Remembering Jonestown: First Anniversary of the Jonestown Tragedy

by Rev. Professor Archie Smith, Jr. Ph.D.

(Archie Smith delivered this address in the chapel of the Pacific School of Religion on 20 November 1979 at a memorial anniversary shortly after the first anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. The scripture lesson for the service was Joshua 1.)

 I

 Today we pause as many others have or will this week, to remember the mass murders and suicides at Jonestown. There, over 900 persons were destroyed last November 18, 1978.

What can one hope to say in just a few minutes? Whatever anyone says about Jonestown, it will not be enough!

  • What are we to say to those who lost so many family members- who are now going through the pain, the shame, hurt, guilt and bitterness of a holocaust?
  • What language shall we borrow to explain the death of those 276 children destroyed at Jonestown?
  • What are we to say concerning the 271 senior citizens who lost their lives there in the jungle of Guyana?
  • What are we to say when we consider that 70% who were destroyed were black people, and 66% were women?
  • What are we to say concerning the role of the Central Intelligence Agency: the involvement of the government; and the inability of the Justice System to bring responsible persons to light and to trial?

What are we to say? Whatever anyone says, it will not be enough! The effects of the murders and suicides are still to be evaluated!

We pause to remember Jonestown because we must. What we remember today affects our tomorrows. And what we do today becomes the basis for our future actions.

We must remember Jonestown because it is not an isolated island in the 20th Century. It is a continuation, a part of the meaning of life in this century. We must remember Jonestown because it can happen again. The conditions that created the need for a Jonestown are still with us. Jonestown has been condemned, but the forces that created it are loose, and virtually unchallenged!

 

II

It is now important that we move beyond the particularity of Jonestown and see its broader implications. If we remember it only as an isolated event, then we may not be able to learn from it and move with empathy.

For our interest both the Peoples Temple and Jonestown may be seen as one form ministry took in our own day. The membership of that commune was made up of both the wealthy and the poor; blacks, whites, Latinos, Hispanics and Asian. They were something of a microcosm of the San Francisco Bay Area. And they shared in common a rejection of this society and the search for an alternative. They, like us, were seeker after truth. The ministry of the Peoples Temple was one that reached out to the last, the lost and the least ones, and included the resources of the wealthy and educated. And they were organized around one central figure who later viewed himself as the sole authority (“I am God”). The end result was Jonestown. Jonestown must be remembered because it was a symbol of our ultimate deception. Wherever anyone (or any group) elevates the present moment, the power of earth and human power to ultimate significance, then the supreme deception has taken place. God is not deceived, we are!

 

III

The scripture read in your presence this morning spoke of another authority, an authority which rests in the promise of God’s presence. It is a presence that will always be with us; a presence that will never abandon us. Now, in light of this world and its earthly wisdom, such a promise appears as impotence, weakness. And if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that we are disturbed, nay embarrassed by God’s show of power. It appears as weakness in the world. For God’s power means that we must live in the world like a motherless child—a long way from home!

What comes out of Jonestown is the awareness that minority and avant garde communities are seldom, if ever, free of harassment. And we all seek to avoid it. But harassment is inevitable. It is a part of the human condition. What people do with harassment, persecution, vulnerability is of utmost importance. What comes out of Jonestown is an understanding that human communities must always struggle to be free. Freedom is never an achievement in its own right. It exist as a relationship. It is always a pilgrimage, forged against new forms of tyranny and bondage. Freedom suggests the need to experience vulnerability as a basis for faith and forgiveness. Openness to the future is necessary. Our destiny and faith need not be fixed by the past nor by present action. You and I are challenged to remember Jonestown, and challenged to always search out and to speak the word of possibility.

I referred to the Peoples Temple and Jonestown as a form of ministry—but one based upon hierarchical power. It reached, as the Reverend John Moore said, “the lost and the least, and did some creative, heroic things before Jonestown became a death camp.”

 

IV

Christian ministries today – especially urban ministries – are at a crossroad, subject to many pressures and strains from within and without. The pressures facing the success of Christian ministries today are not unlike those faced by the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The real challenge facing such ministries is to enable communities to live creatively with tension, anxiety and death; to help persons fashion their deeds, conscious of the contributions to justice they can make in the broader social process; and to see themselves as sources of responsibility, grace, creativity and healing, conscious of their propensity and contributions toward injustice and destructiveness in the world.

 

V

This is indeed a great challenge, because no one can force another to be creative, responsible or to see themselves as sources of healing. This cannot be forced. Essentially, what we have to go on, what must motivate our activity, is God’s promise to be there for us, working with us at the center of possibility and on the outskirts of human hope. Such a ministry can and will be lonely. It will appear as weakness before earthly powers. But we must not seek to avoid the loneliness, or seek to transcend weakness by assuming a power that forces others into submission.

We must remember Jonestown for what it can teach us. We must be willing to accept the weakness of ministry, the loneliness it portends, and go the distance. In the words of a Negro spiritual, we may be brought to the place where we too shall sing out: “Sometime, I feel like a Motherless Child… a long way from home.” And in the midst of this experience, if we let it have its way with us, we too shall encounter the presence of the One who has promised to be there for us through it all. “Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child… a long way from home,” Sometimes…

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jtr bulletin is Inside/Outside: A Reflection on Jonestown 36 Years Later. His complete set of articles is here.)

Last modified on October 18th, 2014.
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