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#44 / Jonestown Theology: Lenten Explorations in the Valley of Death

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Wikimedia / Nancy Wong

Wikimedia / Nancy Wong

God is never lost. In the midst of great evil, God is there. I have long wondered how Jonestown fits into such ideas. In the 1970s, Rev. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple founded the settlement in the jungles of Guyana. After a few years of communal living, Jones led his followers to commit a mass suicide/murder that left over 900 people dead. The last words the community ever heard were recorded. Jones’ words are beyond disturbing. Evil resonates with every syllable. Even in the midst of such, I refuse to believe that God was absent during such terror. Lent is a time to look for God in death. To honor the victims of Jonestown, I’ve decided to seek God in the last words they heard in the order that they would have heard them.  In those evil words of death, may there also be something for us. These devotions should never be mistaken for an apologetic for Jim Jones or anything he stood for. This is a search for God. 

 

“… can they not talk to San Francisco to see that (Tim) Stoen does not get by with this infamy, with this infamy? He has done the thing he wanted to do, to have us destroyed.” -Jim Jones

 

In the history of the Peoples Temple and its’ successor Jonestown, there are few more contentious occurrences than the custody battle between Jim Jones and Tim Stoen over John Victor Stoen. A short time after John Victor’s birth, Jones ordered Stoen to sign an affidavit declaring Jones to be John Victor’s father. Almost immediately after Stoen signed, Jones exercised great control over John Victor took full advantage of his newfound fatherhood. Eventually, Stoen defected and became one of the chief antagonists of Jonestown. In his fight to get his son back, Stoen won victories in court after court from the United States to Guyana. Since Jones was in such a secluded and fortified place, no one could enforce the orders granting Stoen custody of John Victor. As the custody rulings gained more and more attention, Stoen teamed up with many others to convince Congressman Leo Ryan to organize a delegation to travel to Jonestown to check on the people and facilitate transport for anyone who wanted to leave. Though Stoen traveled down to Guyana with Ryan, the community would not allow him to enter Jonestown. Continuously, Jones blamed all of the community’s problems on Jones. As the hours were winding down, Jones orchestrated the murder of Congressman Ryan and multiple others, as they were about to board their plane. Not long after, the community was ordered/forced to commit suicide. As his people were dying, Jones took John Victor up to his cabin and administered the poison. Later, John Victor Stoen was found dead in Jones’ cabin. He was 6.

Even with his final words, Jim Jones wants revenge. Before the deaths commenced, Jones ordered members in San Francisco to make sure that Tim Stoen didn’t get away with this. Did Jesus ever advocate for revenge? Isn’t the triumph of love revenge against evil? Does Jesus seek revenge by drawing his enemies to love? Wasn’t the conversion of Paul a type of love revenge? I could go on and on, but my point is that revenge is not always evil. Revenge can be love. However, when you are advocating a revenge that involves violence against someone or something, you are talking about revenge that is evil. Where your treasure is there your heart will be also. Jones’ words reveal his heart. Even in the midst of death, Jones wants to kill more than those who are gathered in front of him. By this point, I’m convinced that Jones’ ideas of revenge had already caused him to lose his mind. I think this is apparent in his rambling and inability to concentrate on what is in front of him. Before you let revenge take hold in your heart…remember what happened to Jim Jones.

Amen.

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