Now for the Romans, they expected that they should be fought in the morning, when accordingly they put on their armor, and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks, to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did, but saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place as well as a perfect silence. So they were at a loss to guess at what had happened… and quickly cutting themselves a way through it, they came within the palace, and so met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution and the immovable contempt of death, which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was.
Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 7,Chapter 9
Our conversation immediately turned to it at lunch that day, of course. I was sitting at the French table in the refectory, which was intended to be a table at which only that language was spoken. This was to keep us more or less fluent in a tongue we weren’t using at all in our seminary training. But, on that day, the language of Moliere and Voltaire was forgotten. Nobody could talk of anything but Jonestown.
How is this different from Masada? one of our professors asked us, and we didn’t much like being asked that. The heroic last stand of Eleasar Ben Yair against the Romans, the Jews surrounded on all sides, the agonizing decision and the terrible result: mass suicide on the mesa of Masada, men killing their wives and children and then themselves. If we cannot live our lives as God has commanded us, we will not live. This was an ancient story of our tradition, or at least of the Jewish tradition we admired. We had always seen this as very moving. How could he mention wacky, murderous Jim Jones and his 900 victims in the same breath? But how is this different? he asked again.
Jim Jones we have, on scratchy audio tape, his voice thick with drugs, high-pitched with his own peculiar mania. We can hear the cries of the dying in the background. The dead of Masada are silent to our ears: we know them in their last hours only from the record of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish resistance leader turned Roman historian – a man who knew what was good for him, if ever there was such a man. And he knew the story only from some who escaped – a couple of women who had hidden in a well, and were unlikely really to have heard the two ornate speeches from the commander which Josephus records. Unlikely really to have seen the process of casting lots – to determine who would kill whom – that he describes.
This was not the first murder-suicide siege Josephus had described. He’d been in one himself, a few years earlier, in another life – he commanded resistance forces at Jotapata, and participated in a murder-suicide pact when it was clear their defense had failed, a pact that was very like the one he tells us about at Masada. The dice rolled well for Josephus that day at Jotapata: after everyone else was dead, he and one other man remained. Sensibly, they agreed to remain alive to tell the tale.
I wonder if Masada, as Josephus wrote it, was a way of reliving Jotapata, doing it differently this time? Writing a purity of purpose he had been unable to live? He did not follow through at Jotapata: others died and he did not. He surrendered and walked out, picking his way among the dead bodies of comrades who had died doing what they said they would do, as he had not. He would begin to erect a brilliant career as a protected historian for the emperor, the interpreter of the Jews and their history to the world. He is the only person in Jotapata at the time of its destruction whose name we remember today, and that is only so because he broke his oath and survived. Maybe he wrote Masada differently, gave to the people there a unanimity of purpose and a purity of oath he himself had not achieved.
And yet Josephus the historian opposed such oaths. Suicide was an impious act. It was worse than murder, interestingly – most modern people would conclude otherwise, but Josephus was an ancient man, not a modern one. He watches the terrible valor at Masada with a dread fascination, as one might watch the unfolding of a Greek tragedy whose horrendous outcome one expects, hating it but unable to turn away.
That was how we watched Jonestown, too. We were unable to understand it, but also unable to keep from trying to understand. We could not look away. We could see ourselves and our dreams in the dreams that took all those people into that steamy jungle – dreams of compassion and equality and racial harmony, of human dignity unrelated to the trappings of wealth. We could see the power of belonging and we could recognize it as a power we knew. We could see courage. Nine hundred people lining up for certain death, dealing it to their children first. So that they would, for sure, have nothing to live for after that.
What were you thinking? Why didn’t you leave? A middle-aged survivor of Jonestown was a young woman then. It’s hard to explain now, she said, but to be in a place where there was no racism for the first time in my life… Her voice trailed off, and she tried again. It’s just hard to explain. Jonestown felt like heaven, at first. Fair and beautiful, just and kind. It felt like heaven on earth.
I guess we can say that even a beautiful ideal can make you crazy if you try to carry it out of the real world. I guess we’re not ready for heaven yet. It seems that when we find a piece of it and try to live there, we just turn it into hell.