This moment marks thirty years. Thirty years ago today was the greatest mass murder-suicide in modern history. It's the first political event that I remember, and it profoundly changed my life.
I remember seeing the centerfold of Time Magazine, with the bodies splayed everywhere. It seemed only a centerfold could hold them all, there were so many. I still remember the smaller photo of a dead child, sandwiched between the bodies of her parents. I was in the second grade, and our commune was there in the city of San Francisco, where the People's Temple of Jim Jones had started, and where most of its victims had lived.
It's hard to know why memory remains. Maybe its the horror of the event. Maybe its the similarities in difference with us that caused it to stick in my mind. Maybe its the impact it had on my future.
My childhood was fairly typical. I grew up in a Christian commune, surrounded by 80 brothers and sisters, something like a fictive kinship society. I tell most people overseas that it was a like a traveling tribe, as that is the closest it comes to making sense to them. We were inside American culture yet outside, at times traveling in 8 buses and sleeping in church basements, at other times owning property like 24 acres in Southern Oregon. We shared everything in common, and put the group before the individual. Privacy was minimal, but not immorally so. Individualism was greatly devalued, and it felt like one giant family. Though I lived in a separate room or house with my nuclear family, Those 80 others, mostly older than I, were genuinely older brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
It was part of the Fourth Great Awakening- but this Awakening was the first in American history that wasn't primarily Christian. America tends to go through revivalistic cycles every few decades, when a new social paradigm emerges, and there is an intense battle between the old lights and the new lights. This was the 60s. We were part of that small Christian element, the Jesus Freaks, or Jesus People. And we were growing.
Though there were some fringe elements of the Jesus Movement like Calvary Chapel, the heart of it was communal. It wasn't organized in the slightest. It was perhaps the first major Christian movement not tied to one leader. Though Lonnie Frisbee comes the closest to being a founder, even he played only a bit part compared to the movement as a whole. It was the Spirit who truly lead, and he did that through communes. There were hundreds of communes cropping up all over the U.S., in Europe, even as far away as Afghanistan. Christianity Today hailed the Communal Movement as the next great step in Christianity.
Then came Jonestown. My father was visiting Keith Green that day. As my dad drove up, Keith told him, "It's a dark day for Christian community." He was never more prophetic. Immediately the Communal Movement ended. We had 80 people in our commune. After Jonestown, we never grew in numbers, and eventually, like every other Jesus People commune except for JPUSA, faded away. The entire nation became freaked out. There were people coming up to my dad, the head elder, telling him that their parents had told them to leave, because he happened to share the same first name as Jim Jones, and ran a commune. No one could think straight anymore.
To this day, I see its legacy. Most of my peers have no memory of Jonestown, for it didn't have the impact on them that it did me. But there is an underlying fear of anything communal. In communes I have participated in since then, like Intervarsity in Southern California, parents remember, and try to dissuade their children from joining. Other members of communes don't want to admit they are in a commune, but prefer the more generic and unspecific word "community", because they remember how badly everything went arwy in Jonestown. Though "intentional communites" have become more in vogue over the last few years, they lack the commitment that we had in communes, and often seem to be little more than a number of Christians who are friends and roommates. Some are a good deal more, but it doesn't compare, yet, in numbers to what we saw in the 70s.
How do I reconcile something like Jonestown with my memories of such a wonderful childhood? Certainly, there was also darkness in my childhood, and some darkness that I didn't find out about till years later. We weren't perfect. But I loved how I grew up, and wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I think that is how Christ calls us all to live, when we can.
I see Jonestown as an abberation, and a warning. The greatest goods in life can be corrupted into the greatest evils. Jonestown is a warning of what we do in community if we seek to much power. Jim Jones stripped his message of the power of the cross, with no willing suffering of his own. The message of grace and agape of love of Jesus Christ was lost. Indeed, though he began within the covenant of Christianity, by the time the People's Temple arrived in Guyana, it seems to have mostly been devoted to Communism, and the Soviet variety at that. While there were Christian communes that truly went off the reservation and had too many heresies and errors of control, Jonestown doesn't seem to be among them. It is rather a Communist heresy, going further along the road of Marxist-Leninism than even Stalin in all his purges would have desired. Jonestown wasn't part of our tradition in the Jesus Movement, though it was a reminder of what can happen if we don't follow the Way. And it we in communes were all perceived as being part of the same hydra organization as Jim Jones.
And so today, we find a very lonely Christianity in America, stripped of it's communal element of the First Century, or the 1960s, and often among Evangelicals, filled with unnamed and named fears. Countless times in this last political season, I would have people tell me I had "drunk the kool-aid" in supporting Obama. People who had no idea of the meaning of those words to me, and how much they had torn my life apart. Drinking the Kool-Aid has become a political metaphor, part of the modern lexicon, and is now used blithely without conscious memory of the horror of its origin, and aftermath.
I find our society now views much that is good as more Jim Jones Kool-Aid, much as they percieved all of our communes as mere extensions of the evil of Jonestown. But as with us, many times, it's not actually Kool-Aid. It only looks like it from the outside. Once you drink it, you can find it is actually cool, clear running water. But fear reigns so supreme, no one can reach out and taste the living water.