Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Jonestown

by Catherine Wessinger

(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. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She may be contacted through e-mail at wessing@loyno.edu.)

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.

Originally posted on March 11th, 2013.

Last modified on March 14th, 2014.
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