The coverage of the Jonestown massacre made a strong impression on me, since I was a young journalist who wanted to become a religion-beat reporter.
I remember, for example, the calm anger in the voice of the late George Cornell of the Associated Press when he told me that, to his knowledge, there wasn’t a single major news organization that assigned its religion reporter to take part in covering the shocking demise of what was clearly a warped and perhaps even cultish religious community led by a charismatic preacher.
Today, it’s hard to remember the questions that surrounded the Rev. Jim Jones and his fortress in Guyana back in the days before “Drink the Kool-Aid” devolved into a sick national gag line. It’s hard to remember why congressman Leo J. Ryan felt that he had to take a potentially dangerous mission down the Jonestown to investigate rumors of violence, sexual abuse, mind control and other forms of strange behavior. Ryan ended up dead, of course, one of the first of hundreds to die.
I’ve been watching the coverage of the 30th anniversary and, so far, I think the best story that I’ve seen is the gripping first-person feature written by Charles A. Krause for the Washington Post. I mean, he was there.
Jackie Speier now represents California’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The last time I saw her, 30 years ago, her bloody, bullet-riddled body lay in tall grass at the side of a jungle airstrip in Port Kaituma, Guyana.
She had been gunned down by four assassins sent by the Rev. Jim Jones to kill congressman Leo J. Ryan — and the rest of us who had accompanied him to investigate reports of violence, torture and sexual abuse in a place called Jonestown.
For 15 hours, Speier and the others who miraculously survived the airport massacre waited to be rescued, bleeding and fearful the gunmen would return. Meanwhile, five miles away, Jones was ordering more than 900 of his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking fruit-flavored punch laced with poison.
Jones’s exhortation to his followers, to “die with dignity,” and a survivor’s account of Jonestown’s final hour — “they started with the babies” — became headlines sent around the world. Overnight, Jonestown would become more than a name or geographic location; it became shorthand for troubling questions about cults, the social and sexual revolution then underway in the United States, and the mixture of politics and religion that Jim Jones used so effectively to lure thousands of followers into his church and to hoodwink much of San Francisco’s political establishment.
And there you have the key words that have always haunted Jonestown stories — San Francisco.
You see, Jones was a minister in good standing of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an absolutely normal denomination at the heart of the liberal Protestant ecumenical establishment. He was an idealist on the left and, as everyone knows, this kind of theocratic, cultish behavior is supposed to take place on the theological right, not the left. That’s where the wackos reside. Correct?
Thus, there has always been a tendency to avoid in-depth discussions of what Jones believed, what he preached and how his idealistic, progressive congregation — one committed to racial equality, free health care and social justice — evolved into an armed camp of suicidal killers lined up at a vat of cyanide and fake fruit juice.
Krause mentions some of the key players in his well-written and sobering feature. Take, for example, that wild lawyer of the left Mark Lane — who worked to defend Jones and his encampment. There there is this:
Speier says Jones’s rise to power and legitimacy in San Francisco was largely due to his clever deception of George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and other San Francisco political leaders, who courted Jones in the years before the massacre because he provided them with campaign workers and critical support.
“From my perspective,” Speier says, “the Peoples Temple got out of hand because the political leadership in San Francisco was indebted to Jim Jones.”
You must read the whole article, which raises more questions than it answers. Krause knows this, because he leaves the reader with a long, long list of crucial unanswered questions.
Ponder this, if you can stand to do so:
Was Jonestown a cult, a religious commune or a legitimate experiment in racial harmony and social justice gone bad? Should Ryan have insisted on going to personally investigate Jonestown, taking journalists with him, after having been warned that Jonestown was an armed camp and Jones himself increasingly unstable?
Was Jones a sadistic egomaniac who cynically abused his followers? Or was he a decent man who fell victim to the drugs, power and paranoia that finally devoured him and the 913 other men, women and children who died in Jonestown? Why didn’t more people resist when they were ordered to die?
However, I have to say once again that this article has little or nothing to say about Jones and his message. In fact, the final section of the article muddies the waters quite a bit.
Consider this language drawn from a recent memorial service for the victims, held at a mass grave in Oakland:
In an emotional and highly charged address, the Rev. Amos Brown, bishop at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church and president of the San Francisco NAACP, warned the mourners to beware of religious leaders who claim to have all the answers and insinuate themselves into politics, as Jones did so effectively in San Francisco.
“Good religion elevates folk, it teaches people to think for themselves. Good religion isn’t authoritarian. Good religion isn’t bigoted,” he said. “Open up your eyes, America. America isn’t a theocracy, it’s a democracy. … And that is the lesson we must learn from Jonestown.”
Theocracy? Yes, it’s hard to argue with that. But we need more information. What kind of theocracy? What were its doctrines? What kind of church worshiped at Jonestown?