“We committed revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” With these words Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers died in Guyana on November 18, 1978. Despite his rhetoric, the world does not remember Jim Jones and the demise of Jonestown as the noble and courageous act of a group of idealists committed to social justice in an unjust world. In fact, just the opposite is true. Jones is remembered as a power-obsessed maniac who, knowing his game was up, took everyone he could with him in a final act of grandiose and pointless insanity.
The Peoples Temple deaths were certainly not all suicides. At least some of those in Jonestown resisted, and many acted only in the knowledge that resistance was futile. Yet Jonestown is remarkable in that so many people made a deliberate choice to die that day.
Or is it remarkable? Since then there have been numerous examples of “revolutionary suicide” throughout the world. Like Jonestown, many of these have been religious groups or cults that have chosen to die as a group for their beliefs (Cult Suicide, Wikipedia, 2013).
From 1994 to 1997, the Order of the Solar Temple‘s members began a series of mass suicides, which led to roughly 74 deaths. Farewell letters were left by members, stating that they believed their deaths would be an escape from the “hypocrisies and oppression of this world.” In addition, they felt they were “moving on to Sirius.” Records seized by the police in Quebec, Canada showed that some members had personally donated over $1 million to the cult’s leader, Joseph De Mambro.
On March 26, 1997, followers of a UFO cult known as Heaven’s Gate died in a mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. According to their leader Marshall Applewhite – who was among the 39 to die in the ritual – they were “exiting their human vessels” through suicide so that their souls could go on a journey aboard a spaceship they believed to be following comet Hale-Bopp.
On September 11, 2001 members of Al Qaeda, a radical Islamic sect bent on attacking “infidels,” hijacked commercial airliners in the US and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York, thereby killing themselves and over three thousand innocent people. This prompted the US government to commence wars in the Middle East that continue to this day.
In Tibet in the past few years, more than one hundred Tibetan monks have committed suicide by self-immolation, in an ongoing protest against Chinese occupation of their homeland and the suppression of their religion (Self-immolation, Wikipedia, 2013).
Each of these events can be seen as examples of what Huey Newton (1973) described as “revolutionary suicide.” He defined this as the understanding that the inevitable cost of challenging the larger society was one’s own death. In fact, Jim Jones was explicit in citing Huey as an inspiration for his final act in Jonestown. But Jones and those who followed him were not the first to choose revolutionary suicide.
In fact, two thousand years ago, there was a much more significant event: the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Mentioning Jim Jones and Jesus in the same breath may seem like sacrilege to many people. Yet Jesus, like Jones, can be seen as having died for a cause, as having chosen revolutionary suicide.
For an account of Jesus’ life we turn to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, where we find descriptions of Jesus’ actions in the last week before his death (Borg & Crossan, 2006). Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, riding on a donkey, was the fulfillment of a much earlier prophecy, that of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly daughter of Zion! Cry out, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you: righteous and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass, upon a colt, the son of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Surely Jesus knew that claiming to be the messiah, the King of the Jews, who was sent to liberate them, his entrance into Jerusalem as prophesied, his routing of the money changers and others doing business in the temple, and his famous reply to the questions of the temple authorities, “Give back to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give back to God that which is God’s,” were acts tantamount to a death sentence under Roman law (Aslan, 2013).
By claiming to be “King of the Jews,” Jesus was committing sedition, a crime punishable by death on the cross. Under Roman rule, the Emperor was the ruler of all his subjects, including the Jews of Palestine. Aslan (2013) points out that the plaque placed by the Romans upon Jesus’ cross with the words, “King of the Jews” was a factual statement of Jesus’ crime, not meant as an ironic comment, as many people believe.
But Jesus was not the first. There were others before him who had proclaimed they were the messiah, come to free the Jews from Rome. And Rome had punished these messiahs with death by crucifixion. Under Roman rule, crucifixion was the punishment for only one crime, denial of imperial authority. In the year 4 BCE, with the death of Herod the Great, revolts erupted in the Jewish homeland. Roman legions were brought in to quell the revolt. After Jerusalem was retaken, the Romans crucified two thousand of its defenders en masse (Borg & Crossan, 2006). Surely Jesus must have known that crucifixion would be his punishment for the acts he committed. Jesus chose revolutionary suicide two thousand years before Peoples Temple and Jim Jones.
Was Jones thinking of Jesus that day in November 1978? Being an ordained Christian minister, Jones certainly knew in intimate detail the story of Jesus’ life and death on the cross. And he may have felt some sense of guidance from Jesus. After all, just as Jesus lived in a time when his people, the Jews of Palestine, were being oppressed and brutalized by the Romans, Jones felt that he and his people were oppressed and brutalized by the US authorities. He may well have seen the US government as simply a modern day Rome.
Jones clearly felt attacked by the “Concerned Relatives” and challenged by the Jonestown residents who were becoming increasingly dissatisfied in Guyana and wanted to leave. His sense of persecution was exacerbated by the impending visit of Leo Ryan, an official representative of the US Government. The defections of several Temple members who attempted to leave Guyana with Ryan didn’t help things. Jones’ decision to have Ryan murdered was in part to prevent those defectors from departing. Their act of defiance and disloyalty was intolerable to the Temple leader. Yet the murder of Ryan was an act that Jones knew would not go unpunished. This was his tipping point. The theoretical concept of mass revolutionary suicide had become an unavoidable reality.
What Jones was unable to grasp was that the dramatic end of Jonestown would not be judged by history as an act of justifiable revolution against an oppressive government. Instead it has been overwhelmingly viewed with a sense of horror at the enormity of what was clearly a senseless and unnecessary loss of life. Inarguably the demise of the Temple was a betrayal by Jones of those who had trusted him with their lives and with their hopes and dreams of a better life in Jonestown.
Jim Jones’ inability to anticipate this verdict on his life and the death of his followers in Jonestown is all too common among radical charismatic leaders. Unfortunately, he will not be the last to lead others to a violent and unnecessary death. Perhaps he took on too much in challenging the injustices and inequalities of his time. Perhaps the forces he had hoped to overcome early in his life were simply too overwhelming for any mortal to challenge successfully. Perhaps it was just him, and the person he eventually became, and the nearly unlimited power of life and death over his followers in Guyana, a place far away from moderation and sensible limitation.
Borg, Marcus J. & Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Newton, Huey, Revolutionary Suicide, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Cult Suicide, Wikipedia, 2013
Self-immolation, Wikipedia, 2013
September 11 attacks, Wikipedia, 2013
(Michael Haag is a social psychologist and widower of Patti Chastain, a former member and survivor of Peoples Temple who died in 1995. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)