Jonestown "Thoughts on Jonestown and Peoples Temple" by Kevin J. Hozak
Kevin Hozak graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science and a minor in Religion from the University of North Dakota in May, 1998. He is the designer of the website "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple," and continues to help with site maintenance. These are his reflections after putting together the site and after reading a number of sources about Peoples Temple. You can reach Mr. Hozak at firstname.lastname@example.org
Upon first learning about Peoples Temple and Jonestown this semester, I was rather surprised that I had not heard of them sooner. The events surrounding the group have become a rather significant part of our recent history. Actually, now that I know about the mass suicide at Jonestown, I find references to it every so often in news articles or personal conversations. Yet it seems that in practically all instances the usage is quite limited in scope. People remember Jonestown simply as that place where that cult of those religious fanatics all killed themselves. That is about the extent of the understanding people seem to have of the whole affair. As I have worked on the "Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple" web site and have read about Jonestown and Peoples Temple, I have come to realize that there is much more to consider beyond the mass suicide of a cult.
History teaches us much, but it can only do so if we are willing to examine its events in their surrounding context and from various angles. The tragedy at Jonestown was not an isolated incident but rather the climax of a wider story. And like most real-life stories, it involved real-life people, a fact that tends to be overlooked at times. The members of the Peoples Temple were people, their relatives were people, the critics of Peoples Temple were people, and even the news reporters and government officials were people. People are contradictory by nature, being neither completely good nor evil, and so their actions fall into both categories. It was this truth that struck me the most in my readings of Peoples Temple, that the people could not be designated simply as good or evil. The Peoples Temple may have utilized questionable business and religious practices. They may have misrepresented their beliefs to hide their socialist content. The mass suicide may have seemed to be only a senseless act of insanity. From these alone one might conclude that the Peoples Temple was evil or at least very wrong in their actions. Yet members of the Peoples Temple also held beliefs and worked towards goals that would probably be considered good and noble by most standards. They believed in compassion and community spirit. They believed in the equality of rights among individuals. They strove to build their own society in which they could live in peace and harmony through their own cooperative efforts. These beliefs and goals still do not explain the whole truth by themselves but must be taken with the rest to gain a better understanding. Good and evil existed together in the Peoples Temple and only by accepting this can a deeper comprehension be achieved.
The members of the Peoples Temple were not the only ones with this ambiguous nature. The Concerned Relatives who sought to destroy the organization used some of the very methods of propaganda that they criticized the Peoples Temple for. They were worried and at a loss as to why their family members would join such a group. They were willing to step beyond the law if necessary to rescue their loved ones who must have been brainwashed. It seems possible that the love the Concerned Relatives had for their families may have clouded their judgment and would not allow for the possibility that their relatives had made a rational choice to join the group on their own accord. Those who defected from Peoples Temple seem to indicate that people could indeed leave the organization if they so chose. But those defectors who in turn went on to passionately fight against the very group they had once supported wholeheartedly appear to be denying any responsibility for their previous actions. They apparently did not want to admit that they may have found the group appealing when they first joined. They did not seem to allow room for the possibility that the ideals held by Peoples Temple were somehow compatible with their own. Instead they would rather claim that they had been tricked in some way beyond their better judgment and that the remaining members were still under the same deception.
Much of the news media seemed to have endorsed the idea that Peoples Temple was without merit. They heard and reported the story from the perspective of its critics without a significant attempt to look at it from the other side. The critics may have had some valid concerns about the nature of Peoples Temple, yet they could hardly be considered unbiased sources of information. Many of them had family or friends who had joined up with the group, something they were very much against and thus making it difficult for them to impartially judge the situation. But it is through the media that much of the public receives its information, and with this relative one-sidedness it is no wonder that people would simply condemn Peoples Temple as a deranged cult. There may have been evil, but there was probably good as well. The people who invested their lives in the group must have felt somewhere in their hearts that they were doing something worthwhile and even commendable.