The horrible tragedy of Jonestown and the degradation and destruction of so many of our people should not allow us to forget the essential message that still remains: Nothing in the arid materialism and individualism of the 1970’s has eliminated the fundamental hungers in the human spirit for a deep sense of caring, responsible, disciplined community and a great cause to which a person may give himself or herself.”
– Vincent Harding, “My Lord What a Mourning”
Jim Jones and his followers committed an act that they described as “revolutionary suicide.” First articulated by Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton and often used in Peoples Temple rhetoric, the phrase simply does not register at all well with most of us in the U.S.A. Yet with planes crashing into the World Trade Center and into our sacred Pentagon, we have been forced to think anew about revolution and death since 9/11. We may even dimly recall the words of the sainted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, that if we have not decided what it is we are prepared to die for, then we are not truly alive. We have, however, placed those words, like our Bibles, on that special shelf far too high above our heads to be reached.
Black churches have grown in size and stature because they assured us of life, if only within the walls of that sacred place. We retreated to the sanctuary to escape the evils of the day, and survival was our utmost concern. We gladly accepted the limited promise of a place of prayer, peace and joy here on earth on Sundays, while holding firm to the promise of a life free and full in our heavenly home.
Understanding Peoples Temple and the concept of revolutionary suicide seems especially difficult for those of who struggled for liberation and fought to escape lynchings, beatings, cross burnings, segregation and all other dehumanizing effects of racism. Consequently, many of us have chosen to dismiss Brother Jim Jones as a demonic egomaniac and to cast off his religious order as a cult.
Images of home and family and yearnings for that blessed community, where everyone’s needs are met, constitute a consistent theme throughout a recently-published volume of essays entitled Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2004). How we find nirvana, retain a reasoned and critical perspective on the community of which we are a part and respect our leadership, while still able to make the radical commitments required, are perplexing and powerful questions raised for the true believer to ponder.
Black churchmen may be offended by the success of Peoples Temple, either because “Daddy” Jones was white or because he dared to challenge their limited commitment to both sides of the Great Commandment: loving God and loving neighbor. Jones committed to a ministry of celebration in the deepest traditions of the black church but added a ministry of social services and social justice as well. The latter is the arena which most black churches, then and now, ignore. As one essay quotes a former Temple member as saying:
Most black churches do not even want to be bothered understanding or framing a response to Guyana. Peoples Temple emerged out of a need and filled a vacuum in the black community, a need that was missed by the black churches. Peoples Temple ministered to the unchurched, the black elderly, the addicted and alcoholic, welfare dependents, juvenile delinquents, the lonely and the alienated of all sorts.
The essays, while not uniformly engaging, were on second reading, provocative and valuable. Although the perspectives include some of the most important black voices of the period – such as C. Eric Lincoln, Lawrence H. Mamiya, Archie Smith, Jr., and Muhammed Isaiah Kenyatta – as well as Rev. J. Alfred Smith, a Bay Area Baptist minister who knew Jim Jones, I found myself yearning for the sound of a missing voice. Rev. Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco was clearly most publicly attached to Jim Jones, and his reflections of the life and ministry of Peoples Temple would have been a valuable addition.
Taken together, though, the ten essays stimulate us to look again at some critical issues: the mission of the church is so fundamental, our fear of death so deep, our desire for a place in a sacred community so pervasive. I found myself crying out for widespread debate, discussion and understanding, and I think the popularity of The Passion of the Christ means I am not alone.
This book is too good and the issues raised too provocative that it would be a shame should this book be limited only to an audience of academics. I would encourage the editors to include the word “Jonestown” in the title, since many will not recognize Peoples Temple without the connection to its sensational demise, and issuing the next edition in a popular or non-academic edition – hopefully with a post word from Cecil Williams and others.
And maybe they should also approach Mel Gibson with an offer of the movie rights!
(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.)