Jonestown: Not Too Late to Learn

Michael Nagler asks us to learn the lessons of Jonestown by addressing our deeper needs of authentic spiritual community, and giving insight as to how to discern leadership therein.


A few years ago we had the pleasure of meeting the late, revered Narayan Desai, whose
father Mahadev had been Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary. When Narayan took
over after his father’s death, he told us, he had to tell Gandhi that while he fully
appreciated the importance of the work he didn’t feel he was growing in the process:
what to do? Gandhi’s response was, ‘you have answered your own question: if you
aren’t growing, you shouldn’t be here. Go out and find yourself.’

This came back to me when I started reading that forty years ago last week in British
Guyana some 900 Americans killed themselves – and their children – at the behest of an
egotistical, self-appointed ‘leader.’ I have long felt that as a people we missed a priceless
opportunity when that event happened, and we’re still missing it now. Forty years is too
long not to have learned the lesson of this tragedy; too long to repeat the errors that led up
to it – the errors that have in fact given us a right-wing, egocentric President today. A
wider contrast between leadership styles could not be imagined. But there’s a larger

The coverage in the mainstream media focused on personal stories, which is all right as
far as it goes – it must ultimately be a personal story for every one of us. They give us
the answer to various questions we may have had about Jim Jones and his deluded
followers. But that is not the question we should be asking: how could a huge number of
Americans fail to see through the “charisma” of an egocentric, substance-and-person
abusing, self-serving individual who so devalued the life of others that he would order his
followers to death? We should be noting that there is a pattern to this event; for a really
stark example think of Adolf Hitler in his doomed bunker sending two cyanide pills and a
photo of his exalted self to all his generals. What does it mean?

We can get some insight from Mother (now saint) Teresa who plainly saw this, not writ
large in some shocking tragedy but in the quiet tragedy all around her: You in the West,
she said, have some of the “spiritually poorest of the poor.” We deny this kind of poverty
at our peril. If it’s not addressed, people will turn to all kinds of destructive behavior, and
often find themselves susceptible to the shallow appeal of a self-appointed ‘leader’ who
promises them some kind of meaning in their lives. David Brooks, writing recently on
the ubiquitous phenomenon of trauma, pointed out that Our society has tried to
medicalize trauma. We call it PTSD and regard it as an individual illness that can be
treated with medications. But it’s increasingly clear that trauma is a moral and spiritual
issue as much as a psychological or chemical one. Wherever there is trauma, there has
been betrayal, an abuse of authority, a moral injury. And he added, Medication can
rebalance chemicals in the brain, but it can’t heal the inner self.

To begin that healing we don’t need to take holy orders or go off to a cave in the
Himalayas: “You in the West,” Saint Teresa went on to clarify, “have millions of people
who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted.”
In our famed material progress we seem to have derailed our understanding of what we
are and what we need impelling us go on looking for fulfillment where it cannot be found
– in material possessions, physical experiences – and neglect it where it can – in human
relationships and our inner capacity for love and service.

Nor is it hard to see why. We in the industrialized world are exposed to thousands of
commercial messages a day (three to six thousand, according to recent studies), virtually
all of which relentlessly compromise our awareness of the value of life and community
by endless messages to ‘do it your way, seek your own satisfaction, buy this, eat that.’ In
the ‘entertainment’ media action heroes impress on us the false allure of violence. Yet all
this conditioning has not, cannot, deprive us of the capacity to choose: what we will
watch, how we will relate to those around us, which of our inner capacities to express, to
encourage in our children. It is only “When our lives touch those of different kingdoms,”
wrote brilliant scientist Lynn Margulis, that “we most feel what it means to be alive.” So
much the more when our lives really touch those of our fellow human beings.

Many of us, recognizing this disorientation and this poverty, have taken to spiritual
practice. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health,
the number of adults who meditated in the United States was 18 million back in 2012,
and climbing. For others of us, simply avoiding damaging media and forming a habit of
being more personal with everyone around us – especially even when it’s difficult! – can
go far to reduce our spiritual hunger, which, among other benefits, will inoculate
ourselves against the appeal of persons who lack compassion and judgment. It helps,
also, to rediscover the spiritual tradition that once flourished even here in the West.
Along the way we will find the other symptoms of spiritual poverty; mass shootings,
addiction, demoralization and suicides finally becoming rare. Oh, and in our social and
political life, the rise of real leadership.