God is never lost. In the midst of great evil, God is there. I have long wondered how Jonestown fits into such ideas. In the 1970s, Rev. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple founded the settlement in the jungles of Guyana. After a few years of communal living, Jones led his followers to commit a mass suicide/murder that left over 900 people dead. The last words the community ever heard were recorded. Jones’ words are beyond disturbing. Evil resonates with every syllable. Even in the midst of such, I refuse to believe that God was absent during such terror. Lent is a time to look for God in death. To honor the victims of Jonestown, I’ve decided to seek God in the last words they heard in the order that they would have heard them. In those evil words of death, may there also be something for us. These devotions should never be mistaken for an apologetic for Jim Jones or anything he stood for. This is a search for God.
“I’m going to tell you, Christine, without me, life has no meaning…” -Jim Jones
A few years ago, I counseled a man who was being abused by his partner. While the abuse was primarily psychological, there were moments where his partner exploded into violence. One such incident landed the man in the hospital. As I stood by his bedside, I asked about his feelings toward his partner. I was very concerned that the man wasn’t safe. After thinking a moment, the man replied, “My partner has always told me that my life would have no meaning without him…and frankly, I believe him…I love him.” Even though I was very disturbed, I felt like the best thing I could do was offer friendship. After years of similar incidents, the partner was arrested after a particularly brutal incident. When I went to visit the man at the hospital, he strained to tell me, “I have to get away from him. Though the physical abuse was bad…the psychological abuse was even worse. I was brainwashed into believing that I was worthless and that life had no meaning without him. Surely, love has to be more than this.” Eventually, the man escaped. The people of Jonestown weren’t so lucky.
Even in the midst of moments of real generosity, Jim Jones constantly abused the community. Whenever they had inclinations of leaving, many people stayed because they loved Jones. Repeatedly, Jones told the people that their lives would have no meaning without him and many believed him. The people also loved each other and were willing to face abuse in order to stay together. Perhaps it is true that various forms of love helped keep Jonestown together, the problem was that so much love was forced. In telling the community that life was void of meaning without him, Jones used a distorted love to lead the people to their own deaths and people followed because of love. Though Jones died with the people, you have to wonder if it is better stated that the people died with him. In their love, many people followed Jones to their death. The problem is that Jones’ love turned out to be a lie. The people clung to something that wasn’t true. There is a word here. Guard your heart above all things. God is love. Other than that…be careful who you love.