“Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.” Martin Luther King, Jr, Nobel Price Prize Speech, Oslo, January, 1964
August 2018: Today I was combing through some old files and came upon an audiotape of a presentation I had made on April 10, 1979, about five months after the Jonestown tragedy. I had spoken to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and members of the wider community. I believe the late Reverend James Stewart, senior pastor of the McGee Avenue Baptist Church, and the late Reverend Noah Allen Osborne, then a doctoral student, were in attendance. The presentation and the question-and-answer session that followed were about Peoples Temple/Jonestown, the role of Black churches and Black religion.
I had forgotten all about it. After listening to it for the first time in 40 years, I have tagged four questions, those that I could decipher from the old recording.
- What was the role of women in Peoples Temple under white male charismatic leadership (and by extension the role of women in other institutions and religious traditions)?
- What are some implications for Black Church clergy leadership as a source of critical resistance to the kind of Jim Jones takeover that happened in San Francisco, and then in the agricultural commune called Jonestown, Guyana?
- What, if any, is the role of Higher Theological Education?
- What does it mean to be saved (which I always add my grandmother’s questions: from what; for what; how can we tell?)
And how have I learned to answer these questions?
The main thing I have learned that seemingly little, everyday things frequently overshadow bigger things. I do have other, bigger questions about deception and traumatic and tragic events – such as the four above – but I know that questions that sometimes seem so urgent and that capture our immediate attention, diminish in intensity and importance over time. They become distant and unreal. They fade away, and no one remembers them.
There is a verse in the Gospel that “we strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” So it is that we are consumed by the minutia of our daily tasks and leave the larger questions to ponder later. We faithfully ask the questions – and we desperately want the answers – but then 40 year later, we find them on the old tape, still relevant, still worthy of consideration… and still unanswered.
(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Questions that Matter. His complete collection of writings is here.)