In 1978, just about the time I was settled enough in Hyde Park to attend Meadville/Lombard seminary and the University of Chicago Div School that I had stopped being homesick -- and I really had NOT expected to be homesick -- Jonestown happened. If you don’t remember, Jim Jones had organized a church, the People’s Temple, in San Francisco that was very liberal and progressive, doing a lot of practical good things for people, then was accused of bad stuff, and left en masse almost overnight to the Guyannas, where they hacked a new utopian community out of the jungle. Then the rumors started up again, a congressman went to investigate, and the entire community of 900 -- the ENTIRE community -- was forced to commit suicide by drinking grape Koolaid laced with cyanide. Armed guards enforced the order, but some drank voluntarily, believing that Jim Jones would resurrect them the next day or at the very least they would awaken in Paradise.
The Hyde Park religious community was aghast. People at Meadville knew people who had died. The most heavyweight deep thinkers of the Div School were challenged to come up with theories. Don Browning, a pastoral ethicist who worked from the theories of Victor Turner, an anthropologist, turned to the idea of “liminality.” The “limen” is the theshold of a door. Turner felt that what happened in religious worship was that people mentally and emotionally stepped through a figurative or virtual door into a place where (like Alice through the Looking Glass) the rules were suspended enough to make changes in one’s view of the universe, to “re-frame” -- using another piece of handy psychological jargon. Turner proposed that after some time in that other place, that "wonder" land, people could step back over the limen into the real world -- refreshed, reformed, repenting, renewed, reborn. He also felt that something like this was possible with great art and with “deep” play. Some feel that falling in love is like this. Maybe really good psychoanalysis. It's a sort of architectural rendering of a subjective experience.
Browning felt that the people at Jonestown went over into that other world of ecstacy and possibility -- but never came back to the real world again. Think rock ‘n roll -- think drugs. Some have an insatiable taste for extremes of this kind of stuff, even now -- how about suicide bombers?
The next June I attended my first national Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Meeting, where the UU minister for San Francisco stood and testified about his guilt. A woman whose sister was part of the People’s Temple came to this UU minister and asked him to help her intervene to save her sister. No one would believe her, no one even believed what she said, anymore than people believed the first stories about the WWII Jewish holocaust. He also turned her away, thinking that the whole thing was farfetched and remembering that the People’s Temple and the UU Church were on pretty good terms. At one time Jim Jones had applied for admission to a UU seminary, but was turned down because he had no undergrad degree. (UU’s are proud of having a “learned” ministry. A rabbinical model.)
Now there is a new movie about “Jonestown.” Go to IMdb.com to track it. It’s only been screened in San Francisco and there are no firm arrangements for distribution. It’s not the first movie on the subject but it is documentary, with real footage, and includes the forty-some people who somehow managed to escape. Here-Now.com had an interview on the radio today (you could get it from their website). I was impressed at how calm and eloquent the people were -- they’ve been thinking about this for a long time and have mostly come to terms.
They said that at first it WAS working, it WAS a paradise, they WERE better off -- or so most of them thought. Many of the people were children. Then the whole thing just blew up in the face of Jim Jones’ perversion and paranoia. Think there are any lessons here? There was a recording of the people dying and Robin, the host, said she couldn’t bear to listen. She did, but only barely. How do we understand it if we don’t face it? I suppose the medical model is lancing a boil. The political model? Cleaning out corruption? Who ever wants to realize what’s been happening without our knowing? "Nice" people, that's who.
This was a Devil’s Version of Jesus’ message. It was a movement based on the misery of excluded, poverty-stricken, inadequately educated, racially marked people who were desperate enough to follow anyone -- who were promised redemption, promised that the least would be first. Some of us have been homesick because of relocating to a strange place, but some people are so sick of yearning for a home they can’t have that they don’t want to come back from through the mirror -- THIS side of the mirror is just as strange and rejecting. A society that punishes, ignores, rejects, and locks out such people is doomed, sooner or later.
So I don’t have to end this on such a dark note -- and I’m sure the Here-Now producers felt the same way -- there is a charity that distributes solar or crank-powered radios in Africa, especially to children who have been orphaned or have had limbs hacked off. It does for them roughly what my computer does for me -- throws open the whole planet. One announced proudly, “Now I know the head of the World Bank!” He’d listened to an interview with the man. I hope that man sees this movie about Jonestown and doesn’t turn his head away.
The UU’s have a little course for kids called “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” After ten versions of religious answers (your ancestors sinned, you sinned even if you didn’t mean to, God knows the answer and just isn’t telling you, you were a bad person in a former life, etc.) there is a lesson called “Why Do Good Things Happen?” All it takes is something so simple -- a crank-up radio for a kid in Africa! What a brilliant and salvific idea! Someone reframed, refreshed, reformed, repented, renewed, reborn -- brought it back over the limen or through the window and made it real. A little thing called Hope. You know, in the bottom of Pandora's box.