Joking about Jonestown

It only takes a few words to call back the memories from 30 years ago, all those nightmare images from the jungle sanctuary in Guyana.

“Revolutionary suicide” may do the trick, especially when combined with that grim quotation from one survivor, “They started with the babies.” But it was another Jonestown catch phrase that leapt into the national consciousness.

Sherri Wood Emmons heard it when she accepted a job with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only four years after the massacre.

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” said a friend, laughing.

“It’s understandable, I guess. We use humor to distance ourselves from things we don’t understand, things that frighten us,” noted Emmons, in her editorial introducing a DisciplesWorld journal issue marking the Jonestown anniversary. “It’s easier to poke fun at people than try to understand them. Those crazies, we say, shaking our heads. They must have been nuts.”

But there’s a problem with America’s three decades of sick laughter about 900-plus people drinking cyanide and fake fruit juice in honor of one man’s vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Rev. Jim Jones really did flourish in the American heartland and begin his ministry in Indianapolis, of all places. In the early 1960s, his idealistic, multi-ethnic Peoples Temple was embraced with open arms by the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream church at the heart of the Protestant ecumenical establishment. When he moved his flock to California, he forged strong ties to George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and the San Francisco political establishment.

And those Jones disciples? “They were living out their faith in wants that might shame some of us today,” according to Emmons. “And they were Disciples of Christ. As much as we might like to forget that.”

In other words, Jones was a charismatic, talented minister whose work united rich and poor, black and white, young and old. That was before he started preaching socialism and saying he was the reincarnation of Jesus. That was before the sexual abuse, torture, drugs and violence.

Why didn’t anyone see who and what he was?

After the tragedy unfolded, the headlines marched past day after day, with each bizarre revelation adding to the horror and confusion. The Jonestown news coverage made a strong impression on me because I was young journalist, just out of college, who wanted to become a religion-beat reporter.

I kept waiting for mainstream journalists to dig into the religious roots of these tragic events, to explain what Jones believed and why his followers were so loyal. I waited a long time.

This was an important religion story. Wasn’t it?

Frustrated by why I was reading, and not reading, I called the dean of the religion reporters, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I remember the calm anger in his voice as he explained that few, if any, major news organizations had assigned religion specialists to help cover this shocking story that centered — for better and for worse — on the shocking demise of a pastor and his flock.

For many journalists, Cornell explained, Jonestown was too important to be a religion story.

“I think that a lot of newspaper people, a lot of journalists, grew up in a tradition where religion, at least the substance of religion, was out of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned,” he told me. “They hesitate to cover religion because they see it as a private matter. They don’t want it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their ignorance of religion.”

That’s why it was hard to take Jones seriously during his rise. That’s why it was hard to take him seriously after he died and took his followers with him. That’s why it’s easier to laugh or to look away.

Jonestown was not an isolated case, explained Cornell. Anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take religion seriously. But many journalists just didn’t get it. This blind spot is real.

That was true 30 years ago and it’s true today.

“I mean, look at every major flash point in the world,” said Cornell. “There’s almost always a religious element involved — and it’s almost always a powerful one. … People just don’t see where the hammer is falling — where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it.”

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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