“Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable”: Teaching Jonestown to a New Generation of Students

(Ted Henken is the chair of the Department of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch College in New York City. He may be reached at t_henken@yahoo.com.)

After leaving the priesthood where he had served for 15 years, my father Victor Henken, liked to reflect on the two qualities that he thought all priests should have. “Like Jesus himself,” Dad would say, “a priest’s first duty is to comfort the afflicted.” He would then add with wry smile, “However, the best priests also do one other thing: they afflict the comfortable.” Although I did not follow in my father’s footsteps by becoming a “man of the Book,” I did follow his advice by becoming a “man of books” – a professor of sociology.

Like the best priests, rabbis, imams, etc., I believe a good sociologist of religion must “minister” to students by both comforting and afflicting them. Students developing a sociological imagination should be called on to reexamine their own familiar, closely-held religious beliefs and practices, and challenged to approach the seemingly exotic and bizarre beliefs and practices of others with a sympathetic, informed mind. The sociological study of religion can be both liberating (comforting) and threatening (afflicting) for students because it calls upon them to be self-reflective and to apply rational scrutiny to a topic often understood as deeply personal and beyond mere reason.

For a teacher intent on challenging students, there is perhaps no better exercise in the sociological imagination than the case study of the life and death of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. In my experience, even the handful of students who come to my Sociology of Religion course with prior exposure to Jonestown are rarely equipped with more than the standard “Kool-Aid suicide cult” stereotype. With this as a baseline, students are surprised to learn that something so seemingly exotic and bizarre as “Jonestown” had such a multi-layered back story as the progressive, racially inclusive “Peoples Temple,” expertly described by Rebecca Moore in Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009).

Students are also astonished and a bit disconcerted to hear Moore’s nuanced description of Temple members’ own compelling stories of commitment to building a better world within a loving, mutually supportive community. And this from people whom they had first easily dismissed as “brainwashed followers of a madman.” They are also forced to ask themselves how former members can reflect 30 years later that they “loved Jonestown,” even as they grew to “hate Jim Jones,” as they do in the 2006 Stanley Nelson vivid documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Before long, the gratuitous cult bashing common in the popular media is transformed into a deeper reflection on the universal nature of the themes of belief, belonging, and behavior common to all religious traditions.

Without detracting from the enormity of the tragedy that occurred that November day in Guyana, a sociological approach to Jonestown can provide today’s students with a nuanced understanding of Peoples Temple that includes an appreciation of its origins in Pentecostalism and the communal social justice tradition of the Black American Church. At the same time, such an approach allows students to develop a healthy skepticism toward the other more manipulative and abusive practices of the Temple (many of which are also present in other religions). These include the transformation of charismatic leadership into a cult of personality and selfless charity into self-serving corruption; the equation of dissent with betrayal and outsiders with enemies; and the conflation of the classic religious traditions of messianism and millenarianism with a call to religious violence, political martyrdom, and “revolutionary suicide.” A critical understanding of these themes can help students develop a sympathetic identification with and understanding of former Temple members – both those who have perished and those who survive – and their complex motivations, as opposed to the more facile and common (if temporarily comforting) demonization and dismissal of them as mindless dupes or worse. At the same time, students exposed to this kind of nuanced analysis are well prepared to uncover similar instances of religious devotion, commitment, activism, and/or abuse and manipulation today.

While Americans often (mis)understand religion as being defined by one’s “beliefs,” teaching students about Jonestown provides vivid and convincing examples of religion as a complex interaction of what I call “The 3 Bs”: belief, belonging, and behavior. In other words, the internal functioning of Peoples Temple as an organization, as well as its deteriorating and increasingly desperate interactions with the outside world, shows clearly that what makes religion religion is that it is something people do (behavior) together (belonging). Religion is inherently social. Thus, as I teach it, the sociology of religion is concerned not so much with belief as with “how people put their beliefs about the sacred into action as they relate to other people” (Christiano, Swatos, and Kivisto 2008: 3).

While theologians study the nature of god (the divine, sacred, or supernatural), and while priests, rabbis, and imams lead followers in the observance of religious tenets (beliefs, rituals, obligations, taboos, ethics, etc.), sociologists focus instead on religion as a social, historical, cultural, and sometimes political phenomenon. Though sociologists may or may not believe in god or practice a particular religion, as social scientists they seek to understand religion as a “human-made” (that is, socially-constructed) institution. Approaching religion as socially constructed does not mean I cynically teach my students that “all religions are false.” On the contrary, I am more likely to insist to them that “all religions are true” — true in the sense that if the beliefs, rituals, and institutions of religion are real for believers, then they are worthy of being taken seriously (studied and understood) by the sociologist. “As long as a person is not lying,” write Christiano, Swatos, and Kivisto, “whatever a person claims to be his or her religious experience is his or her religious experience” (2008: 11). Powerful religious experiences (speaking in tongues, spirit possession, faith healing, euphoria, transcendence, and ecstasy) can be subjectively true for one person or group without having to also be universally valid for all people or even scientifically verifiable. Thus, my classes on religion are a golden opportunity for my students to take religion in general, and a wide variety of specific religions and their beliefs and practices, seriously.

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One frustrating thing about social scientists is that they often ask questions they cannot definitively answer. Furthermore, when sociologists do answer religious questions, they often disagree with one another. For example, while the three founders of sociology – Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber – saw religion gradually losing its hold over modern society, they were also keenly interested in the social purpose and practical function of religion in people’s lives, especially during the upheavals of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. However, they famously disagreed about religion’s purpose, giving three different and opposing answers to the question: What is the function of religion in society?

Marx famously called religion the “opiate” of the masses, seeing it as a force for social order (a drug) – social control. Durkheim emphasized the moral function of religion as an essential force for social bonding (glue) – social solidarity. Weber insisted that in certain historical circumstances, religion functions as a basis for social upheaval (dynamite) – social change. As with the “3 Bs,” Jonestown is an excellent case study when trying to get students to appreciate the implications of each of these (often complementary) theories about the function of religion in society.

For many members, joining Peoples Temple was an escape from a mundane, unjust, and uncaring world. It was their “drug of choice,” their own way of “dropping out” of American society, but with the decisive difference that now they were able to “turn on” and “tune in” to what was, in their minds, a more humane and just collective. At one point toward the end of Understanding Jonestown, Moore recounts how Jones advised Temple members in Guyana to refer to Jonestown not as a “family,” but as a “community” or “settlement” when talking with outsiders. Even if “family” was the word they regularly used to describe themselves, Jones rightly feared that outsiders would use this deep sense of “belonging” against the Temple. Jonestown was indeed a strong glue, so strong in fact that many members forsook their biological families for the collective and apparently preferred a “revolutionary, dignified” death within the family rather than a forced return to their original families outside. Finally, Jonestown functioned for members as a powerful dynamite, both in the sense of embodying a revolutionary rupture in the social order of the day and in the sense of encouraging action and activism by members aimed at transforming that profane world into a sacred one. Only later at Jonestown did this activism in the world turn into a siege mentality that emphasized their apartness from the world, with ultimately tragic consequences.


Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos, Jr., and Peter Kivisto.  Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments (Second Edition).  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Stanley Nelson, director. Boston: American Experience, 2007.

Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.