Ignoring the Lessons of Jonestown: 40 Years and Counting…


George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, is purported to have said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If we don’t draw on the important lessons from our past, we’re likely to continue the very mistakes that we’ve already made. Something akin to doing the same thing over and over again, vainly hoping that the results will be different. But they won’t. They’ll not be even remotely different. True in life. True even in faith, religion, and belief if we’re not careful.

This November 2018 marks the 40thanniversary of an unspeakably horrific tragedy: the brutal murder/suicide of over 900 persons in Guyana, South America. Jonestown represented the deadliest deliberate killing of U.S. citizens until the Islamist terrorist attack against our country occurred on September 11, 2001. Under the direction of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in Jonestown in 1978, his followers were given deadly poison in response to Jones’ own delusional religious fantasies about end-times and his perceptions of heightening external persecution of his cult. Global public opinion recoiled in horror at the utter senselessness of the Jonestown slaughter. It provided what should have been a ‘screaming’ Red Line, never to be crossed again. A ‘canary in the coal mine’, of sorts. An abundantly clear warning sign that something can (and will invariably) go terribly and tragically wrong when any religious community runs destructively amuck.

But the red line was subsequently crossed. Again and again. With significant, additional loss of life and humanity. In 1992, a standoff and subsequent siege by Federal Marshalls and the FBI at Ruby Ridge in Northern Idaho resulted in multiple deaths. Illegal weapons and ties to purportedly-Christian-affiliated, anti-government, survivalist, and Neo-Nazi groups fed the conflict that led to these deaths. A year later in 1993, David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians (a splinter group from the Seventh Day Adventist Church), joined nearly 80 others in a fire-filled death following an extended siege of his Mount Carmel Center ranch compound near Waco, Texas. Multiple ATF agents and Branch Davidian residents were initially killed by an exchange of gunfire. This set off an ensuing standoff and subsequent inferno blaze (set by some of Koresh’s followers, themselves) that killed most of Koresh’s followers. David Koresh was called the ‘Sinful Messiah’. He viewed himself as possessing a direct channel from God in his interpretation and preaching of the Bible. Driven by a distorted, binary view of good/evil and the coming Apocalypse, he blatantly extorted and coopted the Bible to justify his accumulation of guns, explosives, and armor-piercing weapons in order to banish the ‘ungodly external beasts’ with a ‘sword of religious righteousness’. Along the way, Koresh fathered children from multiple women in the compound, including minors.

And the extremist violence didn’t stop there. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols conspired to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 innocent people were ruthlessly killed in the resultant explosion, including 15 children. McVeigh had been attracted to the Christian Identity Movement of the 1970s and 1980s. This was a quasi-religious, white supremacist group that hoped to spark a race war in the U.S. Under the guise of religion, white nationalist and radical movements like this one plotted to overthrow the government through terrorism– all in the name of protecting white ethnic and cultural identity. Interestingly enough, McVeigh traveled to Waco, Texas before he actually executed the OKC bombing plot. He did so in order to witness, first hand from a distance, Koresh’s Mount Carmel Center ranch during its siege by federal authorities. Perhaps McVeigh was ‘inspired’ by the dystopian religious plan that Koresh had laid out. Or maybe McVeigh was even further angered by what he viewed as unfair governmental persecution against the exercise of the Branch Davidian religious ‘way’.

And the extremist violence didn’t stop there. Only 7 years later in 2002, the Boston Globe courageously published the results of the newspaper’s extensive investigation into the Boston Catholic Archdiocese– and the church’s practice of protecting and covering up for pedophile Catholic priests. The Globe’s investigative series resulted in the resignation of Cardinal Law as Archbishop of Boston, the payment of millions of dollars in settlements, the conviction of 5 priests for sexually assaulting minors, and the ultimate release of over 100 names of priests accused of sexual abuse of children. The tragic and willful abuse of minors by Catholic priests continues unabated throughout the world to this very day, without an even remotely adequate response by the Catholic Church to stop it. The silence-by-inaction of Catholic leadership is wholly unsacred by any measure of human decency. And it’s my belief that the ‘rot’ goes all the way up the chain of command to the Vatican, itself.

Tragically enough, the extremist religious violence didn’t stop even there. In 2008, Texas state and county officials raided the YFZ Ranch near El Dorado, Texas. The ranch of approximately 700 people was operated and led by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a group that had previously split from the LDS Church in the early 20th Century when the LDS banned polygamy. As a result of the raid, multiple FLDS defendants were tried and convicted (or pleaded ‘no contest’ to charges) of sexual assault and bigamy. A key feature of the overtly demented culture on the ranch was the continuous grooming of children for sexual exploitation by adult males. Then, these innocent girls were used as child brides for the polygamous men on the ranch.

Lest we think that atrocities such as these have finally stopped or even slowed since then, we’re painfully reminded that they haven’t. Numerous media outlets have recently reported on extensive child abuse and pedophile molestation within the Jehovah’s Witness religious denomination. Investigative reports have uncovered a longstanding, sickening, and utterly repulsive culture of secrecy and cover-up of complaints around this abuse—fostered by the religion’s engrained practices of isolation from other faiths, their threats to their followers, their outright intimidation, their shunning of member-whistleblowers (‘dis-fellowship’, even within families), and their failure to report these crimes at all levels within its errant church organization. And it doesn’t even there. For, as recently as just a few days ago, Asaram Bapu, a religious guru in India with an extensive following of believers, was sentenced to life in prison for the rape of a 16-year-old female.

Simply recounting these many, varied historical ‘markers’ of religious extremism and violence is viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, morally, and spiritually overwhelming in its shattering of our souls. Events such as these should never, ever, ever have happened to human beings. Not under any circumstances, whatsoever. But they’re even more egregious and heinous when they are perpetrated in the very name of God– and by people and institutions that were formed (at least purportedly) to serve others in love. Given the utter and obvious senselessness of these abhorrent crimes, can we honestly say that we’ve learned anything in the last 40 years since Jonestown? Apparently not a lot, given the steady onslaught of horrendous religious assaults on humanity since then.

While decent people everywhere recoil in horror at stories such as these, we seem to struggle with what to do with them. As this article is read and digested, many well-meaning individuals will dutifully point out that the perpetrators are the real problem, not the underlying faith or religious community. They will earnestly argue that the ‘doers’ of these heinous acts are simply outliers. ‘Bad apples’ in a barrel of otherwise caring leaders, believers, and followers. This is certainly true in most instances. Further, some readers will understandably protest that even the ‘bad apple leaders’ act with varying degrees of ‘backsliding’, as the term goes. For not every fallen religious leader undertakes ghastly acts of extremism and violence. As such, ardent religious apologists will argue that we simply can’t paint everyone with such a broad, generalized, negative brush. One size doesn’t fit all. Point certainly taken, I admit.

But the demarcation line between fervency of belief and potentially destructive, cultish behaviors might be thinner and more porous than most of us might think. This is because human beings inherently want to believe in something and in someone. Most people want to belong to something. Some of us passionately seek this belonging. We want (or even need) to feel accepted and included in some kind of organized religious way. We desire to follow someone who knows more, understands more, or appears to ‘be’ more. This is exacerbated by the vagaries of our religious Holy Books. Even specific and detailed religious lessons are often wrought with questions, inconsistencies, examples of double standards, and even moral ambiguities. The Christian Bible, for example, contains numerous examples of violence, enslavement, conquest, and aggression– all seemingly condoned by God– when you read through the texts. Believers, therefore, feel the need for the help of someone smarter, wiser, and holier to give the literary confusion more clarity and meaning.

These and other factors, in turn, foster an unhealthy degree of dependency on clergy, religious leaders, or those with informal, but real, power within congregations. When this dependency is combined with the powerful forces of ‘in-group’ affiliation, vulnerable followers within religious congregations can feel a deep, abiding desire to conform. A desire to stand against those on the ‘outside’ who don’t believe in like terms. In other words, to participate in ‘circling the wagons’ in a vigorous defense of The Faith. In defense of the ‘Truth’. Further, as this begins to evolve naturally (or is actively fostered in the spirit of exploiting human vulnerabilities) normal, morally accepted boundaries of behavior can begin to break down. Lines can be crossed. Logic can blur. And moral judgment can fail. It doesn’t mean that it will, of course. In all likelihood, it won’t at all. But the point here is this: It Can… when cancerous aberrations develop. When our rightful worship of God destructively, but incrementally, morphs into the worship of a ‘god-man’. We’ve certainly seen more than enough evidence of this since Jonestown.

Given this aforementioned evidence, what can we learn from it in order to preclude the tyranny of ‘god-men’ within our own religions? What can we learn from Jonestown that we haven’t thus far? If we’re thoughtful in our exploration, we can learn a good deal. And, in this regard, we can turn back to the Spanish philosopher George Santayana that I quoted at the outset of this article. Santayana also stated, “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” This is, perhaps, the key to it all. Many, if not most, religious fanatics and zealots generally begin with some form of an outwardly noble vision, grounded in ostensibly reasonable or plausible doctrine. Perhaps Jim Jones did, as well. That’s how he so successfully recruited his followers. He did so with religious messages conflated with calls for political and social change, freedom from discrimination, and social/economic progress for the disenfranchised.

Tragically and inevitably, though, this aim was quickly lost, supplanted, and superseded. Jones redoubled his efforts in a dysfunctional distortion of that initial, ‘advertised’ aim in order to preserve his own place, his own power, and his own institution above all else. Purpose became an illusion. Then it became an outright nightmare. Along the way to this nightmare, Jones’ resulting ‘religion’ developed a cult-like personality and function, no longer functioning as a voluntary gathering of values and universal principles. His leadership, which began inconspicuously enough as friendship-based, quickly evolved into authority and power focused. Jones transformed himself from a servant-leader to a status of nearly ‘divine’– as he increasingly assumed the trappings of adoration. In the face of this veneration, his own patently aberrant behaviors were inexplicably excused, rationalized, and accepted by those who failed to understand the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

Jim Jones was also a master of ‘blurring the lines’. He accomplished this in highly sinister, manipulative, and yet monstrously masterful ways. He drew, and then blurred, the lines between life and death– ultimately preaching that human death was merely another ‘plane’ of life. Perhaps he knew early on that he would ultimately preside over his killing of the flock. For, in his own mind, he would have to murder them in order to ‘save’ them in the end. Further, Jones blurred the lines between physical location (Guyana) and the notion of the Promised Land. He blurred politics with religious belief. He blurred religious ‘sacraments’ with a visual theater of the bizarre. He blurred normal human sexuality with absurd notions of morality. He blurred the notion of a utopian society with the reality of their actual isolation. He preached and enforced a Spartan existence, the selling of one’s personal possessions for the ‘church’, and the subjugation of follower’s identities. Jones blurred the lines between the need to stay busy with individual worth. This, in turn, fostered a distorted sense of ‘self’, ongoing fatigue, the loss of fact-based judgment, and a patent lack of time for personal reflection.

Jones went much, much further, though. He developed numerous ‘tests’ of loyalty to exploit his followers. Things like strictly enforcing their dutiful presence at daily worship. Like requiring their presence and full participation in extensive daily work duties. Like demanding their willingness to report on and turn-in others that they perceived as having gone astray. Jones tested them with the absurd self-contradiction that he was somehow hurting them for their own good. Ultimately, the real test was Jones’ own command that his loyal followers could never leave Jonestown. Because he had first convinced them that the external world was inherently evil. That ‘outsiders’ would try to stop them. That they were under attack. That leaving Jonestown was not simply a personal failure on their parts. But much more so, they would be hated and shunned by the world once outside the ‘safe’ confines of Jonestown. It was the ultimate test. A test of willful self-imprisonment relentlessly drilled into them each day by a psychopathic, unhinged religious ‘leader’. It was a test that ultimately led to their tragic deaths.

So, as it turns out, Jonestown can teach us something about religious extremism and violence after all. In truth, there were lots and lots of signs all along the way. Lots and lots of warnings, as noted above. But these warnings were largely missed by the vast majority of Jones’ followers… and by many of us, as well, since them. Now, some will quickly point this out: atrocities such as those at Jonestown can’t and won’t happen in ‘my’ religious denomination or affiliation (fill in the blanks here for yours). But think again. And then again. Because it can happen. For Jonestown teaches us that any fervent religious belief potentially contains the ‘seeds’ of its own eventual extremism. This extremism may be only marginal around the ‘edges’. And it doesn’t necessarily lead to violence. But it can. Given this, we all need to be vigilant in our respective religions. We all must keep our eyes wide open. And beware any and all religious practices, doctrines, cultures, and behaviors signaling that something is going wrong.

We should all beware when our religious traditions teach any form of hate and division (whatever the reason), instead of love. We should all beware when these traditions breed suspicion, not trust. Foster fear, not calm. Result in vulnerability, not confidence, on the part of their followers. Render judgment, not grace, toward their believers. We should all beware when our traditions preach exclusion, not inclusion. Encourage conformity, not individuality. Foster groupthink around exclusive ‘truth’, not curiosity and openness to new ideas. Or count on our dependency, not our empowerment and development. Or blur lines instead of clarifying things. We should all beware when our religious traditions create exhaustion, not restfulness and resilience. When they demand silence, not transparency. We must all be especially wary, however, when our religions invite or display any forms of aberrant human behavior. When these traditions incite violence, not peace. When they reward adherence to abusive rules and strict doctrine, not the protection of sacred human rights. Further, when any of these bankrupt behaviors are actively modeled or encouraged by religious leadership itself, the ‘fix is fully in’. For the slow, slippery slope to extremism has now substantially ‘upped the ante’. In turn, the once-gentle downward slope has radically steepened. And it now carries not just a ‘seed’, but rather a careening avalanche of creepy religious terror.

Given the evident and continuing risks of excessive religiosity, what’s the answer? Should we shun religion altogether? The obvious answer is No. Resoundingly so, in my opinion. For religion is an important expression of human spirituality. And we need many, varied religions in order to capture the diverse and wonderful belief systems of peoples throughout the world. Given this, there’s really no one single ‘answer’ to the problem of religious extremism and violence. But if all religions contain the ‘seed’ of extremism within them, they also carry a ‘seed’ of hope and promise, as well. And, perhaps, this seed is Love. If we peel away the many layers of love, we’ll surely find some near universally-held human values, ethics, and virtues that foster the manifestation of living life together in love. To be clear by the way, we’re not talking here about currently politicized religious ‘values’ around such things as the pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and pro-family (as it regards economic, social, political policy making) movements. Instead, we’re addressing a range of far deeper, spiritual human values.

Values like respect. Values like human dignity and human rights. Like integrity of word and action. Like equality. Like peace and non-violence. Like compassion and empathy for others. Like grace and forgiveness. Like friendship and human connection. Like inclusion and openness to our many differences. Like ecological stewardship for all creation, especially in the face of the growing threats posed by global warming and climate change. If our world religions were firmly grounded in these common foundations (and not on the differences between respective doctrines, sacraments, rituals, practices, and institutions), the seeds of extremism might never, ever germinate. Especially if each sect’s followers were to diligently and actively act to continuously protect the sacred nature of these shared human values. By so doing, fringe and fanatical ‘god-men’ like Jim Jones would never again infect a congregation with their warped agendas of vitriolic hate. Alternatively, they’d be quickly and publicly ‘tossed out the door’ by congregants and members at the first sign of backsliding. In a world of human values-based religious expression and association, shared loving ethics would fuel and drive the practices of religions, not the other way around. What a refreshing breath of fresh air, for a change, in an increasingly polarized, violent, and extreme world.

To be fair, taking a human values-based approach to religion isn’t the only answer. And it’s not a simple road to travel, lest it devolve into a purely humanist agenda devoid of God and spiritual faith. But it is something to seriously consider. For, as we remember the tragedy of Jonestown and its forty-year legacy of continuing extremist violence, our current path is simply unworkable. I cannot imagine that this is what God had in mind when God created our world. I can’t imagine that God finds any joy or peace whatsoever in aberrant ‘worship’ practices based on violence, hatred, human exploitation, death, and spiritual carnage. Especially when these inherently evil practices are perpetrated in God’s own name by charismatic, mystical, but unhinged ‘god-men’.

So here’s the bottom line: If we’re ever to honor the memories of the Jonestown victims–and the many other victims who have followed since then– we owe it to them and to ourselves to radically change things up. Striving for anything less is simply doing the same thing over and over and over again… while vainly and blithely hoping for a different outcome. But I’m here to tell you that the outcome won’t change unless we first change. History is proof. Because that very history continuously repeats itself when we don’t learn anything from it. It’s entirely possible that Jim Jones diabolically understood and exploited this very cyclical phenomena at Jonestown. So if we’re ever going to stop the tragic cycle of religious ‘Jonestown-like’ violence and extremism in our world, we have to understand it, as well. We need to do some serious soul-searching, find the courage to speak out, and fully embrace the conviction of heart necessary to take meaningful action. And do so with some real urgency. Right now. Because we’re literally on the clock. It’s been 40 long and agonizing years since Jonestown– and we’re still counting.


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