Study of Peoples Temple Leads to Understanding of National Identity

by Julio Otazo

My initial interest in Jonestown and Peoples Temple came from a desire to understand the intricate design of attempting to leave the United States in a large Communal organization. What captured my attention was that this particular group disassociated from American society only after they made countless attempts to integrate themselves within it, in the name of social justice and racial equality. Reading what I could on the subject, I soon realized that the only possible way to obtain a true humanitarian understanding of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple was to listen to what their lives actually consisted of: The day-to-day practices and oral communication between Reverend Jones and his members.

What I found almost immediately was that theoretically there would be no actual way to translate completely what I found in this audio. After listening to a tremendous number of lectures, sermons, broadcasts and meetings, I have come away with a sense that the dynamic of Peoples Temple was not founded at all upon the worship of power or the hope for pleasurable favor from a post-mortal metaphysical state. Instead, I have come to believe that Peoples Temple has potentially contributed greatly to our own understanding of American National Identity and Democracy. It was the very idea of freedom and the ethic of non conformity to any will except one’s own, that allowed these people to believe they were the free-est group surviving on the planet, even in their death. The ending of the lives of the members of the Temple justified itself only in that it allowed them to control their perceived physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual states, in a world they insisted was bent on conforming their lives to subhuman conditions. Jonestown in my eyes became a mode to escape every aspect of human experience, be it any level in which humans feel they are lacking or not adequate. In my opinion it was an attempt to live a fully human life, being that free of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual development, contrasting to what is the particular reality of human life, which is conscious individual interest as opposed to selfless communal devotion. After careful consideration of the tapes I’ve heard so far, Peoples Temple to me is the turning point between individual and group identity, and the approximation of finding ones own identity within a group that seeks and asks to create a meaningful relationship to the core of National identity.

When I began listening to the Jonestown tapes, I did not know really what to expect. I had some notions of an enraged and aggressive community, perhaps slowly moving towards a more “primitive” social body, but I also expected there would be a certain harmony unique to this pioneer settlement. The first thing I found was that, although there was a consistent dialogue and expression of a contempt and opposition to all perceived forms of exploitation, repression, and ignorant disregard, there was an inconsistent and constantly variant form of expression. The conditions Jones set for his followers created an emotional dynamic that resonated with the perceived plight to attempt to live a life that stood in agreement with all principled as well as actual experience of what the actual universal human potential is. His sermons were unique in that he strikes, from what I must consider aesthetic as well as generally meaningful, a way to engage his audience that brings forth strong subtexts of everything: strength, sorrow, strife, joy, ambition, hatred, and vanity. His approach to his sermons and communications, I believe, created an enormous context of the humanity his message offered. Unlike a leader who solely underpins his messages with notes of passionate joy or sadness, Jones through his sermons seems to bring what I am reluctant to call somewhat theatrical, but must do so, and in the highest of respects for the studies upon this subject. It is my conclusion that through the constant subjection to Jim Jones and his spoken message, there was perpetual reconsideration of the message he was preaching, and the relation of that message to individual emotional, mental and spiritual experience, depended upon the constant variations of vocal tonality, dynamics of crescendo and repetition, and the accents and pauses he gave through his talking. Instead of a message that simply demands obedience, I believe that Jim Jones’ presentations created a meaning for his followers that engaged the extremes and possibilities of human relations, which proved effective in the sense that the typical social format from which his followers were recruited lacked even the closest subjective engagement Jones offered.

The social message Jim Jones preached was to a certain extent indisputable, which is why American society at large has not been able to come to grips at all productively with this situation. He was right in his belief of the horror and depravity of exploitation and the virtual unlimited amount of suffering that is its product. It is my conviction that through his sermons and lectures, Jim Jones propagated one clearly distinct ideal which served as a type of “Golden Rule” universal to all structures of organisms, within which his organization was to hold even to the death: that individuals who are concerned only with themselves are destructive to the group. Being that all life is interdependent, this is commonly regarded as being theoretically at least considerable. Through the harmony and rhythms of his messages and sermons, Jones set a standard of insisting that members of the Temple enhance their own humanity and experience of human life by asking themselves to challenge their perceptions of the world in which they lived. Materially this took form as a critique of social structure and practices, but subjectively this took place as a reordering of psychological processes which allowed members to have a subjective experience which translated into metaphysical domains. It is clear to me from listening to these sermons, that through disengaging from society, the theoretical plausibility of this message was to alleviate all forms of intrusion upon an individual’s unpredictable human potential, which ultimately lines up with a presumed ideal of what a human is meant to do as in the design in which he or she was created by whatever natural processes and intentions arranged.

Ultimately the way to one’s “true heart” within the Peoples Temple was through a transcendence of ones individual identity towards the group identity, which at the same time – although ideally abandoning individually identity – led to the presumable greatest form of individuality: the lack of it. I say this in the sense that members found the answers they were looking for in a process of individual and communal development that blended into a seamless whole. From this logic, it would make sense those members were more than willing to give their lives to the group if there was a threat which would dismantle the group and potentially restore individual selfishness. Since members had at the very least symbolically “left” themselves for the identity of a communal life embodied in Jonestown, it would make sense they would give their lives, not so much as a way of defending their “lifestyle” but as the greatest tribute to their way of life. One can hear this call in every Jim Jones lecture: to leave one’s own ego and desires, as the best way to serve one’s own best interest, which is the best interest of the others around you. In an atmosphere of selflessness, there is no grander tribute than giving, which finds its limitation at death. Since the Temple functioned so much on the level of being in harmony with a metaphysical principle, suicide would also make sense, in the surrender and return of individual will to a force that subsumes all identity and to which all identity is merely an extension and not the core.

What I believe was the flaw of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones was the insistence and obvious hysteria about racial genocide and nuclear holocaust. Jim Jones preached an endless rhetoric about an impending doom. He preached relentlessly about the current state of the world as being a result of Man’s lust for profit, in which money holds the place of being the only metaphysical principle Americans acknowledge. It is certain though, that profiteering and a significant portion of capitalism is founded upon exploitation, and that a worldwide nuclear war, assuming all is destroyed, would not really create more profit.   Jones preached that Racism was a result of the system, one in which those who profited exorbitantly did so only because of the institution of exploitation. Racism was a necessity to solidify privilege and to keep this profitable system intact. Throughout my research, I have not heard him once acknowledge the contradiction of that, which is that nuclear war would inevitable destroy all life and leave no one living to profit. He would perhaps argue that wealth and paranoia would drive the world to madness in which this situation could take place. This is plausible in many respects, but the more obvious truth is that the world will end by human hands by those who seek rewards or recognition that are not materially tangible. Jones preached against a world set on keeping things the way that they were and/or are, yet insisted its self destruction was the logical conclusion. I do not completely disagree with this, but what I would assert is that the Temple’s use of violence upon themselves is a transgression on their stance against brutality, exploitation, and the degradation of human life.

For these reasons I would have to believe that their suicide was more of a symbolic act than that of a perceived act of violence on one’s own self. It is true that in the case of the Temple, it would in theory be better to die than to live a life that would be considered hardly a human life within an atomized capitalistic modern American society. Yet at the same time, the contradiction lies in the willingness to kill for a cause that centers itself against violence. It is in my opinion that Peoples Temple and Jim Jones rose to actual kill themselves as more of a symbolic act of selflessly giving themselves to socialism, being the only metaphysical principle, in order to distance themselves from the transgression of their own ethic. In this scenario, through a symbolic ritual of leaving one’s perceived subjective self for the unity within a greater force or cause, I see Peoples Temple as operating within Mythic scenario, which at once ends their own lives, and at the same time – though a contradiction in violence – must admit that in some senses they never really existed because they are merely a significance of a higher sort of being. The typical conditions of suicide emerge when an individual or group simply finds living too painful and disappointing to continue. The Temple would never condone such purely selfish actions, so they must have had to elevate themselves to the level of Myth, with the forces of good and evil clearly polarized, even though they undo their own status as purely good through violence. The violence is only eradicated in that the violence becomes the work of a higher force or power which governs their actions, so that the pain of violence and the pain of living in a world that does not understand socialism and requires killing, is folded into a living myth in which people are forced to act out the accordance of a transcendental source of life, which everyday living and the reality of the violence of living in that world does not permit a constant communion with. The interesting point of Peoples Temple is that their myth eradicated violence through the act or violence. While typical of myths, ultimately it becomes destructive, because it does not allow its followers to take the symbolic act necessary for continuing life in harmony with the truths of life as perceived. From this, I would assert that the final destruction of Peoples Temple was a singular event in their ideological assessment of life, in that the destructive myth they enacted did not simple say that conditions did not work out favorably, but that their entire existence had to be this way and that this form of self destruction was inevitable from the start of their existence all along, stated solidly in their final embraces. As Jones said, “We were a people born out of due season.” This destructive myth ensures that the contradiction of violence is the only way they can exist because self destruction is the only way in which they can exist as opposed to the conditions of the world as it was structured. The moment of suicide was not simply a moment to state to the world that they would find more humanity in death than in the present conditions, but that their only true humanity was to die, for in a world that is perceived as fallen, there is actually no way to exist within it.

The Temple’s final act of self effacement was that which altered its ideology at the moment of its death. It was not so much that the ideology of suicide was in accordance with their campaign to change the world, but that the only truth of their existence can be that in which they do not exist, because the contradiction of violence changes the dynamic in which they live. The actual moment of death is a singular conclusion that symbolically transgresses their own baser ideals of nonviolent harmonious existence – despite the contradiction that Jones and the Temple rehearsed suicide – and transgresses their own principles of living in a statement that says that their life as a community was in the end futile, not because they did not attempt to the ideal goals, but because their ideals were to a certain extent impossible in that day and age, and that betraying their own life on earth guided by the correct ideology was the only way to protest the world and to return to the source which created them, to lose their identities to the extent that they forget all principles, and see themselves as a mythic reenactment of the sacrifice of Abraham.

(Julio Otazo is an independent researcher and writer. He can be reached at

Last modified on March 3rd, 2014.
Skip to main content