The Inter-sect-ion of Leadership and Faith

By Rosalie de Vries

The tragedy that was

On 18th of November 1978, we can see 909 dead bodies lying on the ground. There are some guns scattered out throughout the land. Empty glass bottles of Cyanide amid the victims. One prevalent characteristic is poison. Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters: most of the victims are families. No remains of an army though. No signs of violent struggles, neither of looting. What we are looking at is not a village victimized by war. It isn’t a battlefield. It is a tragedy.

We are looking at dead bodies that weren’t even fully grown yet, children. Their parents have consciously sacrificed them. Were they afraid of something? Well, perhaps. But it wasn’t something real.

What we see are the remainders of the Jonestown Mass Suicide. The children have been the first to die. They were zealously poured a mixture of fruits and poison, later voluntarily drunk by their parents. Who knew their utopia would have ended this way?

What is Jonestown?

Jim Jones was a charismatic leader. He preached for equality and was loudly and clearly against racism, a deep rooted problem in the USA. We still experience racism today, with frequent severe cases, like the death of innocent people due to police brutality. This racism that we still come across
today, Jim Jones used to successfully attract Afro-Americans to build up his utopia. Jim Jones has moved his cult around several times, wishing to build Jonestown, a safe, socialist society.

Although the idea of a society based on equality seems like a utopia at first glance, experience has taught us that a dystopia oftentimes emerges simultaneously, like two sides of the same coin. Behind the fantasy, society was far far away from what Jim Jones presented as the truth. Correspondingly, this is exactly what differentiates a cult from a culture or religion.

Jim Jones presented himself as a godly leader, someone to look up to. However, he was more of a Big Brother than a father-figure. Disobeying and criticism were not tolerated and met with harsh punishments. Every member was stripped of their identification, both literally and figuratively. But most importantly, their brains were filled with indoctrination, with preaching sessions and mock suicides.

Akin to a balloon, Jonestown had developed itself gradually into a bubble that was bound to burst. When it popped, all the families were gone with it, except for the few that got away.

Revolutionary atonement and sacrificial lambs

In general, leaders of cults often preach a solution to a vulnerable audience. A vulnerability ripe for manipulation. This fits the anti-racism ideals being projected upon Afro-Americans, a population frequently preyed and picked upon by systematic and personal racism. Jim Jones was born in Indiana
in 1931, has had the privilege of going to college and was a regular church-goer. He had built up his credibility by doing voluntary work at the homeless shelter and with this credit he established the Peoples Temple, of which he became the charismatic spokesman. This carefully constructed image proved itself fruitful in future developments. He was there for his people and represented their values, meanwhile slowly turning his target audience into potential believers. Slowly but surely, Jim Jones became obsessed with power and convinced his community to move to the edges of the jungle to uphold their utopia.

The religion he preached, and the ideals he stood for, got more and more extreme. Blood sacrifices started being expected. Although these symbols of exercised power were meant to strengthen his position, they instead fed Jim Jones’ fear of losing his grip on his utopia. It was this fear of losing his
powerful position that triggered Jim Jones into organizing the Jonestown Massacre.

It was government representative Leo Ryan who embodied this threat. Prompted by alleged abuses, he paid a visit to Jonestown. This created a line of communications between the distorted fantasy bubble, and the needle that was reality. Leo Ryan was about to take with him 14 defectors, but got killed just as he was about to exit Jonestown. However, Jim Jones was afraid that the 10 former members who had managed to escape would invite new mingling into his business, which would eventually destroy the doctored utopia that he had created. Jones Town had actually taken on the shape of an extremist prison camp with torture and sacrifices. Jim Jones made his people believe that when they could not lead a revolution alive, they must start one by committing a symbolic, revolutionary mass-suicide, to leave a message

The lesson: separation of power

What could be the lesson that we can draw from this tragedy? Perhaps it comes back to the olden rules: separation of church and state. Those who preach compared to those who execute the judicial system. Perhaps we should not leave the power to dictate the lives of others in the hands of only one party, may it be a group or an individual. Values in the end, are only relative, and so is advice. But isn’t it advice that we have written in the law? For all I know, the law is merely the basis of a good and just life, and that we can decorate it with our own perceptions, beliefs and traditions, and that we should adhere to at least this very important amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

The question remains then, however, whether this amendment prohibits thorough examination of cults. At the intersection of faith, we need to clarify more what is a cult and what is merely an unharmful religious community. The virtuous and lawful fantasy presented by cults can endanger not only duped believers, but also innocent lives, as was the case in Jonestown. Failing to identify and stop the poisonous rhetoric of cults poses a danger to all of us. Policy makers, academics, and mass
media need to clearly frame the distinctions in the definitions. Otherwise, we won’t be able to see which cases will be protected justly by the separation of state and church, and which cases require intervention to guard (inter)national security. There ought to be a careful examination on the images of both sides of the coin.

Sources used: (amendment)
If you are interested in the events that happened in Jonestown, I recommend watching the following:

  • Jonestown: Paradise lost (2007)
  • The Jonestown Massacre: Paradise Lost (Cult Documentary) – Real Stories
  • Return to Jonestown | Survivors revisit site 40 years after the tragedy | Sunday Night – 7News Spotlight

Edited by Chira Tudoran

Artwork by Chira Tudoran