The Jonestown Syndrome

The Reverend Mr. Watkins edits and publishes The Printed Preacher, a monthly gospel message, 303 North Third, Dayton, Washington 99328.

In 1978 the world was shocked by the mass suicide of 900 people in a Guyana commune called Jonestown, named for their charismatic leader, Jim Jones. Information available to us indicates Jones seemed to have such power over the minds of the people that he was able to pressure them into taking their lives. Immediately the question came to others of us: How in the world could a man gain that much control over the minds of men?

It was perhaps 25 or 30 years ago that we heard of another leader who called himself “Father Divine,” a blasphemous name. But there seemed to be plenty of people flocking to the “heavens” of this self-styled deity. He had “heavens” in several large cities in the United States, and when he wanted to open another one he was able to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in currency, not checks.

Sun Myung Moon, a Korean minister, has come to America and recruited hundreds of its young people for his cause. They commit themselves to him, live in his communes and work long hours every day to raise the millions of dollars which his projects require; and he, like all such leaders, lives in opulence.

In the early part of the past century Robert Owen established a commune in the Ohio valley. His glowing praises of socialism so infected people that many of them left their normal pursuits and joined his enterprise, for a while.

In July 1981 an Indian guru calling himself Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh paid $6 million for 100 square miles of Oregon about 180 miles from where I live. He and 200 disciples have applied for a city charter in the middle of the spread, and they are calling the town Rajneeshpuram. His followers, who called themselves sanyassins, don’t have to turn all their property and pensions over to him, but most of them do. This allows him to live in plush style which includes a Rolls-Royce, a conveyance that more or less stands out on the country roads of that part of Oregon.

Why the Submission?

History would supply us with many such efforts at communal living or socialism. The feudal lords and their serfs were actually one variety of the same concept, and as we look back to those medieval days we wonder why anyone would be part of such a thing.

Earlier in this essay we wondered how a man could get such control over people that they would submit themselves so totally to his will. But I think a better question is: Why do people allow themselves to be controlled by one who exercises such totalitarian authority? Why do they surrender freedom of thought and movement to him? Even a hypnotist can’t function unless his subject is willing to open his mind to the suggestions of another.

First, there has to be the promise of something to be gained. No sane person will surrender himself to the authority of another unless he gets something in return. He either gets it immediately or he believes almost beyond doubt that he will get it, on down the road. In an economy of freedom of exchange, trades are made because each one is willing to trade something for something else which he values more highly. In the communal example we have cited it is quite obvious that the person who elects to come under the total authority of a Jim Jones is interested in security.

Everybody wants material security. No one likes to live on the financial edge of nothing. Most of us try to figure out ways of saving up for the rainy day when we can’t produce the daily necessities. Banks are able to stay in business because their depositors entrust their “nest eggs” in anticipation of a day when they can no longer work for salary or wages. This was the selling point in the ‘30s when “social security” was sold to the American people.

Part of the Jonestown syndrome is the deep-seated desire for security, and there seems to be no shortage of people who are willing to surrender minds and freedom of movement in exchange for such security. Jones promised it; so did Father Divine. Moon holds out this carrot to his fol lowers, and the Indian guru does the same for his devotees.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Well, this is all very interesting, but—aftter all—he is talking about a tiny percentage of the total population. Why get stirred up about it? Let them do their own thing.” True, the examples cited are minuscule compared to the whole of society, but they are actually an exaggeration of a more widespread symptom. Millions of Americans who are not in communes have an overpowering desire for security, and this desire shows itself on several fronts.

Why do people join labor unions voluntarily? They think by so doing they gain job security, a pension plan, or a guaranteed annual wage. To get these benefits(?) they have to give something in exchange: part of their freedom, their union dues and some of their intellectual integrity. Millions are apparently willing to pay such a price.

Why do so many defend the minimum wage? Their answer? “Why, anyone who is worth anything at all is worth $3.50 an hour!” As it turns out, there are thousands of potential workers, especially among the young, who are worth nothing in the job market. They aren’t worth $3.50, and no one is allowed to hire them for less; therefore, they are worth nothing. This time it is a matter of wage scale security. They have little or no concern for young people entering the job market, but rather they want a floor under their own pay scale, hence the minimum wage laws. They set a price on a certain commodity (un-skilled labor) which no one is willing to pay. And all this results from a misguided lust for security.

Shifting the Responsibility

Another symptom of the Jonestown syndrome, one that is interrelated with the above, is the desire to shift responsibility onto others. In this case I prefer the word unresponsible rather than irresponsible. The same attitude is quite dominant in nursing homes among those who could take care of themselves but would rather not.

In the promotional pitch of the commune in Oregon which is run by the Indian guru is the line, “It is a place where people may live their lives according to their own vision.” Translation: “Do as you please.” But the Associated Press investigative reporter arrived at a different conclusion from examining some of the 200 to 300 books supposedly written by the guru: “His philosophy is based on total loss of individual ego and no restrictions on individual actions.” Obviously the Indian mystic has stumbled onto a good thing. By means of nearly total control of the minds and lives of his subjects he is enabled to live on a very affluent level.

How does this relate to our country as a whole? Uncomfortably well. Too many of your fellow citizens suffer from the same mind set. “I don’t care what kind of government we have, whether the people in authority are virtuous or corrupt, or if the currency is stable or inflated. I’m not concerned about national defense or foreign relations. Just give me enough to eat, a color TV and a can of beer.” Just what approach do you suppose a smart, opportunistic candidate will make to your unresponsible neighbor? One guess is all you get on this one.

“Utopia now” is part of the Jonestown syndrome. But the message of the New Testament is that this life on earth is not a utopia; it is not heaven. In this life we are pilgrims journeying toward something better than anyone has ever known, and Jesus came to show the way. The philosophy of delayed gratification has always been embraced by the people of God. The Serpent in the Garden of Eden said, in effect, “You don’t have to wait; you can have it now!” Be your own god, and write your own rules. The same Serpent came to Jesus on the mount of temptation: “Just bow down and worship me and you can have it all!”

Changing our Minds

There is an inherent problem in the Jonestown syndrome. In order to become a victim, one must virtually quit thinking or have his mental computer reprogrammed with garbage. Evidently the intellectual climate of our beloved land is ripe for this social malaise. Colleges and universities have been preparing us for it. The “public” school, so sacred in the minds of so many, is the Trojan Horse within our midst. The powerful media are generally oriented in the same direction. Basically our brains are as good as they have ever been, but if we fill them with misinformation we will inevitably draw wrong conclusions.

The solution? Somehow, as Leonard Read tells us, we must develop an elite, an aristocracy of morally and intellectually sound thinkers who can capture the attention of the youth and turn it to truth and integrity. Ideas certainly have consequences—when they are assimilated into the minds of thinkers, and translated into appropriate action.

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