Catherine Wessinger is
Professor of the History of Religions at Loyola University, New Orleans.
She edited the book, Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence
(Syracuse University Press, 2000), and wrote How the Millennium
Comes Violently (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000), an analysis
of violent millennial groups, including Peoples Temple. Dr. Wessinger
is editor of Religious Institutions and Women's Leadership: New
Roles Inside the Mainstream (University of South Carolina Press,
1996), and Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations
Outside the Mainstream (University of Illinois Press, 1993), and
author of Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism (Edwin Mellen
Press, 1988). She is a former chair of the New Religious Movements
Group, a program unit of the American Academy of Religion. Dr. Wessinger
is co-general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of New and Emergent
Religions. She may be contacted through e-mail at email@example.com.
As I researched and wrote my book, How the Millennium Comes Violently:
From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate – and as I edited
Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases
– my mantra was the sign that hung over Jim Jones’ chair
in the Jonestown pavilion: “Those who do not remember the past
are condemned to repeat it.” It was my desire to highlight the
lessons that can be derived from the comparative study of cases such
as Jonestown and Waco in order to help prevent tragic loss of lives
in the future. As I watch events unfolding now on the international
scene in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, with the American invasions
of Afghanistan and Iraq and the heightened conflict between Israelis
and Palestinians, I am very discouraged that leaders of governments
still do not understand the interactive nature of violence involving
religious groups. International leaders do not appear to have a clue
that the actions of their governments contribute to violence involving
religious groups. Worse, in some cases, it appears that they deliberately
seek to provoke violence on the part of believers by the violent actions
of their militaries.
The violence that sometimes engulfs religious groups, which may or
may not be initiated by the members of religious groups, does not
occur in a vacuum. I have been saying for some years now: the quality
of the interactions of believers with people in mainstream society
is crucial in determining the potential for volatility of religious
groups. The mainstream actors who contribute to these tragic scenarios
include news reporters and the media, law enforcement and other government
agents, disgruntled former members, and concerned family members.
The members of the religious groups, by their decisions and actions,
certainly contribute to these scenarios. Actions by people in mainstream
society that make believers feel persecuted can contribute to violent
conclusions. Unfortunately, there is no certainty of a peaceful resolution
as a result of efforts aimed at decreasing the conflict, because of
the complexity of these scenarios and the motivations of the different
actors. But seeking to deescalate the level of conflict is a better
course than deliberately heightening it.
These cases are to a great extent the result of conflicts between
competing worldviews and their ultimate concerns. Worldviews matter,
and not just the worldviews of the religious believers, but also the
worldviews of the reporters, law enforcement agents, and anticultists.
Millennial beliefs often contribute to cases of dramatic violence
involving religious groups. Comparative study shows that millennial
beliefs that expect the transition to the collective salvation to
occur catastrophically are often associated with dualistic beliefs,
the tendency to see the world in stark “good versus evil”
terms. This dualistic worldview expects conflict, is not surprised
when conflict appears, and may even promote conflict.
But millennialists are not the only persons with dualistic worldviews.
Law enforcement agents speak in terms of the good guys versus the
bad guys. Just recently I heard an American military man speak of
bombing a group of “bad guys” in Iraq—whose identity
was not even confirmed! Anticultists have painted members of unconventional
religions as evil at worst, or as brainwashed, dehumanized zombies
at best; neither of these views is conducive to defusing conflict.
When actors in mainstream society persecute religious believers, it
just increases their rigid dualistic perspective, increases the conflict,
and makes it more likely that they will resort to violence to preserve
their ultimate concern.
The people of Jonestown had an ultimate concern, the preservation
of the integrity of their community. That ultimate concern, that sense
of integrity, was more important to them than the continued existence
of the community itself, of life itself. On November 18, 1978, the
residents of Jonestown felt that their ultimate concern, their beloved
community, was hopelessly violated and would not survive. Most of
them chose to die in order to preserve their ultimate concern. Some
of them chose first to kill in order to preserve their ultimate concern.
History is written by the cultural victors. Some historical traditions
call these sorts of actions heroic and consider such individuals to
be martyrs. Others call them fanatics. But whoever they are, however
they are perceived by society as a whole, they are individual human
beings, and their deaths represent individual human losses. And they
always leave behind individual family members and friends who grieve
those losses for the rest of their own lives.
Humans do not appear to be learning from the past in order to avoid
repeating the same mistakes in the future. We can only preserve the
memories of the loved ones who have been lost, in part to make sure
that they are not dehumanized and erased by history, and continue
learning and teaching in the hope that some day people stop repeating
the dysfunctional patterns that lead to violence.