Notes on Official Jonestown 36th Anniversary

In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.

Text from a plaque next to the condemned dungeon door of Slave quarters, Elmina, Ghana.

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field. Cain rose up against his brother Able, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know: am I my brother’s keeper?

Genesis 4:8-9

The myths of patriarchy are powerful constructions of a spiritual psychology… That psychology is concerned with our madness, dreams, visions, and revelations, with the demonic and the redemptive, with the sacrificial and the murderous impulses in our hearts. The skein of tales that make up Genesis tell a story of men and women not only as violent and repressive perpetrators but as creators of clay and spirit seeking to understand how to live in some true, loving relationship to life. And Genesis tell how precariously we achieve that relationship, if we achieve it at all.

Peter Pitzele, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996,) xx.

Inner self is entwined inextricable with social context: they form a single unit.

Salvador Minuchin & H. Charles Fishman, Family Therapy Techniques (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 78.

Metaphors are figurative ways to talk about complex things. They can help us see what is going on. Metaphors for seemingly unrestrained violence and unbounded generosity lie at the root of human experience. Wrestling with their meanings can yield insight into something that is complex and problematic, unfamiliar and enigmatic, deceptive or unnoticeable, confusing, and obscure. The unfamiliar may be interpreted in the light of something that is familiar and figurative. If metaphors can help clarify what appears to be indecipherable in historical and social relations and capture certain subtle workings of American society, then they may yield awareness in how we collude, co-create, and project the unwanted or denied onto others. We may call our projections “revelations,” “the work of the Spirit,” “divine guidance”, “God’s will” or the natural way things are. Alternatively, wrestling with metaphors may contribute to health in relationships, body, mind and spirit. Metaphors can also aid justice by helping us make wise ethical decisions and better moral choices.

The Jonestown memorial services themselves offer such metaphors.

I – Service One

On Tuesday morning, November 18, 2014, the temperature was 63 degrees. It was a clear day with high cloud cover, and there was no rain in the forecast. The Jonestown Memorial ceremony had already begun when I arrived. A red draped cloth was laid to cover the stone slabs with victims names etched on them. Jim Jones’ name was on one of the stone slabs. There were about 30 people in attendance including camera news crew from NBC and other reporters, all of whom were white. In fact, with the exception of a white couple, the worshipers were Black. This gathering was slightly larger than the group that gathered last year at this time. Looking back, I think there were a few new faces.

When I arrived, the gathered people were singing, “Jesus Is on the Main Line, Tell Him What You Want.” They also sang, “This Little Light of Mine;” “He Has Done Enough for Me;” then “Precious Lord.” We were led by the Clara Ward Singers.

This was the first memorial service following the discovery earlier in the year of the remains of Jonestown victims that were found in a now-defunct mortuary in Delaware. Nine containers holding the ashes of unclaimed victims of the 1978 mass murder/suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, had been in the Minus Funeral home, Delaware for over 30 years, and were found only when the contents of the closed business were being removed.

There were three invited speakers: The Reverend Dr. Amos Brown, Senior Pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church led a memorial dedication of the remains. He was followed by Professor Oba T. Shaka, author, scholar, activist and professor for 38 years at San Francisco State University. Finally, Oscar Wright – at 91years of age – spoke on how education is failing young black people today. “Educate our Youth!” They graduate from high school and are still unable to read or write and are virtually unemployable. He suggested that what happened at Jonestown – with its murder of 305 children – is happening imperceptibly today, by the thousands, to Black children and youth at the hands of the American education system. Jonestown is a metaphor.

Then, Rev. Ed Norwood – the son of Rev. Jynona Norwood, who has organized the annual graveside service every year since 1979 – gave the sermon, “What Shall We Be?”, referencing, among other Scripture, Psalms 127 and Romans 8.

The addresses to the crowd were designed to inspire and challenge, I believe. They were not designed to engage critical thinking and rational thought. I say this because of the lack of ambiguity, paradox, and human complexity; and the presence of global thinking and contradictory messages that I heard. One person was an angel, and another was the embodiment of evil; good and bad/ right and wrong were clearly described. People knew a lot about God. There was no mystery and nothing unfathomable or unknown about God. God was an unquestioned “He.”

What I found disturbing, hurtful, disappointing and depressing was the distance between the rhetoric (word) and the behavior (deed) of the speakers. I am again reminded of Peter Pitzele’s words: “The skein of tales that make up Genesis tell a story of men and women not only as violent and repressive perpetrators but as creators of clay and spirit seeking to understand how to live in some true, loving relationship to life. “ We humans may encourage each another to love one another (in abstract speech) while deliberately ignoring (in concrete deed) the human beings in front of us. Where does hospitality with justice live?

At the end of the service, someone who appeared friendly and acted sincerely approached me. The first question to me was, “Did you lose anyone at Jonestown?” This person wanted information but gave very little. Smart? I noticed a triangle effect. Others stood and appeared to be watching from a distance before coming to and exchanging information with the person who wanted information from me. Was this a form of collusion, covert operation, and an act of deception? I do not know. But my observation raised the question, “Who can you trust?” Works of violence and violation, deception and folly, secrecy and denial, the presence of informers, a shrinking of the cosmos and collusion were among the dynamics that lead to the mass murders and suicides of Jonestown. Were those dynamics unfolding imperceptibly in this encounter? Is this not part of the Genesis story, a deep and ancient story that still is ours today?

Perhaps these occurrences – disturbing, hurtful, disappointing and depressing as they are – are so deeply buried in the human condition that we are simply unable to recognize them when they arise. The evil things we say we are against, the contradictions in ourselves and in our performance can only be seen, if seen at all, when we project them on to others. “The other” becomes the new perceived enemy. “There it is on her face or in his behavior! Or in their attitude.” Maybe we can do little to correct this. But we can confess what we do when we are fortunate enough to see and take courage to make amends. The language of agape and hospitality, co-creation and grace, forgiveness and reflexive self-introspection are seldom used when contradictory and disturbing things arise and become entrenched realities.

The disturbing and contradictory things that arise may be called situational variables. These are the unaccounted for, emerging realities of situations in which we find ourselves. Looking back, they can be recognized when we become aware that novel and co-created, unintended effects arise in the contexts where we live and move. When this is the case, then the first responsible thing for me is to recognize how my power and moral self-agency is being expressed, or not expressed in desired ways or constrained. I can take responsibility for self-agency – to confront the unwanted in myself and in the situations of which I am a part and help co-create – but sometimes and unwittingly arrogance parades as humility, and when successful, even I am convinced that I am humble. Perhaps, drawing on metaphors can help.

The first service was Christocentric and informed by Scripture and Bible. The importance of culture and family were named, but not nuanced. Absent from the mix were projection, the language of power, co-created realities and self-reflection.

There were creative interpretations by praise dancer, Jocelyn Hobbs. The Reverend Ed Norwood gave the benediction.

II – Service Two

The second service began without organized ceremony or gathering call, as people casually arrived and departed. Most of the people were white. I counted only 13 people at one point. They gathered in clusters and talked to one another. One man came with his dog on a leash. Another came with her camera. Another hung large tableaux of photographs of the Jonestown dead. I approached the now-uncovered stone slabs to take pictures. A woman drew near and asked two questions: (1) Is this your first time here? and (2) Did you lose anyone in Jonestown? She wanted to sell me a book containing the pictures in the tableaux. Then a man approached. He also wanted to know if this was my first time here; and if I had lost anyone in Jonestown. And he also wanted to sell me the book of pictures. How was this a memorial service, I wondered.

There was no one from the Graduate Theological Union that I know of. There were no Asians or Hispanics that I could see. Looking back, I do not ever recall seeing Asian people at these memorial services. Mostly Black people and White people have attended.

After about an hour, I left.

There are now two distinct services. One is Black with a Black style of worship. The other is White with no discernable religious worship style. So goes diversity!!! I recall that the United States Supreme Court recently declared that, “Racism is over! It is a thing of the past. “ Really? I never grasped how they decided that?

The question that I have been asked by others during the past month (or longer) is: “Why do you keep going to these memorial services, after 36 years?” Perhaps it is that I am just a slow learner. The questions that I ask myself are different: What are the mythos and the haunting, enduring and unanswered questions that keep me coming back to these memorial services? Is folly the end result of the human condition, or is there more? What do you hope for? How is Jonestown an extended metaphor, and not just a past event? What is the pattern(s) that continue to connect the Memorial services to the Jonestown, Guyana event of November 18, 1978? What seem to repeat? What are the lessons not learned?” The Jonestown memorial services keeps me alert to a troubling something in the human condition.

I think about a quotation from the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine in Confessions from 398 AD: “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.” ( 398 AD).

The fateful Jonestown event of November 18, 1978 and the annual memorial services continue as an enigma to those who have never considered it. We are brought back to the ancient text about domestic violence. It may have begun in secret, but the murder happened in an open field: “Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field. And when they were in the field. Cain rose up against his brother Able, and killed him.” The deafening question was: “where is your brother (or sister)?” The response was an attempt at cover-up, dishonesty or denial, evasion of accountability and show of arrogance, “I don’t know, Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?” (Parentheses added)

Can bridges of understanding be built between the ancient past, the tragic events that have become know as “Jonestown,” and what we do today? These are questions of moral justice and redemption, not only for human situations, but for ecology, too. Wrestling with Jonestown as metaphor may help interpret parts of the human condition, our common garment of destiny and our role to cease from perpetuating injustice against humanity.

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His complete collection of writings is here.)