"A Silent Witness to Evil”
David O. Rankin
Berry Street Essay, 1981
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
June 12, 1981
Once upon a time there was a popular preacher. His name was Jonah and he lived in the land of Israel. It happened that Jonah was called by God to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh.
Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me!
But Jonah was reluctant to venture into the land of the hated Assyrians; and he found a ship sailing in the opposite direction; and he fled from the calling.
Yet he was not a coward! …at least not a coward in the sense of fearing physical danger. For when the sailors asked how to save the ship from a storm, he calmly replied, "Take me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you…” So he was thrown into the sea; and the sea calmed its raging.
In the midst of the waves, however, as the water closed about him, Jonah experienced the distress and agony of Hell. His soul became weary and his heart was faint. When he sensed the aloneness, the complete separation from God, he began to pray. And in exultation, he shouted:
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and Thou didst hear my voice… [Now] I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to Thee; what I have vowed, I will pay.
Jonah went back to Nineveh and prophesied its destruction. He became angry once again when God saved the city (for he felt like a fool); but, apparently, he continued to serve as a semi-obedient and reluctant witness.
Jonah is an interesting figure because he is a credible character. He is not a hero. He is not a martyr. He is not a great leader, or a profound thinker, or even a notable prophet. Other than his facility with the tongue, he is just an ordinary person, who for some reason beyond his own capacity to comprehend, is snatched out of a comfortable, satisfying existence to do the will of God.
The great majority of ministers, priests, and rabbis are Jonahs. The deeper reasons for their call to the ministry are forever hidden from them. Their vows are invariably broken or compromised. Their dreams are often shattered in the real world. After all, they are only human beings, with no special power. They stumble and despair. They cry in pain and curse in anger. But they witness, nonetheless!
I identify with Jonah. In the ministry, I have learned to cry. Weeping not only for the pain of others, though that was difficult enough for a male of the middle 20th century; but also for the hurts and wounds of my own life, which like a Jonah I had tried to escape. It is good to cry. Even the tears of frustration. It is the highest form of confession.
How little ministers know about human life, especially our own. "To judge us by what we call our actions is probably as futile as to judge us by our dreams.” Fate chooses from the conglomeration of thought and act, and some shine with a sudden burst of light, displayed in glory like a sun; while others sink into the deep pool of regret and remorse, buried in the heart of darkness. Failure is a daily certainty, more familiar than success.
Our vocation is best described by a colleague who writes:
We have been thrust into an ineluctable hunger for something beyond self or earth, beyond peace or even love. We have been thrust out, pushed forward…We are caught between what people understand and what none of us understand. We may seem like fools, especially to the prudent and the worldly wise, and often to ourselves we confess we are fools. We stand fumbling at the latch of life, elated and disturbed, hoping and fearing, certain and unsure at the same time.
Yet it is not a subject in our theological schools. Who speaks of our failure and our suffering? Where is the course on our anguish and our despair? Sadly, it is only engraved on the curriculum of our hearts, the stitchings of a peculiar profession.
Two and a half years ago, the incredible story of Jonestown, Guyana burst upon the world. The ghosts of 912 people still haunt my memory, as I played a role in the terrible tragedy. Not able to compose my thoughts or to speak about my feelings, I have kept it all inside, trying to wrestle with the "great fish” alone. But then I decided: "What better place to share my experience than with a group of friends and colleagues?” Perhaps other Jonahs will understand.
As in most true stories, the events do not appear to be connected. Something happens—and weeks go by. Something happens—and months go by. Only at the end do events assume significance; linking up with one another; rushing toward a dramatic climax; forming a tapestry of meaning. If lives were timed like a novel or a film, with so many pages or so many minutes, it would all be easier. But reality is marked with hidden reefs, with sudden storms and flimsy ships.
If there is a theme, beyond the sage of a modern Jonah, it is the age-old partners of evil and guilt. The evil is a matter of public record, springing from the reports of journalists and participants, and easily accessible to the curiosity of the scholar. The guilt is another dimension, which cannot take the form of an essay or a lecture. It is profoundly personal, a mixture of ignorance and folly, a rugged journey to Tarshish.
In October of 1976, I was the Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco. Following a Sunday worship service, I was approached by a member of the congregation who was active in the politics of the city.
"Do you know the minister of the Peoples Temple?”
"The mayor wants to appoint him to the Housing Authority. But he seems awful strange to me.”
"Well…I’ll ask around…What’s his name?”
After calling a friend at the San Francisco Chronicle, I learned that James Warren Jones had been a minister of the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis, Indiana. In the late 1950s, he had organized an integrated church in a transition neighborhood of the city. Extremely visible in civil rights, committed and outspoken, he became a target for racial violence. His life was threatened. A bomb exploded near his home.
In 1965, Jones and sixty-five followers moved to Ukiah, California. It was a quiet, rural environment. They purchased over 3,000 acres of land, constructed a church building, and lived a communal existence. Then, in 1972, the group acquired an old abandoned synagogue on the edge of a black neighborhood in San Francisco. Only four blocks from the First Unitarian Church, it was renamed the "Peoples Temple.”
I found nothing unusual in the report. If that sounds odd to the ears of Iowans and Vermonters, it should be noted that it was the period of the Zebra Killings, the Patty Hearst Kidnapping, and the flowering of a thousand cults in the Bay area. By comparison, the information on the Peoples Temple was a mild example of life in the city. When I passed it along to the member of my congregation, she related that Jones had already received the nomination. He would later chair the Housing Authority.
An old friend from Massachusetts was visiting San Francisco. One evening, as we toured the landmarks of the city, she suddenly inquired, "Could I see the Peoples Temple?” After driving to the site, and pointing to the dark stone building, I could not refrain from asking, "How do you know about the Temple? It’s not exactly a tourist attraction.”
With some difficulty, she replied, "My sister moved to San Francisco last year. I think she’s involved with the minister.” It was rather strange, I thought to myself. Not because Jones was white and she was black; but because Jones was married with several children. "Another Elmer Gantry,” I concluded. Then, I forgot the incident. But the threads of the tapestry were beginning to form.
The growing influence of Jones became apparent in early 1977. The local press hailed the work of the Temple: a center for senior citizens; a food bank for the poor; a program for orphaned children; a clinic for drug addiction. It was portrayed as a model for religious involvement in the inner city, and Jones was described as a radical Christian out of the tradition of the Social Gospel. I remember thinking that the media had found a star, "a rival for Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial.”
Politically, Jones advanced quickly. He could put two thousand workers in the field for any progressive campaign. The mayor used them. So did the district attorney. Governor Jerry Brown was a guest at the Temple. The NAACP presented Jones with its annual humanitarian award. Even Rosalynn Carter, in quest of publicity, appeared on stage with the popular minister. On evening television, she shook his hand, smiled, and sweetly called him "Jimmy.”
I met Jones on two occasions, both civil rights rallies at the First Unitarian Church. Of medium height, with thick overly-groomed black hair, he had the facial contours and the coloring of an American Indian. He wore a dark Nehru jacket over a white turtle-neck sweater, along with stylish tinted glasses which concealed the eyes. I was especially impressed by the two bodyguards. They were tied to Jones with invisible strings, shielding him from the crowd while making him the center of attention.
While others were speaking, Jones was remote, distracted, possibly formulating his own presentation. With the microphone in hand, however, he burst forth with high intensity and electric effect. It was pure tent-revival technique (A mixture of Micah, Marx, and Father Divine); but there was also a charm, a quality of earnestness, which I found quite compelling. Easily the most popular speaker, he could move the audience by softly imploring of by harshly criticizing. The people responded with wild bursts of applause.
Besides, he was speaking on behalf of the angels! In an age of cynicism, when the old were tuning out and the young were turning on, Jones was a vivid reminder of the unfinished agenda of the 1960s. Passionately defending women, blacks, and other minorities—he bitterly assailed sexism, racism, and official corruption. With touching anecdotes from ghetto experience, he demanded justice for the poor and oppressed. If I had doubts about his lifestyle, I did not question his goal or motivation. Unfortunately, our allies are immune from suspicion.
In February of 1977, I delivered a sermon on human freedom. It was widely quoted in the media. A few days later, I received the usual number of letters from opponents and supporters, but about 20 of the favorable letters were amazingly similar. All written in long-hand, using the same paper, with nearly identical phrasing, they had the look of a common origin. They were very flattering, touching the ego.
In the next edition of the Peoples Forum, I was featured as "a spokesman for the downtrodden.” It was then easy to guess the source of the letters, for the same newspaper described the Temple’s "Writing House,” an organization of volunteers that communicated with public officials. I did not like the lobbying system, nor did I appreciate the shrill, Marxist propaganda which dominated the paper. My perception of Jones was changing, from that of a radical Christian to that of an ambitious ideologue. But it did not seem important at the time.
No event was more seemingly unconnected than a marriage ceremony I conducted in the spring of 1977. Greg Robinson was a member of the First Unitarian Church. He was a young professional photographer working in San Francisco. The bride was a beautiful oriental woman with a sparkling personality and a marvelous sense of humor. It was a memorable wedding, a blending of East and West. The couple flew to Honolulu for their honeymoon.
The smell of scandal emerged in whiffs and puffs. At first, there were only vague rumors: that the Temple had not accounted for government funds; that the Temple had a policy of hounding and abusing dissident members; that the Temple had a large storehouse of guns and ammunition. Jones responded to every charge with a cry of "persecution and harassment.” He portrayed himself as the victim of a fascist conspiracy, as a reformer who alienated the rich and powerful.
It was not unlikely. Everything was likely or unlikely. For those who had lived through the Vietnam War and the Nixon era, there were no longer any standards of truth. Especially in the Bay area, the discriminating mind had virtually ceased to exist, as every traditional authority fell into disrepute. No one believed anything about anyone. Every one believed everything about no one. It was a period of spiritual floundering, wrapped in the slogans of freedom and liberation. Saviors were everywhere. Life was a side show.
The heroes of the hour were two reporters, Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy. They patiently followed the trail of evidence which others had ignored. After a lengthy investigation, including interviews with former members of the Temple, they published an article in New West Magazine.
It was charged that Jones was a bogus faith healer, taking advantage of the sick and elderly with contrived cures for every illness.
It was charged that the Temple held weekly loyalty sessions, which featured beatings and intimidation, in order to discipline the members.
It was charged that the senior citizens were victims of fraud, as their homes, jewelry, and Social Security checks were possessed by the Temple.
It was charged that the orphaned children were placed eight to a room, with little food and clothing, while their county aid was used for other purposes.
Further, it was charged that Jones demanded sexual favors; that he viewed himself as a messiah; and that he had connections in the White House itself.
It was a sensational story.
Still, the people of the Golden Gate were not easily awakened. The mayor and the district attorney did nothing. State authorities refused an investigation. Civil rights groups made no comment. Church leaders were silent. In the meantime, Jones defended himself by attacking the integrity of the accusers. He vowed to prosecute the reporters. He waved a list of endorsements—from Walter Mondale and Sam Ervin, to Angela Davis and Jane Fonda. Only the media was unrelenting. Obviously, the star had fallen!
My own response was weak and limited. In a sermon on faith healing, I used the evidence in New West Magazine to list Jones as a local charlatan. (Easy, since I view all faith healers as charlatans.) Again, I received the batch of nearly identical letters, though all were harshly critical. But I must emphasize! My story is not one of special insight and prophetic courage. I hope you understand. It is not a climb to the peak of the mountain, but a descent into the depths of the sea.
In July of 1977, under increasing media pressure, Jones fled to South America. Jonestown was a four-year-old agricultural mission deep in the jungle of Guyana. The minister had called it the "Promised Land,” hoping to build a utopian colony free of the outside world. Many Temple members, especially the young and the elderly, had already moved to the mission. Others followed. A short-wave radio communicated with those remaining in San Francisco. In daily broadcasts, Jones continued to proclaim his innocence.
But many questions were raised by the Organization of Concerned Relatives. Where was the church money? Did the Temple violate immigration laws? Were some of the children kidnapped? What were the living conditions at the mission? Defectors were returning with disturbing accounts of madness and brutalization. While the relatives agonized, the press scrutinized, and the government turned a deaf ear, only one person of authority took the issues seriously.
Leo Ryan was a Congressman from San Mateo County. A liberal in a conservative district, he was a maverick independent, unorthodox, and theatrical in style. He had no ties with the Temple and no debts to Jones. His own nephew had been a victim of the Church of Scientology, and the son of a friend had been mysteriously killed after leaving the Temple. When approached by the concerned relatives, he agreed to conduct an official investigation. On November 14, 1978, accompanied by staff assistants and representatives of the press, Leo Ryan flew off to Guyana.
A short time passed…
It was a weekend I will never forget. In scattered reports, I learned that Ryan and several others had been attacked and killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Guyanese soldiers, entering the jungle mission, had found 912 bodies baking in the mid-day sun. The men, women, and children had been poisoned, while Jones had been found with a bullet in his head. The "Promised Land” was an open, stinking graveyard. Only then did I perceive the masque of evil. It was the weekend the guilt began.
Later evidence indicated that Jones had ordered the death of Ryan after the Congressman had discovered the brutal conditions at Jonestown. Sensing the inevitable retribution (and already dying from drugs and disease), he then gathered the faithful together. In a three hour ceremony, often practiced in the past, he directed everyone to drink from a vat of juice and cyanide.
"We have had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it….Free at last. Peace.
Keep your emotions down, children. It will not hurt….
Hurry. Hurry, my children. Hurry. Let’s not fall into the hands of our enemy. Hurry, my children. Hurry.”
They listened. They embraced. They died.
The phone rang at the church. IT was the editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Dazed, perhaps in a state of shock, I had not noticed that Greg Robinson was the photographer killed with the Ryan group. The memorial service was more crowded than the wedding ceremony. He was 26 years old. His widow held my hand. She was the loneliest person I had ever seen. When the service was over, I rushed from the sanctuary. If I had provided consolation for others, I had done nothing for myself.
Grief is a dark pit: where nothing is integrated, nothing is desirable, nothing is blessed—an abode of absolute agony. Inside, everything snaps and breaks. The heart, so adored by the poets, is torn with wild sorrow. The mind, so admired by the philosophers, dissolves into a useless grape. "The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head,” cried Jonah. It is true. I have been there; not once, but many times.
A long time passed…
It was only a year ago. After moving from San Francisco to Atlanta, I received a call from my old friend in Massachusetts. We talked about the old days in Watertown, the health of our families, the opportunity to meet again. Near the end of our conversation, I could not resist asking: "How is your sister? Is she okay?...” "Oh, she left the Temple. She’s living in Ohio.” Thank heaven!—I sighed to myself, there were those who escaped.
For two years I thought deeply about the profession of the ministry. "Is this my calling?”…"Can I really help people?”… "To what extent am I responsible?”… "How did I fail to detect the madness?”... "Why did I not peek behind the tinted glasses?”… "What had happened to my critical faculties?”… "Where was the voice of prophecy and condemnation?”… In short, why did I become a silent witness to evil?
To relieve the guilt, I played with numerous excuses, hoping to find peace in a tossing storm.
Was I intimidated by a powerful organization? (Fear would be good!) Yet I had opposed mayors, presidents, the FBI, and the Pentagon. I was not afraid.
Was I reluctant to attack a colleague? (Courtesy would be good!) Yet I had criticized everyone from St. Paul to Jerry Falwell. I was not courteous.
Was I swayed by the politics of the Temple? (Sympathy would be good!) Yet I had never condoned the extremes of the political left. I was not sympathetic.
Was I simply too busy? Surely the demands of teaching, preaching, visitation, counseling and administration were convenient arguments for failure.
But nothing could stand the test of conscience. I was swimming from the truth and the body was sinking.
In the bowels of the "great fish” I found the solution. It was not a pleasant discovery. For it revealed a weakness in myself which I had never admitted. Born in a steel-mill city; familiar with the ethics of the streets; trained to be skeptical and tough-minded; I assumed a knowledge of the "real” world. Not the world of the romantic novelists or the cocktail intellectuals, but the world of lies, deception and illusion. Jonestown revealed my ignorance—my failure to calculate evil.
What do we know of evil? "Geologists teach us that the very ground which seems so solid is in reality only a thin film over an ocean of liquid fire, forever trembling like the skin on milk about to boil.” Everyone wants to make a difference in the life of the world, contribute in some way toward securing and furthering that life, even the members of the Peoples Temple, who should not be dismissed as simply robots. But how thin is civilization? How deep is evil?
Evil is organic, biological. Not the product of social classes, or economic situations, or material surroundings—evil is rooted in the human hunger for self-esteem and immortality. The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited creature with unlimited horizons. It wants a stature and a destiny that is impossible for an animal. It wants an earth that is not an earth but a heaven. And the price of this fantastic ambition "is to make the earth an even more eager graveyard.”
How comforting to think that evil is only in the walls of the Kremlin: or only in the board room of General Motors: or only in the dark alleys of the inner city: or only in the minds of our enemies! Yet evil is in the gentle boy next door. It is in the grasping fingers of the infant and in the dying sigh of the saint. The human animal, burdened with the knowledge of death and decay, looks for immortality at almost any cost. Evil, as the lessons of Jonestown attest, is the terrible urge to be God.
Neither a Christian nor a Marxist, Jim Jones was a diabolical genius. His following was a blend of disaffected whites and blacks for whom modern America provided no higher mission. In an era of religious confusion and political corruption, he cleverly manipulated the strands of powerlessness and discarded responsibility. With Bread, Magic and Authority—he provided a goal and a purpose to those who were yearning for something, anything to worship. Jones gave them a god they could see, and hear, and touch. They, too, could be gods, if they worshiped at his altar.
But the other horror of Jonestown, as in the Holocaust of Hitler, lies in the silence of the larger society. The liberal churches, in particular, were soft targets for the messiahs and gurus of the 1970s. Our children were recruits. Our sanctuaries were platforms. Our people were dallying. Our pulpits were silent. In our own search for an elusive divinity, we flirted with the brief-lived fads and tolerated the grosser forms of human manipulation. It was a shameful period in the history of our movement, when idolatry and evil went unchallenged. I am an expert, ashamed.
Perhaps, in the future, I will be more alert to the advice of Reinhold Niebuhr, written over thirty years ago as a warning to those of the liberal persuasion.
The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of a dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free of their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness, and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.
For just as the earth is still quite young, in the pristine stages of its evolution, evil too is only at its beginning.
Today, I live with the guilt. Actually, it is more of a friend than an enemy. I have discovered that metaphysical guilt is a powerful tool for moral progress, an emotion crucial to a species weaned on pride and destruction. While self-pity is useless and loathsome, guilt is a valuable affliction. How presumptuous of psychology, and naïve, to want it banished from human experience! If we are responsible for the crimes committed in our presence, or with our knowledge, then the guilt must be cultivated. I no longer trust the innocent.
A short time after the tragedy of Jonestown, I was teaching a course on Albert Camus, when a sentence from The Rebel jumped out of the page like a bold from Heaven. It read: "There can be no possible salvation for the person who feels real compassion.” Admittedly, I had the desire to justify myself, to seek some small consolation, and even to attain a stature not really deserved. But the wisdom of the sentence did not depend on my motivation. I read it again and again.
Camus understood the ethical dilemma. If evil is real, organic, rooted in Being itself, there is no ultimate solution. For the person of compassion, there are no moments of smug satisfaction; there are no grounds for self-congratulation; there are no parties celebrating victory, or final successes achieved. The victims and perpetrators of evil are born each day (and often in the same body). Unfortunately, the battle is eternal. The revolution is forever.
So it was not the Assyrians Jonah feared. It was the unceasing call of duty. It was the unending round of assignment. It was the perpetual cycle of defeat and despair. It was the anguish of a peculiar profession which has no day of retirement, no final message to convey. Tired and confused, doubting the worth and meaning of the task, he tried to escape. But he witnessed, nonetheless!
Whatever else our definition—the ministry is a sublime peril. Can you describe the evil in your own soul? How does it feel to be swallowed by a fish? Do you recognize idolatry and false prophecy? What is your source of support when drowning? Have you ever been vomited on the dry land? Are you too proud to repent—to week to fail? These are my questions for candidates for the ministry, along with the advice that it is good to be afraid. If the vows are worthy, the dangers will be great.
I will not dwell on the attraction. Quite possibly, it is linked with the peril, with the daring risks and heavy burdens which cannot be found in other professions. Jonah perceived that only death was a viable alternative to renouncing the ministry. He could no longer live in the ordinary world. It was dull-gray, devoid of passion, and lacking in the intimate involvement with great and terrible events. Despite all the pain and sacrifice, he was possessed by the immensity of the role. What he vowed, he would try to pay!
But that is another story. My saga has ended. It does not conclude with heroic intentions, resolutions of changed, predictions of growth, or guarantees of avoiding error in the future. For that would be silly and dishonest, more like a cheap novel or a Hollywood film. I know too much, and I am convinced of my own ignorance.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.
Since essays and lectures are characterized by quotations, however, I must conclude with the following words, which are especially meaningful to my ministry. They are the companions of the day and the night—pointing to the limits of human endurance and to the risk involved in the religious adventure.
The first were uttered in the peace and quiet of a secluded garden. They were in the form of a humble prayer. "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”
The second were expressed from the height of a wooden cross. They were in the form of a tearful agony. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?...”
If, together, they imply that our calling is to be sought and found in the fear and agony of Gethsemanes and Calvaries, then once again, perhaps other Jonahs will understand.
 Jonah 1:2 (RSV).
 Jonah 1:12.
 Jonah 2:2, 9.
 Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1954), p. 68.
 Samuel H. Miller, "The Mystery of Our Calling,” quoted from Lester Mondale, Preachers in Purgatory, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), p. 30.
 Also known as Diversions Committee. Min S. Yee, In My Father’s House (New York; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 James Reston Jr., Our Father Who Art in Hell (New York: Times Books, 1989), pp. 158-159.
 Yee, op. cit., p. 291.
 Ibid., p. 290.
 Reston, op. cit., pp. 26-7.
 Ibid., pp. 327-29.
 Jonah 2:5.
 Bernanos, op. cit., p. 59.
 Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1975), pp. 135, 96.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness,” (in Political Thought in America (New York: Rinehart, 1959), p. 638.
 Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 57.
 T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men,” in Collected Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), p. 81.
 Matthew 26:39 (KJV).
 Matthew 27:46