Jonestown: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It reminds me of Jonestown… in slow motion.
The elements seem the same.
Most people don’t know that Jim Jones was from Indiana and that the first People’s Temple was here in Indianapolis. He started out in pentecostal circles and was ordained by the Independent Assemblies of God. In Indianapolis, he immersed himself in the causes of integration and civil rights. By the time he moved his church to northern California in the early 1960s, however, the faith he proclaimed was a strange mixture of the Bible, faith healing, politics, prophecies and conspiracy theories. Initially welcomed in California, Jones began to establish churches round about the state, eventually moving the Temple’s headquarters to San Francisco in the early 1970s. By this time, politics had become Jones’ real focus. While he would still quote the Bible, it was almost always in aid of a political agenda. He was involved in state and city politics and he counted prominent politicians as his friends, often inviting them to speak at his church. Nonetheless, in the summer of 1977, he moved with several hundred followers to Jonestown, an agricultural commune he had established in Guyana.
It is possible that Jones made the move in order to hide his personal battle with drug addiction and his sexual liaisons with followers. On the other hand, Jones claimed to have had a prophetic insight concerning what he called, “Translation”, a time when he and his followers would die together and then be taken to another planet to live together in bliss. Despite the continuing support of many prominent Democratic politicians, Jones became convinced that he was the object of a great overarching conspiracy involving the FBI and the CIA. As reports of sexual abuse, violence and human rights abuses at Jonestown filtered back to California, Congressman Leo Ryan organized a delegation to investigate what was taking place at the compound. Attempting to leave with some Temple members, Ryan and four other members of the delegation were shot and killed by Jones’ armed guards at an airstrip on the afternoon of November 18, 1978. Later that evening, 909 members of the Temple, including 304 children, would die, mostly by cyanide poisoning, in a mass suicide. As the cyanide laced Kool Aid was distributed, Jones indulged in his conspiracy theories over the public address system. He quoted scripture, compared himself to the apostle Paul, declared that “they” were coming for him and his followers. “They” would “parachute in here on us”, “shoot some of our innocent babies”, and “they’ll torture our children… they’ll torture our seniors…”
The mixture of politics, religious faith, prophecies, conspiracy theories, the murder and/or attempted murder of elected politicians, the dividing of society into “us” and “them”, does not, unfortunately, belong to the past. It is a current reality in America.
The growth of Q-Anon, the conspiracy theories regarding everything from vaccines and masking to elections continue to be propagated… and not just on social media. Unfulfilled prophecies regarding the election and the course of the pandemic litter the charismatic and evangelical landscape, but have failed to stem the flow of new prophetic pronouncements issuing from pulpits. School boards are bullied and threatened in public for trying to protect vulnerable populations. Elected officials are banned from social media for disinformation regarding the coronavirus, even as the same disinformation issues from a multitude of church pulpits. Meanwhile, hospital wards are at a breaking point as a deadly virus runs unabated among the unvaccinated. All the while, almost half of the population, including numerous self-identified evangelicals, nurse their grievances and, for lack of a better object for their hate and anger, blame “them”… whoever “they” might be.
There is, however, a difference between the past and the present. The fatal brew of politics, religion, conspiracy theories, prophecies and violence served up in a cup of Kool Aid at Jonestown resulted in 909 deaths. Our current bout of “magical thinking” has contributed to the deaths of over 617,000 of our fellow citizens. As I said above, it reminds me of Jonestown… in slow motion.
In my opinion, it is time, and past time, to reject the cult like behavior of many who wish to claim a place in the Christian community, yet whose lives and pronouncements endorse the message and policies of division, disinformation, hatred, anger and grievance. In their rage and resentment, they have abandoned love of neighbor, humility, empathy, service, and self-sacrificial love. Instead, they have chosen nationalism, violence, the pursuit of secular power and the demonizing of those outside of their tribe. This is cult like behavior. This is not Christianity. Such as these have done violence to the clear and abundant teachings of Christ, and, at least in my opinion, have no place in the community of faith.