Shaping Religious Identity And Expression

(Nora Woods’ paper is Jonestown As a Reflection of American Society.)

I first became interested in the Jonestown event a number of years ago. Initially my interest stemmed from a fascination with the darker moments in human history. However, it quickly evolved as I realized that the ideals articulated by Peoples Temple were often congruent with my own. Peoples Temple became even more interesting to me as I began to wrestle with how to live a fully religious life in the secular, capitalist society of the United States. I was guided in this project by questions about how American society shapes religious identity and expression. As I delved further into my research of Peoples Temple, I was confronted with questions about what it means to be moral, what it means to be human. Peoples Temple, I believe, confronts all who study it with a perplexing dilemma: what action can be justified for the pursuit of an ideal? As much as there is a tendency to “other” those who died in Jonestown, their choices are not as foreign to us as we like to believe. The physical punishment and public humiliation employed by Peoples Temple is generally regarded as barbaric, but upon closer examination I believe it is not hard to see similar tactics employed within our own society. At its core, Peoples Temple was an attempt to create an ideal society, and in pursuit of that goal traditionally immoral action became moral. The life of Peoples Temple is a reflection of the highest ideals of our society, yet its death embodied the most despised form of violence. To me, this indicates that perhaps our societal ideals are not congruent with our societal structure. The Jonestown event was not only a tragedy because of the remarkable loss of life, but because it demonstrated the death of ideals. If we closely examine Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I believe one can begin to see the forces at work in our society that precludes our highest ideals from being realized. I hope that as time progresses we will not allow Jonestown to fade into a dim memory, but that we will continue to wrestle with it as one of the simultaneously great and horrific movements of American culture.