Belmont Club

Remembering Jonestown

When asked what I found fascinating about cats, I say “they’re still in Eden; the last link to the Garden.”  Watching cats is as far as many of us will venture to the time before Good and Evil. But in recent history the man who most tried to return to it in earnest was Jim Jones.  Alas, he failed. Until September 11, the greatest loss of American civilian life occurred at Jonestown, Guyana at his direction. Jones, mistakenly described as a “pastor” by those eager to direct readers away from the fact that he was a Communist,  was a self-described representative of the only world religion to ever arise in the West.

In 1951, Jones became a member of the Communist Party USA, and began attending meetings and rallies in Indianapolis. … He … became frustrated with what he perceived to be ostracism of open communists in the United States, especially during the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. This frustration, among other things, provoked a seminal moment for Jones in which he asked himself “how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.” …

Jones was surprised when a Methodist superintendent helped him to get a start in the church even though he knew Jones to be a communist and Jones did not meet him through the American Communist Party. … Around this time, Jones witnessed a faith-healing service at the Seventh Day Baptist Church. He observed that it attracted people and their money and concluded that, with financial resources from such healings, he could help accomplish his social goals.

Humanity’s greatest torment since it first became self-aware was the knowledge that it inhabited a universe far vaster than it could comprehend. Unlike cats, it became terrified at the prospect of infinity. It could imagine eternal life, but it could also contemplate the possibility of eternal suffering.  Men, but not cats, could imagine living life for a space and being tortured endlessly thereafter — imagine it because they themselves were capable of such things. “For … then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” The inhabitants of Eden lived merely under the rain and the sun. But man lives in a world of angels and demons.

In that context, freedom became an excruciatingly momentous thing.  If freedom was the lamp that provided glimpses into the unfathomable reaches of creation, its light revealed little.  Most of the world’s religions, including Christianity, filled in the blank spaces by provisionally defining the direction of “good”.  And while some were content to live in that uncertainty — almost that delusion —  it was not good enough for many.  Marxism’s greatest contribution to the problem was to deny the existence of freedom altogether and to supply in its stead, submission to human will. There would be no angels and demons in its world, only man. And in Jonestown Jim was going to be the man. Only when God was killed could men return to the garden and the sun and the rain arrive overhead again.

The 1960s and 70s were a special time, and Jones, with his Communist church,  eventually become a political power in the San Francisco Bay Area. He moved comfortably with the Marxist pop-culture fringe where his inner vision could express itself in manner. George Moscone appointed Jim Jones head of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Jones met with Walter Mondale. “First Lady Rosalynn Carter also personally met with Jones on multiple occasions, corresponded with him about Cuba, and spoke with him at the grand opening of the San Francisco Democratic Party Headquarters where Jones garnered louder applause than Mrs. Carter.”

By the late 1960s, Jones began at least partially openly revealing in Temple sermons his “Apostolic Socialism” concept. “If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.” … By the early 1970s, Jones began deriding traditional Christianity as “fly away religion,” rejecting the Bible as being white men’s justification to subordinate women and subjugate people of color and stating that it spoke of a “Sky God” who was no God at all. … By the spring of 1976, Jones began openly admitting even to outsiders that he was an atheist.

By then he was at dinners featuring Jerry Brown. Harvey Milk spoke at Jone’s People’s Temple events. He hosted speeches featuring Angela Davis. His influence was so great that San Francisco Chronicle reporters found it hard to write an expose of accusations of financial and personal misconduct that were then beginning to stir.  The prophet had found his people; he circulated among and made friends with fellow travelers.  But though they would never wander far, Jones knew he wanted to go: to Eden. And in preparation for the journey Jones had secretly been buying up cyanide:  according to UPI he had been stockpiling poison for two years before the final massacre.

As the tide of rumor grew around him, the People’s Temple moved to its “socialist paradise” and “sanctuary” away from media scrutiny to Guyana. Yet it was but a half-way house. There was paradise further still. He told the inhabitants of Jonestown that he was negotiating an airlift to the Soviet Union. And the vision of the promised land came endlessly over the camp loudspeakers. Jones would spew an endless stream of diatribes denouncing the “imperialist” United States while holding out the beacon of North Korea and Joseph Stalin. Soon now, soon.

But the jungle and reality beat illusion down. The Marxist Eden was not as they imagined it to be.  And when a congressional investigation arrived to examine rumors that Jonestown was less a sanctuary than a concentration camp, Jones finally ran out of space, money and lies to exercise his will. So he killed the Congressman, and having killed him, decided to kill everyone. Cyanide-laced Kool-aid was served out to 900 people; more than 300 of whom were infants. They had the Kool-aid flavored cyanide squirted down their throats with syringes. Yet through it all, most seemed to know what was happening.  When Jones announced that he had killed Congressman Ryan at the Jonestown airport and the order came to drink the flavored poison, there was no surprise among the crowd. It was as if everyone had been expecting it all along.

After Jones announced that “the congressman is dead” no dissent occurs on the death tape. Directly after this, referring to his Red Brigade security squad that shot Ryan, Jones stated “But the Red Brigade’s [Jone’s militia] the only one that made any sense anyway” and “Red Brigade showed them justice.” In response to reactions of seeing the poison take effect on others, Jones commanded “Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity.” In addition to Jim McElvane, several other temple members gave speeches praising Jones and his decision for the community to commit suicide, even after Jones stopped appreciating this praise and begged for the process to go faster.

While the infants struggled against the poison and some resisted many instinctively understood that this was where the journey led.  More than a few were faithful to the end. Beside the body of Jim Jones’ widow a will was found leaving all bank accounts “in my name” to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Jones had never been there but it was his spirit wanted to go. There is a video of Jones singing the Soviet National anthem here.

Jones’ voice was recorded in a tape which survived the mass suicide. There, compellingly, soothingly and even lovingly, in a suicide monologue that is riveting in its own right, the apostle of Communism led his people to the last pass. Here are excerpts from the transcription.

JONES: So to sit here and wait for the catastrophe that’s going to happen on that airplane–it’s going to be a catastrophe.  … And that’s not so unfamiliar to us either–even if we were Judeo-Christian–if we weren’t Communists. The world (inaudible) suffers violence, and the violent shall take it by force. If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace. (Applause.) We’ve been so betrayed. We have been so terribly betrayed. (Music and singing) But we’ve tried and as (inaudible) … if this only works one day it was worthwhile. (Applause.) Thank you. …

Anybody. Anyone that has any dissenting opinion, please speak. Yes. (Inaudible.) You can have an opportunity, but if the children are left, we’re going to have them butchered. …

MILLER: Well, I say let’s make an airlift to Russia. That’s what I say. I don’t think nothing is impossible if you believe it.

JONES: How are we going to do that? How are you going to airlift to Russia?

MILLER: Well, I thought they said if we got in an emergency, they gave you a code to let them know. …

JONES: How … to Russia? You think Russia’s gonna want–no, it’s not gonna, it’s, it’s, it’s–you think Russia’s gonna want us with all this stigma? We had some value, but now we don’t have any value. …

WOMAN 1: (Inaudible.) … You’ve saved so many people.

JONES: I’ve saved them. I saved them, but…  the world was … not ready for me. Paul said, “I was a man born out of due season.” I’ve been born out of due season, just like all we are, and the best testimony we can make is to leave this goddamn world. …

Please. For God’s sake, let’s get on with it. We’ve lived–we’ve lived as no other people lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. Let’s be done with the agony of it. (Applause.)

It’s far, far harder to have to walk through every day, die slowly–and from the time you’re a child ’til the time you get gray, you’re dying.

“You’re dying”. Cats probably know they’re dying and don’t care, because no angels and demons surround them as gather around us. That is both humanity’s curse and its glory. And the way we respond to that fact are many and various. Some accept the freedom and choose. Still others rebel at having to. There is a Jesuit-written hymn from the same 1970s which bids us to accept freedom; to undertake, not “revolutionary suicide”, but to decide what to do with the time that is given us. It asks us to look at infinity, at the endless storm and yet to step out into the waves and be not afraid. And we don’t know that it is the right path. We won’t know until we take it. All we know is that they didn’t sing it at Jonestown.

You shall cross the barren desert
But you shall not die of thirst
You shall wander far in safety
Though you do not know the way
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
And all will understand
You shall see the face of God and live.

If you pass the raging waters in the sea
You shall not drown
If you walk amid the burning flames
You shall not be harmed
If you stand before the power of hell
And death is at your side
Know that I am with you
Through it all.

And with any luck, the cats will make it too.

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