before the Selma March hundreds of us from across the country gathered in Washington, D. C. where we marched from Ashbury Methodist Church across the Potomac to the Pentagon where we protested the Vietnam War. Soon after the Selma March our family joined hundreds of others in a Civil Rights march down Market Street. I shared leadership in San Francisco’s Interfaith Committee on Race, and later the Interfaith Committee on Peace. I participated in organizing The Council on Religion and the Homosexual. In January, 1965 gays and lesbians packed Glide Church to hear what a United Methodist pastor would say about “The Church and Homosexuality.” Although a student would comment ten years later “I read your sermon and I don’t see what was so controversial.,” wire services carried reports of the sermon across the country and to New Zealand and Australia.
A few years later in Davis our family leafleted in front of super markets in support of the grape boycott. We didn’t eat grapes for years. Women, often with men, turned to our campus ministry Center for counseling help with unplanned pregnancies. Women students organized their own sex education program in our Center. Many students who were abusing drugs sought our help. As middle class young adults were arrested with illegal drugs, our pastoral responsibilities took us into the jail.
Barbara and I participated weekly in a small, silent public vigil for peace in Vietnam. Our daughter Becky organized a youth vigil on the same site while in high school. A year later our youngest daughter Annie organized a “Teach-In” at the high school. Our family drove to San Francisco to participate in the May Moratorium.
Our ecumenical campus ministry worked to avoid “freak-outs” during demonstrations by facilitating communication between students, the administration and the police. When possible all parties would try to choreograph demonstrations in advance to minimize the risk of violence. We accompanied young men who were determined to refuse induction to the Oakland induction center. At Draft Card Turn-In events some of us accepted their cards. Campus pastors of various communions along with several local pastors developed a draft-counseling program, which in time was housed in the UC Davis Dean of Student’s office. Our task was to help men sort through the issues related to their response to the Vietnam War. Some chose to enroll in ROTC, a few enlisted in active units and more in reserve units while most waited to be drafted. Still others registered as conscientious objectors, or refused induction and went to prison, or emigrated. Our counseling aim was to help them think through the issues, and then act in accordance with their judgment and conscience.
Contrary to the view of many, I am convinced that young Americans during the Vietnam era were not so different from their fathers who fought in World War II. When I suggested to a Catholic student who was resisting the draft to talk with his father, he replied “My dad immigrated to America. He’s proud of his service in World War II. He’s a patriot, a one hundred percent American! There’s no way he could understand me.” Nevertheless, the student went home where he had a great conversation his father. When he returned to campus, he told me “Dad said If I were in your place I would do the same thing.’ I responded ‘Dad, if I had been in your place I would have done as you did.'” The wars and the times, not the men were different.
The invasion of Cambodia prompted Davis’ largest anti-war demonstration. Several hundred protesters sat-in on the Southern Pacific tracks stopping all traffic for twenty-four hours. The police arrested ninety persons and took them to the county jail. The wise preparation and skill of the local police chief averted violence and injury. As I was walking back to campus with some exuberant students, an anthropology graduate student exclaimed excitedly “The Age of Aquarius really is dawning!” The successful protest was evidence enough for her to believe that the new age had arrived.
Our Introduction to Peoples Temple
In August of 1968 Carolyn and her husband, Larry Layton, moved to the Ukiah area where she assumed a teaching position and he began his Alternate Service as a Conscientious Objector at the Mendicino State Hospital. Several months later some friends invited them to Peoples Temple where they were drawn to the charismatic pastor and the integrated church that was engaged in service ministries and was committed to social justice. Carolyn wrote enthusiastically about their new pastor saying, “Jim Jones says this, and Jim Jones says that…” about various political and social issues of the day. This made me uneasy, so I replied “Carolyn, I’m more interested in what you think than what your pastor thinks about these matters.” My discomfort was aggravated several years later when we heard a leader of Peoples Temple offer the invocation for the commencement service at a public community college. It was a strange prayer — ten minutes of praise of Jim Jones.
We liked the members of Peoples Temple whom we met. On the other hand, our first meeting with Jim exacerbated our uneasiness. I was awakened in the night more than once in the years that followed by Barbara’s sobbing. Worried and distressed, we asked our ourselves “What can we do about Carolyn’s involvement in Peoples Temple?” We disagreed with her judgment but respected her freedom to live her own life.
For the next ten years we walked a razor thin line. During the years we worked with university students we had learned that those young adults whose parents walked with them through difficult passages on their journeys, such as unplanned pregnancies, decisions regarding the draft and the war, and drug abuse, were more likely to come through those experiences whole. On the other hand, those young adults who were separated from their parents for whatever reasons had a more difficult time.
We were impressed with the many positive aspects of Peoples’ Temple. We visited their residence for retarded citizens and two homes for the elderly in Redwood Valley. We were told that blood pressure checks were offered at every meeting, and that periodically they administered sickle cell anemia tests. The church had a nutrition education program. Members would accompany young people for their appearances in court. They were aggressive in their support of social justice issues. I was especially interested in their effort to sustain a common life. It was a time when many responded to our individualistic and mass society by creating intentional communities. Although I was uneasy about Jim, I asked him if he would talk with some theological students about Peoples Temple. It was an unusual community with a diverse membership. Most new religious movements were comprised of white young adults. Peoples Temple, on the other hand, was predominantly Black with all ages from children to the aged, and many college educated young adults. Rather than talking about their community life, the session opened with Carolyn distributing packets of newspaper clippings about Jim Jones. The serious discussion of the life of Peoples Temple I had hoped for was lost with this beginning.
Publicly we affirmed the good things we saw the members of Peoples Temple doing, but privately we confronted Carolyn and Jim, and later Annie, regarding matters which disturbed us, such as the god-like deference accorded Jim, his control and manipulation of the group and their secrecy and paranoia. Mary Ann Bacher, a member of Larry Layton’s legal defense team in his first trial, interviewed me as a possible witness for the defense. In the course of our conversation I mentioned how Barbara repeatedly confronted Jim on a particular issue. Ms. Bacher commented that Barbara was one of very, very few persons who ever stood up to Jim. It was during one of our confrontations that I learned how members tried to protect Jim against criticism. A magazine editor called to inquire why I had allowed Peoples Temple to use my church logo for a public relations mailing. I am sure that Jim had approved the unethical and illegal use of my logo, but Carolyn rallied to his defense. As a last resort she took personal responsibility, but I knew that this was not the truth.
Annie had looked forward to living with Becky and her husband in Washington, D. C. after graduation from high school in 1972. She had spent the previous summer there working as a volunteer in Children’s Hospital. Shortly before she was to leave for Washington she visited Carolyn in Redwood Valley. She was so impressed by Jim and Peoples Temple that when she came home, she told us “I’ve decided to Join Peoples Temple.” I thought “Oh God, isn’t one child enough?” She pled with us to join with her.
An incident in the mid-Seventies confirmed our perception of the paranoia of Jim Jones and his followers and that some of them were “True Believers.” A magazine editor had alerted a freelance reporter, whom I knew, about the use of my logo. The reporter planned to write an exposÈ of Jones and the Temple. I was so irritated by his attitude that I asked him to leave. An hour later I discovered that he had left his briefcase. I casually mentioned the interview to our daughter, and that the reporter had left his briefcase. We received an urgent phone call at seven o’clock the next morning asking us to come immediately to the church in San Francisco. We were met by a church security guard who took us to the office. Jim, Tim Stoen, Sharon Amos, our two daughters and perhaps Gene Chaikin and another person were waiting for us. Frantic is too strong a term, but they were upset about my interview with the reporter whom they regarded as an enemy. He had attacked the Temple previously. Jim asked what I planned to do with the briefcase. I said that I intended to turn it over to the Berkeley police or to the United Airlines counter at the Oakland airport. They tried for an hour to persuade me to give them the briefcase. Carolyn and Annie pled with me. Jim or Tim said that the reporter would claim that we had opened the briefcase and read its contents. Someone said “If you will leave the briefcase in the closet near the front door, someone will come and get it. We’ll make it look like a burglary.” Sharon Amos, who later killed her three children before committing suicide in the Peoples Temple Georgetown, Guyana house on November 18, said to me “John, surely you would never have turned in a Jew to the Nazis! You must give us the briefcase.” I replied, “I hope that I would not have done such a thing, but I don’t see any connection between betraying a Jew to a Nazi and what you are asking me to do.” Jim or Tim finally said, “If you won’t give it to us, leave it with United Airlines rather than the Berkeley police.” As soon as we arrived home, I took it to the United counter at the Oakland terminal where the agent asked if I had opened the case. I assured him that I had not.
As I recall, the reporter subsequently did accuse Peoples Temple and me of opening his briefcase. This same reporter phoned a day or two after Jonestown to say, “I told you so,” and to get a story. He sought me out at the 1980 and 1984 General Conferences of The United Methodist Church where I was active in the effort to forestall legislation to exclude gays and lesbians from ordained ministry. In 1984 he actually came to our delegation’s table on the floor of the conference where he threatened to let everyone know of our family’s involvement in Peoples Temple. His intimidation was futile, for members of the Conference already knew my history.
Following the publication of a New West Magazine article in 1977, Carolyn and Annie emigrated to Jonestown with hundreds of other members of Peoples Temple. We wrote frequently and talked with them from time to time via phone patches. When we were in Jonestown in May, 1978, we were impressed with hundreds of acres cleared, palms and citrus growing, an educational program for the children, and a library. When we did not see the adulation given Jim that had disturbed us so much in the past, I wondered if the members had been told to “Cool it!” It was only after our return to California that we heard about Jim’s “throne” in the pavilion. I have no memory of seeing anything resembling a throne. On the other hand, the paranoia and deference given Jim was the same as in San Francisco. Jim made a statement at an evening meal which I expected to be challenged by someone; but one after another the leaders around the table echoed his judgment. After returning home I wrote Carolyn expressing my concern about the absence of any perspective other than Jim’s.
Shortly after our arrival in Georgetown, Guyana we talked with Deborah Layton, who had lived with us for a time when she was in high school. The next morning we learned that she had broken her ties with Peoples Temple and had sought asylum in the United States Embassy. When she returned to the United States, she reported that Jim was planning a mass suicide. We had been home a week or two when Charles Garry, attorney for Peoples Temple, asked if we would be willing to fly from our home in Reno to San Francisco for a news conference at the Temple. The reporters asked a number of questions, which we could not answer, because we lacked knowledge about the issues. I said, “We did not go to Jonestown as investigative reporters. We went as parents to see our daughters and our grandson just as we would if they had been living in New England or Europe.” If a reporter had asked if I had any concern about the mental health of the community, I would have mentioned our long-standing concern about paranoia. Two friends told me recently that when they heard us talk about Jonestown following our return home that they had sensed my misgivings in spite of the positive things I said.
On November 19, 1978, six months after our visit to Jonestown, I was called out of a retreat to take a phone call. My sister asked “What do you know about what has happened in Jonestown?” I replied, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” After a long silence she said “Congressman Ryan has been killed.” I told our friends Mike and Foofie that our children had been involved in a tragedy and that we had to go home immediately. On the way Mike commented, “This will be with you a long time.” “As long as we live,” I responded. With our retreat experience fresh in mind Mike then said, “This is your calling.” “Yes, and it’s a shitty calling,” I said.
We had no idea what lay ahead of us. Fifteen years later a friend whom I first knew as a man but was then a woman asked, “John have you ever felt that you carried a stigmata?” The word had never entered my mind, but without hesitation I said, “Yes.” We bore no marks on hands or feet, but I felt that I had been branded with a “J”. We were no different from others, for the kin of all who died and all surviving members of Peoples Temple have borne the same mark.
Our Response to the Tragedy
From the very first I have felt that Jonestown was a tragedy with hundreds of actors. Jim Jones played the leading role, but the Concerned Relatives, Congressman Ryan and members of the media played crucial roles. I too was one of the actors. Ryan, in his role as an elected official, was investigating charges against Jim and Peoples Temple in the same way he had conducted other investigations. We have wondered whether he would have gone to Guyana if he had imagined the possible consequences of driving the paranoid leader and community into a corner. Members of the media were doing their job. Grace and Tim Stoen were trying to get their son back. The Concerned Relatives were parents and siblings who felt that their kin were being held against their wills. We had chosen to relate differently to our daughters and Peoples Temple, but the Concerned Relatives knew some things that we only learned later. They did what they thought was right just as we did what we thought was right. We all lost! The actions of all of the actors wove a thousand threads into a tragedy.
A few days after the deaths of Carolyn, Annie and Kimo, our grandson, and more than nine hundred others Barbara exclaimed, “Jim Jones murdered our children. I will not let him destroy me!” During that time two passages of scripture came to mind — “Love never ends!” and “In everything God is working to bring about what is good… with those who love God… and are called to work with the Eternal” (RSV). I see the resurrection as a paradigm — God is always working to bring good out of tragedy. When we are in the of midst pain and suffering we hear a voice within asking “Why?” But there is another voice asking a different question, “What will you do?” The “Why?” question was not answered, but I knew that I had the power to make choices. Lincoln knew this when he implored the audience at his second inuagural “… let us strive … to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” We chose to work with God to bring whatever good we could out of the tragedy of Jonestown.
During those days and weeks our family — Barbara and I, our remaining daughter Becky and her husband Mac — made many choices or more often discovered that we were of a common mind about how we would respond to what had happened to us. The media characterized Jonestown adults as “kooks,” “weirdos” and “crazies” as they would later do with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, and Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate members. The humanness, the personalities and character of those who lived and died cannot be communicated in icons. They were true believers; nevertheless they were human beings who loved and feared and dreamed and hoped. The media’s icons are bodies laid out in circles in Jonestown, the burning compound in Waco, and Applewhite’s bulging eyes and the uniformed bodies lying on cots in the San Diego residence. The media will sum up the next tragedy with an icon just as they have in the past. We have affirmed the humanness of those who died in the Waco furnace and those who took their own lives believing that a meteor would carry them into the new ages just as we affirmed those who died in the Guyana jungle twenty years ago.
In late November 1978, we agreed that we would not be imprisoned by shame. We would publicly affirm our kinship and friendship with members of Peoples Temple. We were never insiders to Peoples Temple, but we knew that the dead were voiceless. We could not speak as one of them, but we would speak as best we could from our limited perspective. In her preface to A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple, Becky quoted a friend and scholar who had observed “This is the first time I’ve really understood an historical event. Everyone has a different piece of the event. None is complete by itself. Yet no part can be discounted.” Becky acknowledged that there was much we did not know. Our involvement in the event was small, but it was an important piece of that event.
We didn’t decide to seek understanding. Our commitment to seek the truth and understanding was just a part of who we were. Becky and Mac traveled to Jonestown in May 1979 to be where her sisters and nephew had lived and died, to get the feel of the place. They talked with Skip Roberts, Chief of Guyana’s Police Force, and to Guyanese citizens in Matthew Ridge and Georgetown. They visited Larry Layton in the Georgetown jail. Larry was the only person ever charged with participating in the attack on Congressman Ryan and the others at the Port Kaituma air strip. We employed a private investigator, who soon confirmed our intuition that the mass murder-suicide was not the result of a conspiracy, but rather was the consequence of the actions of Jim and his followers. Becky and Mac talked and corresponded with survivors of Jonestown and other members of Peoples Temple. Mac filed scores of Freedom of Information requests. He sued the CIA and won two significant issues. The Appeals Court ruled that federal agencies could not shift documents from one agency to another, as in a shell game, to avoid responding to FOIA requests. Second, the court said that federal agencies must release all documents related to the request, not just those documents which were in their possession at the time the request was made.
We are indebted to Stephan Jones and other survivors of Jonestown and the attack upon Congressman Ryan and those who were with him at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Peoples Temple members who were not in Jonestown have shared their experiences, insights and perspectives with us. When Stephan told us that Carolyn’s and Annie’s letters express “the party line” about life in Jonestown, I said that we were aware of that. When I visited Larry Layton in the Georgetown, Guyana jail, he talked some of life in Jonestown. Archie Ijames came to see us in Davis in 1987 or 1988. We may have met him at some Peoples Temple event, but I had no memory of it. Mr. Ijames had been with Jim since the founding of the Temple in Indianapolis in the Fifties. He attended our church service and then came to our home for dinner. As he left the house he said to me, “Worst case scenario! Worst case scenario!”, which I took to mean that the shadow side of Jim and life in Peoples Temple and Guyana was darker than he thought we knew. When we learned that Mr. Ijames had died not long after his visit, l had the feeling that he knew his death was near and that his visit was part of some unfinished business. He wanted to see and talk with certain people before he died.
Raven, Tim Reiterman’s and John Jacobs’ solid biography of Jim Jones, was invaluable in understanding him. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, Mary McCormick Maaga’s recently published book about the women of Jonestown, was hard for our family to read but essential to our journey toward truth and understanding. We have followed the research of scholars who have written and lectured about Peoples Temple and other new religious movements.
Chris Hatcher’s insights have been especially helpful in understanding control and manipulation in Peoples Temple, and the enslaving power of shame in the lives of survivors. Soon after Jonestown and the assassination of Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, Diane Feinstein, mayor of San Francisco, appointed Dr. Hatcher to work with the survivors of Jonestown, and former Temple members and their families. Dr. Hatcher, a psychologist and professor with the University of California in San Francisco, says that shame is the dominant common characteristic among them. Shame, not guilt, drove most survivors and members and their families into concealment. The shock of the mass murder-suicide of their friends was overwhelming. Their tie with Peoples Temple was such a stumbling block when they sought employment that it is no wonder they kept silent about their history. A mother in Texas who saw a TV report on the fifth anniversary memorial service called Dr. Hatcher and said “I have never told anyone that my daughter died in Jonestown.” People with AIDS and their families responded to their situation in a similar way in the late Eighties. For example, an older member of our church and her husband were present to her son when he was dying of AIDS, but it was three months after his death that she could summon the courage to tell her best friends in her church the cause of her son’s death.
Last year I mentioned to two San Francisco pastors Dr. Hatcher’s comment about shame being the dominant characteristic of survivors. Both pastors said “Yes, that makes sense.” One was talking about pastors who would like to forget their ties with Jim and Peoples Temple. The other was talking about politicians who used and were used by Jim, and would like to expunge that bit of history from their public image. Since that can’t be done, they hope that no one will bring up the subject.
Dr. Hatcher’s second insight has been as helpful as the first. Jim organized Peoples Temple into compartments so that most members did not know what was happening in other aspects of their common life. For example, on a TV talk show in 1988 Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Church in San Francisco, said that Jim and Peoples Temple were racists. A former member on the panel vehemently denied the charge. Cecil was right, for leadership in Peoples Temple was centered in the hands of Caucasians, predominantly white women. Loyal, hard working Black members who had paid their dues were passed over for leadership roles. On the other hand, the woman who challenged Dr. Williams had not been in the leadership circle, but she had experienced Black and white members living and working together. The Temple Planning Commission, which used the threat of violence and violence, was shielded from the general membership by organizational walls. The leadership was blind to its own racism and elitism. One evening when we were in Jonestown they showed a film that praised the status of women in the USSR. If the film had been shown on campuses in this country, students would have walked out laughing. They only women portrayed were spouses of famous leaders.
Order came at a high price, for Jones used separation and isolation to control members. Peoples Temple student dormitories in Santa Rosa not only provided meals, housing and companionship for members. Peer support encouraged study and peer pressure maintained discipline and monitored loyalty. While in the United States members rubbed shoulders with coworkers, but living in the Guyana jungle was as isolating as if they were living on another planet. During the final desperate months in Jonestown those who were too independent were forced to cut wood twelve hours a day. Apparently some were kept in solitary confinement, and the strongest who disagreed with Jim were controlled with drugs.
Jones’ manipulating, controlling way permeated every aspect of the organization. In the late Sixties when Carolyn talked about Catharsis Sessions in the Temple, I assumed that they were similar to the popular personal growth groups of the time. In reality, however, they were used to control by punishing members for failures, large or small, or to humiliate them or to intimidate others in the group. During those years when we were learning about Peoples Temple I was struck with the number of adults, men and women, to whom the children related. Although the people did not live in one compound, this pattern struck me as similar to the early kibbutzim. Only much later did I learn that Jones used the model as a form of social control which broke down ties between children and their parents. In Peoples Temple there was one Dad and one Mother- Jim and his wife Marceline Jones. What began as a community became more and more a collective where freedom was diminished and conformity demanded.
On the tenth anniversary of Jonestown, our son in-law Mac invited survivors, other Temple members and the Concerned Relatives to come together. He hoped that some individuals might be willing to take this step toward healing and reconciliation. That year was the first time a former member of Peoples Temple had come to the Memorial Service at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. Mac’s effort was premature, but at the service four years later we saw three young men walking toward the marker. In the five years we had been coming we had never seen any white young men and few white women. As the tallest of the three walked toward us, I stepped forward and asked “Stephan?” Barbara gave him a big hug. She had remembered him from the Seventies as a “cute teenager full of life.” A moment later we saw Grace, mother of Jon Jon whom we had last seen with our grandson, Kimo, in Jonestown in May, 1978. Following the service Becky and a friend invited Stephan and Grace, and Patricia and Kevin Ryan, children of the late Congressman Leo Ryan, to join us for lunch.
Twenty minutes later, and fourteen years after the tragedy that shattered our lives, we were all at the same table at Skates by the Bay in Berkeley. Stephan Jones, the son of Jim, sat next to Barbara and directly across from Patricia Ryan. Patricia was President of CAN, Cult Awareness Network, which was forced into bankruptcy in 1997 and is now run by the Church of Scientology. Grace sat between Patricia and me. Becky sat next to Patricia and opposite her brother, Kevin. Five or six others completed the group. We broke bread together and listened and talked.
During the conversation Stephan pressed Patricia in an honest and gentle way about the Cult Awareness Network, for his perspective and ours toward new religious movements was different from Patricia’s. At one point looking straight at Stephan, Patricia said “Your father ordered my father killed.” Stephan responded “Yes!” and added that his father often gave orders that he didn’t mean or later canceled. Someone asked, “Did the Concerned Relatives cause the tragedy by pressing Congressman Ryan to investigate Jonestown?” Stephan replied, “No. Jonestown was a powder keg ready to explode at any time.” It was four-thirty and dark clouds covered the bay before anyone was ready to leave. It was a remarkable day full of remarkable conversation. At least we had made a beginning at talking with and listening to one another. In subsequent years other survivors of Jonestown have gathered to see and talk with friends whom they had not seen since 1978.
For nineteen years the Rev. Dr. Jynona Norwood had planned and conducted the annual public memorial services in Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland, California where the remains of two hundred and fifty who died in Jonestown are buried. Most are children who could not be identified. Between 1993 and 1997 several unsuccessful attempts were made to raise funds for a memorial wall in memory of all who died in Jonestown and at the Port Kaituma air strip. Nevertheless, the work of healing continues.
Idolatry and Peoples Temple
All who died in Jonestown, and all other members of Peoples Temple, were drawn to Jim Jones and the Temple for a variety of reasons. They were old and young, black and white, Christian and Jew and humanist, of little education and with graduate degrees. Most were poor, but some had come from affluent families. All were attracted by the hope of a better life for themselves, and a more peaceful and more just world. They chose to embrace the diversity of human beings who were Peoples Temple. They attacked injustices in our society hoping to transform it. Disillusioned with that hope they turned inward believing that they could create a utopian society which would be a beacon to others. In the process their community took on more and more the characteristics of a collective, including the repression of dissidents. The seeds of self-destruction bore bitter fruit that sad day.
It was Jim Jones’ ability to consolidate power in his own hands, and his followers’ willingness to let him do it that led to the mass murder-suicide. Concentration of power is the greatest threat to freedom. In different periods in the past power has been concentrated in the hands of Caesars, emperors and kings, in oligarchies, in religious leaders, in lords of the realm. The gravest threat to freedom today does not lie our federal government, but rather in the concentration of economic power in multinational corporations and international cartels. Those who would dismantle our federal government would destroy the only instrument we have to counter the power of economic leviathans.
Jim’s power over a thousand people is a microscopic image of men who have exercised power over nations in this century. Two years ago I read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, and last year Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: The Ordinary Germans. Step by step Hitler took control of the government, control of business and commerce, control of the press, control of all education, control of the professions. Goldhagen makes the case that ordinary Germans went along with Hitler’s genocidal plans and practice. Hope for freedom and justice lies in courageous individuals who work through small and seemingly insignificant groups to counter the tide that would carry us into a new international feudalism.
Our family knows so much more now than we did twenty years ago. Nevertheless, I would not change the substance of my sermon of November 26, 1978 [see this web site]. The question was asked then and still is frequently asked “What went wrong?” I mentioned two things that were wrong from the beginning — idolatry and paranoia. We hear the word “atheism” a thousand times more frequently than we hear “idolatry.” Because “atheisticcommunism” was one word in the Fifties, Reinhold Niebuhr said that the threat the Soviet Union posed was not its atheism but its idolatry. The crucial issue was not the God the communists did not believe in, but the god whom they served. That god was the trinity of state, party and dictator.
During the Seventies Carolyn and Annie invited us to see the Peoples Temple presentation of A Raisin In The Sun, The story followed the playwright’s script until a climactic line. With determination and courage Mamma holds the family on its course in the face of injustice. Early on the daughter, who is a student at the University of Chicago, tells Mamma that she is atheist. Later in the drama their differences become a confrontation. The daughter says “There is no God!” Mamma replies with authority “In this house there is God!” In the Peoples Temple version of the play Mamma, the elder of the tribe, has come to agree with her daughter. Instead of “In this house there is God!” Mamma declares “In this house there is no God.” I felt that they had excised the guts of the play. Nevertheless, the change in that line was revealing. In spite of Jim’s atheism, I believe that at least the older African American members as well as others must have cringed as I did when they heard Mamma say “There is no God.” That did not express their convictions or practices.
The change in that line misses Niebuhr’s point and mine. The issue is not that Mamma and Communists said “There is no God.” The issue is that gods abound which are not God. When God disappeared in Peoples Temple, Jim Jones became god. Years ago Arthur Koestler wrote about communism as “The God That Failed.” “Gods” always fail. Idolatry is to place one’s ultimate trust in that which is not ultimate, and to give one’s elemental loyalty to people or ends that are undeserving of such loyalty, and to cherish above all else that which is unworthy. The challenge to all of us is to expose the gods that are not God as we continue on the journey of faith.