HIS MONTH MARKS THE THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE TRAGIC
and unnecessary story of Jim Jones, Jonestown, and Peoples Temple. Although the incident received national attention at the time, many now may not even be aware of the event during which more than 900 people lost their lives to a sickening combination of religious extremism and blind obedience.
A brief background: Jim Jones was a charismatic con man, who at times claimed to be a preacher, faith healer, community activist, and messiah figure. After beginning in Indiana, he and a few hundred followers settled in the San Francisco Bay area. Using a bizarre combination of Christian, Communist, and Socialist teachings, he and his followers provided social services for children, youth, the elderly, drug addicts, and the homeless. His influence spread as he was asked to sit on various community boards and commissions.
At the height of his popularity, and while receiving support from mayors, council members, and national leaders, less-than-positive reports surfaced in local media about financial mismanagement and physical and sexual abuse in Peoples Temple. In the mid-seventies Jones leased property in Guyana for the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” where he and nearly 1,000 followers went to live communally.
In November 1978 a U.S. congressman and several others were killed when they went to Guyana to hear the concerns of those who claimed to being held against their will. Immediately afterward, Jones and his fellow leaders led the community in drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink. More than 900 people died—nearly a third of them children.
The Jonestown Tragedy reminds us that even in an age when reason is celebrated, people still risk giving their allegiance to those who don’t deserve it. And the Bible warns that the last days will be perilous, deceiving, if possible, the very elect.
Most of us, I’m sure, would be able to spot a phony like Jim Jones a mile away. But in light of this and other examples of last-day deceptions, I offer the following prescriptions for maintaining our spiritual security.
Be readers of the Word. The Bible provides support, encouragement, and instruction for liv-
ing as Jesus lived. Let others try to interpret obscure prophecies; focus on easy-to-understand passages that build faith, hope, and love.
Be doers of the Word. I know: it’s tempting to wonder how others can read the same Bible and not come to the same conclusions we do. But our primary responsibility is for our own behavior. Let’s live as Jesus lived and let our examples point others to Him. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of servants. Just as Jesus came to serve, not to be served, our responsibility as His followers is to find opportunities to lift people up and make their lives better; to be Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, and ears.
Beware of personality cults. Today’s personality cults aren’t limited only to religious leaders. Television, radio, even sports personalities can undermine the values of God’s kingdom.
Beware of bizarre or fantastic rumors and predictions. Jim Jones at one time predicted a nuclear attack against Chicago (hence his move to California). Barely credible rumors are the domain of those who rely on fear and paranoia to create enthusiasm for their causes. The truth may be surprising, often shocking, but it will eventually be found to be credible. If a rumor can’t be substantiated by a few inquiries, don’t believe it.
Be anchored. If our hope is in Jesus, personalities may come and go; political, religious, and societal trends may rise and fall; but our confidence needn’t waver. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19).
If the folk at Jonestown had that, they’d be 30 years older, but most of them would still be alive.
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.