Katrina and Jonestown: A Commentary

In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, many Temple survivors spoke with us about how the natural disaster evoked memories of Jonestown. The images of bodies, floating face down in water, mirrored images of the bodies lying face down in the jungle. The bodycount, increasing day by day… the uncertainty about where everyone was… the men, women, and especially the children and elderly who were victimized first by the storm, then by their government’s delayed response in providing assistance to the survivors….

Certainly reporters, officials, anticult activists, and others have drawn comparisons in the past between Jonestown and various incidents of religious violence. These examples range from finding parallels between Osama bin Laden and Jim Jones, to claiming that the Branch Davidians were planning to commit suicide, like those in Jonestown.

Comparisons between Jonestown and other disasters, however, founder on the distinctive nature of Peoples Temple and its utopian experiment. The Branch Davidians, for example, were Adventist Christians, with a fundamentalistic belief in biblical prophecy. The members of the Solar Temple were prosperous Catholics. Neither group advocated apostolic socialism as a way of life and living.

Nevertheless, there may be a few legitimate parallels that can be drawn between the disaster unfolding in the Gulf Coast states and that which occurred 27 years ago in Guyana.

First, the situation of desperate poverty experienced by African Americans seems not just unchanged, but even worse in 2005 than in 1978. The message of hope, the overcoming of racial inequality, and the level of security which Peoples Temple provided would be just as appealing today as it was back then. As if to illustrate this point, one former Temple member told us, if this had happened 30 years ago, the fleet of Temple buses packed with people and supplies, which Jim Jones would have sent down to New Orleans to help out, would have arrived before FEMA did.

Second, many could not understand why people refused to leave their flood-ravaged homes. In the same way, many could not understand why so many Americans rejected the material comforts of life in the U.S. and set out for the difficulties of living in the jungle of Guyana. But the hardships one faces are easier to bear when shared with family and friends. Despite what appears to be shocking conditions along the Gulf, they are preferable to the alternative: living among strangers, in safety but also in isolation and alienation.

As a corollary to this, stories have emerged from the region of people coming together, sometimes in bands of several hundred, rescuing those in danger, providing food and water – even if it meant breaking into grocery stores – to those who could not provide for themselves, creating small ad hoc societies to perform the tasks that the larger one would not or could not do. How are these strong, enterprising, self-reliant groups different from the cadre of pioneers who broke ground in the jungles of Guyana, creating a new community where none existed before?

Third, the failure of the federal government to act quickly and compassionately seems similar in both instances. Our government’s first response to the landscape of dead bodies in Jonestown was to suggest burying them in a mass grave in Guyana. Its next response was to ship the corpses to Delaware, rather than to California, where the majority of relatives lived. It took a coalition of religious groups to get the funding to bring the unidentified and unclaimed to a simple grave in Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. The survivors were treated as criminals, by both government officials and private employers. One wondered then – and one wonders now – if the race and class of the victims played a role in the treatment of disasters.

It will take cooperation, self-sacrifice, and a commitment that endures for years after the news reporters and TV cameras have left, to rebuild the flood-damaged areas. This could be an opportunity for Americans to come together to make New Orleans and other southern cities humane environments for all people, and not just the rich. Even conservative commentators are talking about rebuilding infrastructure: a proposal that puts people ahead of profits. The members of Peoples Temple and those who lived in Jonestown believed in a principle higher than self-interest: they believed in shared benefits, which required shared sacrifice.

It’s already beginning to look like a missed opportunity, however. Ten days after Katrina – and less than a week after pledging to recognize the people’s needs even as the city was rebuilt – President Bush issued an executive order rescinding the provisions of a 50-year-old law that requires workers on reconstruction contracts to be paid “prevailing wages.” And, on the other hand, we have seen some of those reconstruction projects going to corporations whose qualifications are that they have ties to the Administration. We have seen profiteering in the rise in gas prices and in the rates that hotels and motels charged persons displaced by the floods.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution charged our government with the responsibility to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our children. It is quite clear that, by these criteria, our government failed its citizens after Hurricane Katrina. It is also clear that these same failures are what prompted people to join Peoples Temple and to pack up and leave the United States for Jonestown.

“The question of Jonestown is that of return to America,” wrote the Rev. Muhammed Isaiah Kenyatta in 1979. “To understand Jonestown, we must see our country, our church, ourselves as the nine hundred saw us.” In the same way, we must consider how the thousands along the Gulf Coast, and especially in New Orleans, see us, and our government. Are we living up to our stated principles? And if we aren’t, what are we going to do about it?

(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), and an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University.

(Rebecca’s complete collection of writings which appear on this site are collected here. She may be reached at remoore@sdsu.edu.)