This week marks the 30th anniversary of the tragedy which occurred at Jonestown, Guyana. Time magazine did an interview with Tim Reiterman titled, Q&A: A Jonestown Survivor Remembers. They included an overview of other groups they called Cults That Went Wacko. MSNBC posted 10 video clips . In fact, most media around the country, print, radio, television and internet, is addressing this in one way or another. Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University posted their Alternate Consideration of Jonestown & People’s Temple. Tom Kinsolving outlined the cast of public figures who aided Jim Jones in his rise to power in CNN’s “Escape from Jonestown” – Powerful But Still Incomplete Reporting On The Eve Of A Terrible Anniversary. Kinsolving’s view of this tragedy can be summed up:
Thus, a cornucopia of local celebrities……all of them did their part to make the truly avoidable massacre……unavoidable.
I am not altogether sure if it was unavoidable. Michael Sneed, Chicago Sun-Times columnist who covered the event at the time it occurred, in the opening paragraphs of her Tuesday, November 18, 2008column wrote:
What led to more than 900 people lining up to drink death in the middle of a steamy jungle?
It still is the kind of story that can stop you suddenly in the middle of writing a grocery list.
This question plagues a great many people. How could Jim Jones’ followers commit murder and suicide? The same question arises with other well known groups. How could Manson’s followers commit murder? How could members of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate commit mass suicide? How could the Branch Davidians participate in their own deaths? One question that is rarely asked by the media, if ever, is how could Jehovah’s Witnesses stand by and let their loved ones die for lack of a life saving blood transfusion? Far more Jehovah’s Witnesses have perished because of this than all of the above groups combined. Still, the initial question applies. Why?
I was a very new Christian when Jonestown occurred and like most others, watched the new coverage in shocked disbelief. How could anyone do such a thing? Years later after getting involved with research and writing on cults, New Religious Movements and false teaching I had a better understanding of how these things can happen. When the Heaven’s Gate suicide occurred 20/20 called to find out who Applewhite and his followers were and how they could all calmly commit suicide. As I explained the beliefs the reporter asked, “How could they believe anything so stupid?” I told her I would have to ask her a question in order to help her understand and she agreed. I asked if she believed in Darwinian Evolution. She affirmed that she did. I asked her, “Why?” She hesitated and then said, “Well, I think all of my friends and acquaintances it. Scientists believe it.” The she suddenly stopped and said, “But now that I think about it I haven’t had the time or resources to check it out. Don’t you believe in it?” I told her I did not but the point of the exercise was to demonstrate than most people believe things which may or may not be true based on what people they know believe, what smart people they trust believe and spend little time or energy checking it out. Some things have little consequences where other beliefs (worldviews) may have life and death consequences. Worldviews and definitions form the basis for our decision making and once we embrace a worldview we tend to make our decisions in a way to be consistent within that worldview.
Heaven’s Gate is a case in point. Their worldview was that life in these bodies on this planet was a “classroom” or learning experience and they were ready to graduate to the next class. There was a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet to pick them up. Their website clearly declared they were opposed to suicide and they defined suicide as remaining in these bodies and not getting out of them to board the space ship. Everything they did was perfectly consistent with their beliefs.
In the case of Jonestown Jim Jones had become a messianic figure. His followers were fearful of the world and the idea that the government would take away their freedom and children. Better to die and go to heaven than to risk that bondage and loss.
In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the leadership teaches that taking a blood transfusion is forbidden by God and those who do so will be destroyed by Him for their disobedience. JWs choose to die or even worse, watch a loved one die rather than invite God’s wrath for disobedience.
Is there more or less likelihood for people to get involved with dangerous and destructive groups like this today than in the past? I would say the same or more. Culture has been demanding that we must agree that all truth claims are equally true and valid. Much of the church has softened their teaching that there is absolute truth which we can know in order to not offend others. While it is true that everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe that doesn’t mean that what they believe is true. In other words, we have the right to believe false things. Just because we believe them doesn’t make them true. Also, if it is true that all beliefs are true isn’t belief that someone else is wrong why wouldn’t that qualify as a valid belief?
I would suggest that churches could benefit and serve society well as more and more of them train and equip their people and begin doing some very public things to bring about a sort of truth in advertising in the area of worldviews.
First, we can affirm that everyone has the right to believe what they choose to believe. We can even defend their right. By the way, that would mean that homosexuals have the right to believe in same sex marriage and we can defend their right to believe that. At the same time we have the right to believe that same sex marriage should not be legal and have the responsibility to act on that belief in influencing legislation.
Second, we can test competing truth claims in the public forum and market place of ideas, not unlike Paul did in Acts 17:16-34. Many people want to believe what is true but like the ABC 20/20 reporter, have picked up their beliefs because those around them seem to believe them and they haven’t taken the time or devoted the resources to investigating. This is just as true of Christians as non-Christians. Many in Jonestown, the followers of Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians, Charles Mason’s group and others really believed what they believed to the point that it really affected how they really lived. How many evangelicals really believe what they claim to believe to the point that it really effects how they really live?