Thursday, November 20, 2008


This week marked the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. I do not call it a mass suicide because it was obvious that there were many people, including ALL the children, who did not go gently into their good night but were pushed. Jim Jones, the self-proclaimed Father of the Peoples Temple, did not even kill himself. He was shot in the head.
A brief history from Wikipedia:

Jonestown was the informal name for the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project", an intentional community in northwestern Guyana formed by the Peoples Temple, a cult from California led by Jim Jones. It became internationally notorious in November of 1978, when 918 people died in the settlement as well as in a nearby airstrip and in Georgetown, Guyana's capital. The name of the settlement became synonymous for the incidents at those locations.

On November 18, 1978, 909 Temple members died in Jonestown, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning in an event termed "revolutionary suicide" by Jones and some members on an audio tape of the event and in prior discussions. To the extent the actions in Jonestown were viewed as a mass suicide, it is the largest such event in modern history. The incident at Jonestown was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001.

The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. The victims included Congressman Leo Ryan, the first and only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in the history of the United States.

Why write about this story? Because above the head of Jim Jones' throne in Guyana was the sign: "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." Ironic? Sardonically so. When I was a senior in college my major thesis (I was a religious studies and theatre major) was on Apocalyptic cults and the government. I wrote about Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians and MOVE (a black nationalist group from Philadelphia). I spent several months immersing myself in the hell that was Jim Jones. Listening to the tapes he made of his voice. Listening to his creepy, crazy laugh and wondering how so many people could willingly walk down this road with Satan as their Pied Piper. And then I realized how easily it could happen to anyone - even me.

Jones and most malevolent charismatic leaders, prey on the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, the broken. How many of us have fit into this category at some point in our lives? The majority of Jones' followers were black. There was a disproportionate number of women with children. And the rest of the temple was made up of the elderly. Of course. He preyed on the weak. And he was only able to do so because our society, then and now, does not lift up all people. We continue to marginalize single women, poor people, children and older people. We do not respect them or invite them in to be cared for and supported. In fact we make it harder to survive much less to live. It becomes no wonder that people like Jones and Koresh exist. That they are able to exert emotional, sexual and psychological sway over their members.

Cults which go horrible wrong can only exist in cultures where basic respect is earned through either income or biology. Self-worth is the birthright of every person. And as a mother of a young daughter, I find that I can do everything possible to lift up my daughter. To make her feel whole, valuable, brilliant as well as beautiful and capable. But that eventually she will have to leave the house and others may have more influence over her daily feelings. How do we change the world? And I don't mean that in a hopeless way. I really mean it. How do we change ourselves so fully that we can withstand negativity, assault and unkindness? Tell me, because I really want to know. I think we can do it sometimes but all the time seems like an almost impossible fete.

I think I am back to my post about the liminal. To fully appreciate the divine we need to experience the darkness from time to time. George Saunders was one of my favorite professors in college. He taught Anthropology of Religion. He advised my senior thesis. He told me once that if I started a cult he would join. I was honored. First, that he thought I was charismatic! And second because I believe he thought I would try to lift people up. That I would create a sacred space where people could be free and open and learn about themselves. It would not be utopia. It would be earth - the very best we could offer, most of the time. That never happened. Truth be told I have trouble creating peace in my own house. I still dream of that place. I will work to cultivate it in myself; and in my children and hopefully ripples will be born.

Rest in peace to all those who have died searching for Grace.

in peace

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