A young Jewish mother was hiding in the basement of her apartment with her four children when Nazi police entered the building to conduct a search. She held the youngest, a six-month-old girl, in her arms while the adults and other children hovered quietly in the corners of their underground bunker. The baby began to whimper, and the mother covered her mouth in an effort to quiet her, knowing that any noise would mean discovery and death for her husband, parents, children and herself. She rocked the baby and offered her her breast, but nothing seemed to relieve whatever discomfort caused the increasingly louder sounds from her young child.
The question: if you were that mother, what is the right thing to do? Do you kill your baby? Do you refuse to kill your baby and thereby virtually guarantee that others will die? What are you to do?
I was presented with this dilemma in an ethics class at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, as we examined the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who presented the all-too-real scenario. It is a dilemma I have never settled.
And every time I think of the deaths of the children in Jonestown – and of the parents killing their children – I think of that dilemma.
The best answer seems to me only to suggest other questions very similar to those Jesus faced. If I am the Son of God and yet must die on the cross, how does that death support the cause to which my life has been committed?
I somehow think the leaders in Jonestown faced similar questions after months of hysterical fear and manic exercises in preparations for by what they saw as an invasion from the evil empire, the U.S. Government. When the visit by Congressman Ryan suddenly went from triumph to tragedy, I can hardly imagine how intense the fears must have been about what – if anything – could be done to protect the Jonestown family.
There is a deep conviction about a better life “over yonder” that lives on even today in the black church. We regularly sing about the promise of life after death: “We’ve got a home in Glory Land that outshines the sun” and “There’s a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky [May the Circle Be Unbroken].” Jim Jones cultivated that belief and preached regularly about having a home in Jonestown, a beloved community, but there is another, better place to which his followers are destined.
Huey Newton has written:
Preacher said that the wise man and the fool have the same end: they go to the grave as a dog. Who sends us to the grave? The [U]nknowable, the [F]orce that dictates to all classes, all territories, all ideologies; he is [D]eath, the Big Boss.
An ambitious [courageous] man seeks to dethrone the Big Boss, to free himself, to control when and how he will go to the grave.
The reactionary suicide is “wise,” and the revolutionary suicide is a “fool,” a fool for the revolution in the way Paul meant when he spoke of being “a fool for Christ.” [ ] added
Did the times in which the threats at Jonestown presented themselves offer a promise of a better life to the members of People Temple who were not afraid to follow their leader’s prescription to die for their beliefs?
Clearly, there were too many talented leaders in the Jonestown community for all those deaths to have occurred, unless there were many who did not have to die but who chose to die.
Jesus did not have to die. Jesus chose to die. He did nothing to stop his being arrested after making the trek into Jerusalem to face the powers that be—a trek he did not have to make. His ministry up to the final days had stayed away from the city and seems to have meandered around the countryside. In fact, Jesus admonished his disciples for attacking his captors. He predicted that the disciples would betray him. Knowing what he was in for, Jesus refused to be a slave to the “Big Boss” and marched freely and triumphantly into Jerusalem and to his death.
While hanging on the cross and facing the anguish of his choice, however, even Jesus cried out: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” He expressed his agony and pain when the angelic purposes for which Jesus died did not relieve the horrible suffering attendant to his sacrifice.
So too in Jonestown, I think.
Even today we too cry out: “My God, my God… Why?”
Clearly, there is plenty of evidence that Jim Jones worked feverishly to prepare his followers to die that November day in 1978, to drink that now-infamous Flavor-Aid, to commit what he believed to be an act of revolutionary suicide. The consistency that we expect to accompany that commitment – namely, that Jim Jones would lead by example and follow his own admonitions and drink that Flavor-Aid himself – did not occur. He died by gunshot wound, although the details of his death – including whether it was self-inflicted – remain a deep mystery. We do not know if the reality of death, “the Big Boss,” multiplied by the agony of hundreds of his victims in the throes of death terrified Jim Jones and pushed him away from his personal encounter with “the Big Boss.”
How can I protect the family I love if the price I must pay is the death of our babies?
You will remember, of course, that Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt to escape being killed when Herod ordered that all the male children in Bethlehem two years old or younger must die. I presume hundreds of infants were slaughtered—an event we do recount very often in the telling of the Christmas story.
But we do know that something caused Jesus to cry out loudly on the cross as death drew near, even though Jesus clearly walked to this destination knowing he had to die.
There is, I am afraid, a line to be drawn between what you do with your own life and what you do if in your sacrificial death you take the lives of others. It is that line that paralyses my senses as I ponder then, what do I do if my death is unable to save the lives of my family. Do I kill my baby? Do I refuse to kill my baby and thereby virtually guarantee that others will die? Do I take up a weapon and go down fighting?
Place yourself in that community in Jonestown. You believe an attack is imminent that will wipe out your family. Your leader is imploring you to die at your own hand.
Revolutionary suicide has been preached as the act of determining how to die so your death serves some purpose. Your own death may not be a problem for you, but what about your children?
Revolutionary suicide fails to answer that question and cannot help you.
God help me. What am I to do?
(Rev. Richard Lawrence is a retired Methodist minister and community activist. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)