A Reflection on Jonestown 36 Years Later

My mother died in her 99th year. In her early 90’s she attended a workshop at her church called, “Thinking Outside the Box.” I thought it amazing that one can be encouraged to do this kind of thinking in one’s advanced years, and was impressed both with the church for offering it and with my mother for taking it. It got me to thinking: What does it mean to recognize that one is in a box in the first place and that it is possible to think outside or beyond it?

Thinking inside and outside of a box is of course a metaphor for discernment, critical thinking and exploration. Its opposite might be called “first order,” “innocent” or “naïve” reflection and thinking. It might also be called “ideological blindness.” All of this type of thinking tends to be unaware of its own assumptions. It often parades as the conventional wisdom and a common-sense criteria for all thinking. Discerning and self-reflexive questions are not raised.

The metaphor of “thinking outside the box” or critical thinking helps us to recognize that there are multiple perspectives and moral contexts where decisions are made. There are limits to what we can know. There will always be influencing conditions and the emergence of multiple perspectives over time. How then do we live cooperatively with different ways of thinking, seeing and knowing and doing the good that we know? Both History and Scripture teach us that to ignore such a question makes us vulnerable to the idea that some of us are more entitled and better than others. The denial and justification of evil among us is strong when such a belief is expressed. Destructive insider and outsider points of view can develop and become lethal. This essay is about the challenges of insider/ outsider perspectives. Insider/outsider thinking is something to which we are always vulnerable. It is among the lessons that I learn from Jonestown.

Jonestown, Guyana became an isolated and totalitarian society, a closed cosmos when communication with the outside world was virtually cut-off. It was an insular society with clear demarcations of insiders and outsiders. But these demarcations did not end with the deaths in 1978. The Jonestown memorial service that I attended in November 2013 at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland was also the first time that I attended the two separate and very different memorial services. I was aware of the different emphases: who was and who was not present; and what seemed to me to be the growth of two irreconcilable versions of “truth” about Jonestown after all of these years.

What does this tell us, if anything about the Human Condition (Hannah Arendt)? What can we learn about ourselves from this? I am reminded of certain words from former Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana: “The only thing we seem to learn from history is that we never learn.” If this is the case, then are we hopelessly locked into antagonistic delusions of outsider and insider points of view on almost everything that is important – to us? Do we need to know this? Is this one of the lessons to be learned from Jonestown? If so, then what can rescue us from ourselves?

When considering something, why is “context” important? Context gives a certain meaning to things. The idea of context is important for the distinction that I wish to make between inside and outside. The word context derives from the Latin, contexere. It means that a particular “something” must be considered or interpreted in the light of whatever it is that surrounds it. It implies a relationship. More specifically, contexere refers to a particular word, idea, speech, or set of circumstances, facts, environment or conditions that surrounds, influences interpretation and helps to shape its meaning.

If I told you “Jack and Jill went up a hill,” that information may be meaningless and raise many questions. “Why do I need to know this? Who are these people? Were they walking, riding in an automobile or on a tram going up a hill? What was their purpose in going up a hill? Why were they going up a hill? Were they going up a hill for pleasure, punishment, to worship, or for some other reason? How high, steep or long was the hill? Was the terrain of the hill smooth, rough, dangerous? What awaited them at the top? Was it a clear, rainy, foggy, strong wind day? Were they properly dressed?” etc. These could be among the questions that surround the information, “Jack and Jill went up a hill.” The questions give the statement a certain context and meaning. Context matters. But the importance of context may not always be recognized.

Lack of contextual awareness – or even limitations on that awareness by one of the participants in a discussion – may also be part of an unacknowledged political strategy. A colleague once told me of an experience she and other academic theological thinkers had. Their jobs and identity as insiders on a theological faculty were on the line. They were being questioned and challenged by outsiders, a group of hired and hand-picked – and yet powerful – non-academics who were not theologically educated. The reason this group of consultants was brought in was to get my colleague and other insiders to “think outside the box.” But outside of whose box and inside which other box? My colleague had everything to lose (including her job); the consultants had nothing to lose and much to gain (money). A certain level of context awareness already appeared to be suppressed. Did any one ask, “What is the wider and more inclusive (boxed-in) context for ‘thinking’? What does it mean to think outside/inside the box?” To start with, the first question in considering the implications of a seemingly-throwaway cliché like “thinking outside the box” is, whose box are we talking about.

When hierarchical power, loss of face and other forms of intimidation are as subtle as they are powerful, then critical thinking about context may be limited. There are many events we can compare and learn from. An analogous event where deception and lack of awareness, a controlled environment, closed cosmos and manipulation was tragically played out was in Jonestown. We are fortunate whenever we may come to see that the more we challenge others to think outside their box, the less aware we become about the ways our own boxed-in realties constrains our thinking. To paraphrase R. D. Laing from his book The Politics of the Family and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), the busier hand-picked consultants become sorting out different others trapped in their box, the less aware they are about how they are tethered, tied in knots, deep in their own boxes and in bottomless denial concerning their own realities. Hired hands who claim to encourage others to think outside the box seldom describe the box they themselves are already in and from which their own thinking arises. If it is true that there is no neutral or value free place where humans can stand, and if no one can completely stand outside of a box, then how is this task of “thinking outside “the” box culturally possible?

Let us consider a few additional quotations Politics of the Family. At one point, Laing is talking about a family context and in particular, a single member of the family.

A mind cop (psychiatrist) has been summoned to “help” the deluded family member think differently, or, at least to think outside the box of his delusion. He is under the delusion that he is being persecuted, by our attempt to help him to realize that he is not being persecuted (p. 20).

The above quotation helps us to see that this process of thinking about outside/inside can be convoluted from the beginning.

Or consider:

Lying is against the rules: children are not supposed to lie to their parents, and they are supposed to believe their parents if or when their parents lie to them (p. 21).

A psychiatrist who professes to be a healer of souls, but who in fact keeps people asleep, treats them for waking up, and helps them to go to sleep again (increasingly effectively as this field of technology sharpens its weapons), will both help to drive them really crazy, and confirm the patient’s worst fears (p. 25).

What we can learn from these quotes is that linear – not systemic – thinking is operating, encouraged and unquestioned.

The more one studies families in detail, the more it becomes apparent that patterns are spread over generations… We ourselves, all of us, are ourselves the elements of the patterns that we are trying to discern. Family patterns are not laid out before us like the stars in the sky… We are acting parts in a play, that we have never read and never seen, whose plot we don’t know, whose existence we can glimpse, but whose ending I do not dare to presume to imagine (p. 31).

The above quotes may give us a micro-cosmic view of certain dynamics that play out on a macro, or larger scale where context awareness is suppressed and not at all considered.

A more complex view of context, inside and outside:

The inside-and-outside distinction is applied to almost all facets of experience… How difficult things would be if we went about in a modern city, not able to take it for granted that I am inside my skin and outside yours, and you are inside your skin and outside mine!… But difficulties arise. “I” am inside my skin, but I may feel outside what is inside me and outside all I am not inside. Where then am I? Not quite inside anything? Not quite outside anything? … By projection, put what is inside me, outside me. By introjection, put what is outside inside. I have now turned myself inside-out and outside-in (pp. 33-34).

This latter notion of inside/outside describes a more complex and nuanced reality. It comes much closer to recognizing reciprocal influences and certain values of systemic thinking. Ideally, reciprocal influences ought to be contextualized and applied on social and cultural levels. Systemic thinking was a hard sell for me at Pacific School of Religion. But I am very glad that I tried.

The early Christian theologian St. Augustine (354-430) makes the point: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolutions of the stars, but themselves they consider not” (The Confessions, p. 398).

Both Laing and Augustine make the point: Our own selves-in-context are inadequately studied. We may be employed to study the universe, others and everything else, but when it comes to ourselves and the boxes, we are in self awareness is poorly studied, perhaps, largely unconscious. You do not have to take my word as evidence. Just go and “look in the mirror and see for yourself“ (Laing, p. 124).

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His other contribution to this edition of the jtr bulletin is Remembering Jonestown: First Anniversary of the Jonestown Tragedy, an adaptation of his remarks on the first anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown. His complete collection of writings is here.)