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THE PEOPLE'S TEMPLE
November 18, 2003
 
I remember it well: I was still in seminary, and the terrible incident was the talk of the refectory. We had been reading read admiring first-century accounts of the desperate last stand of the doomed Jews at Masada, when parents killed their babies and then themselves, rather than to fall into the hands of the Romans who had surrounded them. When the conquerors entered the fortress, they found nobody there who was still alive. Not a one.

Not only the seminary: the whole country was straining to understand how the Jonestown Massacre could have happened. Why did the people drink poison so willingly? Give it to their children, their aged parents? How was it that they couldn't see that their leader was crazy? And we thought of our own tradition, of Masada, of the many instances in which people in scripture kill others rather than let them fall away from God, and we paused, the hair standing up on the backs of our necks.

On the radio last night, a community member who happened to be away from the compound on that terrible last day was interviewed. What are your thoughts now about what happened in Jonestown? the interviewer asked her, gently. The woman began to cry. I'm so sorry for all the people who died, she said. There's nothing I can do to make it right.

But she tried to make the interviewer understand how strong a thing it was to live in a community like that. How much joy there was, especially at first. What it meant to a young black woman to live in a community with no racism, in which love and understanding were preached and lived. It wasn't crazy, she said, not at first. It was wonderful. We were so happy. To wake up every day and realize that we were in Guyana, all together. We never thought we would die. We never thought that would really happen. It was like an image, a symbol.

I believe I understand how that could be. To know we are beloved of God and one another -- nothing is sweeter. I can understand never wanting to lose that. And if I thought that sweetness lived only in one place, I believe I can understand how easy it would be to overlook the signs of other things I didn't want to see. I wouldn't want to see the insanity. I would be too committed to the love and security I needed to see it.

This is what happens when a community walls itself off from the world. This is what happens when "the world" becomes a pejorative term. When we refuse to be informed by everything God sets before us to teach us, when we begin to insist on receiving information only from the sources we choose, that we can decide how God will and will not speak to us -- we begin to be insane. The insanity begins even if that source is Holy Scripture, for it is not the Bible that's crazy: it's us. When we put it to uses for which it was not written, it can no longer help us, can no longer teach us its love and faithfulness. We begin to think it teaches us other things.

We see death in its pages and begin to think we're being ordered to kill. We read stories of other times and begin to think they are for this time, that we are being asked to live in another age, that we will be punished if we cannot find a way to do so. We begin to think it cannot guide us in our own time if our time contains things unknown to its writers, that the only guidance scripture can offer is the guidance of a recipe.

Even when its writers show us how to use it in a variety of ways -- when St. Paul muses about meaning in scripture other than literal meaning, when Jesus quotes psalms in new contexts, when one writer takes a phrase from an old book and applies it to something new, and even gives us a hint that he's doing so ("Let the reader understand!") -- we still hang back from exercising the freedom God asks us to exercise with these ancient books.

We do this because we are afraid. Like the young woman who survived Jonestown. Afraid to think for ourselves. Afraid not to defer to those who would think for us.

What did you learn? said the interviewer. She has been very kind to the woman -- who must, by now, be middle-aged, like herself, but somehow seems very young. That you must never let someone else make all your decisions for you, the woman answered immediately. She's had twenty-five years to think about this. No matter how much you admire him. One person can never have that much power over you. You have to use your own mind and think for yourself.

Yes.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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