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The legacy of Jonestown

Thirty years ago I watched, as did many in this nation, the horror that we came to know as Jonestown.

It changed many of us. We added “cult” to our vocabulary in a more common way. The massacre, because some were killed by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, gave us the phrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Three decades have passed, and we’re still haunted by and relate to Jonestown.

Pop culture has painted the “Promised Land” in Guyana as a prison, where people had no will and walked around as zombies because a single man, Jim Jones, overwhelmed them.

There’s a lesson here for both sides that seems appropriate in this community.

First of all, not every group that worships differently from a specific view is a cult. As Christians and non-Christians, we should be open to all things and cautiously so. When we become caught up in our belief system and shut out others because they are different, we are closing ourselves off to possibilites; to understanding.

We may agree to disagree without name calling. People who make personal decisions about spirituality are not zombies. They, as do we all, have free will. Free will is a great gift, but with every gift comes a responsibility. In Jonestown, some understood their leader had problems with drugs and with honesty — after all, Jones had legal problems from his position on the San Francisco public housing commission; the reason for the flight to Jonestown. Some people left. Others didn’t and died.

At the same time, many people in groups that carry the label “cult,” for whatever reason, seem to circle the wagons and cling to themselves. This is a natural fight or flight response, but overcoming this intitial reaction — turning the other cheek, as it were — seems to lead to understanding. Fear nurtures bigotry. When so-called outsiders come in as a group, the memory of Jonestown kicks in, especially in a small city or community.

Openness and honesty without doctrinal diatribes seems to alleviate some of those fears. Becoming a part of the community structure instead of living separately, but within the community also helps alleviate this fear-bearing bigotry.

Too much energy is wasted when both sides thrash about, and the community suffers.

This is the legacy of Jonestown.

Leesha Faulkner is executive editor of the Times-Journal. Call her at 410-1730 or e-mail at leesha.faulkner@selmatimesjournal.com.