We watched a documentary on the Jonestown tragedy, last night. I didn’t know much about it, ahead of time, so there were some surprising things I learned. For one thing, the sheer number of people involved! Over 900 people died; I’d had no idea it was so many.
One of the things I learned, which I hadn’t known, was that Jim Jones’ early church was exceptionally accepting of African American members—at the time, churches were still very segregated. When we first put on the documentary, I was expecting—naively, I know—that the whole thing would be about how crazy the man was, but that he would probably be described as very charismatic. I wasn’t expecting the first thing I learned about him to be that he was so much in favour of equal rights.
His church—originally named the Wings of Deliverance, and then renamed the People’s Temple—was also very concerned with social justice. Which is very unfortunate; it seems that churches, in North America, are polarised on the issue of social justice; they either strongly support social justice, at the expense of the Gospel, or they completely ignore social justice issues, claiming that they are focusing on the Gospel. It’s incredibly disheartening that churches can’t accept the Word of God as truth, and be led by the Word to crusade for social justice. It happens elsewhere in the world, just not in North America, where Christians have grown incredibly lazy, by their wealth.
Jones’ church was one of the worst examples of this. In it’s early days, it was nominally Christian, and was affiliated with a Protestant denomination. However, as the church grew, he seemed to abandon Christianity more and more, until, by the end, they never really claimed to be Christians at all, even though they were still concerned with social justice. (During the documentary last night, a former member was interviewed who stated that she had never believed in Heaven, even though she was part of the church.) So concerned for social justice, in fact, that, according to the Wikipedia article on the church:
Why can’t the real church function like that?!? Why can’t Christians, who claim to have the love of God working in their lives, show that love and compassion for their fellow neighbours? Why is it only crazy cult leaders like Jim Jones who are willing to care for the less fortunate? Christians are very quick to condemn Jones for his craziness—and well we should, because he led a lot of people astray, to their physical and spiritual deaths—but if we’re honest, we have to admit that he shamed us, when it came to social justice. (And isn’t that a stinging indictment?) We merely listen to the Word, we don’t do what it says (James 1:22–24).
Jones and his church earned a reputation for aiding the cities’ poorest citizens, especially racial minorities, drug addicts, and the homeless. Soup kitchens, daycare centers, and medical clinics for elderly people were set up, along with counseling programs for prostitutes and drug addicts who wanted to change their lives. The Peoples Temple made strong connections to the California state welfare system. During the 1970s, the Peoples Temple owned and ran at least nine residential care homes for the elderly, six homes for foster children, and a state-licensed 40-acre ranch for developmentally disabled persons. They had a college tuition and dormitory program at Santa Rosa Junior College. The Temple elites handled members’ insurance claims and legal problems, effectively acting as a client-advocacy group. For these reasons, sociologist John Hall described Peoples Temple as a “charismatic bureaucracy”, oriented toward Jones as a charismatic leader, but functioning as a bureaucratic social service organization.
For people like Jones, the problem with Christianity, of course, is that it teaches that God is God, and nobody else is—that’s a bit too limiting, because he needed to be the supreme leader. He published a pamphlet, titled The Letter Killeth, in which he pointed out what he felt were “contradictions, absurtities, and atrocities in the Bible”, although it also claimed that the Bible also “contained great truths” (quoted from the Wikipedia article). He also claimed to be an incarnation of Jesus, Akhenaten, Buddha, Lenin, and Father Divine.
Eventually, there was so much scrutiny of the church by outsiders that Jones decided to move the whole thing to Guyana. Of course, the contradiction, which is probably obvious to most people, is that the church claimed to be interested in social justice, in making the world a better place, and yet decided to move to Guyana, to live in isolation. How are you to make the world a better place, when you’ve isolated yourself from it?
The big tragedy—and I’m not saying anything new, here, I don’t have any great insight—is that the members of Jones’ church were spiritually seeking, like everyone else is, and found his church, instead of Truth. At the end, when they all drank the poison, they did it because they’d put all of their hope in Jones, and he let them down—as any human would. By the end, when they realized that Jones wasn’t going to give them paradise on Earth, they felt they had nothing left to live for, so they simply drank the poison and died.
If they had only found Christ, instead! If they had only found the Truth, instead of Jones! They should never have lost their zeal for social justice, but they should have worshipped the true God, who would not have let them down, instead of a false one. It was heartbreaking to hear the tapes of the church’s final moments, when Jones was instructing people to drink the poison—because the man taped everything, including the final moments—and the whole time, the phrase which kept running through my mind was “if only… if only…”